Monday, July 8, 2019

Brahms Beyond Borders, Part One: Two Piano Quartets

Brahms in Vienna, 1863
Who: Pianists Stuart Malina and Ya-Ting Chang, violinist Peter Sirotin, violist Michael Stepniak, and cellist Fiona Thompson
What: The First Concert of Summermusic 2019: Brahms Beyond Borders with the first two Piano Quartets of Johannes Brahms: No. 1 in G Minor, Op.25 and No. 2 in A Major, Op.26.
When: Saturday, July 13th, 8:00 pm
Where: at the (air-conditioned) Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg, PA

If you haven't already noticed, summer is here and the 4th of July is history, and while students may be counting so many days into their Summer Vacation as teachers count the days till the Start of School (it's all about perspective), the three concerts of Summermusic 2019 are upon us. The series' theme is “Brahms Beyond Borders,” exploring the world of Johannes Brahms, one of the great composers of the 19th Century, and some of the composers he influenced who lived around his adopted city of Vienna.

This weekend's first concert features two of Brahms' “early” works, the 1st and 2nd Piano Quartets, both completed in 1861 when he was 28. How different can two large-scale works be, written for the same combination of instruments, written basically at the same time? Well, come on in and find out!

In this post, you can hear live performances of both works - including a talk by the ever brilliant Bruce Adolph at Lincoln Center - and read a little bit about the works' biography and how they fit into Brahms' Life.

Top: Stuart Malina, Peter Sirotin, Ya-Ting Chang; Bottom: Michael Stepniak, Fiona Thompson

In the spring of 1861, Johannes Brahms, about to turn 28, returned to his hometown of Hamburg, a major port on the Elbe River in the north of what was yet to become the modern nation of Germany (it's a long story). Already recognized as a pianist and a composer, his plan was to conduct the Philharmonic in a program that included his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, playing his own very popular violin concerto (known as the “Hungarian” Concerto since it employs many elements of the traditional gypsy style of his native Hungary) and – since in those days, orchestra concerts also included chamber music as “interludes” – a Beethoven violin sonata. The goal was to impress the good people of Hamburg and more importantly those on the Philharmonic's board so they would hire Johannes Brahms, hometown boy made good in the wider world, as their new music director.

He also teamed up with an old friend of his, the baritone Julius Stockhausen, collaborating on three song cycles (Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann), and played chamber music in the houses of other old friends. After one of these gatherings, another old friend, Frau Dr. Rösing, described him in a letter to a friend:

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[He was] “of medium height, and delicately built, with a countenance beneath whose high, fine brow were set flashing eyes, with fair hair combed back and falling down behind, and an obstinate lower lip! An unconscious force emanated from him as he stood apart in a gay company, with hands clasped behind his back, greeting those who arrived with a curt nod of his fine head.”
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Dr. Elizabeth Rösing was also Brahms' landlady during his extended summer stay, offering him fine rooms in the country suburb of Hamm (as opposed to the cramped quarters of his family's home where Frau Brahms, proud of her returning son, often interrupted his composing to introduce him to people who would stop by to see the house were the famous musician lived). In return for this – since she didn't want to charge him any rent – Brahms dedicated his brand new A Major Piano Quartet to the good Frau Doktor. (Therefore, one could dub this concert, "Brahms Beyond Boarders.")

I mention these details because – first of all – most of us have an image of Brahms as the cigar-chomping stodgy man with the great mane and shaggy beard. (We also tend to be surprised to find he died about a month before his 64th birthday.) Plus there is the idea Brahms led an uneventful life, certainly compared to the likes of Beethoven (he was always being compared to Beethoven!) which didn't stop Jan Swafford, himself a composer, from writing an excellent and eminently readable biography on Brahms, published in 1997 and weighing in at almost 700 pages. Yet, by comparison, his more recent biography of Beethoven clocks in beyond the 1100-page mark and is maddeningly lacking in details on certain pieces of music and how they fit into his time-line, as if every detail of The Great Man's Life could be contained within the covers of a book...

In addition to the two piano quartets on the program, both of which “date” from this same summer of homecoming, there is one other event to make note of: that job at the Philharmonic? Much to Brahms' dismay, the board eventually decided to give it to Julius Stockhausen, his friend the singer, instead. As a result, Brahms was so – what, disappointed? embarrassed? angry? – that he left Hamburg and decided to settle in Vienna where he then made his home for the rest of his life.

