Thursday, July 21, 2011

Summermusic: Brahms & His Two Sextets - Part 1

You can hear both string sextets by Johannes Brahms this week with Market Square Concerts' Summermusic Festival 2011 with the Fry Street String Quartet joined by Market Square Concerts' new artistic director and violinist Peter Sirotin, playing the viola this time, and his colleague from the Mendelssohn Trio and principal cellist of the Harrisburg Symphony, Fiona Thompson. The B-flat Sextet concludes Sunday afternoon's concert, at 4:00 in the Climenhaga Arts Center of Messiah College in Grantham. The G Major Sextet, which you can read about in Part 2 of this post, concludes Tuesday evening's concert which begins at 6:00 at Market Square Church in Harrisburg. 

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In his day, no one would have accused Brahms of “boldly going where no man has gone before,” certainly not his colleagues Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. Both twenty years his senior, they initially tried recruiting Johannes Brahms for their project, “Music of the Future: The Next Generation.” Later, Brahms would become the leading conservative composer while Wagner and Liszt led the liberal faction espousing the 19th Century's avant-garde.

In this episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Data and Friends perform the slow movement from Brahms’ String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major at a special concert aboard the Enterprise.

Music considered so beautiful, it could even move a Vulcan to tears – well, one Vulcan to a tear…

In the 1850s, “Music of the Future” was a pejorative term leveled at both the liberal team of Wagner and Liszt as well as Robert Schumann who wasn’t really conservative as “less liberal.” Many lesser-known composers of this era – known as “Biedermeier” in Germany (you can read more about that, here, if you’re interested in some background) – were more conservative, rallying behind their most famous representative, Felix Mendelssohn who had died in 1847, and Ludwig Spohr who was one of the great violinists of his day and, at his prime, was probably more popular than Beethoven though by the 1850s pretty well washed up.

Germany also wasn’t a nation, then, more of a culture behind a loose political federation. After the collapse of that medieval relic, the Holy Roman Empire, in 1806, Napoleon had seen to it that “Germany” stayed that way. It would take most of the 19th Century for all these little city-states and principalities orbiting around three major centers – Prussia and Berlin, Bavaria and Munich, Austria and Vienna – to come to some terms with nationhood. It wasn’t until 1871 that Prussia managed to coalesce the rest of these territories into the German Empire, now pitting itself against the Austrian Empire, the two major überpowers of German culture.

That was five years before Brahms (finally) completed his 1st Symphony.

It took Brahms some 20-plus years to finish that symphony – you can read more about that, here – mostly because Robert Schumann (pictured here with his wife, Clara), wearing his hat as a major critic and writer-about-music, had prophesied Brahms would become the Heir to Beethoven. That was late in 1853 in an article called “New Paths.” What struck people (especially those like Wagner and Liszt) as odd was the simple fact Brahms was only 20, totally unknown and so far had published nothing. Considering the struggles Wagner was still having trying to get his music heard, who was this Brahms kid that a critic like Schumann would declare him a potentially Great Composer? It wasn’t like someone could just say “Make it so” and it was.

Today, of course, there’s “Bach, Beethoven and Brahms,” the great triumvirate of Classical Music. Few of us may notice that this was originally a marketing brand innocently coined by the conductor Hans von Bülow in 1877, the year after Brahms finished his 1st Symphony (which von Bülow had dubbed “Beethoven’s 10th”).

We think of Brahms and Wagner as contemporaries with very similar styles – highly Romantic – and pay no attention to the stylistic details that fueled this bitter aesthetic rivalry. Brahms had learned early that polemics were not his style, leaving the essays and the pamphleteering to Wagner (see photo, right, taken in 1865) and his followers.

Wagner became the bold and forceful leader of avant-garde music. Brahms was regarded as the stodgy keeper of antiquity - or the upholder of aesthetic integrity that would keep music from falling into the dungheap of history.

(Surely, there’s a Star Trek episode in that?)

So while Brahms was avoiding writing that symphony – or rather, biding his time before he felt he was ready for that symphony – he composed a great deal of chamber music. Very little of it, however, ever saw the light of day.

Brahms once told a friend how he papered the walls and ceiling of his Hamburg apartment with pages from his rejected compositions – enough music for twenty string quartets, he once said, and he probably wasn’t exaggerating. He had only to lie on his back to admire his rejected works…

Of course, writing symphonies and string quartets, even in 1860, you still had to contend with “the tramp of giants behind you,” Beethoven in particular (regardless of Schumann’s article) and Brahms had early decided he was not going to write and publish any of those “on-the-job training” works like most young composers did, leaving a trail of less than perfect works that might later prove an embarrassment.

His first attempt at a symphony – one in D Minor, its theme sketched down days after Schumann’s attempted suicide in 1854 – turned itself into his 1st Piano Concerto which proved to be a dismal failure, along with a couple of serenades regarded as pre-symphonic studies in orchestration but also opportunities for Brahms to create longer forms without actually writing something as serious as a Symphony with all the historical baggage that entails.

The same thing went for string quartets.

