Given the tempestuous nature of Grieg's quartet – at least the main part of its first movement – and the intensity of both Mozart's and Berg's works, you might think they've put the Drang before the Sturm.
What is it about this work from his mid-30s that makes it sound so different in style yet so immediately recognizable as Grieg, even though most American listeners are familiar only with his miniatures like the short pieces making up the music written for Peer Gynt and the various folk-inspired dances. Oh yes, and that Piano Concerto written when he was 24.
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It was around New Year's, 1888, and three famous composers found themselves in Leipzig and were having dinner at the home of Adolph Brodsky, the concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Johannes Brahms was in town to conduct his “Double Concerto” and perform his new C Minor Piano Trio. Tchaikovsky was on a major European tour, making his Leipzig debut in early January, conducting his Suite No. 1 in D Minor in a few days. Grieg was a frequent visitor to the city and had many friends there but I couldn't find any specific references to concerts he might have been giving at the time.
Tchaikovsky had, as yet, not met either of the other two composers. He and Brahms would have a chilly relationship and took no effort to hide the fact they disliked each other's music. But with both of them, Grieg had a warm friendship, a mutual admiration both personally and musically (in fact, Tchaikovsky would later dedicate his concert-overture Hamlet to Grieg).
When the guests – who included several other notable Leipzig musicians – sat down to dinner, Frau Brodsky placed Nina Grieg between Brahms and Tchaikovsky as a kind of buffer. At one point, she stood up and protested she could no longer sit there, the tension made her so nervous. Her husband gallantly slipped into her place, saying “I have the nerve!”
We tend to forget composers whose music we so much admire had personal lives and sometimes interacted not just as musicians but as otherwise “normal” people. Frau Brodsky also remarked about this dinner how Brahms had been coveting the jar of strawberry jam, protesting he would share it with no one else, and they all laughed. “It was like a children's party, not a gathering of great composers.” Brodsky, over the after-dinner cigars and drinks, even played some magic tricks for his guests, and Brahms, especially amused, demanded an explanation how each was done. (Oh, if only someone could've snapped a selfie at that dinner party...)
In his diary, Tchaikovsky noted his first impressions of Grieg who, at the time, was 44 and would publish his famous 1st Suite from Peer Gynt that same year. “There entered the room a very short, middle-aged man, exceedingly fragile in appearance, with shoulders of unequal height, fair hair brushed back from his forehead, and a very slight, almost boyish beard and mustache. There was nothing striking [in his appearance]… but he had an uncommon charm and blue eyes, not very large, but irresistibly fascinating, recalling the glance of a charming and candid child. I rejoiced... it turned out this personality... belonged to a musician whose warmly emotional music had long ago won my heart. It was Edvard Grieg.”
At a concert of chamber music a few days later, Grieg and his wife would sit with Tchaikovsky to hear the Russian's Op.11 String Quartet No. 1 and the Piano Trio. They would again meet – without Brahms – at the Brodsky home for dinner, where Nina Grieg sang some of her husband's songs, the composer at the piano, much to Tchaikovsky's delight.
Chamber music was a special world for Grieg, though he wrote only three violin sonatas, a cello sonata, and one complete string quartet, the one in G Minor, Op.27, written ten years before this Leipzig dinner. For the Norwegian composer, known mostly as a composer of miniatures – though had he written nothing more than his early Piano Concerto in A Minor, one of the most popular concertos in the repertoire, he would've been a “one-hit wonder” – chamber music with its “large-scale, multi-movement forms” was a daunting challenge and a professional goal, not always easily accomplished. His solution, at least in this string quartet, might strike one as an imaginative working of various miniatures honed into a gradually larger format much like a mosaic or montage.
There's a much-quoted letter written shortly after he'd completed it: "I have recently finished a string quartet,” he wrote to a close friend, “which I still haven't heard. It is in G minor and is not intended to bring trivialities to market. It strives towards breadth, soaring flight and above all resonance for the instruments for which it is written."
But the letter continues (quoted in Grove's Dictionary 1980): “I needed to do this as a study. Now I shall tackle another piece of chamber music; I think in that way I shall find myself again. You can have no idea what trouble I had with the forms, but this was because I was stagnating, and this in turn was in part on account of a number of occasional works (Peer Gynt, Sigurd Jarsalfar and other horrors) and in part on account of too much popularity. I have thought of saying 'Farewell, shadows' to all this – if it can be done.”
(You might be shocked to find him referring to some of his most popular music as “horrors,” but such are composers' reactions to some of their own works. Tchaikovsky loathed The Nutcracker, perhaps because it became too popular at the expense of works he felt were far more significant.)
Something that has always intrigued me about Grieg's quartet is its opening, not really a slow introduction, but more of a “motto” that recurs throughout the piece, much the way Tchaikovsky would be doing with the “Fate Motto” that opens his 4th Symphony, written about the same time. I wondered if this had any significance for Grieg – or was it just a nice thematic idea? Given his frame-of-mind as he was writing this work and the importance he placed on it (finding himself again and all that), remember he wrote it a year after his score for the incidental music for Ibsen's Peer Gynt, this “horror” that had consumed two years of his time and energy.
So it's very revealing to discover it comes from a song published a year earlier, Spillemænd (“Fiddlers” or “Minstrels”), Op.25 No. 1, which sets a poem by Henrik Ibsen about a water spirit who would give minstrels great gifts of musical abilities in exchange for their happiness.
Now, given that insight, listen to all four movements of Grieg's String Quartet in G Minor, Op.27, in this version with the score, performed by the Copenhagen Quartet:
The 1st Movement, Un poco andante - Allegro molto ed agitato, opens with the “motto theme” that will appear in various guises through the course of the entire quartet. The dramatic main part of the movement contrasts a stormy section with one of Grieg's more lyrical song-like tunes (starting at 1:58), based on the “motto theme.” These elements then play out in various contrasting segments, juxtaposed, intertwined to create a greater structural unity than the initial “miniature” impression would suggest. At 6:29, the initial “storm sequence” returns and continues in standard sonata form till the “motto theme” returns in an emotional climactic point (at 9:56) which eventually exhausts itself into a benedictory statement in a hushed G Major (at 10:57) before ending in a stormy G Minor, after all.
The 2nd Movement (begins at 11:55), is a Romanze: Andantino, begins with a gently swaying waltz-like dance switching (at 13:14) into “an intoxicating whirl around the dance floor” before regaining its composure (at 14:38) and all its initial social niceties, occasionally breaking out into passionate if momentary and usually abruptly truncated whirls, as if the young couple's parents are, for the moment, not always watching them.
This is but a tentative warm-up for the intricate motions of the 3rd Movement (18:07), an Intermezzo: Allegro molto marcato - Più vivo e scherzando which would imply the more laid-back, dance-like (or walk-in-the-country) interludes that Brahms would replace the more traditional scherzo with (though, by 1878, Brahms had only recently completed his 1st and 2nd Symphonies). However, it begins with a dramatic statement based on the opening “motto theme,” once again before turning into another dance, not quite so sociably regular (full of “cross-rhythms”) as the 2nd movement's Romance, but not quite the folksy mood we normally expect from Grieg (he was, after all, not “intending to bring trivialities to market”).
But then, at 20:25, the cello introduces an out-and-out folk-dance for the “middle section” (usually called “the trio” though nobody knows why). You might notice the initial imitation as one instrument enters after another with the tune, in a kind of a faux-fugue. Then the opening section returns before ending in a folksy fluster at the end.
The 4th Movement (24:30), Finale: Lento - Presto al saltarello, opens with a statement of the “motto theme,” once again (this time starting on the same pitch but in different octaves, from the upper to the lowest register of the quartet), before breaking out into what I can only describe as a Norwegian version of an Italian saltarello, a dance similar to the old tarantella whose frenzied motions were supposedly inspired by those of someone bitten by a tarantula. However, whatever Grieg calls it here, its musical origins can be found in the typical Nordic springdans or halling, athletic dances young men might dance at weddings. Grieg had used similar dances in the finale of his Piano Concerto. It continues with various contrasting moments until, at 31:57, the opening motto makes one last emotional appearance before rounding the work off in a blaze of G Major glory.
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Looking back to the source of that “motto theme” and that letter I'd quoted, it's not surprising to realize how he doubted his own abilities, a “miniaturist” who lacked experience – the Piano Concerto and a couple of violin sonatas aside – especially the technique needed to deal with “larger forms” which required a different kind of creative thinking. There are several letters written to his friend, Robert Heckmann, a violinist and music critic, looking for advice and, openly or not, positive reinforcement.
In one response, Heckmann told him “I quite honestly could find no sign at all in the quartet of your imagination having been paralyzed.” He would help him with revisions of various sections of the quartet and assured him he would premiere it at a concert in Cologne in October of 1878 if it were ready in time. It was, he did, and Grieg dedicated the quartet to him. By the way, a year later, Heckmann would premiere the 1st Violin Sonata of Johannes Brahms in Bonn.
(In the previous post, I'd mentioned Grieg wrote three string quartets and his String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor is the second of them. Technically, the first quartet was a student work, assigned him by his composition teacher in Leipzig, Carl Reinecke, never published and since lost. The third of these quartets was begun in 1891 but he only left the first two movements more or less complete. Two more movements may have been sketched, but his friend the Dutch composer Julius Röntgen edited only the first two movements, had them performed at his home the month Grieg died and published them the following year. Though rarely performed, it has occasionally been paired with the G Minor Quartet in recordings. You can listen to it, here.)
When Grieg sent his new G Minor quartet to his publisher, they rejected it on the grounds, given all the “double-stops” in the string writing, perhaps the work should instead be a string quintet or maybe a piano quintet? So he sent it elsewhere instead.
It's that rich, almost orchestral texture Grieg gets from his players, requiring each one to play full chords at dramatic moments so it sounds like more than four instruments playing. And G Minor was a good key for that, several pitches of the open strings fitting in the scales of G Minor and its closest related tonalities.
Much is also made of Grieg's “adventuresome” harmonies and its leaning towards an impressionist style – one we associate with French painting and the music of Claude Debussy – except given Grieg's absorption of Norwegian folk music, many of these “adventuresome chords” are the result of trying to harmonize a tune that does not necessarily conform to standard classroom procedures of Late-18th Century classical style.