Listening to this music, then, it is interesting to think “What If?” What if Brahms had gotten the Philharmonic gig and stayed in Hamburg as a busy conductor of a major orchestra? Would he have had the time to compose as much music as he did? He would never have settled in Vienna, the musical capital of Europe at the time which inspired so many of the great Germanic composers like Mozart and Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler who chose to live there (keep in mind the only native members of those various “Viennese Schools” were Schubert and Schoenberg). Would he – and this is a considerable “if” – have written more than four symphonies?

Because these two piano quartets are fairly early in Brahms' career, there is little we need to consider about his later career – those symphonies, in particular – but since the whole series of three concerts this summer is called “Brahms Beyond Borders,” it is significant to point out that Brahms' influence on composers of the wider world might also have been different, had he stayed in Hamburg. Without Vienna where he held court as one of the Greatest Living Composers – two facts: conductor Hans von Bülow created the phrase “The Three B's” [please excuse that apostrophe] as a marketing tool; Brahms was the richest living composer in Vienna thanks to those ever-popular Hungarian Dances of his and a little something we call “Brahms' Lullaby” – would he have been able to influence the composers on the remaining two concerts: Goldmark and Dvořák, Gade and Dohnányi? (But more of that, later...)

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The 1st Piano Quartet is easily the most popular of the three piano quartets, if only because of its zinger of a finale – a crowd-pleaser if there ever was one. You often read about how Brahms loved hanging out at the smoky taverns of Vienna to hear the gypsy dance-bands – the 19th-Century equivalent of New York's 1920s jazz dives – but his love of this gypsy style, usually considered (incorrectly) as the folk music of Hungary, goes back much farther than his Vienna years.

Reményi & Brahms, 1852
Speaking of “great events” in his biography, it was in Hamburg when Brahms, then still a teenager, heard the violinist Eduard Reményi (despite the “é,” the accent is still on the first syllable). Born into a Jewish family in Hungary named Hoffman, he styled himself “Reményi” to sound more Hungarian (if not less Jewish in an anti-Semitic world) and he'd studied in Vienna where a fellow violin student was his friend, Joseph Joachim. Banished from Austria for his part in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, he settled in Hamburg where there was already a sizeable community of Hungarian ex-patriots. There, he became an established violinist and met Brahms, then 15. But pursued by German authorities for his political involvements, Reményi fled to the United States the following year, returning to Hamburg a year later when he asked Brahms to be his accompanist for an impending tour.

While one might wonder “what if Reményi had stayed in America,” two things resulted from this collaboration – no, actually three:
(1.) Since Reményi's “native Hungarian” gypsy pieces always featured on his programs, Brahms was introduced to a style that would become a considerable influence on his own music: while finales to the G Minor Piano Quartet, the 2nd String Quartet and, most famously, the Violin Concerto, among others, were wild Hungarian dances (exotic, as far as the German public was concerned), he also wrote his own wildly popular Hungarian Dances which, as I mentioned, helped make him one of the richest musicians in Europe.
(2.) Through Reményi, he met the violinist Joseph Joachim, also a Hungarian by birth, whose popular “Hungarian” Violin Concerto was all the rage (when he saw the G Minor Quartet's finale, he told Brahms he'd “out-Gypsied” his own best efforts!).
And not inconsequentially, (3.) Brahms got to see the wider world (at least outside his hometown) and was introduced to such luminaries as the leaders of avant-garde music of the day, Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, who both took an interest in the budding composer (Brahms had so far only published a few works: three piano sonatas, and a short piano scherzo which Liszt felt showed promise) and who tried to convert him to their “New Paths,” an effort which failed but in the process galvanized Brahms into the forefront of the conservative wing of Romantic Music.

If he had not met Reményi, chances are Brahms' future would've been very different: he might not have met Joachim who introduced him to Schumann who hailed him as “Beethoven's Heir” or to Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of the age (the antithesis to Franz Liszt), who championed his music and became part of one of the most complicated relationships in Classical Music that would last up to her death in 1896, less than a year before his own.

