Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is shown by Jan Swafford at the opening of his wonderful biography of 1997 to be weeping at the premiere of his fourth symphony as he imagines his death approaching and his music going out of favour, doomed to forgotten-ness for the rest of time.
Now you’ve heard the fourth, right? It’s kind of grouse. It hasn’t lost its audience. It’s frequently played, and very widely loved. I wrote about it when I heard Yuja Wang, and had some thoughts about Brahms’s relationship with Richard Wagner. Furthermore its first movement does the thing that I’m about to talk about, although I’ll be referring to some of the late piano music.
Brahms’s music is very dear to me, partly because I’ve played some of it, but partly also because I’ve admired it as a listener in concert and at the gramophone. I read Schoenberg’s essay ‘Brahms the progressive’ a great many years ago and grudgingly gave Arnie some merit although for a lot of the rest of that book (Style and Idea) he was being a whining bore about his own monumental contribution to musical history. I mean please. ‘How one becomes lonely’. Give me a break. ‘Someone had to do it, so I guess it had to be me.’ You, or Herr Webern, or – well, history went in all kinds of directions in the twentieth century, and it has to be said that a lot of the music that you yourself inspired is forgotten for a very good reason.
Anyway, Brahms. We all know that Beethoven was the man as far as Brahms was concerned, and anyone will tell you how long it took Johannes to pen his first symphony (referred to here and there as ‘Beethoven’s tenth’) because of the staggering example set by his predecessor. Orchestrationally most of his leaves were taken from Ludwig’s book, but that’s no problem; everyone needs a model. And anyway I think all his four symphonies demonstrate a dynamic personality in search of its own thing, and each one does it in its own way. How is the opening of the third, with its now major, now minor, now what the fuck gestures? I love Nielsen’s first for its obscuring of tonal centre even while it is clearly triadic; Brahms is on about similar things. Beethoven’s first led you up the garden path before revealing what key it was in; Brahms’s first with the opening secondary dominant on the tonic is exciting and enthralling in a similar kind of way.
But this isn’t about all that. What I want to write about is some of the late piano pieces and their representation in recently experienced life. I just spent three fantabulous weeks in France with my beloved family, and can’t speak highly enough of the sensational experience that we were able to enjoy. Sall planned the whole caper spectacularly well, and we moved from big city Paris through Lyon and Avignon to a beautiful house half an hour from Tours, in a small town called Dierre. To wind up in the country was the most marvellous conclusion to a busy and varied and generously rewarding time visiting galleries, churches, châteaux, monuments, the lot. And eating and drinking like heroes.
Brahms’s late piano pieces are, as you probably know, collected into a handful of opus numbers with titles like ‘Intermezzi’ or ‘Fantasien’ or ‘Klavierstücke’. The individual compositions are all pretty brief, and delicate, and incredibly creative; a great master is working towards the end of his life with all the resources he has amassed in the living of it. Brahms referred to these late pieces as ‘the cradle songs of my sorrow’, which is kind of sad since so many of them are so damn’ beautiful – I mean what about op. 116 no. 6? Or op. 117 no. 3?
Okay, bad examples. But they are beautiful, are they not?
What’s amazing about these pieces to me is the manner in which Brahms makes the ternary form speak for so much more than it need be. The B sections contrast so magnificently with the As (I mean how about the transition from G minor to bloody B major in op 118 no. 3? – what a bastard managing to make that sound so effortless. [Actually now, listening to that, I do hear the sorrow. But we’ll move on]) and the feeling of having reached a different land as you move into the new material is relieving, consoling, and (let’s be frank) just plain interesting. The invertible counterpoint in the B section of op. 118 no. 2 (which is, since Parting glances (dir. Bill Sherwood, 1986), one of my very favourites) with its two-against-three pulsing is so damn’ creative – the guy never rests, dammit.
But the biggest thing for me personally is the change wrought in the A section material as he recapitulates. Almost every piece is an example, but here is op. 119 no. 3 where the change is particularly dramatic, perhaps because it’s such a short piece, but also perhaps because Brahms has so many ideas. I mentioned it already but op. 117 no. 3 (see what I did there?) is another favourite example of mine for the way the secondary dominant is used at the outset of the recapitulation, so as to keep you guessing, even though things are totally underway for a recap. The re-presentation of the A section is differentiated; it announces itself with new meaning based on what has been experienced in the meantime.
Which brings me back to life, as it were. Going to France for three weeks was a blessing, an enormous gift, and I thank Sall for her extraordinary generosity (even though I know she’d say right now, ‘it was as much for me as it was for you!’ – downplaying her lavish open-handedness is something she does). To journey from Paris to Lyon to Avignon and then to Dierre was an experience that I am certain I shall never forget. Our family has been abroad a few times now, to different places, and we’re fortunate enough to be able to introduce our children to a few different things in the hope they’ll perceive the world as varied and interesting and worthy of investigation. That they’ll preserve some experience from elsewhere to inform that which they gain here.
Let’s say travelling to far-off lands is your kind of B-section. Is that fair? I mean, do we prioritise the A because it appears both at the beginning and the end, or perhaps because it opened proceedings? I’m not sure. But if it comes twice, and the B only appears once, then the B is surely the less usual thing, right? The exception. The other. I’m going to let France be my B major to life’s G minor. Its invertible counterpoint to the former’s pretty melody in 3. Its Più Adagio in the minor to the Andante moderato in the major* that kicked things off.
So when you come back and things go back to normal, the kids go to school, you start practising the piano again, Sall goes back to work, the thing is that you have the memory of this transcendental experience that travel gave you. Things are actually a little bit different. You’ve seen something else. You worked at a slightly different rhythm, and paid attention to stuff that both deserved it and that you mightn’t have had time for before. And so what you see here is ever so slightly altered. Let your recapitulation bear the marks of your experience. Live with, value, celebrate that amazing difference.
*Op. 117 no. 1. My goodness. BTW this is the very best performance I have ever heard of this piece. And I’ve heard a few. It totally wrecks me.