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“You, Herr Doktor, are the greatest Schimpfoniker in the world!”
That's what one friend of Brahms, a theater critic visiting him during a summer holiday, told the composer, known for his put-downs and numerous, presumably unintentional social faux-pas that would put Sheldon Cooper to shame. It's essentially a pun on “Symphony-Composer” and the verb schimpfen, to insult, abuse, revile, affront, use bad language, or scold. As Max Kalbeck related it in his biography, Brahms roared with laughter.
Johannes Brahms may be regarded as one of the Great Composers – it was in 1877 his friend, conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow, came up with the statement that lead to “The Three Bs” – but he had a reputation for being something of a jerk. And it's probably a good thing they didn't have Twitter in those days...
A case in point concerns the first composer on Summermusic 2019's last concert, this Wednesday at 7:30 at Market Square Church: Niels Gade, known as “The Danish Mendelssohn” or “The Mendelssohn of the North” (marketing slogans did not necessarily begin with Madison Avenue in the 1950s).
|Brahms & Stockhausen (1870)|
Brahms, a native of Hamburg and only recently transplanted to Vienna, remained a staunch German nationalist throughout his life and a keen supporter of the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck who would eventually bring about the unification of all those various German lands that for over a millennium had resisted forming itself into a German nation. In 1868, Denmark, an already tiny nation compared to the mighty state of Prussia, was still smarting from having lost its southern province, Schleswig-Holstein, to the invading forces of Prussia and their Austrian allies only four years earlier, following the second war over the territory in the past sixteen years.
Talking to various well-placed admiring music lovers of the Danish capital and not a few important dignitaries, Brahms began professing his passionate support for Bismarck (whom the Danes saw as “The Enemy”) and apparently oblivious to their “open-mouthed” stupefaction at these remarks, went on to suggest (“perhaps playfully”) it was “really a shame the main museum for Thorwaldsen's sculpture” – a Danish sculptor who died in 1844 and was revered as a cultural hero – “was in Denmark rather than, say, Berlin.” Since the implication was, Berlin was clearly a superior artistic center than the Danish backwater of Copenhagen...
He was met by sustained and frigid silence. In a few minutes, he had extolled the virtues of their enemy and proposed kidnapping one of their artistic treasures. The response was an immediate scandal with “indignant” editorials in the kingdom's newspapers, even some satirical poems, resulting in the rest of their Danish tour being canceled and Brahms taking the first boat out of town back to Germany. It was years before anyone would perform Brahms' music anywhere in Denmark!
As if his own empathy wasn't already in question, he told a friend on his way back to Hamburg, “I've made so much money I won't need any more for a long time, so I couldn't care less.”
Gade first met the then 18-year-old Brahms in July of 1851, two years before he would meet the Schumanns. Back then, Brahms the Teenager had already written a lot of music, very little of which survives, and we know some piano pieces (including the E-flat Minor Scherzo, later published as his Op.4) as well as a piano trio and a duo for cello and piano that have not survived were on the program at a house-concert given at the home of some family friends in the Hamburg suburbs with their guest Niels Gade.
(In hindsight, it's curious to note, despite Gade's reputation and his friendship with the Schumanns, there was nothing forthcoming here to advance the young man's career or studies. Brahms' introduction to Robert Schumann was completely unsolicited or even forewarned: he simply showed up unannounced on their doorstep one September afternoon with a whole sheaf of manuscripts under his arm. The rest is history.)
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First of all, the music you'll hear on this program Wednesday night is not often played. It's is also “prime Gade,” composed when he was a well-established composer in his late-40s, around the same time he wrote his 7th Symphony. Listening to this symphony, which I'd not heard before posting this, I hear lots of Schumann from his “Rhenish” Symphony, premiered in 1851, but – dare I say it? – find Gade's more effortless and sincere, especially in the way he treats the orchestra (something that was always admittedly a struggle for Schumann).
The sextet is in the usual four movements, its very Mendelssohnian scherzo placed second for better contrast with the outer movements. If this music does remind you of Mendelssohn or Schumann, remember, he knew both of them personally when he lived in Leipzig in the 1840s and worked with Mendelssohn as his assistant conductor for a few years. I'm also pretty sure he'd have known first hand that glorious Octet of Mendelssohn's, no doubt one of the finest pieces ever written by a teenager. Conscious or not, not bad models for a composer to be influenced by.
