Thursday, April 28, 2011

Brahms Brahms Brahms

The Harrisburg Symphony's next Masterworks Concert – May 14th & 15th at the Forum – is called “Brahms Brahms Brahms” which implies there's lots of Brahms' music on the program. You could say it's a kind of All-Brahms Program – but I'll let maestro Stuart Malina explain his “Brahms Fan-Fare” that opens the program when get a chance to chat about the concert. But yes, certainly, one of the greatest violin concertos and one of the greatest symphonies ever composed, on one program...? Not only is a lot of great Brahms, it's a lot of great music.

In addition to an upcoming post about the concerto which Odin Rathnam will perform, celebrating his 20th season as the orchestra's concertmaster, there'll also be a post about the 1st Symphony on my blog, Thoughts on a Train – a transcript of my pre-concert talk from several seasons ago – which gets into the whole complicated business behind why it took Brahms so many years to complete this symphony.

Depending on the sources you read, some say 25 or 21 or 14. The problem is, we don't know exactly when he started working on the piece we know as the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor. We know he finished it during the summer of 1876, but actually beginning it is another matter.

We know the first idea Brahms wrote down for what was his first attempt at writing a symphony happened in February, 1853 (the year of this portrait - see above, left). Eventually that turned itself into the D Minor Piano Concerto. Other works either started out as sketches for a symphony before becoming “studies for writing a symphony” but in 1862, Brahms sent Clara Schumann the rough draft of what would become the first movement of the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (without its famous introduction) but which he said, vaguely, was based on “earlier sketches.” So when exactly he began work on it, who knows?

The point is, we know he spent at least 14 years on it, from beginning to end. Considering Mahler wrote his monumentally lengthy 3rd Symphony (heard at the April concert) during two summer holidays – essentially all but the first movement in 1895 and then the long first movement in 1896 – one wonders why it took Brahms so long.

You'll be able to read that in my other post.

This post is actually about Brahms' thoughts about composing, something he rarely ever talked about. I mean, he didn't have somebody like John Clare to ask him, “so, how do you compose – what's the process like, for you?” And he also had very few composition students that he confided in (or at least who bothered to write them down).

These comments are taken from Jan Swafford's thoroughly readable and wonderfully enlightening biography simply called “Johannes Brahms: A Biography” and they were made to Brahms' student, George Henschel a German-born singer and composer who would later become the first conductor of the Boston Symphony. Henschel met Brahms in 1874 at a music festival where Henschel was singing in a Handel oratorio and Brahms was conducting another program. If not actually a “composition student” of Brahms, Henschel was one of several young composers whom Brahms liked to discuss the craft or art of composition, either during a long walks or sitting around with him at dinners or, as Swafford says, sitting there “trembling as [Brahms] went through their music page by (usually defective) page.”

Fortunately Henschel was one who decided to keep a record of some of these conversations which he then published in 1907 as “Personal Recollections of Johannes Brahms” ten years after the composer's death. (Henschel's portrait – see right – was painted three years after this particular encounter with Brahms.)

At Koblenz in 1876, they both appeared as soloists on the orchestra's program and Brahms had played Schumann's Piano Concerto very badly during the rehearsal: always one who hated the idea of practicing, it sometimes came back to haunt him. The performance, apparently, went better than expected – Henschel had found Brahms alone in the concert hall beforehand, “red-faced with frustration as he belabored the piano. 'Really, this is too bad,' Brahms groaned.”

On the train from Koblenz to their next stop – Wiesbaden – Brahms opened up and talked shop with young Henschel.

“There is no real creating without hard work. What you can call invention, which is to say a thought, an idea, is simply an inspiration from above for which I am not responsible... It is a present, a gift, which even ought to despise until I've made it myown by dint of hard work. And there doesn't have to be any hurry about that... it germinates unconsciously and in spite of ourselves. For instance, when I've found the first phrase of a song [and here, Brahms hummed a few notes from the opening of his song, “Die Mainacht”], I might shut the book there and then, go for a walk, do some other work and maybe not think about it again for months. Nothing, however, is lost. If afterward I approach the subject again, it is sure to have taken shape; now I can begin to really work at it. But there are composers who sit at the piano with a poem before them, putting music to it from A to Z until it's done. They write themselves into a state of enthusiasm that makes them see something finished, something important in ever bar.”

Where Schubert or Schumann would characteristically dash off a song in a single sitting, Brahms avoided this kind of spontaneity – perhaps especially because Schumann's prediction about his being the Heir to Beethoven had strangled the possibility of not being anything less than perfect.

In the 18th Century, composers were regarded as craftsmen and their art as a result of their craftsmanship. In the 19th Century, with Beethoven, especially, the creation of a work of art was given over to the immediacy of inspiration, regardless of the fact Beethoven might take months or even years to work out the details of a piece in his notebooks, even if they were initially inspired “by the moment.”

Though we know that Mozart often worked things out in his head before putting pen to paper, we also know – now – that many of his sketches were lost and often assumed (part of the Mozart Myth) to be non-existent.

Brahms was a firm believer in the role of the unconscious – perhaps even before Freud had theorized about it. Brahms, however, burned all his sketches and notebooks

At another time, Brahms told Henschel, looking over some of his newly composed songs,

“In some... you seem to me too easily satisfied. One should never forget that by actually perfecting one piece one gains and learns more than by starting or half-finishing a dozen. Let it rest, let it rest, and keep going back to it and working it over and over again, until... there is not a note too many or too little, not a bar you could improve on. Whether it's beautiful too, is an entirely different matter, but perfect it must be. ...I never cool down over a work, once begun, until it's perfected, unassailable.”

