Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Testimony to a Friendship: Brahms' Double Concerto

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony opens its new season with a program featuring a concerto featuring two soloists. Violinist Kurt Nikkanen and cellist Daniel Gaisford will perform the “Double Concerto” by Johannes Brahms with Stuart Malina conducting the orchestra. The concert also includes a highly-charged Romantic tone-poem by Franz Liszt and some very American romanticism represented by Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, the “Romantic” Symphony as it’s usually known. You can find out more about the Hanson symphony with Stuart Malina’s podcast.

These performances are Saturday, October 4th, at 8pm and again Sunday, October 5th, at 3pm. There’s also a pre-concert talk an hour before each concert.

Both “world-class artists” as well as friends, Kurt Nikkanen has played with the orchestra in the past, coming in from New York frequently to perform and teach at the State Street Academy of Music in Harrisburg. Daniel Gaisford, the Academy’s director, lives just outside Harrisburg when he’s not off performing himself (several times this past summer, he’d tell me “I’ll get back to you after these performances in New York” or “I’ll be playing in Italy next week, so we’ll talk later”). Just two weeks after the Brahms, he’ll be playing two sonatas for unaccompanied cello written for him by Michael Hersch who will also be present for the performances on Sunday, October 19th at the Academy’s St. Lawrence Chapel. Then the following month, Nikkanen and Gaisford will join with other friends to play chamber music at the chapel on Sunday, November 16th, a program that includes a Beethoven String Trio and Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet.
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Update: As of Thursday, October 10th, Daniel Gaisford resigned as director of the State Street Academy. The Sunday afternoon concert series, he told me, has been canceled for the season.
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This photograph of Johannes Brahms was taken in his library in 1892, when he was 59. This was about five years after he wrote the Double Concerto, the last of four concertos he composed and, as it turned out, his last completed orchestral work. Written two years after his 4th Symphony, the cool reception both works received prompted Brahms to doubt his creative powers. At the age of 57, he decided to retire from composing.

Almost forty years earlier, Robert Schumann had described Brahms’ three early piano sonatas as “veiled symphonies” and he and his wife, the pianist Clara Schumann, were soon urging the young man to take on the challenge of writing a symphony: that was the true test of genius.

But Brahms (pictured here at the age of 20 in a portrait made shortly after he'd met the Schumanns) didn’t want to “learn by doing,” and so he took the challenge quite seriously, becoming a perfectionist who destroyed all of his sketches, rough drafts and any works, completed ones as well as fragments, that he did not deem satisfactory for publication.

Whether or not it would have taken him 22 years to complete a first symphony if Schumann, as one of the leading music critics of the day, hadn’t hailed him as the Heir to Beethoven and anointed him music’s Messiah, it’s impossible to say. What he began in 1854 ended up turning itself into his D Minor Piano Concerto. Other, later attempts became the D Major Serenade, probably the F Minor Piano Quintet (eventually). At one point, he played for Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim, two friends he often turned to for advice when working on a new piece, what became most of the C Minor Symphony’s first movement but it was 14 years until he figured out what to do with the last movement.

Premiered in provincial Karlsrühe, Brahms’ 1st Symphony was well-received, even if subsequent performances were respectful more than receptive, except Munich, which was Wagner’s town, where it was downright frigid.

When it arrived in Vienna, the audience was cool but respectful. Brahms could deal with that: in time, he felt, they would come to like it. He already had in mind another symphony, one that was ready to be premiered the following year and geared more toward Viennese tastes. A success there, when the 2nd Symphony was performed in Leipzig, their attitude was that it might be okay for Vienna which likes its music lighter, but here they expected more out a symphony than just pretty melodies. If the 1st had been called “Beethoven’s Tenth,” the 2nd was dubbed “Brahms’ Pastoral.”

Perhaps he felt a renewed confidence, after meeting the Symphonic Challenge: the next year, he completed the Violin Concerto, written especially for Joseph Joachim. One critic said it was a concerto against, not for the violin. Two years after that, he produced just two small overtures – the Academic Festival and the Tragic – but his 2nd Piano Concerto (“a symphony for orchestra with piano obligato”) was ready the following year. His readily acclaimed 3rd Symphony (quickly dubbed “Brahms’ Eroica”) came two years after the piano concerto; and the 4th Symphony, two years after that.

But with the 4th, there was a new creative crisis: Brahms was concerned how audiences would react to it. If the 1st was too intellectual for the Viennese, how would they react to the 4th which proved to be even too intellectual for his intellectual friends? He was very cautious about presenting the work to the public, even wondering whether he should publish it. After all the trepidation, its premiere was received with applause after each movement and a delirious ovation at the end.

Subsequent performances on a tour of over a dozen cities proved mostly less successful but not the disaster the composer feared. Three months later, Vienna received it respectfully, though Hans Richter’s “skimpy rehearsals” had made Brahms nervous. If there were no cheers at the end, there was no demonstration from “The Wagner Club” either, and Brahms was pleased with the performance. Hanslick, his staunchest defender in the press, was more reserved than usual, though, and that bothered the composer.

If it took a while for Brahms’ 4th to find its public acclaim, the symphony received no Beethoven-like nickname, this time, though later one critic would refer to the dark ending as the opposite of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, as if it were an Ode to Gloom. For many, it could not simply be an abstract symphony about nothing more than music and form. Later, some critics felt this tragic, seemingly pessimistic ending, led the way, as if the sign of the times had been tempered from the days of Beethoven’s 9th (premiered only sixty years earlier), to the darker, and often pessimistic symphonies by Gustav Mahler.

In this atmosphere, Brahms contemplated something a close friend had said, that “no artist could surpass himself after his 50th year.” Brahms was 52 when he finished the 4th and he wondered if that was the reason behind his new-found insecurity. If his career had been overshadowed by the seemingly incompletable 1st Symphony until its premiere in 1876, that meant Brahms really had barely a decade of creative self-assurance before the doubts came rolling back again.

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In the two years between the 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto, Brahms was becoming more consciously aware of old friends. Clara Schumann was one of the most famous pianists of the day. Joseph Joachim was easily the greatest violinist the Germans had ever produced.

His ups-and-downs with his closest friends are well documented in their letters, something Brahms hated to write, could not write diplomatically when required to and which often left too much information to be supplied by the reader which frequently led to misunderstandings.

Brahms was brusque and often inconsiderate. Unaware how important concertizing was to Clara, he would write to her that if she needed money, he would gladly give her some so she could cut back on the touring to spend time with her children, not realizing performing for her was as necessary as breathing. She was livid. Trying to be humble when Joachim wanted to conduct his German Requiem at a festival dedicated to Robert Schumann’s memory, Brahms’ elliptical reply actually led Joachim to assume Brahms didn’t want the work performed there, which then led to further misunderstandings.

Over the years, his relationship with Joachim lessened after the violinist had gotten married and then became tenuous at times as the marriage began to sour. It snapped completely when she won the divorce case because of a letter Brahms had written to her supporting her side of the accusations of infidelity.

In 1886, he and Clara were essentially negotiating the return of each others letters. Clara was now 67 and in ill-health, concerned that perhaps their very personal correspondence would become fodder for a tabloid-minded society long before there were tabloids and papparazzi.

The following year, Brahms wrote to her that he had “the rather amusing idea of writing a concerto for violin and cello. If it is at all successful it might give us some fun. You can well imagine the sort of pranks one can play in such a case... I ought to have handed on the idea to someone who knows the violin better than I do...”

Flippancy aside, a typical way Brahms might use to introduce a new major work to his friends, the implication was that “someone” who knew the violin better than he did was his old friend Joseph Joachim. They had not been talking to each other for a few years, now, following a rather messy divorce during which Brahms had sided with his wife. Perhaps it would be a way they could be reconciled? That certainly seemed to be behind the piece.

But why not a 2nd Violin Concerto? He had written one the year after the 2nd Symphony especially for Joachim, a work that remains one of the “Top Two” concertos in the repertoire of today’s violinists, the other one being Beethoven’s.

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Quick: of the four most popular violin concertos being performed today, which two is Joachim most closely associated with? I just gave you the Brahms, but is the other one...

... the Beethoven Violin Concerto (premiered in 1806)
... the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (premiered in 1845), or

... the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (written in 1878 but premiered in Vienna in 1881)?

Curiously, the Tchaikovsky concerto was composed the same year Brahms was writing his own concerto and it would later be receive its premiere not in Russia but in Vienna. In fact, Brahms’ friend Hanslick wrote in his (in)famous review that this was “music that stinks in the ear.”

Since the Beethoven was premiered by Franz Clement 25 years before Joachim was born, it must be the Mendelssohn, right?

Though he certainly performed the work during his career, Joachim did not premiere it: that honor went to Ferdinand David for whom it was composed, the concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and a teacher at the school Mendelssohn founded there, then becoming his successor after Mendelssohn’s death a few years later. So if you guessed that, you’re close, but at this point, Brahms would not be handing out any cigars.

It was actually a work that Mendelssohn conducted for Joachim’s successful debut in London. It was also the first time the work had been “popularly” received. Until then, no one was playing it regularly (if at all) but after this historic and highly acclaimed performance, the Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven entered the standard repertoire. Not exactly the premiere but Joachim was responsible for its successful launch into the world.

At that performance, by the way, Joachim was one month shy of his 13th birthday!
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Let me rephrase my question: “Why a concerto for violin AND CELLO”?

There were no real precedents in the repertoire and while Brahms was something of an antiquarian (collecting original manuscripts was a hobby of his and he edited and performed a great deal of music by composers even earlier than Bach, an interest even Clara Schumann couldn’t understand), why imitate models like the Bach Double Concerto for two violins or resurrect the old French formula of the symphonie concertante – the classical era’s answer to the Baroque concerto grosso – even excepting Mozart’s wonderful contribution for violin and viola?

