Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Love & Sextets: Summermusic 2015 Concludes at the Civic Club

The final program of this season's Summermusic with Market Square Concerts takes place Wednesday evening at 6:00 (that's SIX o'clock) at the Civic Club in downtown Harrisburg – for the unfamiliar, check out this link to last summer's directions and information about downtown parking but note that the program is different – with string players from the resident artists' ensemble playing sextets by Johannes Brahms and Arnold Schoenberg.

In both of them love (in one form or another) plays an inspiring role: in Brahms' case, the memory of a girlfriend from years past; in Schoenberg's, telling the tale of a man and woman who find their love transfigured by the revelation of a secret.

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One of the two works on this program had been rejected by the composer's usual publisher and "sunk" by another one who found it "vile music that one should suppress." Shades of reviews of an earlier work that some critics called "mathematical music."

Are we talking about Schoenberg, a composer too many people associate with the contemptible aspects of contemporary music?

No. This is the G Major String Sextet that Johannes Brahms had completed in 1865.

Here are the four movements of Brahms' String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36
1st Movement (at 2:30 – the “Agathe Ade!” Motive) w/members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet

2nd Movement Scherzo w/ChamberFest Cleveland 2013

3rd Movement – Slow Movement w/The Shanghai Quartet & Friends in Tokyo

4th Movement w/Amadeus Quartet + Cecil Aronowitz & William Pleeth

A couple of years before he had started composing the 1st String Sextet, Brahms (right) was still living in his hometown of Hamburg in 1858 when a friend invited him to come check out Göttingen, a college town about 170 miles south. This friend, Julius Otto Grimm, composer, teacher and music director of the local choral society, the Cäcilienverein (Cecelia Club), wrote to him, “If it would please you to have a few good voices lodged in very lovely girls, sing for you, they will take pleasure in being at your disposal. Come quickly!” Odd that Brahms had hesitated, at first.

So, in the midst of working on a serenade originally for a small group of strings and winds, he did so reluctantly, even if it was part of a holiday with Clara Schumann, her five youngest children, her half-brother, composer Woldemar Bargiel and violinist Joseph Joachim. It didn’t, however, take Brahms long to succumb to the charms of the town and especially some of the young ladies in town – one soprano named Agathe von Siebold, in particular.

In addition to having long dark hair, a lush figure, a fondness for practical jokes and a voice that Joachim likened to an Amati violin, Agathe (left) was also studying composition with Julius Grimm who once berated her for some sloppy counterpoint exercises. When Brahms agreed to play a trick on his friend, he wrote out her assignment himself which she duly handed in as her own. Grimm exploded over this “swinish mess” and when Agathe asked “well, what if Johannes had written it,” he said it would be even worse. Here, Brahms had actually screwed it up on purpose, playing a joke on both of them.

Oh, those wild and crazy musicians… such larks…

At the end of this extended vacation, Brahms returned to Detmold, about 30 miles to the northwest as the crow flies, where he was employed part of the year as a “court musician,” performing with the orchestra there and teaching music to the family of Prince Leopold III. In addition to organizing chamber music concerts, he also conducted a women’s choir for whom he wrote numerous short choral works.

In addition to playing concertos by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin (I’m trying to imagine Brahms playing Chopin, but hey…), he also conducted his first Bach (the cantata, “Christ lag in Todesbanden”) and was known to accompany Mozart violin sonatas by starting them in the wrong key to “test” his colleague’s transposition skills. As a composer, his B Major Piano Trio (the original version of Op. 8) and the G Minor Piano Quartet were received coolly.

Visiting Göttingen again in 1859, he and Agathe continued their friendship and apparently became secretly engaged. According to his friends, they seemed perfectly happy with each other.

Then he left for two performances of his finally completed D Minor Piano Concerto which was neither a success nor a failure in Hannover but which was frostily received in Leipzig five days later. After a long silence, perhaps three pairs of hands bothered to applaud before the hissing began. Critics called it “banal and horrid.”

By then, returning to see Agathe, Brahms suffered what today would be called “a fear of commitment.” When he wrote to her, "I love you! I must see you again! But I cannot wear fetters! Write me whether I may come back to fold you in my arms, to kiss you, to tell you that I love you!" she responded by breaking off the engagement.