While the 2nd Piano Quartet also has “elements” of the gypsy style in its finale, it's not quite so over-the-top as the G Minor. Clearly, even while writing them back-to-back, Brahms is not interested in writing cookie-cutter compositions, but, as any composer worth his salt – pardon the culinary metaphors – would do, trying to find different ways to solve similar problems, how to approach each individual movement, from the simplest to the most complex structural elements as well as the melodic and harmonic contours of the music itself. Given the simple melodic shapes you hear at each piece's outset, how could he turn this unassuming material into greater and ever more complicated building-blocks, whether we know what we're responding to or not.

So while you're tapping your toe and nodding enthusiastically to Brahms' take on Hungarian dances in the finales – especially the G Minor's Rondo alla Zingarese (Rondo in Gypsy Style) – or imagining distant vistas and emotions while awash in the intensity of his slow movements, think about all these various influences on Young Brahms, both musical and biographical, a man here in his late-20s, one who would later become a major influence on composers not only in Central Europe but also England and America where, it seems, every composer who wanted to be anyone would imitate the style of Johannes Brahms.

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Like most multi-movement instrumental works based on what we call “Sonata Form” – like the symphony, concerto, or string quartet – both of these piano quartets are in four movements: an opening “sonata” movement (very serious); two “middle” movements which usually are a contrasting slow movement, then something that would've been a scherzo in Beethoven's day (replacing the minuet of Haydn and Mozart's day) except in the G Minor this “inner order” is reversed, and in the A Major, he writes a more leisurely Intermezzo instead; and, to conclude, a lively, happy-ending finale.

In this performance, the G Minor is performed by violinist Christian Tetzlaff, violist Tabea Zimmermann, cellist Clemens Hagen, and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.
(please forgive any embedded ads between movements...)

Here's the A Major Quartet with violinist Boris Brovtsyn, violist Maxim Rysanov, cellist Torleif Thedéen, and pianist Itamar Golan, recorded at the Utrecht Festival in 2011.

We can see these two works are something of a pair: the G Minor is Op. 25 and the A Major is Op. 26, after all. They're usually said “to have been composed in 1861” when, more accurately, they were completed in the summer of 1861. We tend to think that means they were written one after the other or, perhaps, simultaneously.

Point of fact: the G Minor was premiered in November of 1861 in Hamburg with Clara Schumann and Brahms would make his debut as both composer and pianist in Vienna with it later that year, in November. Another point of fact: the A Major wasn't premiered until November, 1863, in Vienna. Yet another point of fact, in case you're thinking those “Op. Numbers” have anything to do with the chronological order of the works in question: his next composition, the Variations on a Theme of Handel, completed in September, 1861, is Op.24.

But as is typical with Brahms, when a piece was composed doesn't mean that's when he began working on it. After all, one famous story about Brahms is how he took twenty years or more to write his First Symphony. Well, we usually think that means he'd spent over twenty years working on the Symphony in C Minor, finally finished in 1876. The reality is he spent over twenty years starting and stopping work on a number of symphonies (or potential symphonies that became other things), any one of which might've become his first symphony (note the use of lower case, here). In fact, the very first theme he'd written down and identified as “intended for a symphony,” a great leaping theme full of anger and energy, was in D Minor and eventually become the opening of his First Piano Concerto. The theme had been jotted down in 1853 shortly after – as a response to? – his newly-met would-be champion Robert Schumann threw himself into the Rhine just months after young Brahms (then barely 20) had showed up on his doorstep unannounced with an armload of pieces to show him (including piano sonatas Schumann called “thinly-veiled symphonies”).

Violinist Joseph Joachim, the man who'd suggested he seek out Schumann in the first place, told a friend the ideas for Brahms' G Minor and A Major Quartets “traced back” to 1855 and the days of an unfinished C# Minor Piano Quartet. This work, like many of Brahms' abandoned pieces – later, Brahms told young composers when they would come to him with armloads of works to show him, the composer's most important tool was the wastebasket – anyway, this piece spent so much time on a back-burner, it wasn't until 1875, a year before the 1st Symphony was considered complete, those initial sketches turned into the C Minor (no longer C# Minor) Piano Quartet No. 3, Op. 60, even though, technically it was the first one to be started – well, the first one to be started and eventually completed – again, “twenty years in the making!” Considering he'd also said he'd written enough music for twenty string quartets before he finished his 1st String Quartet (also) in C Minor, his Op. 51, No. 1 in 1873, who knows how many other attempts at a piano quartet there may have been along the way?