Johannes Brahms, as a child, studied piano and composition. He also studied the cello, at least briefly: there’s an old story I haven’t been able to corroborate anywhere that the cello teacher absconded with the boy’s instrument. According to Jan Swafford, in his very human biography of Brahms, he played the cello well enough to manage a concerto by the Hamburg cellist, Bernhard Romberg (whose E Minor Cello Sonata was said to have been a considerable influence on Brahms’ 1st Cello Sonata in the same key, written when he was in his early-30s). When he was 18, Brahms was the pianist for a performance of a cello sonata he’d written, which like many of his earliest works, this too was subsequently destroyed.

It is interesting to mention this, hearing all those great themes Brahms composed for the cello. As someone who has a cello in his closet (quite literally), I’m thinking beyond the two cello sonatas, to the opening of the C Minor Piano Quartet’s slow movement, the song-like solo in the slow movement of the 2nd Piano Concerto or the big cello-section themes like the ones in the slow movement of the 2nd Symphony and the 2nd theme of the 4th Symphony’s opening movement.

So is it too much to infer, though I don’t think there’s anything in writing to prove it, that Brahms may have been thinking of himself as the cello to Joachim’s violin?

How does the work open? With the cello playing a long recitative-like statement, more cadenza than melody after a suggestion of what will be the main theme, answered, after a suggestion of the second theme-to-be in the winds, by the violinist, the cellist then tentatively joining in. This is musical conversation: once they have agreed to talk, the orchestra comes back in to present the main theme just like any ordinary concerto.

It’s not that personal associations aren’t unusual in his works. He is, first of all, a very private person as well as composer. But the famous use of the alp-horn theme he had sent to Clara, greeting her a thousnd times from the mountains and the valleys, not to mention the suggestion of Schumann’s old “Clara Theme” in the last movement of his 1st Symphony would be too much a coincidence for a composer as careful and architectural as Brahms.

There are other examples as well – cabalistic-like themes like one in the G Major String Sextet, carved out of notes spelling the first name of Agathe von Siebold, another of Brahms’ lost loves (he had gotten close enough to consider an engagement) which, at one point, is counterpointed with a motive A-D-E, spelling out the German word for “farewell.” It was written nostalgically six years after they parted: he had recently returned to her town and walked through the streets where they had once walked together.

In a song written for an old girl-friend, Brahms unfolded a simple tune that ran as counterpoint to an old Viennese ländler she used to sing to him when they were young and in love: so that “while Bertha was singing [her son] to sleep, a love-song is being sung to her.” Everyone knows the singer’s melody as Brahms’ Lullaby.

Perhaps the most direct use of such a personal message would be in the song Brahms had composed for Joseph and Amalie Joachim, on the birth of their son, Johannes, named after the composer. It is written for alto voice and piano with viola obligato (Amalie was an alto; Brahms a pianist; Joachim also played the viola) as if all the friends would be there together, whether playing and singing it or not. There’s also a quotation in the viola part: the old Christmas carol, “Josef lieber, Josef mein.” The composer was speaking directly to his dear old friend Joseph Joachim.

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When Brahms was still a teenager, he was the pianist for a promising young Hungarian-born violinist then living in Hamburg named Eduard Remenyi, three years older and by comparison world-wise. Not the best-matched personalities, musically they were a good team, and Brahms learned to improvise accompaniments to Remenyi’s heart-wrenching playing of Hungarian gypsy tunes. In those days, people went to smoky restaurants and dives to listen to gypsy bands much the way people in the 20th Century went to hear jazz. This Hungarian style – not really folk-music – became a very important influence on Brahms whose publisher would later earn a great deal of money from the two sets of Hungarian Dances Brahms arranged. He also included gypsy elements in the last movements of his G Minor Piano Quartet, the Violin Concerto, and the String Quintet, Op.111 - as well as the Double Concerto.

Anyway, Brahms and Remenyi decided to take a recital tour across Northern Germany, stopping off in Hannover to visit Remenyi’s former fellow-student, Joseph Joachim.

Seven years earlier, Brahms had heard Joachim play the Beethoven concerto in Hamburg and had been very impressed. When he’d played in Vienna, critic Eduard Hanslick wrote that he didn’t “play the crowd but searched deep in the music for structure and meaning,” a very different approach to the usual slap-dash virtuosity of the day.

So it was odd that, after becoming a professor at the Leipzig Conservatory at the age of 17, Joachim would go off to become the concertmaster for the orchestra Franz Liszt conducted in Weimar, where this great pianist and traveling virtuoso settled down to become a composer and conductor. It had to be more than the common factor of their Hungarian nationality. One of the functions of the Weimar orchestra, by the way, was to work as Liszt’s laboratory: he often tried out his sketches there, then would go back to revising or rewriting them. Eventually, Joachim tired of all this and in 1852 left to accept the concertmaster and soloist position open at the court of the King of Hannover.

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It was during this time, incidentally, that Franz Liszt was working on what became Les Preludes. In the 1840s, Liszt had hired composer Joachim Raff to be his all-around secretary and house-orchestrator. Liszt was not a trained composer in the old-fashioned sense and Raff was as much a guide and ghost-writer as he was as a secretary. In the mid-1840s, Liszt had decided on a series of choral works on the Four Seasons as inspired by the poetry of Lamartine. The Overture was orchestrated by Raff and no doubt tried out with the Weimar orchestra at some point. The choral works may never have materialized but the overture eventually became a symphonic poems. This was something new on the concert scene which Liszt supposedly invented, not that writing descriptive music to paint images or tell stories was new – that went back long before Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, for that matter, and there was certainly Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony – but Liszt was more interested in the philosophical essence of something literary, not mere “programmatic” story telling or scene-painting. Without getting into further detail here (this post is already long enough!), it was premiered officially in 1854, but he had been working on it (with Raff’s help) for several years. No doubt, Joachim was involved in some of the trial run-throughs before he left Weimar, trying to hide his distaste for Liszt and his music, in 1852.

Planned or not, it’s an interesting segue in the Harrisburg Symphony’s opening concert to go from Liszt’s Les Preludes to a work written 30 years later by Brahms, both with only one degree of separation: the violinist Joseph Joachim.
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When he and Brahms met, Joachim was almost 22, his birthday a few weeks away, already acknowledged as one of the leading performers of his time for almost a decade. Brahms had just turned 20 and was not even known in his home town of Hamburg except to a few fellow music afficionados. The violinist was happy to see his old friend Remenyi and intrigued by this shy boyish-looking pianist with long blonde hair and piercing blue eyes he had brought along with him as his accompanist. Well, if he’s a composer, have him play something.

And he did – there were two large-scale sonatas, a demonic little Scherzo in E-flat Minor plus several other works which never made it to the publishers.

Joachim was impressed – in fact, remembering that day fifty years later, he was “completely overwhelmed.” Having lost sympathy with the newest of new music, courtesy of Franz Liszt, Joachim was just beginning to look around for some other composer who could be such a major force in the music world. He had thought perhaps Schumann, perhaps too underrated to be the antidote to Liszt, but there were not many major composers as we think of them today, following Mendelssohn’s death a few years earlier. Listening to Brahms, he thought perhaps he had found the answer.

Already wise about the musical world, Joachim immediately began to promote his younger friend: he arranged to have him play for the King of Hannover who dubbed him in his delight “Little Beethoven.” He arranged for Remenyi and Brahms to go to in Weimar so he could play for Franz Liszt, which did not go over well. Liszt sight-read the music when Brahms was too nervous to play: when the C Major Sonata turned out not to be as compatible with him as the E-flat Minor Scherzo, he decided to play his own B Minor Sonata instead, only to notice Brahms had dozed off in the middle of it. Brahms and Remenyi ended up parting ways, the violinist staying with Liszt and Brahms going back to visit Joachim.

A few weeks before, Joachim had just gotten back from Düsseldorf where Robert and Clara Schumann lived: they were very impressed with his playing of the Beethoven concerto there and he was excited to hear Robert conduct his 4th Symphony and Clara play his Piano Concerto. So Joachim thought it a good idea to take Brahms to meet them, too. At first, Brahms was reluctant: when they had gone to Hamburg to perform a couple of years earlier – the composer tagging along on the petticoats of his famous wife and otherwise overlooked by the local critics – Schumann returned the package of music Brahms had dropped off for him at their hotel, hoping for an introduction. Not only were there no comments, the package hadn’t even been opened. So, no – Brahms had no interest in trying to meet him again.

But at noon on September 30th, 1853, Johannes Brahms stood at the front door of the Schumanns’ little house in Düsseldorf and rang the bell.

The rest is history.

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Well, almost...

Actually, the Schumanns weren’t home at the time, but their daughter told the young visitor to come back the next day an hour earlier. In a way, they were expecting he’d show up some day soon: Joachim had already been espousing “the gospel of Johannes.”

In the next few months, Brahms’ life must have been very exciting – Schumann arranged for four of his works to be published (though there were several works that weren’t). He began working on a third piano sonata (unfortunately, his last) and he spent much time with the Schumann family and with their friend Joachim who came to town in October for a concert.

The rehearsal had been a disaster, Schumann sometimes getting so engrossed in the music he stopped conducting. The night after the concert, there was a special party for Joachim in which he was given a new violin sonata written just for him by a committee of friends. Sight-reading it with Clara at the piano, he quickly guessed the composers’ identities: Albert Dietrich, a close friend and associate of Schumann’s, wrote the first movement; Schumann himself, the Intermezzo and the Finale; Brahms, the Scherzo, the only movement from the work that has survived in the repertoire (known as the “Sonatensatz” or Scherzo in C Minor). On Schumann’s suggestion, the thematic tie that binds the work together is a motive based on what Joachim called his “life motto” – Frei aber einsam, “Free but lonely” – turned into the musical pitches F, A and E. Consequently the work is known to history as “The F.A.E. Sonata.”