To his friends, Brahms would admit to “playing the scoundrel” to Agathe. Over a decade later, he recalled those days, how he would like to have married but when his music was hissed in the concert hall and so icily received, he realized while this was something he himself could tolerate, returning alone to his room,

“...if, in such moments, I had had to meet the anxious, questioning eyes of a wife with the words ‘another failure’ – I could not have borne that! For a woman may love an artist… ever so much… and if she had wanted to comfort me – a wife to pity her husband for his lack of success – ach! I can’t stand to think what a hell that would have been.”

During the first months in Göttingen , he wrote several songs for Agathe to sing, many of them using a musical motif based on her name spelled out in certain available notes

using the old German notation where B = B-flat and H = B-natural, and where S (or Es) = E-flat and “As” = A-flat.

In the months following his break-up with Agathe, Brahms composed more songs, still occasionally employing the “Agathe Motive” but setting it to words about parting and lost love.

Brahms would use this “Agathe Motive” again in the 2nd String Sextet which he completed a few years after he and Agathe von Siebold parted ways.

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Moving ahead a few years, Brahms had completed two new piano quartets and three versions of his Piano Quintet, before writing to his Göttingen friend Julius Grimm once again, asking how things were “in all the houses where one used to go so happily… of that house and gate – ” which he didn’t need to explain was the house where Agathe von Siebold lived with her father.

Grimm told him “the old Professor had died three years ago” and Agathe had taken a job the past year as a governess in Ireland where she teaches music and German to the daughters of a rich young English family. She had to get away, he said, from “the shadowed pages of her life… what a gloomy lot is that of a girl alone.”

Brahms returned to Göttingen and stood by that ruined gate, looking at the empty house (such images typical of the lovelorn poetry of the Romantic Age). In September, he composed the devastated and exalted songs of Op. 32 which included the lines “I would like to stop living, to perish instantly, and yet I would like to live for you, with you, and never die.”

That same month, he began the first movement of the 2nd String Sextet. The second movement was based on a Baroque-like gavotte he’d written (part of a collection of tongue-in-cheek dances in the early-1850s) contrasting with a jocose middle section. The original sketch of the slow movement’s variations was written in 1855 and the overall sound is basically “wandering, empty, tragic.” The finale sounds like it might be a proper scherzo with a warm contrasting section with a bit of a dance to it: perhaps a “last dance, at the end of an affair,” as Swafford describes it.

The opening is a gem of a motive – an oscillating G-F# connecting first a G Major triad and then, unexpectedly, an E-flat triad (the G being a common pitch). It would be possible to analyze this music in terms of these two sounds (the oscillation and the G—D , E-flat—B-flat) but the most striking element, considering the theme of this post, is a motive that appears in the transition between the 1st and 2nd themes of the Sonata’s exposition:

This is Agathe’s Motive - and at its most obvious, climactic point, it is repeated five times. Yet this time, there is another note inserted within the motive – a D (see above) – which helps spell out the word “adé” or “Adieux, Farewell” in the inner voices. One could even sing "Agathe, adé" to this fragment of a melody.

Brahms is certainly saying farewell to Agathe, taking his leave, musically if not emotionally. Yet in the very first song he wrote for her – Op.14 No. 1 of 1858 – this “adé” motive appears when the night-watchman sounds his horn as the lovers part.

We may think of this as purely abstract music with no literary allusions or suggestions of telling a story, the sort of thing Liszt and the New German School espoused. But even Brahms must have had something on his mind, here, when he was writing this – a young girl who used to sing his songs for him and with whom he once contemplated marriage.

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Here's a review from the first Viennese performance of one of the two works on this program: is it regarding the Brahms Sextet or Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht?

"We are always seized with a kind of oppression when [this composer] announces himself. [He] makes us quite disconsolate with his impalpable, vertiginous tone-vexations that have neither body nor soul and can only be products of the most desperate effort."

Which composer do you think was the subject of this review?

This was by an anonymous critic writing for the Wiener Zeitung (Viennese Newspaper) following the February 3rd, 1867 performance of Johannes Brahms' String Sextet No. 2 in G!