Just as other composers inspired by their own folk music discovered, this juxtaposition of worlds led to what we would think of as their own “nationalist” voices: while initially colorful – for instance, those odd “augmented” intervals and scales Grieg used in his “orientalist” moments like Peer Gynt's “Dance of the Mountain King's Daughter” which he detested and complained “reeked of cow-pies” – these added sonorities eventually led to the assimilation of folk and art music, as Dvořák, Mussorgsky or Bartók would do, where it became more difficult to determine what was “original” and what belonged to an authentic folk (or folk-like) melody.
Writers claim Grieg's G Minor Quartet was a major influence on the development of Impressionism and particularly Debussy who also wrote a string quartet in the same key (!), despite Debussy's open antipathy to Grieg's music. One writer points out the similarities between the opening of Debussy's quartet and the opening of Grieg's which means, I guess, the opening of Tchaikovsky's B-flat Minor Piano Concerto could've been inspired by the finale of Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata?
But then I found another writer who said “Scholars call Grieg a ‘miniaturist’ due to his petite stature [footnoted source not found]. His music reflects this description.” Being short certainly didn't stop Schubert or Wagner from writing long pieces! Hasn't modern science pretty much debunked such things as Victorian phrenology? Oh, well... as usual, I digress...
Was Grieg's folk-music influence simply the result of his being born in Norway? He studied in Germany, primarily in Leipzig, with German teachers and was given German composers as his role-models simply because, when he was growing up, there were no Norwegian composers to emulate. It wasn't till he lived in Copenhagen for three years and met the Danish composer Niels Gade (you can read about him in my post from this past Summermusic performances) that he became aware of music outside the German sphere and began to take more of an interest in composition.
(Keep in mind, since the 16th Century, Norway had been a Danish territory; after the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, it was ceded to Sweden in a union similar to Austria-Hungary where the Swedish king would also be the King of Norway. It didn't become independent until 1905, two years before Grieg died, and the king it chose in a popular election had been the Crown Prince of Denmark who became King Haakon VII – Haakon VI had died in 1380, but once again I digress...)
A key figure in the emergence of Norwegian music was the violinist Ole Bull – Schumann considered him the equal of Paganini – who would go on to have an international career, a curious association with Pennsylvania, and who got caught up in the growing nationalist movement of the 1840s, calling for independence from Sweden. At the time, the official language in Norway (despite being part of Sweden) was Danish and in 1850, Bull co-founded the first Norwegian-language theater in the country in his hometown of Bergen. Eight years later, he meet the 15-year-old Edvard Grieg – Bull's brother had married the sister of Grieg's mother whatever level of cousinship that would be called – and realized the sickly boy growing up in culturally isolated Bergen had musical talent so he arranged to send him to Leipzig to study piano at the Conservatory there.
By the way, it is intriguing to consider that Grieg wrote his quartet while spending the summer at a family home in the Hardanger region of Norway, south of Bergen, home of that most folksy of Norwegian folk instruments, the Hardanger fiddle!
But a more immediately influential friend was the young composer Rikard Nordraak whom he met in Copenhagen in the 1860s. One of his patriotic songs, Ja, vi elsker, became the de facto national anthem of the Norwegian nationalist movement.
Considering what it meant to be a Norwegian composer, Nordraak wrote,
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“They talk of carrying rocks to Norway but we have enough rock. Let us simply use what we have. Nationalism, in music for example, does not mean composing more Hallings and Springar such as our forefathers composed. That is nonsense. No, it means building a house out of all these bits of rock and living in it. Listen to the unclothed plaintive melodies that wander, like so many orphans, round the countryside all over Norway. Gather them about you in a circle round the heart of love and let them all tell you their stories. Remember them all, reflect and then play each one afterwards so that you solve all riddles and everyone thinks you like his story best. Then they will be happy and cleave to your heart. Then you will be a national artist.”
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Unfortunately, Nordraak died of tuberculosis in 1866 at the age of 23. The Funeral March young Grieg composed for his friend was something the composer asked to be played at his own funeral – at a time when Norway had finally become, almost 40 years after Nordraak's death, an independent nation.
The Schumann Quartet will be warming up for their Harrisburg appearance this Saturday with Market Square Concerts by playing at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall the night before. (If you can't make their other two concerts this week in Utrecht and Rotterdam, you'll have to wait until December 4th in Istanbul, and then Christmas Week in Düsseldorf at Schumann Hall and London's Wigmore Hall when they'll be playing a different program.)
At Market Square Church, Saturday at 8pm, they'll be performing quartets by Mozart, Berg, and Grieg – or, to be precise, works for string quartet by Mozart, Berg, and Grieg since only the Grieg is technically a “string quartet.”
Officially, the Mozart is the Adagio and Fugue in C Minor K.546, not one of his four-movement string quartets. And while Alban Berg did write a String Quartet – his Op.3 in 1909-1910 – they'll be performing a work for string quartet he called his Lyric Suite, a work in six movements. And to conclude, there's the second of three string quartets Edvard Grieg wrote, his String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op.27 (that is not a misprint).
To make it more confusing, you might wonder why the Schumann Quartet is not playing works by their namesake Robert Schumann who, after all, wrote three string quartets. In fact, they chose the name for different reasons, as, I'm sure, violinists Erick Schumann and Ken Schumann and cellist Mark Schumann will explain, brothers who've been playing chamber music since they were kids then somewhere along the way added violist Liisa Randalu.
The Big News of their 2019-2020 Season has already been the announcement, on September 3rd, that the quartet won the European equivalent of a Grammy, the Opus Classical, for their 2018 recording, “Intermezzo,” featuring string quartets by Robert Schumann (aha!) and Felix Mendelssohn, plus works by Aribert Reimann (his Adagio in Memory of Robert Schumann and arrangements of Schumann's Op.107 songs for soprano and string quartet). The award ceremony was held in Berlin on October 13th.
Here's Berlin Classics' official trailer for this recording:
Mozart (in Dresden) 1789
Mozart's Fugue from the K.546 Adagio & Fugue is not a typical example of Mozart's typical style. Already, in the 1780s' “Classical” era, the Fugue was an old-fashioned throwback to the Baroque Age of the 1720s and usually associated with the music of the largely forgotten Johann Sebastian Bach. Even by the time Bach was organizing his epic collection, The Art of Fugue, the idea of writing fugues had become a purely academic exercise for students to learn counterpoint, the discipline of writing multiple voices (or instrumental lines) each of which can be heard independently as horizontal “lines” (not to be confused with “melodies”) but which must also work within the vertical harmonies.
And what we have, here, is essentially Mozart writing “exercises” in his pursuit of contrapuntal skills, having been introduced in 1782 to the then little-known fugues of the Bachs – JS as well as his sons WF & CPE – by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, diplomat and Imperial Librarian, along with some of the oratorios of George Frederic Handel. It was in December of 1783 that Mozart wrote his Fugue in C Minor for two pianos, K.426 in Köchel's catalog of Mozart's works, ostensibly for his friends gathering at van Swieten's.
While this work – the added-on introduction a dramatic set-up for the fugue to follow – is often performed by a string orchestra, here is the Kontras Quartet to play Mozart's “Adagio & Fugue in C Minor, K.546”:
The “Adagio” is fairly brief, something emotional to contrast with the eventual texture and intellectual involvement required for the fugue. You could listen to the fugue the same way – on a purely emotional level – but you might also appreciate it a little more knowing a bit of what goes into it.
So, at 2:42, the fugue “subject” (or theme) begins and is taken through its paces as anyone would expect a fugue subject to go through, a series of sequences (starting on different pitches to avoid the stagnation of literal repetition) with contrasting elements.
Then, at 3:48, the 1st violin begins playing the subject “inverted” – the downward intervals now going up and vice-versa.
At 4:16, the cello plays the original version but is “answered” a few seconds later by the 1st violin playing the inverted version. But at 4:54, the 1st and 2nd violins are playing the subject together, but the 1st violin is playing the original version against the 2nd violin's inverted version.
In this sense, the fugue is something like a discussion between different members of the quartet, each taking up the “subject” in their own way, perhaps offering their own ideas, maybe adding a little more information, but always coming back to the main topic. Then, somebody says “well, wait a minute, look at it from this perspective” (inverted) and then things really get overheated.
At 5:13, the viola begins the original version but the 2nd violin starts playing it ahead of where we'd've expected it (jumping the gun), not coming in consecutively but overlapping, a technique called stretto (this term comes from the Italian for “stress” since it causes an increase in tension between the music and our expectations). Seconds later, the cello and the 1st violin come in, doing the same thing so that all four instruments are playing the subject but now not only with original and inverted statements but in stretto!
Though Mozart's not done yet: there are still more technical details to be “shown off” in the increasingly complex texture created by only four instruments – “complex” in the sense that usually Mozart's listeners in the 1780s would expect one instrument playing a melody while the others play the harmonies as an accompaniment (not to mention in a toe-tappingly pleasant rhythm). To them, this “old-fashioned” Baroque style was not only unfamiliar, it was regarded as intellectual (“dry as dust”) and, generally, unpleasantly academic. (As one 19th Century critic defined it, a “fugue was where the voices come in one after the other and the audience goes out one after the other.”)
Now, why would Mozart write such a thing? To show off? Did he write it for van Swieten's elite circle of Bach Fans gathering regularly on those noontime Sundays? Probably most of his typical audiences wouldn't be aware of what he was doing much less appreciate how terribly difficult it was to compose it, coming up with a subject “theme” that not only harmonizes with itself (the original plus its inversion), but can also harmonize with each other in the stretto sections where the melodies and harmonies have to overlap perfectly! Trust me, as a survivor of counterpoint classes, this is not easy...
Now, consider this: Mozart finished his arrangement of this fugue and entered it in his own thematic catalog on June 26th, 1788. What else was he working on that summer?
Those last three magnificent symphonies, in particular the great C Major Symphony known as the “Jupiter” which ends with one of the most amazing minutes in all of Classical Music.
Here is five-voice counterpoint (not technically a fugue) based on five different, independently identifiable “thematic motives” heard throughout the finale (first consecutively and then in various combinations) which are now heard switching from voice to voice, practically frolicking over each other until all five “motives” are heard simultaneously over the span of a mere few measures, still running from one instrument to another, overlaid in an incredible mosaic before that final, joyful conclusion – which he completed on August 10th, 1788.