It's interesting to note Brahms was telling Henschel this as he was putting the finishing touches on his first symphony whether you count it as having been 14 years' work since he completed the first draft of the C Minor Symphony's first movement or 25 years since he started jotting down ideas intended to become part of the first symphony he would attempt!

For Brahms, this meant two things: craft is logical and must be perfect – only then can its expressive qualities be beautiful. Without both, however, it would fail to come close to perfection (which, of course, he realized was unattainable, but as close to it as it was possible to get).

True, many audiences are going to be drawn in by the beauty first rather than its logic, but without a logic foundation, there was nothing to support it. “Even if he made considerable demands on his listeners,” Swafford writes, “even if he never coddled them in his big pieces, he still never forgot their feelings or his own. He made sure the warmth stayed in his work. But he would never admit it.”

That may have been part of the problem behind that first symphony – considering he was to be the Heir of Beethoven (insert famous quote about “hearing the tread of a giant behind you” here) and that sense of perfection may have robbed us of many more works a lesser composer would have been willing to release.

But Brahms didn't want to “learn the craft of symphony-writing” by turning out a number of half-baked symphonies before he finally managed “one good enough.” In addition to the years behind the C Minor Symphony, there is the statement that he had written enough music for twenty string quartets before he completed the one that he finally published as his first. This statement is usually misunderstood to imply he wrote twenty string quartets and threw them out before deciding on publishing the one that survived: while it's probably an exaggeration on Brahms' part, writing that much music, however, is not far fetched.

Back to Henschel:

“In writing songs,” Brahms told him, “you must endeavor to invent, simultaneously with the melody, a healthy, powerful bass... Then, my dear friend, let me counsel you: no heavy dissonances on the unaccented parts of the bar, please... I'm very fond of dissonances, you'll agree, but on the heavy, accented parts of the bar, then let them be resolved easily and gently.”

Now, granted, Brahms is advising a young composer who is composing songs, not symphonies. If you looked at those few surviving sketches Brahms made, you'll see “he worked out the continuity of a piece largely in terms of unbroken melody and bass line (with an almost obsessive preference for the two in contrary motion), then added the inner voices, textures and instrumental colors.”

Brahms was a morning composer and many times, after working on the symphony's finale, “talking shop” was the last thing he wanted to do. But he and Henschel took long walks along the beach – they were staying on an island in northern Germany in the Baltic Sea – where Brahms also taught Henschel how to swim underwater with his eyes open so they could amuse themselves looking for coins and colored pebbles.

One time, Brahms and Henschel walked “across the moors to listen what he called his bullfrog pond.”

“Can you imagine anything more sad and melancholy than this music? Here we can understand the origin opf fairy tales about enchanted pricnes and princesses. Listen! There he is again, the poor King's son with his yearning, mournful C-flat!”

Sharing a hotel room on of their outtings, Henschel had to vacate the room, fleeing Brahms' “symphonic snoring.” When Brahms woke up and realized why Henschel had left, he told him “really, why didn't you throw a boot at me?”

At another time, both of them visited a composer”of popular but thin music who habitually worked all day long.” Henschel doesn't identify him: Swafford says it was Joachim Raff. When Raff's wife told Brahms she had tried to get her husband to break his work-schedule to give himself at least two hours a day away from composing – taking a walk with his daughter, for instance – Brahms earnestly agreed. “Oh that's good, that's very good!” Only Henschel got the real meaning behind his statement.

Henschel also left a description of Brahms from this time (seen here in a portrait dated 1872): “He was the sort with whom you use the word splendid: handome and ruddy of face, rambunctious when you caught him on the right day, a lusty eater who attcked his plate with manifest pleasure and likesie the accompanying mugs of beer and Kaffee afterward.” He stood out in a crowd with his “vigorous rocking gait, soft hat in hand, waistcoat unbuttoned, the wool-flannel Jäger shirt collarless whenever possible: the archetypal tie-hater.”

It was around the time he completed (finally) the 1st Symphony that Brahms also began growing a beard. It is difficult for us to imagine him a young man without it. But even like his music, he would not settle for just the first beard he grew.

By the end of 1878 – in the two intervening years, he had now composed his 2nd Symphony in a mere four months and his Violin Concerto – Brahms also started his third beard!

Asked why he grew one, he would say “with a shaved chin, people take you for either an actor or a priest.” He was delighted to discover that “whiskers made him almost unrecognizable.” Introducing himself solemnly to friends as Kapellmeister Müller from Braunschweig, he would see how long it took them to realize they were talking to Johannes Brahms. Once, Gustav Nottebohm (famous for his edition of Beethoven's sketchbooks) “spent an entire evening in polite conversation with Kapellmeister Müller.”

Brahms was 20 when he met Robert Schumann who hailed him as Beethoven's Heir. Twenty-five years later, after finally completing his first symphony – hailed as “Beethoven's 10th” – Brahms changed his appearance perhaps to match his new-found security: the boyish-looking Brahms “sank once and for all behind the patriarchal mask. Brahms' face became as magisterial and enigmatic as the outer face of his music.”

“The disguise,” Swafford concludes, “was complete at last.”

- Dick Strawser

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