This performance of the complete sextet is with a group calling itself the Baltic Neopolis Virtuosi.
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While I doubt the Danes would refer to Mendelssohn as “The Niels Gade of the South,” they remain proud of this leading composer of their 19th Century cultural history; and while many Americans would be hard-pressed to name a Danish composer beyond Carl Nielsen, hearing a little bit of Gade's music would be good for broadening our own Euro-centric awareness.
Born in Copenhagen in 1817 – sixteen years before Brahms – the son of an instrument maker and carpenter, Niels Gade studied the violin, became a member of the Royal Danish Orchestra, an institution proudly tracing its roots back to the court musicians of the mid-15th Century. Gade was 24 the year they gave him his first public performance, a symphonic poem, Echoes of Ossian, but when they turned down his 1st Symphony (called “On Sjøland's Fair Plains,” that may be because he uses a tune from a song by that title in its first movement, rather than its being descriptive of an area on the eastern shore of the Jutland peninsula just north of Schleswig-Holstein), the young composer sent it off to his idol Felix Mendelssohn, conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig (in what was then the Kingdom of Saxony). Mendelssohn was duly impressed and gave the work its premiere in 1843 when it received an enthusiastic reception.
|Gade in 1844|
Instead, he started doing in Copenhagen what he might have done in Leipzig and politics not intervened: he founded a music society which included a new orchestra and chorus, one of the preeminent musical organizations in the country, and re-founded the old conservatory much in the vein of Mendelssohn's Gewandhaus school, becoming its director in 1867 (the year before Brahms' unfortunate visit). As a teacher, he gave considerable significant advice to an otherwise disillusioned young Norwegian would-be-pianist back from studies in Leipzig, Edvard Grieg, in 1863. In 1868, while vacationing in Denmark, Grieg wrote his Piano Concerto in A Minor which would raise him to super-stardom in the world of classical music.
|Niels Gade in 1882|
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And last, but (given the relatively obscure status of Gade and Goldmark with today's American audiences) not least, we come to the concluding work in this summer's series, “Brahms Beyond Borders.”
|Young Dohnányi lighting up...|
As with most composers, life does not begin at Op.1. With Beethoven, there's a whole treasure-trove of early unpublished works – those “WoO”-pieces (from “Werk ohne Opus”) – where we can see the teenaged Beethoven working hard to become the composer we recognize by the time he published his Piano Trios Op. 1 in 1795 at the ripe age of 24. And with Dohnányi, Grove's mentions (in parenthetical passing) “67 juvenalia works” written before that Op. 1 Piano Quintet which got Brahms' seal of approval. In fact, Brahms was so enthusiastic about the young Hungarian-born composer – he was not always so encouraging and more often far less supportive – he arranged for its premiere in Vienna.
And don't you think it's unlikely young Ernő showed up with only one piece in his folder? Consider the precedent of Dvořák practically flooding the committee for the Austrian State Prize in 1874 with some fifteen different works (which got more than Brahms' attention) or the 20-year-old Brahms showing up at Schumann's door, then playing through his armload of sonatas and scherzos, “veiled symphonies,” Schumann called them – writing in his journal that night, “Visit from Brahms (a genius).”
Whatever Brahms may have told young Dohnányi, there are two things to make note of: he revised the string sextet in 1896, and, in 1897, he petitioned the Royal Hungarian Academy of Music in Budapest to take his senior exams a year early, receiving his Artist's Diploma in three rather than four years. From there, he went off to spend the summer studying with Eugen d'Albert and soon made his debut as a concert pianist in Berlin. So it's quite likely Brahms' reaction had a positive impact on the boy's future.
|Dohnányi in 1905|
There was no Hungarian “school of music” inspired by Hungarian folk music then – in the sense we think of it today, led by composers like Bartók and Kodály. In fact, there was very little awareness of what real Hungarian folk music was: to the world, Hungarian folk music meant the Gypsies who aren't ethnically Hungarian anyway. Yet largely through the gypsy-inspired music of the Hungarian-born Franz Liszt and his “Hungarian Rhapsodies” and the likes of Brahms' “Hungarian flavorings,” this is what most music lovers still think of as “Hungarian folk music.”
Case in point: the opening measures of Dohnányi's Sextet. It's a motive that almost sounds like it's going to turn into a folk song but then, by the time it cadences, it's more like a folk-song transcribed and arranged by a German. Thirty seconds in, we're in Full Brahms Mode.