Aside from the fact this is the only example of successful “quintuple invertible counterpoint” in existence – yawn if you must but not even Bach wrote one – Mozart does it in such a way you're hardly even aware he's done it. While scholars will be amazed, those listeners completely ignorant of such technical details will simply be enjoying themselves in a rippingly joyous finale, bopping their heads, recognizing (yes!) when this or that motive rolls by, and applauding vociferously at the end without having a clue why this music is so amazing.
If you have a spare 15 minutes, please check out this video and follow the colorful analysis of the motives and their various manipulations in the course of the last movement of what, alas, turned out to be Mozart's last symphony.
All of this is merely to point out what must have been going through Mozart's mind as he planned these three symphonies: preparing himself for the ending-to-end-all-endings he wanted for the third one. Did he return to this fugue he'd composed a few years earlier to hone his “Bach chops”? And then, in a magical transformation, he created something for his symphony (finished only 45 days later) so thoroughly Mozartean, it is easy to forget how nearly impossible his achievement was, turning Baroque Dust into Classical Gold.
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And while all of that might be a lot to digest for a six-minute piece of music, it's a marvelous set-up for the next work on the program, Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, written in the mid-1920s.
Many listeners today still tend to listen to music much as Mozart's audiences did, looking for something enjoyable (“entertaining”) and preferably familiar enough in style they can latch onto it. To a late-18th Century audience not used to baroque-style fugues, the idea of listening linearly to anything more complicated than a tune with a nice accompaniment would've been a challenge. Here, they needed to listen for shapes and fragments – those motives that become the fugue's subject – not recognizable tunes or things they could hum as they leave the concert, and react not to satisfactory simplicity but to tensions and variety created out of the complex juxtapositions of these shapes and fragments.
Enter Alban Berg.
Alban Berg in 1927
As Arnold Schoenberg would develop more systematically his “method of composing with 12 interrelated pitches” into the 1920s (later to be more succinctly known, for better or worse, as “serialism”), Berg never became as committed to it as his teacher-turned-mentor was, nor as doctrinaire about it like his fellow-former-pupil, Anton Webern, would be. Berg, with his richer textures and more emotional “world-sound,” was considered too loose with the theory, more “romantic” than Webern who was, with his sparser textures, more “classical.”
There was also the famous description of these three leading composers of what became the “2nd Viennese School” – Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern – as “the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” One has only to compare Berg's operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, not to mention the Lyric Suite, to any of Webern's later, serial works to understand the difference in their approaches: Berg's in the emotions expressed in his music, Webern's with its intellectual logic and abstract forms (even calling it the Lyric Suite avoided the baggage an abstract title like “String Quartet No. 2” would have brought with it).
Yes, the Lyric Suite, begun the year after a concert suite from Wozzeck was premiered before the opera could find a house that would stage it, and completed the year before he began work on his second opera, Lulu, is, as one of Schoenberg's later pupils described it, “a latent opera.” Each of its six movements is like a different mood or a scene – even the tempo indications make use of words like “jovial,” “amorous,” “mysterious,” “ecstatic,” “appassionato,” “delirious,” “shadowy,” and finally “desolate.” And while some of them are “openly serial,” others are not, free with not only the rules but even the concept, a flexibility that makes you wonder why he bothered with something so “rule-bound” at all.
I love how one serial composer analyzed the opening movement and described how it's constructed on this particular 12-tone-row (an ordering of pitches that would form the basis of its linear and harmonic language), therefore labeling it “serial” and yet another scholar says “it is freely atonal”! So if two experts cannot agree on something as significant as that, how are you, a mere listener without a PhD in music and probably without perfect pitch, supposed to listen to it? Well, simply: the same way you'd listen to Mozart or Beethoven!
Are you going to sit through a Mozart quartet or a Beethoven symphony and keep track of the chord progressions, the modulations to new and different keys, what degrees of the scale are more prominent than others? No – and Berg (and Schoenberg) wouldn't expect you to listen to their music that way either. Yet very often that's all anybody ever talks about when “describing” (or analyzing [sic]) this music! (Drives me nuts!)
If you're unfamiliar with this music, listen for shapes and patterns rather than tunes and easily defined forms – that's something common to Mozart, Wagner, Berg, or Xenakis – how they create variety yet manage to unify the music, how they build tension and release it (by moving through more dissonance to less dissonance, everything being relative), how rhythm propels us forward or helps resolve the other elements of music to create some sense of arrival.
Above all, listen here for your emotional response to the music: yes, the opening is “perky,” and yes, the misterioso has passages referred to by some as “insect music” that should, if played properly, make your skin crawl (perfect for Halloween). And that quote from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in the last movement, if you catch it and its reference to illicit love, should make you think “is there something going on here behind the music I should be aware of?” Does the fact it opens so jovially and ends with a reflection of that undulating wisp, dissolving to nothing (“fade to dark”) that ended Wozzeck (as the child sees his mother's murdered body but doesn't know how to respond) – does that mean anything? (“Latent opera,” indeed!)
Here is a video complete with score with the 1970 live performance by the Juilliard Quartet:
00:00 - I. Allegretto gioviale
03:09 - II. Andante amoroso
09:26 - III. Allegro misterioso – Trio estatico
12:43 - IV. Adagio appassionato
19:05 - V. Presto delirando – Tenebroso
24:00 - VI. Largo desolato
The Suite was officially dedicated to Alexander von Zemlinsky and was inspired by his Lyric Symphony of 1923 which, at one point, Berg quotes from, though today most people, unfamiliar with Zemlinsky's large-scale vocal symphony, would be hard-pressed to identify.
But what I haven't mentioned, yet, is the “other thing” everybody talks about, nowadays, with this particular piece of music. It's not just a string quartet, an abstract suite in six movements. While there are many clues to the “inner meaning” of the music – whether what it may inspire in the listener or what, in the composer, might have inspired it – there was nothing quite so revealing as “The Secret Score” discovered in January, 1977, about fifty years after the work was completed, and over forty years after the composer's death.
It seems, despite the appearance of Berg's “perfect marriage,” he was having an affair with Alma Mahler Werfel's sister-in-law, Hanna Fuchs. Whatever their relationship was, it was apparently more than that of an artist and his muse. When we talk about suspecting programmatic elements in music but, of course, nothing can be proven because “we don't know what was in the composer's mind at the time he wrote it,” here, in fact, we do. In one of the letters he wrote to her while composing the amoroso movement, he says, “Even an unsuspecting listener will feel, I believe, something of the loveliness that hovered before me, and that still does, when I think of you, dearest.”
Being a composer interested in both the emotional and intellectual in his music, he created motives out of intervals representing their initials – his was A–B-flat (actually, “B” in German notation) and hers was B–F (B being “H” in German notation, if you remember your B-A-C-H motive). Also a fan of numerology, her number was 10, his was 23: among the various ways he would express this was in the tempo's very precise metronome markings, where one could be a multiplication of his number (therefore, music representing him) and another, a multiplication of hers; sometimes, a tempo could be a common multiplication of both their numbers.
Most curious was a set of sketches for the Suite which musicologist Douglass Green (whom I'd had the pleasure of studying with at Eastman back in the early-70s) studied in 1976 in a Vienna library. There were curious markings over certain pitches in the last movement – this had already been noted before but no one could make sense of what they meant – but somehow (and I'd love to know what inspired Dr. Green to make his conclusion) he figured out this was a secret melodic line, something hidden in the music, moving through various instruments, which eventually led him to decipher it as a setting of a Baudelaire poem, De profundis clamavi (“Out of the depths I cry”), intended as a private message shared only between him and the work's true dedicatee. This was later borne out in the “secret score” discovered only months later by George Perle, a gift that belonged to Hanna's daughter who had no idea what she had (talk about “Antiques Roadshow” moments) and which has since led to performances of the Suite with a soprano brought in for the last movement, singing this line, superimposed over the printed notes that had been played how many times and listened to by how many people who, previously, had no idea it existed.
In fact, the Schumann Quartet will be performing the Suite with a soprano at Alice Tully Hall on Friday night, but it will be just the quartet here in Harrisburg, though I've had this mental image of somebody somewhere in the middle of the church who would suddenly begin singing along as if the music rose up out of the depths to float over the secret world Berg had created in one of his greatest – and certainly most personal – works...
If you want to read more about this aspect of Berg's life and music, you can read one of my blog-posts about Lulu and the role Berg's widow played in suppressing both the quartet's original manuscript and the final, unfinished act of the opera.
And that should be more than enough for you to better appreciate a work that can fall under the heading, “The More You Know.” Do you need to know this to enjoy it? Not at all. But it gives me something to write about... (and, as the saying goes, "if I had more time, I would have written less." Or maybe not.)
So what might have prompted a 30-year-old musician trained for the life of a church organist and choir director to compose his first violin sonata?
With Brahms and his sonata-movement contributed to the “F.A.E. Sonata,” you've already read about his meeting Robert Schumann and how Schumann essentially launched the young composer's career. (Another game of “What If...?” would be to consider how that might have gone had Schumann not been dealing with health issues that would completely incapacitate his creativity at the end of his career.) This initial contact and support cannot be underestimated in Brahms' subsequent development.
Student Fauré, aged 19
As for Gabriel Fauré, one of the most significant influences in his life was Camille Saint-Saëns. Attending Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris (officially, the School for Classical and Religious Music) since he was nine years old, Fauré studied piano, plainsong (that is, Gregorian Chant), and composition with its founder, Louis Niedermeyer, who died in 1861. It was then that Saint-Saëns joined the faculty, introducing his students to contemporary music like Schumann, Wagner and Liszt.
(We may smile thinking Schumann was considered “contemporary music” as we normally imagine the term, but at the time he'd only been dead five years; Wagner's Tannhäuser and Lohengrin would have been included but three newer operas, already composed by 1861, would not be premiered until years later; Liszt would have been known by any number of his famous tone poems, the Faust and Dante Symphonies, and numerous piano pieces from the Hungarian Rhapsodies to the B Major Sonata. Why not Brahms? In 1861, Brahms was not yet the acclaimed composer he would soon become: 1861 was the year he completed the first two piano quartets which you might have heard at the first of Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2019).
To Fauré, then in his mid-teens, it was all a tantalizing discovery, this music that could be written outside the rules and regulations they were being taught in their classes.