Schumann wrote an article about Brahms called Neue Bahnen - “New Paths” - hailing the young man as the heir to Beethoven, the anointed Messiah of music. This caused quite a stir not just in the music world, considering very few in the wider world had heard any of his music. True, Schumann had said this before about any number of young composers, none of whom ever lived up to the prophecies, like Ludwig Schunke and William Sterndale Bennet, just to name two. The “New Music” crowd around Liszt and Wagner hooted at the idea, so it was with some trepidation that Brahms went off to Leipzig to meet with his would-be publishers and be introduced to the city that was famously associated with Bach and Mendelssohn. And Liszt just happened to be in town.

Berlioz, the “spiritual father of the New German Music school,” was also in town and heard Brahms play: more impressed with him than Liszt had been, Berlioz wrote to Joachim after Brahms had played parts of his new piano sonata. “I am grateful to you for having let me make the acquaintance of this diffident, audacious young man who has into his head to make a new music. He will suffer greatly.”

While there, Brahms played his A Minor Violin Sonata (another work that has disappeared) with Ferdinand David for whom Mendelssohn wrote his violin concerto. They played chamber music and Brahms performed some of his piano music in public on one of David’s quartet concerts.

After returning home to Hamburg at Christmastime bearing copies of his first music to be seen into print, Brahms returned to Hannover at the start of the new year, running around with Joachim and a new friend, a composer and conductor (and presumably cellist), Julius Otto Grimm, the three of them forming a kind of Rat Pack to which they gave the rather Monty-Pythonesque name Das Kaffernbund or “League of Silly Asses.”

To Brahms, this kind of friendship was new and exciting. In Hamburg, he had been something of a loner and though still, basically, an introvert, he enjoyed the time spent with the Schumanns and Joachim. A chain-smoker, Brahms initiated Joachim into the world of cigars. They talked of many things, philosophy and art, and of course played lots of music.
But Joachim, like many vituosos thriving on the adulation of the crowd, needed constant reinforcement from his friends, something Brahms occasionally found unbearable. And while Joachim had a vindictive and jealous streak he found difficult to control, he wrote to his fiancee that Brahms was “egotistic and always on the lookout for something to his advantage – but at any rate he is sincere... with none of the false sentimentality with which others of his kind like to deceive themselves.”

Joachim’s fiancee did not like Brahms though that’s probably not why she declined to marry the violinist. Joachim was devastated but found strength in his motto “Frei aber einsam.”

Then the unthinkable happened, just weeks after another concert when the Schumanns came to Hannover for a program that included Schumann’s 4th Symphony with Joachim playing Robert’s Fantasy for Violin & Orchestra and Clara playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. A month later, Brahms and Joachim received an alarming message from Albert Dietrich, that Schumann had tried to commit suicide two days earlier, throwing himself in the Rhine. Pulled out by some men who had been there at the time, he was about to be committed to an asylum.

Brahms arrived in Düsseldorf two days later, Joachim the next day. That day, as their friend was escorted to the carriage to take him away, Clara, five month’s pregnant with her eighth child, was not allowed to see him: the children watched from an upstairs window.

The members of the Kaffernbund stayed close by with the family, helping Clara and the children through these awful months. There was also music making, including read-throughs of Brahms’ newest work, the B Major Piano Trio, with Joachim and Grimm. As months passed on to a year, Clara had to resume performing to bring in an income and Brahms stayed with the children, becoming Uncle Johannes. At one point, he taught them how to somersault; one of the Schumann daughters recalled him doing a handstand on the banister before jumping down to the floor.

Joachim had to resume his duties in Hannover, but visited often. By the end of the year, Clara made her first tour in years, playing 22 concerts in two months.

In German, people usually address each other by the “formal” pronoun “Sie,” but close friends might use the “familiar” form, “du.” Brahms and Joachim used “du” almost from the beginning. Liszt had invited his errant acolyte to use “du” but Joachim declined. In all the decades Joachim was a member of Clara Schumann’s close circle, they never used “du.”

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And so it went for years, this friendship between composer and violinist. Like any friendship, it had its ups and downs.

For his 22nd birthday, Joachim gave Brahms a copy of “The Complete Kapellmeister” by a contemporary of Bach’s, something Brahms had been looking for – curious about what a “music director” did in the days of the Baroque, he was also looking for some background information for his own situation, having been “appointed Messiah” without anyone to give him advice (Schumann being ill and the older generation all on the other side of the artistic fence).

Brahms suggested they trade and grade each others “homework assignments” in counterpoint, one of the oldest and most abstract technical exercises a composer could study but which few in the 19th Century cared much about (even Schubert, in his last days, began taking counterpoint lessons, feeling he was missing something). For the spring and summer of 1855 and off and on for several years, back and forth went their exercises, and while Joachim may have eventually realized he was not the composer he wanted to be, Brahms found much of value in this project, using some of his Palestrina-style canons in some of the choral works he was writing at the time.

While Joachim and Clara toured often (see drawing, left, made in 1853), on occasion Brahms would join them, though he found himself nervous on-stage and uncomfortable performing. Later he was able to bring in some money from concertizing. He played Beethoven’s 4th Concerto and Mozart’s D Minor Concerto (a fee for a single performance was greater than the money his publisher paid him for the Four Ballades, Op. 10, about the only work he wrote that year to survive to the publishers).

One thing they had in common was their dislike for the music of Liszt and Wagner, the “New German Music” that repudiated the past (basically, the best thing about Beethoven was, he paved the way for Wagner) and denounced as useless the “formalist” approach to abstract or pure music. As far as Brahms and Joachim were concerned, Liszt’s histrionic style and Wagner’s “Total Work of Art” were the death of music.

Earlier, Joachim had finally written to Liszt, his former mentor whose music he was increasingly less comfortable with, "I am completely out of sympathy with your music; it contradicts everything which from early youth I have taken as mental nourishment from the spirit of our great masters." And so in 1860, he and Brahms co-wrote a Manifesto of sorts against Liszt and Wagner’s progressive style and their far-reaching influence.

Unfortunately their Manifesto was leaked to the Lisztians before it had gathered more than four signatures – a rather puny manifesto – and though it did no real harm to either Brahms or Joachim, it made them look pretty ridiculous in the eyes of the new music scene. One thing it did do, unfortunately, was politicize the two styles of music. It would be unlikely, afterward, if someone of Berlioz’ stature would have spoken so warmly of someone like young Brahms’ potential stature in the world. Where Liszt had been supportive of Schumann as Schumann had been supportive of Berlioz, Liszt would never play or conduct any music by Brahms in his life. Like it or not, now, audiences began lining up behind one or the other: it was as if auditoriums across Europe were turning into Red Halls and Blue Halls...

A few years later, Joachim married one of the opera singers in Hannover, a contralto named Amalie Schneeweiss (see photo, right). Brahms was in the midst of discovering some previously unknown works of Franz Schubert’s (the drying sand was even still stuck to the ink, as if Brahms were the first person to see them in the 35 years since Schubert’s death - he scraped the sand off and kept it in a glass container on his own desk), but he wished the newlyweds the best even as he knew what the loss of his closest bachelor friend would mean to him: perhaps no longer “einsam” but also no longer “frei”...

When their first child was born – a son they named Johannes – Brahms composed for them the “Spiritual Lullaby” I’d mentioned above, with the viola part (intended for Joachim) quoting “Josef lieber, Josef mein.”

Brahms admired Amalie’s voice: on the same program that saw the premiere of A German Requiem (which then did not have the famous soprano solo movement), she sang “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” from Handel’s Messiah and with Joachim, who was the concertmaster, “Erbarme dich” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. In later years, Brahms would conduct performances of the “Alto Rhapsody” with her, a work associated with failed love.

Amalie had agreed to give up the operatic stage – apparently because Joachim thought it a loose lifestyle – and sang only in concerts and recitals. There were concerns that Amalie came between them, not least from Amalie herself who wrote to Clara that she wished nothing better for her husband (she called him “Jo”) than to spend time with his friends. She admitted to being “an unskilled housewife” and that Joachim didn’t find her an inspiration. Two years into the marriage and already it seemed to be in trouble.

Part of the problem was Joachim’s constant need for confirmation, as he had plagued Brahms early in their own friendship. After the birth of their second child, Amalie became ill with frequently recurring bouts of rheumatism. Joachim was always threatening to leave her.

Then in 1873, just as Brahms was turning 40, oblique remarks in one of his letters about Joachim’s plans to conduct the German Requiem at the Schumann Festival implied he would rather it not be performed; then he was upset when it wasn’t; then Joachim stuck to his guns and on it escalated. Finally, Joachim wrote to him,

Let us be quite frank. For the last few years, whenever we have met, I have always felt that your manner towards me was not what it used to be... No doubt I have disappointed many of the hopes you set on my development and have been more indolent [than] you liked in many respects [particularly pertaining to his compositions which, by this time, he had largely abandoned]...What more natural than for me to imagine that you [now] regarded our old intimacy... as something embarrassing rather than desirable. You wanted a reassuring answer. I wonder if this is one?”

The following year, gossip reached Brahms that Joachim’s jealousy of Amalie and the men around her brought about accusations of an affair with the publisher Fritz Simrock, a friend of Brahms’. Brahms thought it was all in Joachim’s imagination.

Then three years later, toward the end of summer, Brahms wrote to Joachim that he had jotted down “a few violin passages” which actually turned out to be sketches for the first movement of a large-scale concerto! And he was asking him for advice, at least theoretically. They got together and Joachim, violin in hand, would try things out, showing him how to notate the bowing, sometimes rewriting passages to make them easier for the violinist. Sometimes Brahms accepted his changes, sometimes he ignored them.

