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Hearing Brahms


I had the chance tonight to hear the Atlanta Symphony perform Johannes Brahms’ 1st Piano Concerto (op. 15), which was played by Peter Serkin.  Serkin’s combination of technical precision and a limited theatricality are well suited to the piece, which is nearly symphonic in the ambition of its reach, a fact that likely contributed to its early negative reception.

I have a tendency to think of Brahms mainly as a figure of the early nineteenth century, when in fact he was as much a figure of transition into the twentieth – as late as 1897 he was helping to boost Gustav Mahler’s career (in that year Brahms advocated for Mahler’s appointment as director of the Vienna Court Opera).  Such a tendency arises from the fact, I suppose, that Brahms’ lyrical compositions are more reminiscent of Beethoven than Berg or Bartok.  And as one of the last disciples of an austere Romanticism, which had its antecedents in the eighteenth century with composers like Clementi (1752-1832) and his pupil John Field (1782-1837), Brahms, along with Mendelssohn and Schubert, produced pieces that have always seemed to me to take full advantage of the piano:  the music is technically sophisticated without simply showing off, and it conveys real substantive depth without surface effects of the sort one hears in Gottschalk and others who seemed more interested in showmanship and display.  Part of the effect achieved by Brahms is a consequence of how he blended Romantic and classical compositional practices; a number of the commentators on his work call attention to how, for instance, his commitment to composing variations (such as his 1863 composition, Variations on a Theme of Paganini) signals an intellectual commitment to understanding the deeper architectures of musical form.  And if anything the tilt was in the direction of an underscored Romanticism; Brahms was able to write music comfortably recognizable as Romantic even as he was signing manifestoes criticizing the alternative Romanticism of Franz Liszt.

Brahms was only twenty five when he wrote the First Piano Concerto in D minor (1858), and it is a little hard to imagine from the much more common impression given by the photo above that Brahms was actually rather dashing when he arrived in Vienna and started to gravitate toward Robert and Clara Schumann, the city’s musical taste makers.  Robert became an early advocate and published his early positive impressions before his mental illness took a turn for the worse; in 1835 Schumann attempted suicide, which led in short order to his assignment to a mental asylum and too-early death.  Brahms, from all accounts, fell into love with Clara, and the archival record is clear that he meant for the second movement, an adagio, to be written for her.  But there is something a little unsettling about the second movement, as well, and critics ever since have struggled to connect the circumstances of the concerto’s production with Johannes’ dismay and grief at Robert’s decline.  The concerto is eerily urgent and some have commented that it anticipates chaos; some who have recorded it (such as Curzon) stretch the movement out to more than fifteen minutes long.

This situation, of course, only makes the concerto more interesting, since it provides a tough challenge to interpretive strategies that insist on preferring a reading that sees classical composition as inevitably reflecting the turbulent life experiences underway at the moment of first drafting.  Brahms has often been used in this way – some of the histories rely on now-questioned childhood stories depicting the young Johannes as raised in a family so impoverished that he was sent out as a piano prodigy to play in brothels and bars to make money so food could be put on the table, and see all this as explaining his later output.  As Styra Avins has noted:

Early biographical sketches and memoirs written during Brahms’ lifetime or shortly thereafter are free of such passages, but once they enter the literature, the scenes become more lurid during each telling, until the young Johannes has recently been envisaged as manhandled by sex-starved sailors while playing dance music at the docks of St. Pauli, the notorious Hamburg suburb on the banks of the Elbe.  That he and his brother were well educated at their parent’s expense and with great sacrifice to themselves, that his parents bought a piano and provided both boys with lessons on several other instruments as well – these facts are either absorbed into the framework of poverty, or ignored.

Regardless of the childhood accounts, the First is also clearly shaped by an apparent impulse to mimic Beethoven Third Piano Concerto.  And so where is the urge to model on other classical exemplars confounded by the imperative to produce a musical score that reflects personal trauma?

Today, of course, Johannes Brahms is a mainstay of the classical repertoire.  While Serkin was playing the First Piano Concerto in Atlanta, the New York Philharmonic was rehearsing to perform the Piano Quintet the following weekend at Avery Fisher Hall, and Menahem Pressler (formerly of the Beaux Arts Trio) was preparing to accompany Richard Stoltzman playing the Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F Minor at the Metropolitan Museum.  But as is so often the case, the first reception of his work was conflicted.  When the First Piano Concerto was premiered at Hanover, there was no indication of great audience enthusiasm.

And five days later, at a Leipzig performance where Brahms himself was soloist, the reaction was considerably more hostile.  The critic for the Signale said it was a “composition dragged to its grave… [F]or more than three quarters of an hour one must endure this rooting and rummaging, this straining and tugging, this tearing and patching of phrases and flourishes.”  [The theme recurs much later in life; responding to the epic German Requiem years later, George Bernard Shaw claimed that the piece “is patiently borne only by the corpse.”]  Brahms agreed that the First needed work and continued to revise it, especially given the unmistakable lack of audience enthusiasm (Brahms wrote a letter the next day that noted that “at the conclusion three pairs of hands were brought together very slowly, whereupon a perfectly distinct hissing from all sides forbade any such demonstration”).  The piece did not receive a considerably more favorable reaction for four more years.  Brahms lived to be 64, his death from cancer arguably hastened by the death just a year earlier of Clara Schumann, his close confidant.

SOURCES:  Ken Meltzer, Notes on Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 15 (1858), Encore, October 2008, pg. 29-32; Styra Avins, “The Young Brahms:  Biographical Data Reexamined,” 19th Century Music 24.3 (2001): 276-289;  Jan Swafford, “Did the Young Brahms Play Piano in Waterfront Bars?,” 19th Century Music 24.3 (2001): 268-275.

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