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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Johannes Brahms: Progressive or Subversive?

In a letter dated May 1893, composed in the final years before their death, Brahms wrote the following to Clara Wieck-Schumann:
I am tempted to copy out a small piano piece for you, because I would like to know how you agree with it. It is teeming with dissonances! These may [well] be correct and [can] be explained—but maybe they won’t please your palate, and now I wished, they would be less correct, but more appetizing and agreeable to your taste. The little piece is exceptionally melancholic and ‘to be played very slowly’ is not an understatement. Every bar and every note must sound like a ritard[ando], as if one wanted to suck melancholy out of each and every one, lustily and with pleasure out of these very dissonances! Good Lord, this description will [surely] awaken your desire!
Berthold Litzmann, Clara Schumann: Ein Künstlerleben nach Tagebüchern und Briefen, 3 vols. (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1909), vol.III, pp.570-571.

He was discussing the first piece of his new 4 Klavierstücke, Op.119, which was to set the tone for a century of radical musical invention that was about to ensue with a vengeance. Listeners, musicians, composers, and musicologists have been fascinated with the inner-workings of this brief and very private work, generically titled by the composer Intermezzo in B minor.

Arnold Schoenberg was deeply influenced by the intricate system of organic motivic development practiced by Brahms, and in 1947 wrote a lengthy and thoughtful article titled Brahms the Progressive that demonstrates a linkage between his ideas and those of his musical mentor and direct predecessor (Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg). Fascination with the radical nature of late-Brahms continues to our present time, and pianist/musicologist Charles Rosen elaborated on this thread in an article titled Brahms the Subversive.

Progressive or subversive, the two published pages of Op. 119 Number 1 Intermezzo explore areas of music that provide a veritable field day of never-ending musical intrigue, analytic fascination, and theoretical speculation. Brahms' short piece has kept music analysts and academic book publishers gainfully employed with an abundance of never-ending scholarly articles. Formative theoretical studies about this piece have been written by Cadwallader, Clements, Jordan, Kafalenos, Newbould, and the great Heinrich Schenker himself. Perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of this piece is by the British music theorist Jonathan Dunsby, who in 1981 published Structural Ambiguity in Brahms: Analytical Approaches to Four Works. His chapter 5 is entirely dedicated to the Op. 119 number 1. (Before you rush out to the local bookstore, this book is currently out of print, however a used copy is available on Amazon for $175.24). I had met Professor Dunsby at a "Music Analysis Conference" at Kings College London, England in 1984, and enjoyed his astute observations - not only about Brahms, but how Brahms influenced Schoenberg. Dunsby is at present a visiting professor at SUNY Buffalo:
Much of what I know about this particular piece stems from a graduate seminar in music analysis that I took with Martin Boykan at Brandeis over a quarter of a century ago. My score of the Op. 119 number 1 is blackened with coffee-stains and copious penciled-in annotations that I jotted down in varying levels of comprehensibility while listening to his insightful analysis and hands-on performance. My pages of music still carry the aroma of second-hand cigarette smoke generated by a classroom of chain-smoking graduate students.
A late copy of the manuscript for Op. 119 is owned by the Juilliard School of Music in NY, and I remember seeing it displayed in a glass case near the circulation checkout desk. It has annotations and corrections written-in by Brahms prior to publication.
Let's take a glance at the musical score...
Already in the opening two measures we get a sense about the harmonically ambivalent world that Brahms has created. Of this, Walter Frisch wrote that the B minor triad "is embedded in a chord that looks, but cannot be said to function, like an E minor ninth." Taken out of context, this opening could be heard as a piece by Debussy! Yet there is an organic and traditional justification for all of the musical events. It's been compared to a fundamental chaconne structure, where a progression of a cycle of descending fifths can be clearly heard leading into the fourth measure.
Schenker published a "chart" of this work in Der freie Satz, and graphed the deep structure of the music as progressing from a low B - supported harmonically by I in b minor (in measure 9) - down to an F# grounding a dominant harmony (mm 14-16). But clearly the F# that begins the piece is the beginning of what we can hear linearly as the "5-line" of the work.
But I like Schoenberg's spin on Brahms, who thought that he had hit upon "an unrestricted musical language" that was latent with enigmatic ambiguity. Schoenberg was keenly aware of the refined elegance in Brahms, and appreciated his mastery over the intricate interplay of musical dimensions (harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, thematic, etc). He always referred back to Brahms as a timeless model of inspiration and a wellspring of intellectual thought.
And then we have Brahms' own words in his letter to Clara, explaining that the performer should "suck melancholy out" of every note. It's a hyper-romantic ideal, and the obsessive preoccupation with minute detail that in some ways foreshadows the microscopic sound world of Anton Webern. Brahms desires a ritard on every measure or note, and is striving for an Adagio that warps our perception of time or takes us to a distant planet.
The Intermezzo Op. 119 number 1 is not a trivial piece. Performing it, while not difficult technically, is something that only a pianist with a depth and breadth of musical knowledge should undertake. I've often said that no musician under the age of 40 should attempt to perform Brahms, since it is music that assumes a life-time of experience.
I found the following performance of Op. 119, number 1 on YouTube that I really like. The pianist, Frank Lévy, feels every note of the piece as an extension of his body. Watching him perform, you can see and hear the gestures that Brahms wrote into the music come to life. He skillfully executes every detail and nuance in the piece, while intuitively feeling the elastic ebb and flow of the musical tide and harmonic-rhythmic continuum. His phrasing is precise, and he is careful to avoid the feeling of bar lines where the music is suspended in time.
Once we get beyond the complex theoretical analysis of the notes on the printed page, the work becomes a sonic - and often physical - spiritual journey that communicates something that is unique to the musical experience. Lévy's performance of Brahms is transcendental. He's acquired the musical skill, insight, and intellectual maturity to render this piece whole - as if he were channeling the composer playing at the piano himself.

It's no wonder that after more than a century, the piano music of Brahms' late period continues to fascinate and enthral us. It's incredible music, and rich food for our soul.

(Frank Levy has released a CD of Brahms that is available on Amazon...)