Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Aimez-vous Brahms?

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, January 27, 2009

MOZART'S BIRTHDAY! And here I sit thinking about Brahms, because a friend asks me what it is about Brahms I don't like.

Well, not that it matters: it's, I think, his need to be Mozart after Beethoven, or his desire, which may be the same thing, somehow to mediate the two. Impossible, of course, since Mozart and Beethoven are antithetical.

There are Brahms pieces I genuinely like: meaning, pieces that give me great pleasure to hear. The two Serenades, certainly. The Variations on a Theme by Haydn, if not heard too often. The Liebeslieder Waltzes. The clarinet sonatas.

The Second Symphony, though here I am never sure whether it's truly Brahms that pleases me so much, or the fond memories of hearing Bruno Walter's recording of the Second so many times while courting.

Brahms seems to me an oddly uneasy commutation among Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann. I smell the cigar in his heavier work, and the cigar is rarely lit. Don't even talk about his German Requiem.

It doesn't help that he's so often so badly played. String quartets tear into his music as if he'd written it for wire strings: cf. the Cleveland Quartet. Pianists smash away at his keyboard music, which is so often gentle and innig.

Conductors know that He. Is. Very. Important. and beat that into everyone nearby, beginning with the concertmaster. Only once have I really heard a satisfying orchestral interpretation live: when Niklaus Wyss accompanied I don't recall what violinist in the Violin Concerto, and led the [San Francisco Symphony] orchestra throughout in a gentle, conversational performance that let you see poor Brahms never really wanted to be Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I don't think the Mozart-after-Beethoven problem can ever be resolved, though perhaps it was most successfully evaded in the two Brahms pieces he didn't live to compose: Richard Strauss's Oboe Concerto and Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon with string orchestra. Perhaps it's only in the final years that one learns to finesse such things.


Tom McNamee said...

Gosh. You so smart! Now I'm going to have to do some homework.

Curtis Faville said...

I think it's an oversimplification to say that Brahms is trying to mediate between historical antecedents.

His German-ness, the murmuring melancholy, punctuated by the occasional bombastic stomping, is rather unlike either Mozart or Beethoven. I think linking early Beethoven to late Mozart is useful--there are actually times when I think really Beethoven is almost entirely Mozartian. I never have that feeling with Brahms.

As an amateur keyboardist, I enjoy what of Brahms I can navigate, his huge stretches, the complex inner fingering of chord-work, but the modulations of tempo and lyric are very deft, almost like Debussy (without the rubato and flutteriness).

I think of Brahms as the man of sadness, mournful, nostalgic, the irredeemable innocence. Yet I don't hear the despair or cogitation I do in 20th Century composers. It seems mostly about love, love of women, love of the (German) race, German culture--

Phil Whalen has a poem where he mentions Brahms "with bits of whipped cream on his beard"--an apt image, I think. That sweetness on those grizzled grey whiskers.

Brahm is beer. Debussy is champagne. Beethoven is like a very Fine claret. Ravel is...well, hmmm.

Julius Katchen did some lovely recordings. Maybe you think them too emphatic, but Brahms must be played with strength. It can't be muddied, lest it dissolve in a haze of doublings.

Curtis Faville said...

Aimez-vous Brahms? is the title of Sagan's second or third novel. Third, I think.

What a wonderful 1st book Bonjour Tristesse was! And at only 19!!!

Charles Shere said...

I didn’t mean that Brahms himself was intentionally “trying to mediate…”, only intended to suggest that his music does, at least in my ears; can’t help but. I erred in conflating the composer with his music.

Brahms loved Mozart, of course, to the point of collecting his mss. One wonders what he really thought of that “colossus on whose shoulders”, etc., he perched to write his four symphonies. Of colossus’s musical production, I mean.

I agree with everything else Curtis writes; pointing out that I’m not terribly fond of whipped cream, either.

Wikipedia lists
Aimez-vous Brahms as Sagan’s fourth novel; I’ve read none of them, but was alluding to her title.

Beethoven is not claret to me. Maybe Mozart is, though he’s more likely a fine old Burgundy. But Brahms
is, certainly, beer.

But the game I like is: Schumann is ardor. Mendelssohn is allegria. Schubert is profundity when not frill. Beethoven is ego. Mozart is cosmic and human. Bach is just. Satie is wise, like Cage. Webern is simple. Ravel is ingenious. Debussy is Parisian. Berlioz is French, but not Parisian.

And I'm not "so smart," Tom, I'm just an ex critic. Though my wife says, once a critic, always a critic.