When he graduated, Fauré became an organist in Brittany where after four years he was asked to leave, having sneaked out during the sermons for a smoke a few too many times and once showing up for mass still dressed in evening clothes having danced all night at a local ball. During this time, Saint-Saëns had urged him to continue composing – he had, after all, completed the Cantique de Jean Racine before graduation – but nothing survives, most likely pieces suitable for church services.
Eventually, after returning to Paris and seeing action during the Franco-Prussian War (during which the Emperor, Napoleon III, was overthrown). Later, he became choirmaster under the organist Charles-Marie Widor at Saint-Sulpice, one of Paris' major churches. Again, he wrote mostly utilitarian pieces for the services there, but few of these survive as well. Even during the war, when Saint-Saëns and Franck were writing elegies and patriotic odes, Fauré composed mostly songs with a more somber tone, but otherwise seemed not to be touched by the events of daily life.
Fauré attended the salon gathered around Saint-Saëns and there met other composers. He became involved in the founding of the “National Music Society” (it sounds so much better in French but then everything does), intent on rejuvenating a sense of national pride and identity following the disastrous war with Prussia. And then, in 1874, he became Saint-Saëns' assistant at the Madeleine Church, musically the most significant of Paris' cathedrals (many people went there because of the music), and later became the choir director there under Saint-Saëns' eventual successor in 1877.
Gabriel Fauré in 1875
Meanwhile, around 1873, Saint-Saëns introduced him to another salon, that of the singer and composer Pauline Viardot where he met not only other musicians but also writers like Flaubert and the Russian ex-patriot Turgenyev. Another significant acquaintance he made there was Marianne Viardot, one of the hostess' daughters, and soon Fauré was in love.
Now, when I'd discuss something like “what influenced Fauré to write his first violin sonata” (ah, what heady conversations we musicians have!), someone would probably say, “well, obviously he was modeling it on Saint-Saëns' sonata” or maybe Cesar Franck's (“I'll take French Violin Sonatas of the Late-19th Century for $100, Alex”). Unfortunately, when you point out Fauré completed his sonata in 1876 and Saint-Saëns wrote his in 1885, and Franck wrote his in 1886, their argument falls apart. (If you're curious, Brahms' first violin sonata to survive and be published didn't appear until 1879.)
On the other hand, in 1874 Pauline Viardot composed a Sonatine for Violin and Piano, the year before Fauré began his. I would imagine, as happened with so many musicians' salons, it would have been performed as part of the expected musical entertainment.
Without knowing what Mme Viardot's Sonatine was like – this should give you an idea – it's doubtful it would've had any stylistic influence on the young Fauré. But certainly someone – perhaps Marianne? – might have said to him after its performance, “you're a composer, you should write one of your own.”
And the joyous, light-hearted mood of Fauré's sonata might indeed have been inspired by the circumstances of being a part of the Viardot salon. Sometimes a composer needs little else to boost his self-confidence to find the necessary inspiration for his own abilities than a sense of acceptance, belonging. And of course, if he was in love with the hostess' daughter...? Composers have done less to gain a girl's attention (and then there was Berlioz and his Symphonie fantastique, but I digress...)
By the way, it wasn't until 1877 – after the sonata's successful premiere in January and officially becoming the choirmaster at the Madeleine Cathedral in March – that Fauré got up the nerve to ask permission to marry Marianne and received the family's blessing (perhaps the new-found creative success helped boost his self-esteem in other ways?). They became engaged in July, but unfortunately, without giving him any reason, Marianne broke off the engagement in October, leaving Fauré devastated.
You might think – as many listeners have – that the slow movement of the work he was composing at the time, the Piano Quartet No. 1, is a reflection of his mental state after, well, as he saw it, being dumped; that he wrote into this music all the heartache he had just experienced. While some composers certainly might have done something like that, this was not Fauré's style, wallowing in sorrow and self-pity: after all, in a short time he was composing the piano quartet's delightful scherzo and lively finale, so...?
Let's look at another degree of separation, here: in 1870, Pauline Viardot had sung the world premiere of the Alto Rhapsody of Johannes Brahms. He dedicated it as a wedding gift to Julie Schumann, Robert and Clara's daughter, with whom Brahms was working up the courage to declare his love when her mother announced the “good news” Julie was now engaged to an Italian count! It's a dark and desolate work inspired by unrequited love ending with the hope of consolation for the weary traveler – hardly a “bridal song,” as Brahms described it to Clara – but that's a long story and, as a direct consequent of the happy world of the Liebeslieder Waltzes, I'll save that for our May performance. Regardless, given Brahms' experiences in the spring of 1869, there's an irony, here, in what happened to Fauré regarding his engagement to Viardot's daughter eight years later.
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And now, to open the second half of the program, a short work that's a transcription of one of Fauré's songs, Les berceaux (“The Cradles”) which is a wonderful example of the composer's effortless simplicity and perfection.
First of all, listen to this recording by English tenor Ian Bostridge:
Le long du quai les grands vaisseaux, / Que la houle incline en silence, / Ne prennent pas garde aux berceaux / Que la main des femmes balance.
Mais viendra le jour des adieux, / Car il faut que les femmes pleurent, / Et que les hommes curieux / Tentent les horizons qui leurrent.
Et ce jour-là les grands vaisseaux, / Fuyant le port qui diminue, / Sentent leur masse retenue / Par l’âme des lointains berceaux.
(René-François Sully-Prudhomme, from Stances et poèmes: 1865)
Along the quay the great ships, / Listing silently with the surge, / Pay no heed to the cradles / Rocked by women’s hands.
But the day of parting will come, / For it is decreed that women shall weep, / And that men with questing spirits / Shall seek enticing horizons.
And on that day the great ships, / Leaving the dwindling harbour behind, / Shall feel their hulls held back / By the soul of the distant cradles.
(trans: Richard Stokes, A French Song Companion Oxford, 2000)
The simplicity and subtlety is typical of Fauré: he sets up an accompaniment in the piano, the rocking rhythms of ships in the harbor (without reading the poem, you sense quite literally cradle-like rocking) but against this and despite the poet Prudhomme's verbal rhythms, Fauré spins out a melody with subtle contradictions. Though published in 1882, the year you often see associated with it, it was actually composed in 1879, about two years after the premiere of the violin sonata and not too long after the end of his engagement.
There are various arrangements of the song available for different instruments. Here is violinist Artur Grumieux:
At less than three minutes, it's hardly a substantial offering on a “sonata program,” of sorts, but the effect of it, like those “palate cleansers” between the main courses of a fine meal, will be magical.
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And so we come to the final work on the program, the third (and final) of Brahms' violin sonatas, not counting however many of them he might have composed or sketched, discarded then destroyed since the days before he'd met Schumann 33 years earlier.
While I'd written a good deal about Brahms and his friends over the summer – and of course I would highly recommend them to you – I'd mention a little anecdote from Jan Swafford's excellent and frequently quoted biography:
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Among friends, Brahms in his fifties was jolly and joking as always, if still capable of galling insults inadvertent and otherwise. Strangers and hangers-on he held at bay, skillfully keeping the trials of fame from becoming a nuisance. Widmann noted the cunning with which he prevented lady pianists from gaining the bench to play for him. He was equally adept at evading autograph hounds, including the ones who asked him to sign for phony packages.
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In 1886, having finished his 4th Symphony the year before, Brahms was spending his summer composing holiday in Thun, Switzerland, where he worked on the 2nd Cello Sonata, both the 2nd and 3rd Violin Sonatas, the 3rd Piano Trio, and several songs which became the collections of Op.104 and 105, including one of his most ingratiating, “Wie Melodien zieht es mir.”
The songs were primarily intended for his friend Hermine Spies whose alto voice (if nothing else) Brahms found captivating (he wrote to his friend Kalbeck that summer, “I am now getting to the years where a man easily does something stupid, so I have to doubly watch myself” and he once more trotted out his tattered old joke about two things he'd vowed never to try: opera and marriage).
The mood of these lyrical, leisurely songs pervade the 2nd Violin Sonata whose opening theme bears a slight if uncanny resemblance to the opening notes of the “Prize Song” from Wagner's Meistersinger but while motives from at least three of his own songs figure prominently in the course of this tuneful sonata, it's hardly likely Wagner would have won a claim of plagiarism if he'd thought about it (there are, after all, only so many notes to go around).
Fast forward to the summer of 1888, by which time Brahms had completed no less than 31 songs as well as the Double Concerto, managing to patch up the painful break in his friendship with Joachim. But in the course of the year he had also alienated two of his closest friends, Pastor Widmann from his 1886 summer holiday, and Dr. Theodor Billroth. The 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto had failed to please even his closest musical friends – as for the ebullient 2nd Cello Sonata, a teenaged Arnold Schoenberg was not the only one in Vienna who found the opening “indigestible” – and Brahms was beginning to fear in his mid-50s he had written himself out.
Fortunately, when he sent his beloved Clara Schumann the newly completed D Minor Violin Sonata, she responded with her usual warmth and approval: on occasions when she was critical, it was quite possible that piece of music would never see the light of day again.
“I marveled at the way everything is interwoven, like fragrant tendrils of the vine. I loved very much indeed... the third movement which is like a beautiful girl sweetly frolicking with her lover – then suddenly in the middle of it all, a flash of deep passion, only to make way for sweet dalliance once more.”
It would be impossible not to read too much into these passages: Clara, the widow of a true Romantic, was always one to see music in picturesque images befitting her husband's penchant for writing “character pieces” which always bore evocative titles implying a story or a character behind the music. Brahms – and for that matter, Fauré as well – wrote short piano pieces, true, but they were always given abstract names with no programmatic implications. Whether this music was inspired by such thoughts or memories or ways of, perhaps, capturing a mood, we'll never know.
However, time is running out to post this before the recital, so between my incapacitating cold (you might want to back away from the screen) and infuriating computer issues, there's not enough time to get into some of the biographical details I wanted to explore – specifically the idea of "Fate" as an element in so many of his works, including this sonata, especially in the middle-section of the first movement with its ominous ostinato in the bass; and also the observation that D Minor was, for Brahms, his Tragic Key – but then no one really reads these, anyway.
So here are not one but two videos of the Brahms sonata:
Peter Sirotin suggested two historic recordings, one with Jascha Heifetz and William Kappell from 1950 – monaural and perhaps not the best balanced miking; the other with the 1960 stereo recording with violinist Henryk Szeryng and pianist Artur Rubinstein. But since it was difficult to choose, I decided to leave the decision up to you (or, if you have the time, listen to both of them).