Joachim was pressuring for a quick premiere, but Brahms got frustrated with the two middle movements he had planned. Originally, the work was to be in four movements like a symphony rather than the traditional three of a concerto. He discarded the scherzo which later found its way into the 2nd Piano Concerto (he was, after all, more comfortable writing for his own instrument than for the violin), and he said he was now writing “a wretched adagio.” As beautiful as we may find this movement, with its exquisite oboe solo, it was one reason another great violinist of the day refused to ever play the work: Pablo de Sarasate complained he could never stand silent on the stage “and listen while an oboe player plays the only tune in the Adagio”.

He and Joachim worked on the revisions through the summer of 1878 and the work was finally ready for a New Year’s Day premiere in Leipzig, Joachim unnerved by last-minute changes and Brahms more nervous than usual on the podium. In Vienna, surprisingly, it was rapturously received. When Joachim took it to Berlin, people wondered why they had to be subjected to such trash. Overall, the wider world did not much care for the work. Disappointed, Brahms took the rough draft for a second violin concerto he was already working on – and burned it!

After the concerto, Brahms wrote his first published violin sonata (he’d written at least three before) which he and Joachim then took on tour. It was rough going, at times, mostly because of Brahms’ rather cavalier attitude toward practicing.

A year later, in 1880, Joachim turned to Brahms for personal advice, thinking again of separating from his wife, Amalie. He was stunned to realize Brahms sided with his wife. Afterward, the composer wrote to her,

Let me say first and foremost: with no word, with no thought have I ever acknowledged that your husband might be in the right... Despite a thirty-year friendship, despite all my love and admiration for Joachim, despite all our artistic interests... I perhaps hardly need to say that, even earlier than you did, I became aware of the unfortunate character-trait with which Joachim so inexcusably tortures himself and others... The simplest matter is so exaggerated, so complicated, that one scarcely knows where to begin with it and how to bring it to an end... His passionate imagination is playing a sinful and inexcusable game with the best and most holy thing fate has granted him.”

In 1884, this letter was later used in court during the inevitable divorce proceedings. Joachim sued on the grounds of adultery. Brahms had no idea she would use his letter for such a character reference, but it was the reason Amalie won the case. After this, the friendship was at an end. Even after he’d complain loudly to other friends about Brahms’ disloyalty, Joachim would then walk out on stage to perform the concerto Brahms had written for him.

The next year, Joachim wrote tentatively to Brahms telling him he thought his new 4th Symphony, the one most people thought too intellectual and old-fashioned, was his favorite. Brahms’ rather stuffy reply (“...as though one had to wait for [praise like this] for permission to enjoy one’s own work”) didn’t seem to open any possible reconciliation.

Then, in the summer of 1887, Brahms wrote to Clara that he was writing, of all things, a concerto for violin and cello. The intended cellist, Robert Hausmann (photographed, right, with Brahms in 1889), was a member of Joachim’s quartet, for whom he’d recently written his second cello sonata (well, the second one he published). By September, Joachim joined Hausmann, Brahms and Clara for some rehearsals. Uncharacteristically – since Joachim had to wait one year for his concerto and fourteen for the 1st Symphony – this concerto was ready for its premiere a month later with Brahms more comfortable on the podium.

As he told a friend after the performance, “Now I know what it is that’s been missing in my life for the past few years. It was the sound of Joachim’s violin.”

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

If the dark 4th Symphony with its E Minor finale was considered tragic, the A Minor Double Concerto with its gypsy-style finale largely in the minor key did not seem quite so dark yet it failed to win much support from Brahms’ public. Clara didn’t think the work had any future, lacking the warmth and freshness of his earlier works. Another close friend found it “tedious,” a “senile production,” and he was convinced “it was all up with our Johannes.” Even Joachim was fairly cool toward the piece at first, warming up to it only after several performances.

As he had started work on a second violin concerto after what he thought would be an easily accessible work and, incidentally, had also started not one but two more symphonies after the 4th’s premiere – one far enough along to play at the piano for some friends before it, too, was consigned to the flames – Brahms had started sketching a second double concerto but then destroyed it, also. He was, if nothing else, feeling very old-fashioned: he was convinced when he died, the great stream of Classical Music - from Bach to Beethoven to Brahms - would dry up with him.

The year he wrote the Double Concerto, Brahms met a young Frenchman named Claude Debussy. A teen-aged Arnold Schoenberg was beginning to compose in Vienna – the man who “destroyed” tonality, as some like to demonize him, was more influenced by Brahms than by Wagner and Liszt, ironically. A year later, Mahler completed his 1st Symphony and Richard Strauss premiered Don Juan.

In 1890, Brahms wrote his G Major String Quintet – Joachim advised him that you’d need three cellists to cut through that wall of sound of the other string players and Brahms, characteristically, ignored him. Thinking this would be his last work, he decided to retire from composing. He wrote to his publisher that he had thrown “reams” of paper into the river, sketches and unfinished works as well as complete pieces which he deemed not good enough to entrust to the public.

Fortunately, the sound of Richard Mühlfeld’s clarinet brought him out of retirement within a year and he produced a series of chamber pieces for him – alas, no concerto – before he was diagnosed with cancer. He barely made it to Clara Schumann’s funeral in time and the loss took its toll on him. He himself died the following year, a prematurely old man at the age of 63.

Joachim was touring in England when news came that Brahms had died. To a friend he wrote,

I often think sadly of the last pleasure it was in our power to give him... I have never heard him express his gratitude so warmly as after listening to his G Major Quintet; he seemed almost satisfied with his work. We still have his works – as an individual I counted for little with him during the last years of his life.”

But at least their friendship gave us many works we can still savor today, whether directly like the Violin Concerto or indirectly like all those pieces Brahms had asked his advice about, even if he ignored it.

And certainly the Double Concerto, which would never have come about otherwise. Every time I hear it, I hear two old friends talking over old times, conversing, arguing, perhaps waxing nostalgic (as in the slow movement) and now and then the old Kaffernbund peeking through the finale: but in general having a good time of it, as old friends might.

For a composer who was often described by his friends as well as his critics as cold and formalistic, this is a very human piece of music. A friendship like this one was a rare gift and music can only be an approximation of its value.

= = = = = = = = = = =

Most of the material mentioned here is available in any number of sources, but much of the detail and all of the quotes can be found in Jan Swafford's Johannes Brahms: A Biography.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A New Critic for the Cleveland Orchestra

As a fan of Nicholas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective which collected critical commentary from newspapers and journals from the days of Beethoven to Schoenberg (and, true to the title, all scathing), I often like to quote a review – for instance, “[it] sometimes sounds like a plague of insects in the Amazon valley, sometimes like a miniature of the Day of Judgment... and for a change goes lachrymose” – and then ask if you can identify the piece. What was it Pitts Sanborne was reviewing in the New York World Telegram in 1938?

Did you guess Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini?

Now, it’s easy to slam past critics who’ve panned great works and artists, hindsight aside. As if to avoid litigation these days, critics rarely write reviews like that any more.

When I conducted the Harrisburg Symphony in the premiere of my “Epiphanies” in 1983, Barker Howland of the Patriot-News, after quoting from my program notes describing the work, wrote “An interesting piece, it will be repeated tonight.” I often thought I should blurb that on my resume.

However, when you read frequent comments from critic Donald Rosenberg at the Cleveland Plain Dealer like “Welser-Möst never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” you begin to get an idea of the on-going relationship between critic and critiqued: since Welser-Möst became the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, Rosenberg has rarely had good things to say about his interpretations, no matter how good the orchestra plays. Since the maestro’s contract was just renewed until 2018, one wondered how long this dance could go on. Would Cleveland have to put up with ten more years of negative comments?

Still, it was a bit of a shock the other day, just as the orchestra’s new season was about to begin, to read that Rosenberg was being “re-assigned.” I know it’s better than a lot of cities, large and small, who’ve seen their newspapers drop arts critics completely: at least Mr. Rosenberg will still be covering other venues and a new critic has been up-graded to review the orchestra.

The good news is – at least for those of us in Central Pennsylvania who remember his insightful and well-written reviews – that new critic sent in to review the Cleveland Orchestra happens to be Zachary Lewis who, for too few years, covered the local classical scene for Harrisburg’s Patriot-News.

Here’s his first review, the opening night program that featured George Benjamin’s “Duet” for piano and orchestra and a Welser-Möst specialty, Bruckner’s 7th Symphony.

Zach left here around 2004, moving to Cleveland and hoping to free-lance his way into making a living. For a while, he maintained an on-line review-blog for the paper which, unfortunately, did not generate enough readers to maintain the site (or the writer). So it is great news to see that he has resurfaced in a major way. It may not be under the most enjoyable circumstances, walking in this way – politics being politics – and while Rosenberg may be thought of as one of the major classical music critics in the country (no pressure there for his successor, either), I am sure we’ll be reading many good things from Zach. I know I’m not the only one wishing him the best!

The issue of Rosenberg’s re-assignment, of course, is another matter entirely, and one verging on Freedom of Speech.

Years ago, I was never a fan of the great conductor, Eugene Ormandy, or of the great violinist Isaac Stern – many times, their recordings and performances left me cold. I can’t say I knew why, but I just wasn’t moved by them. I often wondered what I would do if I had become a critic and had to deal with those kind of personal versus professional reactions, whatever that means. I mean, if I continued to slam Ormandy, say, as being “ineffectual” and “distant,” who would take me seriously for very long?

It’s not that Rosenberg was alone. Many critics around the country said similar things when the orchestra was on tour: they often had to go to Europe to get glowing reviews from major cities.

I’d had similar misgivings about Lorin Maazel, a previous conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. My Eastman room-mate joined the orchestra during Maazel’s first season and so whenever the orchestra came to New York, I would drive down from the UConn to hear them play. It was embarrassing to tell my friend that I had trouble staying awake during the Brahms 2nd Symphony.

