Sunday, November 15, 2009

Brahms & Friends

There are two works by Brahms on the program with cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Robert Koenig, this Tuesday at 8pm at Whitaker Center as Market Square Concerts' season continues. (You can read more about the concert, here.)

Brahms wrote two cello sonatas, the first finished in 1865 and the second in 1886. The second one, Op. 99 in F Major – the same key as his 3rd Symphony which he'd written three years earlier – is usually considered the “brighter” of the two, compared to the E Minor Sonata, Op. 38, which is darker in sound, mostly because of its concentration in the cello's lower, darker register.

It must have been a very contented summer when he wrote the F Major Cello Sonata that concludes Zuill's recital. That same summer, Brahms also composed his 2nd and 3rd Violin Sonatas, plus the 3rd Piano Trio.

And while modern audiences regard the F Major Cello Sonata as “brighter” and cheerier, it didn't exactly meet with much success at the beginning.

Arnold Schoenberg wrote that the opening of the sonata – with its arching cello melody over strong tremolo chords in the piano, very similar to the opening of the F Major Symphony – was “indigestible” to the Viennese audience when he was a teen-ager. (Schoenberg, a budding cello-player himself, loved Brahms' music and much of his own early music – before Verklärte Nacht – shows Brahms' spell.)

Even one of Brahms' closest friends, Theodore Billroth, “confess[ed] the first movement was somewhat dubious to me... But you always know the right way to the purely musical.” He liked the 2nd Violin Sonata much better. Billroth had also had problems when Brahms played through his new 4th Symphony a couple of years earlier.

This 2nd Sonata was written for the cellist in Josef Joachim's string quartet, Robert Hausmann.

(This photograph taken with Brahms and cellist Robert Hausmann probably dates from the 1890s when Brahms was past 60. The woman behind the piano is Maria Fellinger: she and her husband were close friends of Brahms: it was something of a habit that the composer would eat Sunday dinner with them almost every week. The painting on the easel, by the way, is a portrait of Clara Schumann.)

Brahms often took to a musician's sound, not so much to the instrument. It was how the musician played the instrument and how the two components sounded together that was more important than what the instrument could do.

This was not unusual in Brahms' life. Hausmann would prove instrumental in the creation of another work which probably began life as a cello concerto. But while Brahms might have had reservations about pitting the cello against a modern symphony orchestra (keep in mind, there were few cello concertos in the repertoire then and most of those fairly light in texture: Dvořák's was finished eight years later), his reason for turning this into a concerto for both cello and violin may have had more to do with his old friend Joseph Joachim.

They'd been estranged for a few years (you can read about their life-long friendship, its ups-and-downs and more about how the Double Concerto came about in this post I wrote last year) and had he written a new concerto for someone in Joachim's quartet that wasn't Joachim, it might have been looked upon as one more slight to overcome.

After the first run-through of the concerto with the composer at the piano and playing it for Clara Schumann, Brahms remarked “Now I know what has been missing from my life these past few years: the sound of Joachim's violin.”

With that sound back in his ear, Brahms began sketching a new violin concerto, but the public reaction to both the 4th Symphony and now the Double Concerto stifled him and so he destroyed it, along with sketches for not one but TWO additional symphonies, even a second Double Concerto – all consigned to the flames because of his insecurities.

Clara Schumann didn't think the Double Concerto had much of a future. Even his good friend Billroth had called it “sterile.” Brahms, feeling terribly old-fashioned, was beginning to think perhaps he'd written himself out.

After he had decided to retire from composing at the age of 57, Brahms was coaxed back to writing again by the sound of another musician who had captured his imagination: clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld for whom he wrote a trio and a quintet, both in 1891, and a few years later, published two clarinet sonatas with him in mind. When the Clarinet Trio was first performed, Robert Hausmann was the cellist.

While Brahms wrote only two sonatas for the instrument, the cello often got a lot of his finest tunes: all you have to do is think of the third movement of his 2nd Piano Concerto or the opening of the slow movement of the C Minor Piano Quartet.

But Brahms did NOT write the other cello piece of his that's on Zuill Bailey's program, ending the first half of the concert – well, not as a cello piece. A much earlier work than the 2nd Cello Sonata, the Scherzo or “Sonatensatz” (literally, Sonata Movement) in C Minor was originally written for violin and piano but like the 3rd Violin Sonata also works well when transcribed for the cello and who's to argue against a persuasive performance?

When he introduced himself to Robert and Clara Schumann in late September, 1853, Brahms was just 20 years old. In October, the Schumanns' friend Josef Joachim, already a close friend of Brahms, came to town for a performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto and Schumann's own Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra. Robert was going to conduct.

The rehearsal had been a disaster, Schumann sometimes getting so engrossed in the music he stopped conducting. The concert was a fiasco (only later would they realize it would be the last time Schumann would conduct in public), but the next night there was a special party for Joachim in which he was given a new violin sonata written just for him by a committee of friends.

On Schumann’s suggestion, the thematic tie that binds the work together was a motive based on what Joachim called his “life motto” – Frei aber einsam, “Free but lonely” – turned into the musical pitches F, A and E. Consequently the work is known to history as “The F.A.E. Sonata.”

Among the guests at the party was Bettina von Arnim, who'd been a friend of both Goethe and Beethoven and who was the widow of the collector of the folk tales known as “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (the Youth's Magic Horn). She was there with her daughter Gisela von Arnim from whom Joachim was recently “free (but lonely).” In what must have been a rather awkward moment, Gisela, dressed in a peasant costume, presented Joachim with a gift basket of flowers in which they'd hidden the copy of the sonata. Sight-reading it with Clara at the piano, he was supposed to guess the identities of each movement's composer. He figured it out quite easily: Albert Dietrich, a close friend and associate of Schumann’s, wrote the first movement; Schumann himself, both the Intermezzo and the Finale; and Brahms, the Scherzo. Brahms' share of the piece was the only movement from this composite work that would survive in the repertoire.

- Dr. Dick

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photo-credit: Zuill Bailey's photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

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