Let's begin with Szerynbg and Rubinstein (1960 stereo).
And here is Jascha Heifetz and William Kappell (1950 monaural):
I will point out, for those interested in historical connections and anyone who enjoys playing “Six Degrees of Separation,” Rubinstein, born ten years before Brahms died, had played for Josef Joachim when he was a child, and Joachim was the violinist for whom Brahms composed his Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto, as well as the early “F-A-E” Sonata. When Joachim heard the boy play, he told his parents, "This boy may become a very great musician—he certainly has the talent for it... When the time comes for serious study, bring him to me, and I shall be glad to supervise his artistic education." Rubinstein was 4 at the time. When he was 10, Joachim arranged for him to study with Karl Heinrich Barth who was a student of Franz Liszt who'd studied as a child with Carl Czerny who was a piano student of Ludwig van Beethoven's.
(I should point out that one of Rubinstein's pupils was Ann Schein who played Chopin and Rachmaninoff concertos with the Harrisburg Symphony in recent seasons and who has been a teacher, mentor and friend to both Ya-Ting Chang and Peter Sirotin, the directors of Market Square Concerts.)
One of the great violinists of the day comes to Harrisburg to open Market Square Concerts' new season with a program featuring works by Johannes Brahms and Gabriel Fauré on Friday, September 20 at 8 pm.
Midori made her debut at 11 playing Paganini with the New York Philharmonic and, as Heifetz described it, "survived prodigism" to become one of the leading stars of today's musical firmament. Not only a major artist recognized around the world, she is also a teacher, arts advocate and a champion of education. A persuasive advocate of cultural diplomacy, Midori was honored for her international activism in 2007 when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named Midori a Messenger of Peace, and again in 2012 when she received the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum in Davos.
In the current state of the arts, major artists these days rarely need to appear in "smaller venues" around the country, limiting their concerts to major cities and orchestras. But Midori's foundation, “Partners in Performance,” supports not only her performances in smaller communities around the country but also creates performing and educational opportunities for emerging artists like Francisco Fullana who appeared here last season. Market Square Concerts is proud and grateful to be among the few recipients of this grant.
She and Lithuanian pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute will perform two sonatas and two shorter works by Brahms and Fauré: on the first half, there's Brahms' early work, the Scherzo from the collaborative "F.A.E. Sonata," written when he was 20, and Fauré's 1st Sonata, generally considered his first major work written when he was 30 but by no means a late-bloomer. On the second half, there's a transcription of a short song by Fauré and then, to conclude, Brahms' last violin sonata, the D Minor Sonata, Op.108, one of his last works.
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“For me, art, and especially music, exist to elevate us as far as possible above everyday existence.” – Gabriel Fauré
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While I've never found any source for that quote, it is beautiful, isn't it? And it certainly reflects his own often delicate style and what we, as musicians and music-lovers, hope to attain through music, that sense of “elevation” beyond the reality of our lives, not merely escapism but a fulfillment that completes us, not just a form of entertainment but something that sustains us once we return to the everyday.
Of course, a brief inspirational quote, other than being useful to serve as a pre-technological tweet-from-the-past on your Facebook feed, may not summarize the creative world of a great composer. In looking around for something comparable from Brahms, we might consider this exchange between the composer and the scientist who specialized in the study of acoustics, Hermann von Helmholtz, who attacked the dogmas of Western Musical Theory by arguing that “the system of Scales, Modes and Harmonic Tissues does not rest solely upon inalterable natural laws” as most music teachers will assert, at least initially, “but is at least partly also the result of esthetical principles which have already changed” as music had done from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Wagner, for instance, “and will still further change with the progressive development of humanity,” a scientific approach to music reflecting the going Darwinian attitude toward, well... almost anything.
The “fact” music could evolve with “taste and culture” implying “unheard-of things are possible” would have horrified the staunchly conservative Brahms who at the end of his life, examining new works by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, was convinced that, after him, music was destined for the cesspool. Naturally, an arranged meeting between Brahms and Helmholtz did not go well.
The composer talked of counterpoint and form, the scientist about “sine waves and spectra.” The scientist complained the artist gave him only “artistic musical answers to questions about scientific acoustical problems” and Brahms saw Helmholtz's constructs as “what music was about,” his “progressive development” of style the decline of art and humanity.
To this, Gabriel Fauré would have shrugged his shoulders, most likely. It is, in one sense, the stereotypical difference between German and French culture, the one being precise and well-defined, the other being vague with a certain je ne sais quoi (literally “I don't know what”). The one approach we might consider “rational, intellectual, Classical, Apollonian, Left-Brained,” while the other would be “intuitive, emotional, Romantic, Dionysian, Right-Brained.”
Brahms' ill-fated meeting with Helmholtz took place in 1885 around the time he was finishing work on his 4th Symphony. Curiously, most of Brahms' closest friends found the new symphony dry, academic, a convincing sign that their “old friend” – Brahms had recently turned 62 – was writing himself out. To us, there may be a whole world between the boiling Romanticism of his 1st Symphony and the lofty Classicism of his 4th, but his latest (and last) symphony came only nine years after he completed his first.
And only a year before be began work on his last violin sonata which concludes Midori's program.
I often prefer to talk about the works on a program in chronological order rather than how you'll hear them because in the continuum of a composer's development that context can explain a great deal (or maybe not), allowing you to listen to them within the context of the performance. But in this case, Midoi has chosen to perform them in chronological order, so let's begin with the earliest work, the “Sonatensatz” of Johannes Brahms, from the “F.A.E. Sonata.”
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First of all, what is all that Sonatensatz and F.A.E. stuff about?
It only means that it's a “Sonata Movement,” a fragment of a larger work, in this case the intended third movement of a work written “by committee.” Robert Schumann had the idea of writing a violin sonata as a belated birthday present for the young, up-coming virtuoso (already hailed as one of the great violinists of the day), Joseph Joachim. And, as the resident Master, he assigned the first movement to his student and assistant of the past two years, Albert Dietrich, while he would write the intermezzo of a slow movement and the finale himself. To his new friend and latest discovery, a young man named Johannes Brahms, he assigned the scherzo because one of the many pieces Brahms had shown him was his Scherzo in E-flat Minor, a demonic whirlwind that proved to be his first true success (everybody seemed to love it, even Franz Liszt, whom he'd just met before arriving at the Schumanns').
Collectively, they called it the “F.A.E.” Sonata. Schumann frequently used “musical cryptograms” in his music, spelling out a name in musical pitches to create a thematic motive he would then imbed in his melody. In this case, the pitches F, A, and E represented the “life motif” of Joachim himself who, having just broken up his latest girlfriend, decided he would remain “Free but Lonely.” In German, that's Frei aber Einsam. Therefore, F-A-E.
Now, how each of the composers used that as a melodic building block is not important: the reference on the title page was enough for the occasion.
And it was only just for The Occasion. Written for a musical evening at the Schumanns' home on October 28th, 1853, it was never intended for publication or professional performance.
When Joachim arrived, a day after his concert with Schumann in Dusseldorf playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto, he was looking forward to a “house-performance” with the great Clara Schumann at the piano. He was handed a basket of flowers by one of the guests, Gisela von Arnim, dressed in peasant costume. Her mother, Bettina von Arnim, a friend of Beethoven's and Goethe's and husband of the collector of fairy tales known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn, was also one of the guests.
But beneath the flowers, Joachim found a manuscript – a four-movement violin sonata he and Clara were now supposed to perform and, in the process, he was to identify the composer of each movement who were inscribed on the title page (in no particular order) by their initials only. Not surprisingly, he had no trouble doing so. Also not surprisingly, he sight-read the piece flawlessly.
It's worth pointing out that Gisela von Arnim was, at the time, Joachim's ex-girlfriend, hence his decision to remain “Free but lonely” (can you spell “awkward” as a musical motif?).
By the way, Schumann was then 43 – he would attempt suicide four months later – and Dietrich was 24. Joachim's 22nd birthday had been the previous June, and Brahms was all of 20.
Here is a recording of violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy performing the Scherzo (the “Sonata Movement”) by Johannes Brahms written for the “F.A.E. Sonata.”
(I have to laugh at the unsuspecting producer who, perhaps thinking "since scherzo means joke and it's usually a light-hearted, dance-like piece," decided to include this Scherzo on a collection called Chill With Brahms. Ah, marketing...)
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Brahms arrived on the Schumanns' doorstep on Sept. 30th but the composer was not at home, so he returned the next day. Under his arm were several piano sonatas (which Schumann described as “veiled symphonies”) as well as violin sonatas and string quartets (both in the plural). The rest, as they say, is history.
But in this month of October, 1853, consider the chronology:
= = = = = October 1st: The Schumanns hear Johannes Brahms playing his music for the first time. During the next few weeks, Brahms is a constant visitor at the Schumanns. October 3rd: Robert Schumann finishes his new Violin Concerto for Joseph Joachim. It's the same day Joachim performed his recent “Violin Concerto in One Movement in G Minor” at the Karlsruhe festival with Franz Liszt conducting. early-October: Joachim makes a brief visit to the Schumanns, passing through Düsseldorf, apparently in need of a post-Liszt antidote (he was beginning to drift more toward the Schumanns and away from his previous mentor, the avant-garde Liszt, two great poles of German music at the time). Shortly after this visit, Schumann comes up with the idea of the “F.A.E. Sonata” to be written by Dietrich-Schumann-Brahms to be presented to Joachim when he'd be playing in Düsseldorf later in the month. October 13th: writing to Joachim, Schumann said he was formulating his thoughts on Brahms whom he called “the young eagle,” and began writing an article for his magazine, Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the next day October 27th: Schumann conducted a concert (badly) with Joachim as soloist in the Beethoven concerto and Schumann's Fantasy for Violin & Orchestra, along with Joachim's “Hamlet” Overture (we tend to forget, these days, that Joachim was also a composer). Rehearsals the previous days had gone badly: Schumann was already exhibiting signs of the illness that would destroy his final years. October 28th: The magazine appears with its lead article, Neue Bahnen (“New Paths”) in which Schumann hails the arrival of the young Brahms, essentially anointing him “Beethoven's Heir.”
That evening, friends gathered to present Joachim his new sonata. (You can listen to the entire “F.A.E. Sonata” in this continuous audio clip with Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov.)