It’s not that the orchestra played badly, by any means. It’s that I couldn’t find anything in the conductor’s interpretation that made the work come alive for me.

Once, during intermission, Maazel had said to the orchestra back-stage he was checking his pulse to find out what the opening tempo would be for Brahms 1st, coming up next. It’s not that his blood-pressure was a little low that night, but it sounded like he’d checked himself after having watched the most boring TV show, ever.

Another concert included Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. I knew from my friend that they had not rehearsed it much, in fact had not even run through the whole piece, checking only a few spots. On the stage of Carnegie Hall, they were actually going to “sight-read” the minuet. It’s not that they didn’t know the piece, but several in the orchestra (like my former room-mate) hadn’t played it with Maazel before. It’s not that I expected the piece to fall apart – after all, it was the Cleveland Orchestra – and while I wasn’t on the edge of my seat as much as many in the orchestra may have been, if the experiment had been meant to generate on-the-spot electricity, it still bored me. It didn’t help that I knew Maazel had told the orchestra during the sound-check that it wouldn’t make much difference: the critics would still hate it (and he was right).

So I didn’t feel too badly about my reactions: after all, I wasn’t alone. At least I didn’t have put my feelings about it in writing.

Many years and many bad reviews later, lo and behold Lorin Maazel is chosen as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic! There was much soul-searching going on as a few New York critics wondered how they would deal with him on a regular week-to-week basis. Fortunately, some things had somehow changed, certain strengths came to the surface with familiarity and, on the whole, while he hasn’t been getting unanimously rave reviews, they’re not the spiteful attacks they’d been. It’s unlikely the critics mellowed – and certainly the papers’ editors didn’t come down and say “write nice reviews or else!” Or at least, I rather doubt it.

(I have to chuckle, reading Allan Kozzin’s New York Times review of Maazel’s Mahler with the New York Philharmonic: “...though the playing was often strikingly beautiful, his interpretation was flat and emotionless: it might as well have been an ice sculpture.”)

Which makes the whole issue at the Plain Dealer a little more of a surprise: no one admits to pressuring anyone or to being pressured and it’s unlikely the paper’s integrity would be impugned just for the sake of appeasing the orchestra’s management.

But it probably does send chills down the spines of many critics across the land: it’s bad enough, now, a critic might be sued for a bad review, as happened in England this past summer. True, it was unlikely in another ten years Mr. Rosenberg would have any kind of epiphany about Mr. Welser-Möst’s interpretive abilities and suddenly become a euphoric cheer-leader, so perhaps the editor made the internal decision on the grounds that it was the best way to alleviate the situation. It was still better than eliminating the position, firing the critic and not replacing him at all which, frankly, has been known to happen elsewhere often enough.

When I worked for the Harrisburg Symphony back in the ‘80s, we often complained among ourselves about the reviews the orchestra received in the Patriot-News. Not that they were bad: usually, they were just badly written or not really reviews at all. Sending someone who likes music out to review a concert does not make them a “critic,” however one views the term.

Reading a complete plot-synopsis of Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman does not help someone who’d not heard the concert find out how the orchestra played the Overture, especially when you don’t say anything about how it was performed. The many grammatical howlers aside, telling us Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ Poeme for Flute & Orchestra was “a compendium of every style you could hear in the 20th Century” is an odd thing to say about such a mild and pretty piece composed before 1919, though it led some of us to say “yeah, I particularly liked that aleatoric section near the end.” How exciting it must have been for the two young singers who came from New York to sing in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, hoping no doubt to add to their resume reviews for their performance at the Forum, only to be mentioned in terms of what they wore, not how they sang!

Then there is the never-ending argument, “who are you writing for?” If you’d gone to the concert, you shouldn’t need to read a critic’s reaction to find out how it went. If you didn’t go, how is reading a review going to make up for not having been there? If you don’t know much about the music, does it matter how well the pianist brought out the triplets in the left-hand during the transition to the second theme? If you know anything about music, is it going to matter to you if the conductor “rode the tiger” during The Rite of Spring?

When there’s a concert weekend, is a review that shows up in Sunday morning’s paper going to motivate anyone to drop afternoon plans and get there by 3:00? What about a review for a concert series in a big city where, even if you decide to go at the last minute, are there going to be tickets available? Well, maybe it will happen, and maybe even getting a few more people in those seats makes it worthwhile. What is the point, some ask, of reviewing a one-night-stand of a concert if there are no further performances to attract new attendance? More than likely it may convince readers to try out the next concert. Or at least to know that the orchestra or the concert series even exists.

Ultimately, I guess, reviews are a kind of public relations venture which is why something that focuses on a negative aspect – even a small one at the expense of the over-all positive impression – can be viewed by certain vested interests as “bad publicity.” Yet movie critics who pan the latest block-buster don’t appear to have much of an impact on theater-attendance.

Perhaps the idea of knowing in advance a review will be negative – did people read Rosenberg’s reviews because they wanted to check out his latest zingers? – was having a negative impact on the paper’s readership. But the paper hired an intelligent man who is paid to have an opinion to write intelligently about his opinion. Maybe it’s the result of a certain level of political correctness combined with the old Bambi-era philosophy (as Thumper’s mother imparted, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”), not that many politicians have ever taken this to heart.

At the moment, I’m trying to read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled which is about (insomuch as it’s about something) a concert pianist who arrives in a Central European city for a very important concert. Every time he turns around there’s something surreal happening to him (I haven’t read enough to make sense out of it if sense is to be found), but one thing that intrigues me is Ishiguro’s depiction of the city’s arts scene.

Apparently this pianist, known only as Mr. Ryder, has come to town to support an aging, over-the-hill conductor named Mr. Brodsky who has been chosen as the city’s new “music champion,” despite their misgivings over his age and whatever talent he may have left. He replaces the acclaimed cellist Christoff who had been reluctantly thrust into this role-in-society almost 18 years earlier. But recently, one of the city leaders admitted to another one that he found Christoff’s last recital “functional,” to which another hesitated, “yes, I tend to agree with you. There was a certain dryness to it all,” and the first man added he thought the word was “cold.”

And so began the sudden disgrace of the man who for almost 18 years had been their shining beacon in the arts. Mr. Ryder is being told this, incidentally, against a backdrop of the movie he was trying to watch at the local cinema, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” particularly during the scene when the astronauts were beginning to suspect the motives of the computer HAL.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Comes Autumn Time - A Journal Entry

The transition from Summer to Autumn is one of my favorite times of year, especially now that I’m actually waking up early enough to see the sun come up and burn off the morning fog (unlike, after spending several of the last 18 years working until midnight or so, when I’d occasionally stay up late enough to see it from the other end). There’s something about the air, especially the sunlight, that is different even from cooler summer days.

So as the stock market tries to take deep breaths during its current roller-coaster of a ride and Washington is now poised to pump in $700,000,000,000 to shore up the banks that failed – I await the FBI investigation and charges of ENCO-like fraud that will no doubt be discovered – I sit on my garden bench in the late-afternoon sun on an Autumn day and realize (aside from what all this is doing to my poor bedraggled 401k Plan) it’s the corporations who are now getting bailed out, not the poor middle-class tax-paying schmucks squashed by home foreclosures who have been reeling toward bankruptcy for months. What would I like to say to those financial people who’ve always argued funding for the Arts is not the government’s responsibility when performing organizations cannot survive in a free-market economy?

Despite wondering if the White House is still pushing for its plan to turn Social Security into private accounts tied to the stock market and then reading the endlessly polarizing debates about Sarah Palin (if they thought she was an expert on Russia because you can see it from Alaska, why didn’t they just have her drive by the United Nations yesterday, instead?), I spent several hours during these past afternoons sitting on my little bench under the Japanese maple tree trying to read, though easily distracted by the activity around the bird feeder.

It took awhile for the birds to become less wary of me – the mourning doves never did, just sitting near the edge of the roof, craning their necks down at me questioningly before flying off into the tree – but eventually the family of cardinals came in, both the male and female adults as well as the pair of juveniles, the young male now just coming into his full red coloring (a week ago, they still sat there waiting to be fed by the adults even though they seemed bigger or at least fuller than their parents: by now, they might learn to feed themselves, you’d think).

Eventually, some nuthatches came by and a few chickadees, the first I’ve seen them in months (perhaps they’ve come down out of the mountain woods now that it’s cooler here). The juncos’ arrival will be the true harbinger of colder weather – “snowbirds,” they’re often called – fairly consistent with their first appearance but not as organized as the swallows of Capistrano (and a lot more attractive than the buzzards of Hinckley, Ohio). There were the little “chipping sparrows,” the tiniest birds I see here, more slender than the wrens who seem to live only out front, more often heard than seen. The blue jays were fairly wary but squawked mightily at me from nearby branches for a while before giving up and flying away. The crows stopped by, too, about six or seven of them this time. They’re not as bad as they used to be downtown, about seven miles away (as the crow flies) where for a while they had replaced starlings and pigeons as nature’s major urban nuisance: when we’d had more seagulls coming in along the riverfront, I swore we were living in an Alfred Hitchcock remake.

The chipmunks may have been more skitterish with me there, but that would not keep them away from the tailings for long. Every morning I put a scoop of bird seed out in the little St. Francis feeder at the edge of the porch – placed there over 40 years ago so my dad could watch them from the living room – and pour a little bit across the porch-floor for the chipmunks, as my mother had done decades ago. When I am late or forgetful, one will sit out on the rock underneath the feeder and scold me, setting up a repeated sharp “chirp.” One recent afternoon, I startled one who ran and hid in the rain-spout. I could see him peering out at me, cautious. After a while, he hopped out to stand on his haunches – there’s a low stump of a branch on the euonymus bush about two feet from me that makes a good perch – and then he began to scold me with these same sharp “chirps,” set up with metronomic precision. When I turned a page, he ran back and hid in the rain-spout again, still chirping: did he think he sounded more awesome, now, echoing through this metal tube, like someone singing in the shower?

