I’ll be in Milwaukee this coming weekend, speaking about Brahms for the Milwaukee Symphony, along with my old friend Tim Page. We’ll be doing preconcert talks at 10:30 AM on Friday, and at 7 PM on Saturday. That’s right, 10:30 AM; the concert’s at 11:15.. Tim and I will also be on Wisconsin Public Radio at 9 AM on Friday.
And so now you know why I’ve been blogging recently about Brahms. Just doing my normal overpreparation, which in this case has been a joy, partly because Jan Swafford’s Brahms biography is one of the most deeply satisfying books on music that I’ve ever read, and partly because I’m overdue to get to know Brahms — really know him, the way I know Verdi, Mozart, Beethoven, Webern, Schoenberg, Stravinsky. I’ve never liked him all that much in the past (old-timers might remember something I wrote about why I didn’t like him, for Keynote magazine back in the ’80s). Lately I’ve mellowed, and now, with Swafford’s help, I think I’m starting to understand the guy. Also with help from Furtwangler, whose Brahms symphony performances speak maybe not in Brahms’s voice (there’s too much Wagner in them), but in a voice that translates Brahms. Brahms’s own voice, as Swafford points out, more or less retreats behind the music, behind all the motivic relationships, the counterpoint, the form. Which, then, is exactly where you have to look for it. One magic moment for me was when I began to hear Brahms singing in all the statements of one of the basic motifs in the first movement of the second symphony — the little dance of D C sharp and D that starts the music off in the cellos and basses, and comes back in endless disguises later on. I used to think things like that got fussy; now I can all but see the eager true Brahms, hiding behind all kinds of crustiness, peeping out through them. Another magic moment was when I heard one of the second symphony themes (the closing theme of the exposition of the first movement) as an inversion of things heard earlier — literally heard it as an inversion, not understood it as one, or analyzed it as one.
Along with this came — especially with Furtwangler’s help — a new appreciation of things in Brahms that used to strike me as uneasy banging. (The third movement of the fourth symphony, for instance.) Furtwangler has a fabulous way of handling those moments. He takes them right over the top, filling them with the kind of wild excitement I can imagine Brahms, too, must have felt, behind his beard. Listen especially to what Furtwangler does with the last movement of the second symphony. I have no idea if Brahms would have approved his heightened rushing of the tempo whenever things get excited. Brahms, when he was young, played his piano music with great freedom, and late in life told Clara Schumann that one of his piano intermezzi had to be played with all kinds of tempo changes not written in the score. And, as a conductor, there was one part of the first symphony that Brahms used to rush. (All this is in Swafford.) But Brahms wasn’t too crazy about other freedoms that Hans von Bulow used to take when he conducted, so the historical evidence, as least from what I know now, isn’t very conclusive. (If anyone knows more about this, please tell me!)
Enough for now. I could gush about Brahms for a long time. My difficulties with him, I think, ultimately come from his odd historical position as the most classical of all classical composers. Before his time, roughly speaking, the very concept of classical music didn’t exist, and people didn’t play the music of the past. By the time he died (1897), the classical music world as we know it was pretty well established. I blogged earlier about how he saw his name enshrined above the proscenium of a new concert hall, along with Bach’s and Beethoven’s. The notion of the “three B’s” (coined by von Bulow) existed, in other words, in Brahms’s own lifetime. So he was the only composer who functioned during his lifetime as part of the classical canon! Wagner, his greatest contemporary, couldn’t do that; he was too radical. But Brahms, the proud classicist, easily could. Or not so easily — he was sometimes hurt by the growing concentration on music of the past, which made music of the present less welcome. He himself, when he conducted a major chorus in Vienna, didn’t do much new music. His canonical position made him, I think, the most thorough embodiment of classical music who ever lived — which brings with it, I think, a certain self-conscious stiffness.
But, as I said, enough. If any of my readers happens to be at these Milwuakee events, please come up and say hello. I’d be more than happy to meet you.