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Brahms, Oct. 1853 (at 20)
During this same month, another visitor at the Schumanns was the French painter, Jean-Joseph Laurens, who drew portraits of both Schumann and Brahms. His Brahms sketch includes a musical fragment from the E-flat Minor Scherzo. It is a rare opportunity to look at a portrait of a composer drawn quite possibly while he was working on the piece of music you're listening to!
Brahms never published his contribution. Joachim kept the manuscript and only published the scherzo in 1906, nine years after his friend's death. The whole sonata was not published until 1935 and it is rarely performed or recorded.
In the month after the Sonata's unveiling, Schumann decided to add two movements as a preface to his own Intermezzo and Finale to create his Violin Sonata No. 3 in A Minor. Joachim expressed his approval: “The concentrated, energetic addition fits perfectly with the other movements. This is now without a doubt a new whole by itself!”
But this third sonata, which Joachim and Clara performed several times privately, was never published in the remaining years of Schumann's life. Whether it was consciously suppressed like the Violin Concerto completed in October, I can't say – that is a story in itself and involves a ouija board – but even though it existed and was finally published and premiered in 1956, the Centennial of his death, it still is rarely included even in recordings purporting to be “the complete works for violin and piano” by Robert Schumann. One could argue it was not Schumann at his best – many of his final works show signs of decline in his talents as well as his health – but it's still an important part of his story.
(If you're curious, you can listen to the whole of Schumann's 3rd Sonata which includes the original manuscript for the first movement, here. (If you're wondering about the painting in this video, it's a view of Düsseldorf with the bridge from which Schumann threw himself into the Rhine on February 27th, 1854.)
Given Brahms penchant for destroying works that failed to satisfy him – what happened to those “violin sonatas and string quartets” Schumann mentioned in 1853? – we're lucky Joachim kept the manuscript for the “F.A.E. Sonata.” Since he never published it, it's very likely Brahms would have destroyed it, too. Perhaps these last works of Schumann's may have been a lesson to the young Brahms not to leave his failures lying around for other people to publish after his own death. Still, with a composer who destroyed a 5th Symphony and a 2nd Violin Concerto because friends of his didn't think as highly as he'd hoped of his 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto, we can only wonder what we've lost.
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This dramatic and rhythmically turbulent work, brief as it is, is followed by the Violin Sonata Gabriel Fauré composed when he was 30. The whole mood here is entirely different – compare Brahms' scherzo with the third movement of Fauré's sunlit dance, for example – but part of that is also the difference in the personalities of the two composers.
As his mentor Camille Saint-Saëns told him, while Fauré possessed every quality, he lacked one fault indispensable to every artist: ambition.
The Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op.13, was composed between 1875 and 1876, the same years Brahms was (finally) completing his 1st Symphony and Richard Wagner was (finally) completing his operatic cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung. And though he was already 30, Fauré had only just begun composing pieces that were not songs or short choral works, twenty-four in all. Still, anyone who could write the Cantique de Jean Racine as a 20-year-old student at a school primarily designed to teach future church musicians, was no late-bloomer.
Realizing he would be unlikely to make a living from being a composer, he focused primarily on being a church organist and choir director, teaching piano on the side and composing his songs for his own and his friends' enjoyment.
Then, in 1875, something changed, there's a choral and orchestra cantata based on Victor Hugo's Les Djinns and an orchestral suite, his first non-vocal work. The same year, he began, for no apparent reason, this violin sonata. It is hardly a youthful effort.
In this 1960 recording, we'll hear violinist Berl Senofsky and pianist Gary Graffman in Fauré's Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op.13.
1st Mvmt Allegro molto
2nd Mvmt Andante
3rd Mvmt Scherzo
4th Mvmt Allegro quasi presto
Its premiere the following January was one of the highlights of Fauré's career, his first great success.
But I said "for no apparent reason." Well, that may not be quite the whole truth...
Looking at that photograph of Brahms and nine of his friends taken “c.1894” (see previous post, here), there are several other close friends – some of them his closest friends – who are missing. Obviously not everyone could be “in town” for a group photo, whatever the occasion.
Brahms & Joachim, 1855
Other than Clara Schumann, there's the violinist Joseph Joachim, perhaps Brahms' oldest friend, going back to his youth in Hamburg, someone he'd met while still a teenager. Though books could be (and probably have been) written about their friendship and various musical collaborations – Brahms had composed his Violin Concerto for Joachim, after all – one particularly painful period of this friendship centered around Joachim's divorce in 1884. Brahms had sided with his wife, Amalie, an alto whose voice had inspired many of his songs; and Joachim viewed Brahms' testimony at the trial as the main reason he'd lost the case. A stony silence between them was broken only by the Double Concerto in 1887, a project (which included the Joachim Quartet's cellist, Robert Hausmann) that existed solely to bring old friends back together.
Regardless of this hiatus, they would rarely have had the opportunity to socialize in Vienna, since Joachim based himself and his quartet in Berlin where he was busy teaching as well as performing. But there had been many visits across the years involving music-making together or with Clara Schumann, often “trying out” some of Brahms' latest creations. In many ways, Brahms recalled those early visits with fondness throughout his life.
Joachim with Clara Schumann at the piano, Dec. 20th, 1854
Joachim and Brahms met in 1853, when Joachim was a student in Göttingen and his friend and former fellow-student in Vienna, Eduard Reményi, stopped by, bringing along his accompanist, this shy, 19-year-old composer. Joachim was overwhelmed by Brahms' music – the first two piano sonatas among other works that never survived – and they became close friends. In September, he had “sung the praises of Johannes” to the Schumanns, so Brahms' arrival may not have been totally unexpected, but they were still unprepared for his music.
And yet already, in 1854, Joachim was writing this to a friend of his:
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“Brahms is egoism incarnate, without himself being aware of it. He bubbles over in his cheery way with exuberant thoughtlessness – but sometimes with a lack of consideration (not a lack of reserve, for that would please me!) which offends because it betrays a want of culture. He has never once troubled to consider what others, according to their natures and the course of their development, will hold in esteem; the things that do not arouse his enthusiasm, or that do not fit in with his experience, or even with his mood, are callously thrust aside, or, if he is in the humor, attacked with a malicious sarcasm. This immediately raises a barrier between him and his companion, who has been rejoicing in the society of the happy, brilliant young man whose whole personality is stamped with intellectual power. I often had to summon my sense of justice to prevent the warmth of my feeling from cooling down. He knows the weaknesses of the people about him, and he makes use of them, and does not hesitate to show (to their faces, I admit) that he is crowing over them.”
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Hans von Bülow & Brahms
To keep this post from becoming a trilogy, much less a book-length selection, I'll skip over Brahms' relationships with two members of his circle, the critic Eduard Hanslick (who was included in this group photo) and the conductor and pianist, Hans von Bülow (who was not). I've mentioned Hanslick's role as the Keeper of the Flame in the pro-Brahms camp of the “War of the Romantics,” and I think I'd already mentioned Bülow, champion of Wagner turned champion of Brahms, who'd given the world premiere of Franz Liszt's Piano Sonata and also Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, and who conducted the first performances of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger. He also premiered Brahms' 1st Symphony, once it was finally ready, which he hailed as “Beethoven's Tenth,” even coining what eventually led to famous slogan “The Three Bs” – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.
Hanslick, Brahms & Billroth
Instead, I want to focus on a less-well-known friend, not a musician, also missing from that photograph. Theodore Billroth was a surgeon by profession and a keen amateur pianist and violinist who once did research into the scientific analysis of musicality (not necessarily of musicianship or musical talent), identifying various “amusical” conditions as tone-deafness as well as rhythm- and harmony-deafness which suggested some of the different cognitive skills involved in the perception of music. (Unfortunately, he was not able to complete his studies before he died.)
Billroth first met Brahms when he heard the composer playing Schumann's Piano Concerto and some of his own piano pieces in Zurich in 1865, where he was then teaching and practicing as a surgeon. In addition to music – especially for Brahms' music and against Liszt's – they shared a passion for hiking in the mountains and talking about a wide variety of subjects. When he became a professor of surgery at the University of Vienna in 1867, Billroth and Brahms became close friends, quite possibly Brahms' closest friend who was not a professional musician.
In April of 1878, Brahms, Billroth, and Karl Goldmark took off for an Italian holiday, a four-week dash through Florence and Naples where Brahms and Billroth, at Clara Schumann's request, visited her very ill son, Felix. He was the last of her eight children, born shortly after Robert's attempted suicide, and named in tribute to their late friend, Mendelssohn. A poet whose poetry Brahms had set to music, much to his mother's delight, Felix would die of tuberculosis the following January at the age of 24. In Naples, Goldmark left them to return to Vienna while the others went on to Rome.
Again, in 1881, Brahms and Billroth, this time with Gustav Nottebom, the Beethoven scholar, visited several places including Taormina in Sicily where Brahms, enjoying the local wine, was “in ecstasy” as Billroth wrote home to Hanslick. The surgeon had to return home and left Brahms and his newly discovered love of Italian wine in Venice where this very serious composer was rescued at the last minute before he strolled into a canal. One of his souvenirs of this trip was a notebook of sketches that found their way into the second half of his 2nd Piano Concerto, especially the sunny finale.
But, as with many friends, there was more than one falling-out that was difficult to repair. In November, 1892, during some of the festivities celebrating Billroth's fiftieth semester at the university, the surgeon invited Brahms to a special dinner and hoped he would play some of his recent piano pieces (presumably Op.116) so he could give them a second chance (he had disliked them on first encountering them which had annoyed Brahms). The composer was in a gruff mood, “muttered into his beard” during much of the dinner, then refused to go to the piano, only playing something else entirely once he did. Asked if that was Bach, he sneered, “Bach, Massenet, or me, what difference does it make?”, rising “imperiously” from the piano. The evening never recovered. Of course, Brahms never apologized and Billroth, already ill and unwilling to deal with such behavior any more, wrote to his daughter, “in any case, this evening has deprived me of any desire to undertake anything similar with Brahms again. He really makes it very difficult for one to keep on loving him.” It was the last time Brahms ever visited his friend's home.
Billroth's illness may have been his excuse or it may have been the continued ill-feelings between them, but Billroth did not join in on the next (and last) vacation Brahms took in Italy during the spring of 1893. It was probably just as well: Brahms spent his 60th birthday sitting beside his injured traveling companion, Josef Widmann, another close friend, who'd broken his leg in a fall (knowing, had his foot not gotten caught in an iron rung, the fall would have killed him). Brahms joked with him "If there's any sawing to be done, I'm your man," explaining how Billroth had described many of his operations to him. Small comfort, I'm sure, but at least a bit of levity to lift a friend's spirit.