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Schoenberg in 1903
I love this quote about Schoenberg's music from the introduction in Allen Shawn's wonderfully readable book, Arnold Schoenberg's Journey. Given that Schoenberg is a composer frequently cast as the Boogey-Man of Modern Music, the “inventor” of serial music (therefore the killer of all that is considered good in music whom theorists analyze by slathering technical jargon on by the ladle-full until we are knee-deep in incomprehensible gobbledy-gook in ways they would never write about Beethoven, Shawn writes,

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“...perhaps Schoenberg's work deserves a more superficial treatment than it has hitherto received.”
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We don't need to get into atonality or serial music (or the difference between them) because that will be years into the future from the work you can hear on Wednesday's program. For those who feel "Oh, I don't like Schoenberg" as some people have told me why they're not coming to this performance, I say "But this is not that Schoenberg."

Verklärte Nacht was composed in 1899 so it is honestly a 19th-Century piece even though it had to wait until 1902 for its first performance. It begins darkly in D Minor and ends luminously in D Major and while it may go far afield in between, one could say the same of Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde (completed forty years earlier) not to mention the middle bits from the finale of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor (completed on July 25th, 1788), but I digress...

Basically, it is a tone-poem for six string players, though we normally expect story-telling “tone-poems” from orchestral music, not chamber music (which tends to be a fairly abstract world). This may be one reason Schoenberg later arranged it for the full string section of your typical symphony orchestra.

It's based on a poem by Richard Dehmel about love that is perhaps a little more up-to-date than the love-plots of Wagner's operas which are more about “redemption through love” which usually involves having to die to attain it. Here, a man accepts the fact the woman he loves is already pregnant with a child by a man she doesn't love: he tells her he will love her and will love the unborn child as if it were his own, that their love will make the child his own – and at that moment, walking in the moonlit woods, the child, the man, the woman and the night itself are all transfigured from darkness into light.

(You can read a translation of the original poem here. Cary Burkett, whose voice will be familiar to listeners of WITF-FM, will read the poem before the performance.)

Poster for Verklärte Nacht
This unattributed image with trees, a path and moonlight (also available as an iPhone skin) evokes Dehmel's poem but could also serve for Schoenberg's later Erwartung where a woman wanders through similar woods at night believing she has killed her lover (and possibly just tripped over his body)... The cliché of being lost in the woods predates Freud – think any number of fairly tales but especially “Hansel and Gretel” (not to mention Stephen Sondheim's fairy-tale-inspired Into the Woods). It was certainly common enough during the end of the 19th Century: think, also, of Pelleas and Melisande, Maeterlinck's play which inspired both the opera by Debussy and Schoenberg's orchestral tone poem. That makes three works by Schoenberg dealing with the imagery of seeking identity while wandering lost through the woods at night.

Talk about mystery and psychological subtext...

Here is a recording with the Juilliard Quartet plus violist Walter Trampler and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, complete with score:

Victorian England and the (shocking!) not-so-private lives of various composers like Liszt and Wagner aside, there were some things you just didn't talk about in polite society in late-19th Century Vienna, despite the erotic goings-on not very far beneath that respectable surface. Clearly the “secret sex life” of Vienna was enough to fuel the work of numerous artists (think Gustav Klimt, whose “Beethoven Frieze” from 1902 contains this famous detail; the most famous paintings of his Golden Period dates from 1907) as well as Sigmund Freud whose first writings on sexuality appeared in 1898, though his more significant works on the subject were still shocking people when they appeared in the first decades of the 20th Century.

Richard Dehmel in 1905
Richard Dehmel published his “Verklärte Nacht” in 1895, a year before a volume of poems, Weib und Welt (Woman and World) triggered such a scandal he eventually landed in court charged with obscenity and blasphemy. Though he was acquitted on technical grounds, the court still condemned the volume and ordered it to be burned! Later on, Dehmel would again be prosecuted for obscenity and blasphemy, but would again be acquitted.

In his defense, Dehmel wrote “I believe that anyone who helps the human soul open its eyes to the bestial urges serves true morality better than many a moralistic accuser.” Many of these poems were inspired by his affair with Ida Auerbach for whom he eventually left his wife (I know, shocking, right?).