My dad used to love watching them vacuum up the seeds till their cheek-pouches were nearly bursting: small wonder he nicknamed one “Dizzie Gillespie,” though how many of them we had then, who knows? Now on occasion I’ll see three different ones all at the same time, with the frequent scampering of territorial defense. One goes off around the back of the porch, another through the garden under the maple toward the neighbors behind me, a third one high-tailing it around the garage to the front of the house.

The squirrels do not come around when I sit outside. They are an unwelcome but unavoidable part of the garden, probably devouring more of the bird seed than the birds. They always seem to come up from the neighbors behind me, though I know there’s a nest in my other neighbor’s big oak on the east side (what my parents always called “the lower end,” where the hill recedes and the basement opens out, making the house looks like a two-storey). I see them less on the front yard: there, it’s too open and accessible to the passing hawk. Back in the spring, I saw a red-tailed hawk down on the grass being attacked by a squad of crows. Not sure if the hawk was wounded or maybe had gotten a baby crow, I ran out to scare it off: it flew off with the tail of a gray squirrel dangling limply from its talons.

The squirrels, of course, are a big draw for the cats inside, sitting on the backs of chairs, on the drum table or the old victrola, watching them for hours. Sometimes, the squirrels come up and peer in the windows, reminding me of the accusation once leveled at the Americans by Iran, that the CIA was training squirrels to be spies, then dropping them off undercover in Iran to blend into the landscape, not realizing squirrels were not native to that part of the world. Are these squirrels, then, trained by al-Qaida? When I see one digging in my lawn to plant a large black walnut – wherever that tree is located, they manage to come to my place to store them for the winter – I do a double-take, feeling I need to make sure it’s not a yard-side bomb that could injure the Lawn Guys when they come to mow.

Friends of mine are at war with the squirrels, whether it’s putting out poison or trapping and transporting them to more remote woods, as if their absence wouldn’t quickly be filled in by other squirrels in the neighborhood. Someone once told me there was a kind of squirrel contraceptive you could put out that would “render” them infertile. Fine, I thought, but I drew the line at having to put the little condoms on them. True, I don’t plant bulbs for spring flowers because I figure it’s too expensive to feed the squirrels that way – the birdseed is bad enough – but I’ve decided to give into them and just co-exist for now. I rather doubt what happens in my living room is of much interest to the Iranians, anyway.

The groundhogs, however, are another matter. They had taken up residence at this address probably before my parents built the house 50 years ago. Shortly afterward, there was a large hole dug alongside the back basement wall, hidden behind shrubs that have long since died. A few years later, we discovered a larger one on the opposite side of the house, out front near the Lower End, hidden behind a large arbor-vitae. We were convinced the two were connected and that they had now succeeded in building a vast warren of dens underneath the house that some day, the whole lower end of the house would just – phoom! – drop deeper into the earth a foot or two.

We would shovel the mound of dirt back into the holes but within a couple hours, the groundhog would have completely cleared the opening (who needs a back-hoe with paws like that?). My mother had caught one in a trap and transported it to the fields about a mile down the back road to town, but a neighbor was convinced the groundhog had managed to run back faster than my mother could drive. The next day, there it was, sitting on the back porch, calmly eating one of the neighbor’s tomatoes.

The guys who’d dug the wells for my geothermal installation this summer told me to toss an onion into the hole: groundhogs hate the smell of onions and would vacate the premises. So I did that (feeling like Bruce Willis yelling “fire in the hole!”) and a few days later, found the onion tossed out on the dirt about two feet from the opening.

Then I got an idea: I tried it first on the readily accessible one out back, dumping into both the main hole and its emergency exit about five pans of well-used cat litter, then covering them with a few shovelfuls of dirt. After a couple of undisturbed weeks, I figured perhaps this could be the answer, so I crawled behind the arbor-vitae out front and did the same thing there. I do not want to feel smug about this, should I have won this round, because I’m sure he’s planning his revenge, whether it’s reclaiming his old homestead (which has been in his family for how many generations, after all) or excavating newer and possibly larger digs in a less welcome spot, not that I am likely to run out of well-used cat litter. Three days later, there has still been no sign of the rodent but it can only be a matter of time. Having grown up on Bugs Bunny cartoons, I am well aware you don’t mess around with Nature.

And with the cooler weather, I have now turned on my heat to see how well the new geothermal system is working. I know the biggest test for the air-conditioning will come next summer after I’m able to compare those electric bills with this past summer’s. Though August’s bill contained the last three days of old-fashioned air-conditioning which I was running heavily during a 90-degree heat wave (if they were going to tear out the old system and I could be without a/c for a few days, I wanted to build up a well of cooler air in the house, as if that would help, and so it was running almost constantly, probably the heaviest use all summer), but it was also the first summer electric bill in years under $100 – in the past two years, they might range from $120-150 depending on the a/c use, and that was to keep it around 78-80°. I’ll have to go back through my mother’s files, though, to find out exactly (she kept everything: I could tell you how much she paid for fuel oil in 1960, the first winter we lived in the house – it’s all in this one box).

I already know how my fuel bills will compare to last winter’s, not including the $300 for the annual service check-ups and much-needed maintenance policies (especially for a furnace pushing 50), when I spent over $3,300 on oil. It was tough writing those checks for $16,000 once the geothermal project was complete, but in two or three years, it will have paid for itself, including what it would have cost to replace the existing fossil-burning system. In August, I could run the new air-conditioning to keep the house at 72-74° and the electric meter barely budged. So far, the heat has worked equally well, once I figured out the computorial complications of the thermostat which, eventually, I’ll keep at 68°. Of course, now they’re talking about removing the “rate-caps” on electricity – I guess it’s their turn, now: the oil companies have been raking in the profits as gas prices soar and there are struggling CEOs out there who see themselves losing out on the market – so now they say our electric bills may increase 40-43%. I’ll jump off that bridge when we get to it. Who knows what a barrel of oil will cost by then, anyway?

Despite the dire news, the depressing political campaign and its implications for the future, the on-going wars and the fact that seven years later Osama bin Laden is still at large, despite the fact I have no income at the moment (or certainly not enough so far to pay even one month’s health care coverage) and the composition I’m working on is going far too slowly, I sat on this garden bench in my back yard, enjoying the late-afternoon sun of a beautiful Autumn day, watching the birds and the chipmunks, almost oblivious of the dull, ever-present roar of the highway a quarter-of-a-mile away, and feel oddly contented with my life at this point and don’t really know why. True, I’m easily the happiest I’ve been in years and though not exactly healthy, healthier than I’ve felt in a couple of years as well, or less mindful of it.

One afternoon, I was reading about Brahms toward the end of his career, fearful his 4th Symphony could be a disaster because it was too intellectual for even his most intellectual friends, but yet not changing it, much less destroying it as he did two subsequent attempts at writing another symphony. Over the years, I have heard Elliott Carter doggedly following his own integrities in spite of critical reactions or his lack of popular acclaim, writing only to satisfy himself and hoping that, among the small elite audience interested in classical music there are, in the even smaller elite audience interested in contemporary classical music, enough listeners who would find a comfort level with his music to make it worth his while to bother picking up a pencil and putting notes down on paper, the daily struggle of any composer (or artist) worth the brain-cells it takes to be creative.

When I first began to understand that this subjective world of Art – especially music, particularly composing and performing it – was the application of something logical to achieve an illogical response, I never thought I would so easily accept such a balance in my own life. And yet, there it is. For now.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Times of Their Lives: Concertante with Mozart, Britten & Brahms

Concertante opened their new season with a concert at the Rose Lehrman Center at the Harrisburg Area Community College Wildwood Campus Saturday night. The program opened with the Oboe Quartet by Mozart, then followed with another staple of the oboist’s repertoire but not one that well known, the Phantasy Quartet by Benjamin Britten. After intermission, we heard a rousing rendition of Brahms’ 2nd String Quintet, the G Major Op. 111.

Opening concerts are a bit like a home-coming, if not for the musicians playing them, then for the musicians and the audience gathering together for a whole new season. An oboist from Israel, Dudu Carmel, was to join them for the Mozart and Britten but unfortunately it was discovered too late he had not applied in time for his visa and so he was unable to join them. I’m not sure if “scrambling” was the word, but when you’re trying to find a “sub” a couple of weeks before the concert, hoping you don’t have to change the repertoire – fortunately the Mozart and the Britten are likely to be in any free-lance oboist’s play-book – it doesn’t make life easier getting things organized for the very first concert.

Fortunately, they found Robert Ingliss. In addition to playing with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and being the Acting Principal Oboist for the New Jersey Symphony, he also plays in the New York-based ensemble An die Musik (where I’d first heard Gerard Reuter back in the ‘70s and have more recently heard him with the Fry Street Quartet at Market Square Concerts’ Summermusics (in fact, at one of those concerts, playing the Britten Phantasy Quartet). He teaches at Columbia University among other universities in New York City and vicinity. He recently gave the world premiere of a new work by Charles Wuorinen at Carnegie Hall and has also premiered works by Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt and a French composer whose Violin Concerto I’ve found fascinating, Michel Dalbavie.

Two examples of the expression attributed to Henry James, “There are not enough people to go around in the world” –

(1) Ingliss is also a member of the Cygnus Ensemble which has a Harrisburg connection in its guitarist, William Anderson, whose parents, Dotty & Bill, are very active in the local arts scene.

(2) Ingliss attended the University of Connecticut, his last year at UConn being my first year there as a teacher of theory and composition (I mean, how many oboists in the country could be named Robert Ingliss, right? I had to ask...).