In one of his last letters to Billroth, Brahms committed yet another one of those typical gaffes of his that upset the man in his last days. After Billroth died in February, 1894 – six days before the death of Hans von Bülow – Brahms, feeling guilty about this, avoided joining in with the funeral procession, instead walking the back streets to the cemetery with Max Kalbeck, his future biographer, reminiscing about the good times they'd had together.
When the painter Anselm Feuerbach, a mutual friend of theirs, died in 1880, it was Billroth who suggested Brahms write a choral tribute to him, but also suggested, in a round-about way, it could also be written to be sung at his own eventual funeral. And since, like Brahms, he was not religious, he suggested something “not too pious.” After returning from Italy, Brahms completed the piece in the summer of 1881, having found a suitable text on the recommendation of Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, Schiller's poem, Nänie, a mourning song with its opening line, “Even the beautiful must die.” Like the German Requiem, it is intended to console the living rather than mourn the dead. Brahms sent a copy to Billroth, saying he'd not forgotten their discussion the year before, hoping he'd like it. So far, I've found no record if it was ever performed in Billroth's honor after his death.
For any of my readers in the medical profession, I'd like to point out, if you don't already recognize the name, Billroth is known as the “father of abdominal surgery,” in the 1870s performing the first esophagectomy, the first laryngectomy and the first successful gastrectomy. By 1876, he had performed thirty-three operations “excising” rectal cancer. Clearly not just another amateur musician who had a lot in common with Johannes Brahms!
I'd initially wondered “where were people like Billroth or Bülow in this photo?” Had there been some kind of estrangement between Brahms and Billroth at the time? Yes. Perhaps Bülow was out-of-town? In fact, he'd gone to Cairo, but not for a performance. Now aging and plagued by intense headaches caused, it turned out, by a brain tumor, he'd recently resigned from the Berlin Philharmonic and sought the warmer, drier climate of Egypt, hoping it would ease the pain. He died there ten months after his last performance.
Now I knew: only months before this photograph was probably taken in 1894, both of these friends had died, both at the age of 64.
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Consider the clarinetist Mühlfeld's presence, here: it likely has something to do with the premiere of the sonatas Brahms had completed for him that summer. That premiere took place in Vienna in January of 1895 – close enough to “c.1894” – but consider this: the first private performance took place before the Duke of Meiningen (at whose court Brahms had often “tried out” new works before their official Viennese premieres, and where Mühlfeld was the principal clarinetist) in September of 1894. And then again, privately, for Clara Schumann in November.
It was at that November visit we get another first-hand description of Johannes Brahms – in my first post, about the two piano quartets finished when he was 28, there is a description of him by his landlady that summer. This time, it's from Clara's teenaged grandson Ferdinand (now living with her and some of her daughters, following his father's death), in awe of meeting the famous family friend. He thought Brahms was shorter and stouter than his photos – Brahms had just sent one to Clara taken with Johann Strauss, looking youthful and chipper, standing beside Brahms looking considerably older though Strauss was eight years older. Ferdinand was also fascinated by the mustache, gray on one side “and fiery red on the other.”
Daughter Eugenie was astonished how “full of life the house seemed as soon as Brahms set foot in it,” no doubt recalling the Old Days when a much younger Brahms had been a daily part of their family life. He regaled them with jokes and stories about an operation that Billroth had described to him, or telling them about Dvořák's new pieces, or how Joachim, who'd sleep like a log when they were touring together, was a terrible card player. They read through the clarinet sonatas with Mühlfeld, Clara turning pages, smiling.
But one day, during this visit, he angrily complained “I have no friends! If anyone tells you he is my friend, don't believe him!” “But,” Eugenie countered, “friends are the best gift in the world. Why should you resent them?” He only stared back at her “with wide haunted eyes and said nothing.”
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Brahms had a reputation among his friends as a practical joker, most of which were enjoyed by those friends who were not the subject of them. One of my favorites concerned the noted Beethoven scholar who had published a study of Beethoven's nearly indecipherable sketchbooks. Gustav Nottebohm, who'd studied in Leipzig where he knew Schumann and Mendelssohn, met Brahms in 1862 and remained close friends until his death forty years later. In addition to his pioneering work in Beethoven Studies, Nottebohm also devised a thematic catalogue of Schubert's works
Though totally forgotten as a composer today, most of the music he wrote was in the realm of chamber music and works for piano. In a letter to Heinrich von Herzogenberg in 1876, Brahms mentioned Nottebohm in the same sentence with Schumann among the modern practitioners of variation form.
Anyway, Brahms, who was also a collector of composers' original manuscripts, took an old piece of music paper and “expertly faked” what looked like a sketch by Beethoven which, once you deciphered it, turned out to be a popular tune of the day. Bribing a food vendor to give Nottebohm a hunk of cheese wrapped in this manuscript paper, Brahms sat back and watched as Nottebohm unwrapped the cheese, examined the wrapper, put on his spectacles and, “his eyes popping,” slipped it into his pocket “with a sly air” before strolling away, munching “barehanded on the greasy cheese.” There is no record of Nottebohm's reaction once he discovered the identity of the tune, but, as they say, Brahms “dined out” on that story for quite some time.
Brahms also had a reputation for making cruel and often hurtful remarks even to his dearest friends. One could explain it as a lack of a “social filter,” or simply of empathy. There are numerous examples of such clueless behavior including many written to Clara Schumann who found them especially painful; but considering Karl Goldmark was represented on the second of this summer's concerts, I'll use a particularly odious one directed at this good friend.
Brahms appreciated what made these Viennese friends of his imminent in their field, but he also needed companions who could “light up a cigar and down a few glasses and make a back room ring with gossip and good talk and manly laughter.” Considering the make-up of Vienna at the end of the 19th Century, many of these friends were Jewish: Joseph Joachim, Eduard Hanslick, Julius Epstein, Ignaz Brüll, Karl Goldmark, Eusebius Mandyczewski, the baritone and composer George Henschel and, later, Gustav Mahler. Toward the end of his life, responding to the antisemitism that had become endemic in Austrian politics, Brahms growled, “next week I'm going to have myself circumcised!”
So it is uncomfortable to read this anecdote about Brahms and Goldmark even with that context.
Goldmark was a gentle, mild-mannered man who found himself frequently the butt of Brahms' often narcissistic comments. He'd once told another friend, “Goldmark is such a terrific guy, both as a man and a musician, [but] the only trouble is he's so sensitive I can't go without teasing him. I'm often sorry aftewards; still, he... ought to know how to take a joke.” Once, when Goldmark received a highly regarded state prize, the Order of Leopold, something Brahms had also received, Brahms was unrelenting in pointing out he himself was the “superior” of the two winners. Another member of the circle who observed much of this noted how Goldmark was often “on edge” in Brahms' presence.
One such incident, perhaps the final straw, took place at a dinner hosted by Ignaz Brüll when several of the other guests began complimenting Goldmark on his recent setting of a psalm translated by Martin Luther, when Brahms piped up “Don't you think it extraordinary a Jew should set Martin Luther's words?”
Despite the pin-drop silence and Goldmark's obvious pallor, Brahms, completely oblivious to his friends' discomfort, went on and on about the “impropriety” of setting things outside one's own faith until, apparently, the dinner came to an abrupt end. (I have this image of Brahms looking around, totally clueless, going “what! What'd I say!”) And as Brahms never apologized for the remark – apparently the only antisemitic remark of his to be recorded – Goldmark still avoided him for “a long time” after that and eventually moved out of Vienna to the lakes and hills of Gmunden, closer to Salzburg, as if to give himself a little breathing room.
To be fair, in 1895, Brahms was commenting on the serious political change happening in Vienna, he and his friends apprehensive about the future. The long liberal rule of the city's government had come to an end with the election of the right-wing Christian Social Party which “mixed populism, socialism, and pandering to the antisemitic instincts of both the working class and the German-speaking Catholics and aristocrats,” as Swafford explains it. “With [Karl] Leuger's victory, successful politics in Austria became antisemitic by definition, from then until Hitler.”
In fact, Leuger came to power much the way Hitler would in Germany, first by becoming second-in-command (as Hitler would first become Hindenburg's vice-chancellor), then inevitably moving ahead into complete power. “Brahms barked across the table to his friends [at their favorite hang-out, Zum roten Igel (the Red Hedgehog)]: 'Didn't I tell you years ago that it was going to happen? You laughed at me then and everybody else did, too. Now it's here, and with it the priests' economic system. If there was an “Anticlerical Party” – that would make sense! But antisemitism is madness!'”
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Rocking a Fellinger Tie
While musicians naturally tended to gravitate to Brahms' personal circle, I want to tell you a little about the Family Fellinger. Richard Fellinger, according to Jan Swafford's biography of Brahms, was “another prosperous music-loving industrialist” and his wife Maria “a painter, sculptor, and photographer” who, in addition to being “a Hausfrau who cooked a marvelous Metzelsuppe (a Swabian peasant dish), also knitted him the kind of socks his mother used to.” She also made many of his favorite ties: in one of the more familiar photographs of Brahms, he is sporting one of Frau Fellinger's ties.
The family settled in Vienna in 1881, moving from Berlin where one of their friends was the cellist of Joachim's quartet, Robert Hausmann. They met Brahms shortly afterward. Maria's mother had been a singer and a composer – imagine, another “woman composer”! – admired by Mendelssohn both as a singer and a singer-of-her-own-songs. Before, Brahms had set to music several poems of her father, Christian Reinhold.
Brahms w/the Fellinger sons
Imagine this domestic scene: Brahms on the floor of the Fellinger home, perhaps at one of those Sunday dinners that became such a ritual at the time, playing with the family children who'd greet him with cries of “Onkel Bahms!” This photo (see left) of Brahms with the now-grown-up sons, Richard (junior) & Robert Fellinger, was taken at the Fellinger's Silver Anniversary celebration in mid-June, 1896.