All this unleashed a creative surge in Schoenberg, then in his mid-20s and two years away from marrying Mathilde Zemlinsky, the sister of his friend and “teacher,” Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Schoenberg as cellist, July 8, 1900
He and Zemlinsky met in the amateur orchestra Zemlinsky conducted. Schoenberg played the cello - in the photo (left), he is the sad-sack in the midst of these Merry Musicians which also includes a mustachioed violinist named Fritz Kreisler.

He had begun to write music only recently without ever having had any instruction. Zemlinsky, only two years older than Schoenberg, said he was never really Schoenberg's teacher: they used to show each other their music and, with more experience, Zemlinsky took on the role of “coach,” making suggestions, loaning him scores – attending concerts was basically outside Schoenberg's budget – and engaging in long hours of “shop talk.”

One of his first finished works was a String Quartet in D Major from 1897 which some think sounds very much like Brahms – and Brahms had just died on April 3rd that year. Personally, I think it sounds more like Dvořák-imitating-Brahms but it's clearly a student work full of this-and-that. 

The change in two years between this quartet and the sextet, Verklärte Nacht, is almost as shocking as the shift between it and the 2nd String Quartet of 1907 which includes, in its last two movements, his first attempts to put tonality completely aside.

The classical old-fashioned clarity of this early quartet was soon overwhelmed by a few lessons in counterpoint from Zemlinsky and apparently Dehmel's poetry which unleashed Schoenberg's Wagnerian side in a late-19th Century dichotomy: what are you, a classicist (Brahmsian) or a romanticist (Wagnerian)? By this time, now 25, Schoenberg was trying to figure out how he could manage the best of both worlds. One of the critics at the premiere of Verklärte Nacht complained it sounded like the “pages of Tristan freshly smeared over.”

Curiously, once past the dense post-Wagnerian textures and harmonic activity of things like the very Romantic oratorio Gurrelieder and the atonal drama of his one-character opera Erwartung, Schoenberg began to re-examine the music of Brahms, calling him “Brahms the Progressive” (something Brahms or his contemporaries would never have considered) and eventually devising a new organizational language he called “composing with 12 tones”. But again, that's for the future...

It is often said that the first performance of Verklärte Nacht in Vienna in March of 1902 was “loudly hissed” by both audience and critics. True, there were disruptions, even fisticuffs (please, no fisticuffs at the Civic Club: there will be students present).

But there were these comments, as well:

A critic for the German newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that the sextet was “rich in invention, powerful in inspiration, genuine in feeling and captivating in its sonorities, despite the wrong notes” (which might have been performance issues or perhaps his perception of what should've been the right notes). A friend of Brahms' greeted the arrival of “an authentic and admirably gifted musician” who was “serious and profound” despite some “deliberately confused and ugly music.”

Gustav Mahler's sister had been there and wrote to him appreciatively about the concert he'd missed while guest conducting in Russia. Mahler (who would finish his 5th Symphony that summer) replied that “would have been of great interest to me.” Even though Mahler found Schoenberg's later music – the increasingly chromatic and eventually atonal works of the new century – difficult to understand if not completely incomprehensible, they remained acquaintances until Mahler's death in 1910, a relationship often tested by Schoenberg's own antipathy for Mahler's style which sometimes led him, for instance, to refuse the older composer's invitations to dinner or to hear his newest symphonies.

In 1910, Schoenberg (who had yet to develop his “12-tone system”) began writing a theory book he called Harmonielehre which is less a traditional textbook than a philosophical way of looking at harmony. In it, for instance, he wrote,

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“It has never been the purpose and effect of new art to suppress the old, its predecessor, certainly not to destroy it. ...The appearance of the new can far better be compared with the flowering of a tree: it is the natural growth of the tree of life. But if there were trees that had an interest in preventing the flowering, then they would surely call it revolution. And conservatives of winter would fight against each spring. ...Short memory and meager insight suffice to confuse growth with overthrow.”
(quoted in Allan Shawn: Arnold Schoenberg's Journey.)
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If you listen to Verklärte Nacht as the product of a 25-year-old who is only two years out from having produced a derivative piece of juvenalia in that Brahms/Dvořák-inspired string quartet, the self-assurance as well as the musical flowering is amazing. 

Whatever he did in the rest of his creative life began, essentially, here – and whatever the rest of the world may collectively think of his legacy, the tree that began here had a deep and long-ranging impact on the new century, whatever those who followed his path may have done with it.

Dick Strawser

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