It's in the traditional four movements, recorded by the aptly named Budapest String Sextet:
1st Movement: Allegro ma tranquillo
2nd Movement: Scherzo: Allegro vivace
3rd Movement: Adagio quasi andante
4th Movement: Finale: Animato
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In an earlier post, I'd mentioned the confusion that exists in labeling composers born in various parts of this Austrian or Austro-Hungarian Empire as Hungarian or Czech or German. It's important to understand that to many Hungarians, the German-speaking Austrians were like an occupying army; and their enforcement of German as the official language, tantamount to cultural repression of their own culture. (This of course happens everywhere, it seems, in the different non-Russian parts of the old Soviet Union, or even with the English in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland over the centuries.) Many viewed basing your musical language on your own ethnic folk music as an act of resistance, just as speaking your native language in public might, at various times and places in history, have been illegal. Governments trying to "assimilate" minority populations often repressed the teaching of that language, history, and culture in schools, hoping, with time, it would die out.
And into this, Ernő Dohnányi is a case in point.
At the time of his birth, his hometown was part of Hungary (within this ethnic conglomeration of an empire) and called Pozsony which, to the Austrians, was officially Pressburg. After World War I, it became part of Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia) and then it was renamed Bratislava. All the same city.
His family styled its name according to German principles: he was born Ernst von Dohnányi (the “von” signifying an aristocratic background regardless of their current social or financial status, having been enobled in 1697). His music was published with his name in German, he continued using the German form even after he emigrated to the United States and on his tombstone he is Ernst von Dohnányi. His son, Hans [Johann] von Dohnányi, became a lawyer in Berlin before World War II but despite meeting Hitler and having a responsible position in the government's justice department, made connections with and worked for the Resistance. He and his wife were arrested after it was discovered he had transferred money to a Swiss account to help some of the Jews he had helped escape, and he was executed by the Nazis (hung, it is said, with piano wire...). Of his two sons, the composer's grandsons, one became the mayor of Hamburg, West Germany, in the 1980s, and the other, the famous conductor and former director of the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi.
|Dohnányi, Bartók, Kodály|
Of the three composers associated with “Hungarian Nationalism” in the 20th Century, Dohnányi made less use of ethnic Hungarian folk music in his works than did Bartók or Kodály: to many, he was neither Hungarian enough nor modern enough. He focused his energies on conducting, teaching, and in being the director of the Budapest Academy of Music after World War I when Hungary became independent in 1919, soon replaced by government officials when he refused to fire Professor Kodály for his leftist views, but then reappointed in 1934. As a conductor he championed Bartók's and Kodály's music as well as Leo Weiner's (especially daring, since Weiner was Jewish) and became celebrated as an interpreter of Beethoven. Before World War II, much of his energy was spent trying to counter the growing Nazi influence: he resigned his directorship and disbanded the Philharmonic rather than submit to the government's anti-Jewish legislation.
|Dohnányi & Bartók on a train, before World War II|
In 1949, then, he settled in Tallahassee where he taught at Florida State University, becoming an American citizen in 1955. He died in 1960, shortly after a recording session of some Beethoven Sonatas in New York City.
It is more common, now, to see his named styled in the Hungarian form as Ernő Dohnányi (dropping any claim to Austrian-based aristocracy as well).
Just as the argument “what makes an American composer American” can never be answered satisfactorily, does the use of Hungarian folk music (even if it's not really Hungarian) make one a Hungarian composer? Does that make Brahms a Hungarian composer because he used gypsy tunes and dances in some of his works (not to mention those wildly popular Hungarian Dances of his)? Does the fact Dohnányi wrote his “American Rhapsody” in Tallahassee in 1953, quoting the likes of “Turkey in the Straw,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” and “Poor Wayfarin' Stranger,” make him, officially, an American composer?
But then just quoting a bunch of tunes is not the same thing as basing your musical style on the essence of your own ethnicity's folk music, absorbing it into the very core of your musical voice – as many late-19th Century Russians did, as Smetana and Dvořák did, as Bartók and Kodály did. However, just because a young boy in Budapest was influenced by the great Brahms, whether or not it was because this was the “voice” of the official language and culture that politically dominated his country then, does not make him a German composer either.
– Dick Strawser