Brahms & Marie Soldat, 1895
Frau Fellinger took several candid photos of Brahms, many in the garden of their home, like the one with the violinist Marie Soldat. She was a student of Joachim's when Brahms first heard her play when she was 15 around the time he was writing his violin concerto, and in 1885 she would become the first woman to play it, in fact the only woman to play it for many years. In 1895 she formed the "Women's String Quartet" whose violist was Natalie Bauer-Lechner who was a friend of Gustav Mahler's between 1890 and 1901 and whose journals provide a unique picture of Mahler's personal, professional and creative life (there's a long story, there, but let's leave it at that for now). A little over a week before Brahms died, Marie's quartet and Richard Mühlfeld were going to play Brahms' Clarinet Quintet for him (more on that below). Marie died in 1955, but there is a recording made in 1920 of her playing the Adagio from Ludwig Spohr's 9th Violin Concerto (with piano) which you can listen to, here.
Robert Hausman, Brahms, Maria Fellinger (1889?)
Perhaps the most famous of Frau Fellinger's photographs are those taken in the family music room with Brahms and the cellist Robert Hausmann. It was here they "tried out" the new 2nd Cello Sonata for some friends and quite likely where they read through Antonín Dvořák's recently completed Cello Concerto shortly after the composer returned from New York City in 1895. While the photograph is quite dark – the heavy draperies, the wallpaper, Frau Fellinger's dress, the ebony Streicher piano, even Hausmann's cello – you can make out the portrait on the prominently-placed easel. It was common to represent someone who couldn't be present or who had "recently departed" by placing their portrait within the frame. In this case, the absent friend is Clara Schumann, her portrait apparently based on a London photograph taken in March, 1887.
It's too bad Frau Fellinger didn't take any photographs on December 2nd, 1889, when Theo Wangemann, a recording engineer (apparently the first ever recording engineer!) working for Thomas Edison, visited the Fellinger's to record Dr. Johannes Brahms. He had already recorded German chancellor Otto von Bismarck and Field-Marshall Count Helmuth Karl von Moltke who, incidentally, led the Prussian army to victory in the 1864 War against Denmark mentioned in the post on Niels Gade.
According to one of Fellinger's sons, the first voice recorded was an identifying introduction by engineer Wangemann, followed by Brahms saying "In the home of Herr Doktor Fellinger, I am Dr. Brahms – Johannes Brahms." His intention had been to play the Op.79 G Minor Rhapsody (dedicated to Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, btw) but the set-up had taken so long, Brahms had become impatient, so he played two lighter pieces instead: a bit of his Hungarian Dance No. 1 and a popular polka by Josef Strauss, Die Libelle ("The Dragonfly").
The sound quality has understandably deteriorated over the years, mostly from simply being played – still, imagine listening to the voice of Moltke, a man born in 1800! (listen to some of them, here) – but in this video you can hear the raw original sound, then hear the piece as played in a modern recording, then the 1889 audio with a reinforced melody line followed by the original audio once again. As a bonus, there's a recording of the same Hungarian Dance Brahms had played, recorded by Joseph Joachim in 1903. Yes, the audio is barely audible under all the distortion, but imagine actually listening to Brahms playing the piano!
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But Maria Fellinger did more than just cook dinners and take photographs of Brahms.
When Brahms' long-term housekeeper at Karlsgasse No. 4 died in 1887, it was Frau Fellinger who found him Celestine Truxa who became his housekeeper until his death. That night, Frau Truxa came home and was met by her sons, alarmed by the stranger in the living room, measuring their furniture. The stranger announced himself as Herr Doktor Brahms and he was delighted to find her furniture would fit into his houskeeper's apartment next door to his own.
Brahms' Apartment (note bust of Beethoven) Photo by Maria Fellinger
Max Kalbeck described Brahms' apartment as sunny and smelling of coffee. The grand piano's lid was always kept close to mute the sound of the instrument in deference to his neighbors, and on its top he would display a collection of medals and various mementos. The walls were adorned with various paintings including a print of Raphael's Sistine Madonna over the couch and a portrait of Bach over his bed.
Perhaps intended as a joke, given its presentation, is the large white plaster bust of Beethoven overlooking the piano's keyboard, as if keeping an eye on the composer as he worked. Remember his quip, years before when talking about why it took so long for him to complete his 1st Symphony, about what it was like trying to write a symphony hearing the tramp of a giant like Beethoven behind you? Well, there is Beethoven – still – looking over his shoulder!
There was also a portrait of Luigi Cherubini (not easily visible on the far left side of Maria Fellinger's photo), which I found a surprising choice, but Brahms identified with him, “a once-famous craftsman the world was determined to forget.” However, if you know the famous Ingres painting of Cherubini being inspired by his muse, you might be surprised Brahms found the muse “ridiculous” and cut a piece of cardboard which he used to cover her up. Perhaps Brahms was saying “a craftsman does not rely on inspiration,” despite the role of Clara Schumann and Elisabeth von Herzogenberg in his own life?
Near the bust of Beethoven, Brahms placed a bas-relief of his hero, the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck, surrounded by a laurel wreath (remember the anecdote I mentioned in a previous post regarding his infamous visit to Copenhagen and the party hosted by Niels Gade in 1868?).
One winter (February, 1892?), the Fellingers had installed electricity in Brahms' apartment, much to his surprise and initial displeasure. It consisted of a kind of track-lighting lamp hanging from the ceiling which could be moved between the piano keyboard and the table beside it where he kept his coffee-maker. There was a similar set-up in his library, as well. You can see the lamp in the photograph above.
In the left-side corner, one can see a bit of Frau Truxa's rocking chair which Brahms always directed a guest to sit in (especially attractive young ladies). Perhaps rocking chairs were not a familiar item to the Viennese, but Brahms delighted in seeing his guests thrown back in surprise, legs (and presumably skirts) flying, or thrown forward and dumped on the floor, knees first. In another corner was a firescreen he would sometimes hide behind when guests arrived (especially unannounced), then startle them with “a burst of fiendish laughter.”
(In May, 1933, the newspaper Wiener Bilder or “Vienna in Pictures” published an article celebrating Brahms' Centennial and included an illustration of "Brahms at Home," along with an interview with Frau Truxa. You can read it here in the original German.)
Not only was Frau Truxa a good housekeeper, she also acted as a go-between with her employer and the immediate wider world. A woman who lived downstairs, in an attempt to impress her famous neighbor, would frequently play his music – badly – which drove Brahms to distraction. Considering his level of diplomacy, when he spoke to her about this, the result was, she hired a conservatory student to come in every day to play for hours – loudly. It was Frau Truxa who, extolling the virtues of the zither (which she herself played), convinced her it was better to fire the student and take up the zither, even offering to throw in free lessons. However gullible the neighbor must have been, it worked, and peace was again restored to Karlsgasse No. 4...
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Clara Schumann, 1894
Even with Clara Schumann, his dearest and closest friend for over 40 years, there had been these occasional dust-ups in their letters – since they were rarely ever in the same place for very long – especially over her constant need to concertize. He had advised her to cut back on this for the sake of her children, failing to understand it was the only way she could put food on the table for her children (and then, after two of her sons died, her grandchildren who'd come to live with her). One of the richest living composers at the time thanks to his Hungarian Dances and a little thing called “Brahms' Lullaby,” Brahms had arranged a “secret fund” through his publisher to be sent to her to help her financially: she would have been too proud to accept it directly as mere charity.
Fourteen years his senior, Clara's arthritis soon made it difficult and eventually impossible to play in public. For her old age, Brahms composed those wonderful, “autumnal” piano pieces – four sets, Op.116-119 – and sent them to her as he'd complete each one. One of the first ones he'd sent her, the Intermezzo in B Minor (actually one of the last set to be published, Op.119) so delighted her: “that bittersweet piece which for all its discords is so wonderful.” She called it “a gray pearl.” In the end, these were a great solace to her, and her eldest daughter Marie, now her mother's care-giver, often heard her playing them in the solitude of the music room.
If it had not seemed like it before, in May of 1896 Brahms' world began to fall completely apart. Through a series of misunderstandings and mistakes, Brahms missed receiving the telegram informing him of Clara Schumann's death and, between its being forwarded to his summer vacation spot and then missed trains and misinformation, he barely made it to Clara's funeral in time. The anxiety was bad enough, but the emotion of the unexpected news, of his arriving just as the procession had started (she would be buried next to Robert), and his subsequent exhaustion initiated a tailspin in his own health. He had just turned 63 and rarely ever been ill, but that summer he was diagnosed as having jaundice and also had to suffer the indignity of dentures. He had aged considerably over the past few years – he always looked older than he was – but now, he aged even more quickly.
Richard & Maria Fellinger, Brahms, probably Robert Hausmann; standing Richard (Jr.) & Robert Fellinger
On June 15th, 1896, Brahms attended the Fellingers' Silver Wedding Anniversary party. Here, Richard Fellinger gallantly kisses his wife's hand, their sons, Richard (junior) and Robert, looking on. The man on the far right, often cropped out of the photo in other sitings on-line, is unidentified, but looks to me like the cellist Robert Hausmann. Brahms looks considerably “shrunken and strained.” Given the context of that year's events – Clara's death, his own failing health – perhaps one can understand Brahms was not merely “having a miserable time” as one site light-heartedly captioned this photo.
Then, in September, Brahms gave in and made a reluctant visit to Karlsbad, a famous health spa, where he began working on some organ chorale preludes. The weather was good, he wrote friends, he felt he was responding to treatment, being told this jaundice had “no further significance.” Another specialist there examined Brahms on his arrival and diagnosed “cancer of the liver” (the same disease that killed his father) but Brahms had requested the doctor not to tell him anything unpleasant, and so he kept his word.
The last photo Marie Fellinger took of Brahms: in her garden, 1896
In March, two weeks after hearing his 4th Symphony at the Musikverein, Brahms went to visit a friend who's organized a rehearsal of his recent clarinet quintet for him, including the clarinetist he'd composed it for, Richard Mühlfeld, and Marie Soldat and her Women's String Quartet – but when he got there, he said he'd heard his own piece often enough and would prefer they play Weber's B-flat Clarinet Quintet instead.
Taken home by his friend Max Kalbeck, his future biographer, and a first-hand source for many of the anecdotes we know about Brahms' personal life, Brahms never left his apartment again. Writing a few notes to friends, including his still-surviving step-mother in Hamburg, his last note was to his friend Ignaz Brüll, informing him he would not be able to make the dinner set for the next day.
Ten days later, he died, a little over a month before his 64th birthday.