The Mozart Oboe Quartet – always too short – is always a delight to hear. The outer movements are some of Mozart’s most joyful, classical decorum (that powdered-wig stereotype we often associate with 18th Century music) held in abeyance for fifteen minutes you wish you could hang on to forever. The slow movement’s sorrowful aria gives way to what would, in the next generation, become emotional Romanticism. It’s the last movement that stays with me the longest, though, despite its brevity. This is music without a care in the world and it was clear the players were having a fun time playing it.

The quartet is really a mini-concerto for the oboist and it was great to hear Ingliss navigate its long lyrical lines as well as its more virtuosic flourishes. Only at the end of the slow movement was there a slight shadow: would his reed hold out for that last long sustained high note? Fortunately, yes.

Though the Britten is darker and the Mozart just sounds like a good concert opener, I’m not sure it would be better to have a chance to “warm up” on the Britten or get the hard work of the Mozart out of the way. Toss up.

Britten’s “Phantasy Quartet” is more of an integrated ensemble for the four players. For a while, I was trying to remember if the oboist plays at all in the more lyrical middle section. Where the string trio was primarily an accompanist in the Mozart, Britten uses his instruments independently and gave each player separate lines and often independent layers which everybody handled to make a convincing whole of the piece.

It’s hard to believe that Brahms considered himself “written out” when he composed this glorious romp of a quintet at what he thought would be the end of his career. The biggest challenge, once you’ve got all those notes down, is to maintain the volume level he requires: it’s a very loud piece! And just as you think it can’t get any louder or faster, he turns the dial up another notch. Clara Schumann called the ending “magnificent confusion” but there was no confusion in Concertante’s handling of the entire piece, from the wall of sound the cellist has to cut through at the opening, to the melting adagio, to the autumnal intermezzo before the mad dash of the gypsy band in the finale.

The opening is a famous example of stubborn composer versus practical musician: violinist Joseph Joachim told Brahms it would take three cellists to be heard against the other players all sawing away on these sixteenth notes that look clearly like they should be “behind” the theme, not covering it. But Brahms stuck to his guns and joked that he would leave it to the performers to work out. Everyone is marked to play at the same dynamic level – forte – though it struck me (literally as well as figuratively) more like fortissimo which leaves not much room to expand by the time they reach the fortissimo at the very end. Perhaps it’s a trick of the acoustic in the hall, what might sound okay to the players on the stage coming across louder to the audience. Perhaps they should’ve cut back a tad on the opening and not have to work so hard for the first 25 measures, that’s one thing, but if Brahms was honest about his inspiration for the piece – a friend said it reminded him of a night at the Prater, Vienna’s famous amusement park and Brahms told him he’d guessed right – maybe his intent was trying to depict overhearing someone talking in the hubbub of a crowd out on the town?

As for the title of this post, whether the members of Concertante had “the times of their lives” or not, I can’t say – they certainly had a good time – but for this program, my pre-concert talk – attended by about 20 people which I thought was pretty good, considering we didn’t have a lot of publicity about the talk beforehand – was entitled from the viewpoint of the composers, “The Times of Their Lives.”

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Britten had been playing the piano since the time he could walk and improvising almost immediately, trying to write things down before he even learned the rudiments of notation, becoming more sophisticated by the time he was 9. He often played the piano to his mother's singing and attended rehearsals of the choirs she sang in – she had a fine mezzo voice that one friend of the composer’s later described as being surprisingly close to the tone color of tenor Peter Pears’ voice (Pears would later become Britten’s life-partner). He also studied viola with a family friend who played in a string quartet in a nearby town.

At 11, he heard his first live orchestra concert which included “The Sea” by Frank Bridge which, in Britten’s own words, “knocked me sideways.” In the year before he turned 14 and started studying with Bridge, the boy composed two overtures, five Poemes, the Suite fantastique for piano and orchestra, a Symphony in D Minor for an orchestra that included eight horns (according to David Matthews’ 2003 biography, apparently Britten wrote 117 pages of full score in five weeks during school term plus two of the Poemes), and a large scale symphonic poem, Chaos and Cosmos!

A fan of the music of Beethoven and Brahms, much of which he could play from memory, he also discovered Ravel’s String Quartet. On his 16th Birthday, his parents gave him a score of Beethoven’s Fidelio and he referred to this as a “red-letter day in my life.” It was at that time, also, he discovered the music of Arnold Schoenberg, hearing a radio concert that included Pierrot Lunaire and shortly afterward he composed a piece for him and his friends to play that was atonal in several places. He went to London to be interviewed for the Royal College of Music a few months later, and the panel (which included the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams) thought it wasn’t ‘decent’ for a schoolboy to be writing such music. Still, they offered him a scholarship. He chose a score for Pierrot Lunaire as one of his prizes at school graduation and then wrote what Matthews calls the “ne plus ultra of his modernist pieces,” which Britten, leaving it untitled, referred to as a “not-too-nice piece for viola solo.”

During his first year at the Royal College of Music, Britten wrote a String Quartet in D Major (which he revised and published near the end of his life) – there had been several smaller quartets and quartet-movements before – and a Sinfonietta which would become his Opus 1. His Op. 2 was the “Phantasy Quartet” for Oboe and Strings which, at least in part, sounds more like the mature Britten, not that there weren’t recognizable fingerprints in many of these earlier works. Though his fondness for Beethoven was waning – Brahms, soon, became “solid & dull” – it seems Mozart was becoming more of an influence, at least in the sense of his linear clarity and sense of formal control. Britten tired of the “turbulent” music he had been writing, full of “gestures” and this shift of style was obvious in these recent works.

There was a fellow named William Wilson Cobbett who championed the idea of composers writing “Phantasies” – distinguished from the more traditional “Fantasies,” however one distinguished them in pronunciation – because he felt it harkened back to the glorious days of Elizabethan England and free-form works written then for what were called “consorts of viols.” Vaughan Williams had written one – either commissioned by or at least requested by Cobbett – in 1912. Britten wrote two Phantasies when he was 18, the first one a quintet for strings alone which won him the annual “Cobbett Prize,” one assumes for works with the word “Phantasy” in the title. Adding an oboe would not be “hoyle” according to Elizabethan standards as that would be called a “broken consort” (a mixed ensemble of strings and winds): it was performed at the school – badly, according to the composer, though he expected worse – but did not win a prize. It was also publically performed on a concert series founded by an all-women’s quartet and the composer Elizabeth Lutyens to showcase the latest English composers (rather than the staid “pastoralists” like Vaughan Williams).

Interestingly, I found reference to a 1975 publication by psychologist Melanie Klein which described Phantasy as a state-of-mind of an infant stemming “from genetic needs, drives and instincts. They appear in symbolic form in dreams, play and neuroses. They are constructed from internal and external reality, modified by feelings, and emotions, and then projected into both real and imaginary objects. Phantasies are the means by which infants make sense of the external world and hence relate to it through projection and introjection.” This is somehow different from the adult Fantasy which is more of a day-dream, an imagined un-reality in which we may try to imagine a future reality.

Usually in music, a “fantasy” means merely something that is free-formed and perhaps dreamy in nature (Mozart’s almost nightmarish Fantasy in C Minor, K.475) , or built on impressions of someone else’s music (as in a “Fantasy on Themes from Bizet’s Carmen”) more loosely than, say, a set of variations.

Britten’s Phantasy, regardless of its psychological or historical implications, is the first piece he wrote with a processional and recessional, figuratively if not literally. The opening section is a rather shadowy march that begins quietly with the cello, then adding the other parts in layers, each with different material. At the end, this process is reversed until the cello repeats its little march-like rhythm, alternating on two notes, each time shortened until it evaporates. This section sounds the most like “mature” Britten, full of ideas and sonorities that would become hallmarks heard in his most familiar works. He would use this processional / recessional in works like the Church Parables of the 1960s, the Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings (where the solo horn opens with a kind of fanfare that, at the end, is then played off-stage) and most famously in The Ceremony of Carols.

The middle part is something Britten did not return to, stylistically. It is more lyrical and harmonically more Beethoven-ish compared to the sparer March. Whatever his reasons were for not pursuing this style – just one of many a young composer might explore – I have no idea, but it struck me listening to this Saturday night (and I’ve heard the Phantasy live three times in the past two years or so, now) how much it reminded me of Michael Tippett, fellow British composer who, after Walton, would become regarded internationally as the major English composers of their generation. Tippett, I knew, grappled with Beethoven’s influence directly (as in his 3rd Symphony, quoting whole passages from Beethoven’s 9th) or indirectly (in all of his five string quartets) so it was interesting, the next day, to listen to Tippett’s 1st String Quartet (the earliest work of his I know) which he began about two years after Britten wrote this Phantasy: it’s not likely Britten could have influenced him because it’s unlikely Tippett would have heard much of his music. His recollections confused a concert in 1934 where he saw Britten for the first time when a work of his was on the program, with a concert a year later that was the premiere of his own 1st Quartet. Even though Tippett left the Royal College four years before Britten arrived but continued studying privately with one of its major teachers for the next few years, it’s more likely this aural similarity in styles stems from their admiration of Beethoven rather than an imitation of each other: these same fingerprints can be heard in music Britten wrote years earlier before their paths could have possibly crossed. Perhaps it was just something in the air at the time...

Anyway, the year after writing the Phantasy Quartet (when this photograph was taken), Britten won a travel scholarship from the RCM which he wanted to apply to going to Vienna so he could study with Alban Berg. It’s interesting that, having put Beethoven and Brahms behind him, he should find himself more attuned to the emotional music of Berg rather than the more intellectualized, classically-lined style of Schoenberg – he had heard Schoenberg conduct his Variations for Orchestra and found them lacking, mentioning in his diary that he’d met Schoenberg then but said nothing more about it, one way or another. He found Pierrot fascinating (perhaps it’s that dream-like state the work concocts, Phantasy or Fantasy) but “could not make head or tail of” the nightmarish world of Erwartung.