Instead, he found himself attracted to the idea of larger combinations, richer ensembles that not only were “easier” to handle than the spare quartet sound (more orchestral, almost, by comparison), they also didn’t carry the same kind of serious quality and historical baggage the Quartet did, again thanks to Beethoven.

And with sextets, nobody was going to call him the Heir to Boccherini…

Between 1860 and 1865, then between the ages of 27 and 32, Brahms completed and “released” two string sextets, two piano quartets, a cello sonata and the Horn Trio in addition to three versions of what became the Piano Quintet (originally a string quintet, then a sonata for two pianos before combining the best of both).

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(in this video with score, members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet perform the 1st movement of Brahms' 1st String Sextet - the 2nd Movement is posted, below)

It was around this time that Brahms began working on the B-flat Sextet which he finished the following year. It makes substantial use of traditional forms that would not have been unfamiliar to Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, very clearly defined: a sonata movement followed by variations on what is actually an old Baroque dance, La Folia complete with the cello raking its bow across the strings like an old-fashioned viol, a scherzo and, to conclude, a standard rondo.

(the third movement is performed by an apparently ad hoc ensemble – they give their names in the 1st movement’s clip – and recorded in a very boomy church. It’s difficult to find reasonable performances on-line...)

(the fourth movement is from a 2011 music festival with the Prazák Quartet and friends)

To us, this would seem to be nothing more than continuity with Beethoven’s generation from 45 years earlier.

It is easy to forget that at this time there was something akin to a musical “war” brewing, a matter of aesthetics comparable to the bitterness between the serialists and the tonal composers of the past several decades of modern music.

In the one corner, as I mentioned earlier, was Wagner and Liszt – mostly Liszt (see photo, left), who seemed to thrive on the polemics, despite Wagner’s political activities in other areas. The critic Hanslick, Brahms' chief apologist, pointed out that whenever a new work appeared from either of them, it always seemed to be accompanied by a flurry of pamphlets and essays about its importance: new music had to be explained and they each had their entourage who acted as a public-relations effort – or, depending on your viewpoint, a propaganda machine.

When Brahms and Joachim (see photo, right) chose not to be converted to their followers, they, as Swafford writes in his biography of Brahms, “stewed over Liszt’s sensationalism, his rambling and histrionic music, the credo of the ‘New German School’ that music required other arts to buttress it.” In 1860, with his faith in abstract music never stronger, Brahms “itched to write anti-Liszt.” These two members of the younger generation produced their own manifesto which, unfortunately, was leaked to the rival press before any more than two other people had signed on to it.

And Liszt and his followers had a field day with it.

So, coming so soon on top of this public-relations debacle, the untried and so far unsuccessful Brahms wrote a very conservative and adamantly traditional string sextet that had no program, no revolutionary harmonic progressions or tonal schemes (though Joachim did think the opening digression from B-flat Major to D-flat Major in the first phrase was a bit much), no obfuscated formal structures, no over-the-top emotions or even any literary allusions a listener could hang on to to make sense out of the music (“but what’s it about? It was just music about music - I mean, what the heck...?")

These were things Brahms and Joachim thought spelled the death of music as they knew it. For his part, Liszt dismissed them as “the posthumous party.” Followers of both sides produced propaganda, demonstrations and even organized cadres of supporters to disrupt performances of the other party’s concerts.

Today, we listen to this music and are so overwhelmed by its beauty, all this “reality” seems impossible to imagine.

And yet, in 1900, Vernon Blackburn, a London critic, wrote

"The Brahms Sextet [in B-flat Major] is a work built upon dry as dust elements. It is one of those odd compositions which at times slipped from the pen of Brahms, apparently in order to prove how excellent a mathematician he might have become, but how prosaic, how hopeless, how unfeeling, how unemotional, how arid a musician he really was. You feel an undercurrent of surds (a quantity not capable of being expressed in rational numbers) of quadratic equations, of hyperbolic curves, of the dynamics of a particle. But it must not be forgotten that music is not only a science; it is also an art. The Sextet was played with precision, and that is the only way in which you can work out a problem in musical trigonometry."

Toward the end of his life, Brahms was still complaining about the state of music, how, after him, it was all downhill. He had had lunch with a young conductor he admired (though he didn’t think much of Gustav Mahler's music), who, as they walked past a flowing stream near the restaurant, grabbed Brahms’ arm, pointed at the water and said, “Look, Doctor, look!”

When Brahms couldn’t see what he was pointing at, Mahler said, “See? There goes the last wave!”

Brahms chuckled but insisted there was still a question whether it would end up going to the sea or into some swamp, instead.

Could he ever have imagined his music being played centuries in the future on a space ship to entertain dignitaries from a distant galaxy? Well... uhm...

It would probably as far fetched for him to realize one of those modernist composers in the not too distant future, following in the footsteps of Wagner and Mahler, would have hailed him as "Brahms the Progressive" and a significant influence on his development of his own distinct musical voice!

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Follow this link to read Part Two of “Brahms & his Two Sextets” for information about the String Sextet in G Major, which concludes Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic Festival 2011 on Tuesday evening, a concert that begins at the earlier-than-usual time of 6:00 at Market Square Church in Harrisburg.

- Dick Strawser

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