Now, serialism, still relatively new, was frowned upon in England where the attitude even to someone as “contemporary” as Mahler was extremely negative. (Keep in mind, England meant Elgar to the wider world: composers like Holst and Vaughan Williams were still very insular products – Richard Strauss, perhaps reacting to this lack of international acclaim for British composers, had referred to England as “the country without music”...) Britten’s hopes to study with the composer of Wozzeck foundered on the school’s concern that Berg would not be “a good influence.” His parents interpreted this not as musical influence but as a moral influence – after all, this is the man who wrote Wozzeck: what would they have thought of Lulu? – and so the plan was dropped.

Ironically, not long afterward, Britten and his mother, traveling on the Continent, went to Vienna which Britten loved, but unfortunately Berg was out of town then and they never met. Not much later, on Christmas Eve, 1935, Berg died unexpectedly at the age of 50 (from blood-poisoning following an insect-bite). Four months later, Britten went to a contemporary music festival in Spain to hear the premiere of Berg’s last completed work, his Violin Concerto, which he found to be “shattering.”

The possibilities in this influence – had Britten actually gone to Vienna to study with Berg – are just another of those great “What If?”s – how different would Britten’s style have become? What kind of works would he have written if he had not composed the ones he did, or how different would they have sounded?

A few years ago, I was at a “composers’ workshop” performance at Susquehanna University where a work of mine (as Class of ‘71) was being performed along with a work by a more recent graduate, David T. Little, a very fine composer. The students on the program were asking us questions like “When did you find your own voice?” I said, then in my mid-50s, I was still looking for it, having not composed for 16 years and facing my piece on the program written in 1979. David, then in his early-20s, said he hadn’t found what he thought might be his voice yet, either. We both agreed that it’s not something a young composer should be worried about: a student’s job is to write lots and lots of music, explore lots and lots of whatever catches his or her fancy (or perhaps “phancy”) and let the voice, consciously or unconsciously discarding these bits or absorbing those bits, eventually present itself over time.

That is what Britten was doing around the time he wrote his Op. 2 – some of it he kept, and some of it he rejected; influences came and went but he learned a little something from each of them and absorbed them into what we then recognize as Benjamin Britten.

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By the time Mozart wrote his Oboe Quartet, he was 25 and had been composing for about 19 years. While many of his earliest works would show the influence of his contemporaries (except for J.C. Bach, mostly unknown to us, today), he very early found a voice that not only defines Mozart for us today but the whole Classical Era (roughly 1750-1800). Mozart turned 25 in Munich where he’d been “on leave” from his post with the Archbishop of Salzburg. His primary job in Munich was to compose and produce the opera Idomeneo which, however successful it became, was not enough to land him the court composer’s position he was hoping for.

Around that time, he wrote the oboe quartet for the orchestra’s principal oboist, Friedrich Ramm, but finding himself with no reason to stay longer in Munich, he was forced to obey the Archbishop’s summons to join his court in Vienna. He arrived in the Imperial capital on March 16th and immediately began complaining about what he could be doing there if it weren’t for his meager responsibilities with the Archbishop. Now, he couldn’t just quit because it was a more feudal set-up than that: he had to have the Archbishop’s written release – otherwise, if he just ‘ran away,’ the Archbishop could send the police after him: he quite literally “owned” Mozart as a servant. But the Archbishop saw no reason to release Mozart. Months of negotiations led to nothing until finally, apparently in exasperation, the Archbishop’s chamberlain (not the Archbishop himself) gave Mozart “the boot” – also quite literally, giving him a swift kick in the butt on his way out the door.

Mozart was now free and on his own: he would pursue a livelihood as a pianist and teacher - and composer, the first major free-lance musician in an age when most successful musicians were either employed or wanted to be employed by some aristocrat. A month later, he received the libretto for an opera to be written for the Emperor’s court, The Abduction from the Seraglio, the one the Emperor thought had “too many notes.”

(By the way, this whole concept of employment vs free-lancing is an interesting topic: Beethoven, in Vienna during the decades following Mozart’s death, was also a free-lancer but survived on considerable financial support from various aristocrats, not the least of which was the Emperor’s younger brother. The distinction was, he was not “in servitude” to them. Today, we might call this patronage “underwriting.”)

But who knew that Mozart would only have ten more years to live? If the Oboe Quartet is K.370 and the Requiem left unfinished at his death about 7 weeks before his 36th Birthday is K.626, that means he wrote about 255 more works after the Oboe Quartet, among them most of his piano concertos, his greatest operas, the best of his chamber music and the last six symphonies. If he had written another 255 works in the next ten years, what else might we be listening to today?

Speaking of “What if?”, Haydn, who was 24 years older than Mozart, had gone off to London when he was almost 60: the assumption was, as he felt, he could die in England and never see his friend Mozart again. Who would have expected Haydn would return to Vienna to find Mozart had died at the age of 35? If Mozart had even outlived Haydn by one more year, he would’ve been only 54, but would have heard Beethoven’s first six symphonies and all of his concertos.

If he had lived to be as old as Haydn, dying instead in his mid-70s five years after Beethoven died, what might Mozart’s reaction have been to hearing Beethoven’s Late Quartets or his 9th Symphony... or for that matter, Schubert’s C Major String Quintet (if it had been played in public then) or, perhaps, Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique which was composed in 1830? If Mozart died at the same age as Haydn, he would have died the same year Brahms was born.

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If Brahms had died before his 36th birthday, he would not have completed his 1st Symphony or written any of the string quartets. That means he would have died a year after the German Requiem and a year before the Liebeslieder Waltzes.

Blessed with a few more years than Mozart, Brahms wrote his 2nd String Quintet when he was 57, the age Beethoven had been when he died. Brahms, he figured, had his whole life behind him, it seemed. It had taken him some 20-25 years to finish a first symphony but only a year or two to write each of his next two. The 1st did not have an easy success, especially in pleasure loving Vienna (too dramatic, too intellectual). When the 2nd Symphony, a more immediate success in Vienna, was first performed in Leipzig, it was criticized for being too “pretty” which might have been okay for Vienna, the critics wrote, but the good Germans of Leipzig preferred something with a little more to chew on than just pleasant tunes.

While his 3rd Symphony had been well received everywhere, he knew the new symphony he’d finished when he was 52 was going to be a challenge, maybe even a disaster. It was even too cerebral for his intellectual friends, the Herzogenbergs. Having passed 50, Brahms was now concerned perhaps he was “written out.” The reaction to his 4th Symphony was cool at best, even cooler for his next orchestral work, the Double Concerto (which, incidentally, the Harrisburg Symphony will play on its first concert of the new season, October 4th & 5th, with Kurt Nikkanen and Daniel Gaisford). So it was with some trepidation he began his summer holiday in 1890: he decided that perhaps this would be his last work – he would retire from composing.

He had found it difficult to get anything started in those years after the Double Concerto. Jan Swafford, in his biography of Brahms, says that Brahms had sketched TWO symphonies, one of which was apparently advanced enough to be played as a piano duet for his friends – the standard Brahmsian try-out. TWO symphonies – imagine what it might be like to have SIX symphonies, not four, by Johannes Brahms? But he was a very strict composer who never let anything go he wasn’t sure of: he said one of the most important things a composer could own was a wastebasket.

Brahms was a summer composer and he preferred to write in vacation spots away from the distractions of Vienna. In 1890, at Bad Ischl, he “tormented” himself by trying to write chamber music and a symphony. He came back to Vienna with the G Major String Quintet, Op. 111. Before he left Ischl, he wrote to his publisher and said he had thrown reams of paper into the river – usually he consigned his sketches and rejected works to the flames – and mentioned this quintet would be the last work he would compose.

It’s difficult to listen to this music and think he felt himself “dried up.” When a friend thought the opening reminded him of the Prater, the great amusement park in Vienna and a favorite haunt of Brahms’, the composer replied “You guessed it! And the beautiful girls are there!”

It’s possible the opening cello theme (all but lost under all those sawing 16th notes in the violins and violas) was intended for the symphony that otherwise never took shape. How much of the other ideas were originally intended for the symphony, who would know, after Brahms destroyed all the sketches. But it’s still tantalizing to hear this joyous work and wonder what those two symphonies or the other pieces that never came to fruition might have been like?

Here is Brahms, looking back on his career - but fortunately, he met a clarinetist whose sound he found inspiring and so he came out of retirement the following year to write a trio, a quintet and eventually two sonatas for the clarinet. And, by the way, three more sets of piano pieces, some choruses, the Four Serious Songs and a set of chorale preludes for organ.

I’ll leave you with these images.

This famous photograph was taken the summer of 1894, the summer of those Clarinet Sonatas, with Brahms standing on a porch beside Johann Strauss Jr, the “Waltz King” (of whom Brahms was a big fan – in Strauss’ daughter’s autograph book, he wrote out the theme from “The Beautiful Blue Danube” and underneath it, “alas, not by Johannes Brahms”). Strauss is slim and elegant, his curly black hair and mustache very dashing beside the rumpled Brahms, short and overweight with his long gray hair and beard. Strauss was eight years older than Brahms.

But earlier that year, at his 61st birthday celebration, as Swafford describes it, he and his friends went to a restaurant at the Prater to hear the gypsy musicians play – many of his finales were inspired by the gypsy style, not just all the Hungarian Dances: most famously, there’s the G Minor Piano Quartet, the Violin Concerto and the Op. 111 Quintet. They in turn gave Brahms a rousing chorus of Hoch soll er leben (the German equivalent of Happy Birthday). Then after dinner, Brahms and his friends went off to the amusement park, ending before midnight “at the slide and the haunted house.”

Now there’s an image to ponder as you listen to the Quintet Op. 111 – not the autumnal Brahms we associate with his “late music,” but the Brahms who could wrap up his birthday party by going down a playground slide...