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In lieu of a pre-concert talk, especially for any geeks who want to get more into the structural details of what you'll be listening to, I can offer you nothing better than one of Bruce Adolph's talks about Brahms' A Major Quartet (or at least its first movement) given at Lincoln Center with, among other performers, pianist Anna Polonsky who will be appearing with the Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio on Market Square Concert's March 2020 program.

One technical thing I want to mention is the concept of the “Brahmsian developing variation” – the idea that something is continually growing and changing without being either technically in the “development” section of the sonata form (that unsettled and perhaps unsettling middle bit where “anything goes”) or an outright variation of the idea. This is something Schoenberg used as the basis of his idea of composing with 12-tones (a.k.a. “serial music”) but he wrote about how he learned it from Brahms who learned it from Schubert and Beethoven (who started “developing” their musical material almost as soon as it was presented) but more specifically from Bach. This is how Brahms can write a piece that lasts around 50 minutes compared to, say, symphonies Mozart or Haydn might have composed a hundred years earlier that lasted less than half that time, and yet are still “the same form.”

Regardless of what level of musical geekery you've attained, if you have time for nothing else in this talk – it's the first 50 minutes of this video (which again is just about the first movement!) – listen to Bruce Adolph explain this concept by offering his own Brahmsified developing variation of none other than “Happy Birthday” (from 46:52 to 49:30).

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Because we have Beethoven's nearly indecipherable sketch-books which show the excruciating process of moving from an initial, often flimsy idea to the final, usually perfect-seeming eventuality (which to us would sound inevitable), we think we know how composers work. And yet Beethoven was a very different composer from Mozart whose manuscripts – even his rough drafts – show how effortless it was getting this music down on the page and, then, with few corrections. What we don't know is that Mozart was one to compose in his head: he would work out ideas mentally, work on them so far, perhaps run into a problem, put them aside, maybe noodle around on the piano a little (“improvising,” part-and-parcel of a pianist's life in those days) or go play some billiards, then – aha! – a solution would come to him and he'd write it out, already complete. It's not INSPIRATION! and it comes to him in a flash, but the whole process of working it out was internalized, and the end result has already examined and discarded various possibilities before he even put pen to paper.

Brahms was, basically, a bit of Mozart and a large chunk of Beethoven in this process. One difference, however, was Brahms never talked about it and he destroyed not only works, finished or unfinished, that did not meet his approval (or his friends'), he periodically burned all his sketches, once a work was deemed complete. He would come up with an idea – take the first four notes of the G Minor Quartet – and maybe hum them to himself while he was out for a walk (like Beethoven, he enjoyed walking) and along the way, come up with a way of expanding those notes not only into the first few measures of the piece, but as it continues to evolve in the course of the opening section. He might, in some cases, jot these down and then put them aside, not sure how he might use them or what piece they'd end up in. Later, something might present itself without his having worked it out consciously. Remember the old adage, if you can't make a decision, “sleep on it”? It's much the same way Brahms composed.

While I don't consider myself a Composer – the way I was a piano-player but never a pianist – I have composed (and I'm currently working on a piano quintet which owes a great deal, at least provisionally, to Brahms and his (the) Piano Quintet), and when I talk about The Creative Process to people who are not composers, someone inevitably asks me “How do you know how Beethoven thought?” (As if I could equate myself with Beethoven!) But I would ask “Have you ever composed a piece of music?” “Well, no...” is the usual (reluctant) response. “Well,” I'd say, trying not to sound superior, “I have, so it gives me a little more insight into this mystery,” something so many people think artistic creativity must be (“I can't do that – it must be magic!”). So, no, I don't know how Brahms thought when he composed, but we know a few things which might be helpful.

One: friends who stopped by to visit – or his landlady or housekeeper – and who might be listening at the door when Brahms was busy composing, rarely reported hearing anything more than him humming or playing a few notes on the piano. And walking. More like pacing. It was said the carpet behind Brahms' piano bench had an elliptical path worn into it from his constant pacing.

Most people would think a composer sits at the piano, plays through a passage (usually at full tilt, pounding away with abandon: that, probably, courtesy of reports about Beethoven who was, after all, deaf), makes a correction, plays it back, makes another correction, plays it back even louder, and, after a profusion of prayers or curses (depending), makes some more corrections before he crumbles the paper, tosses it to the floor, and begins again. (Until someone taps nervously at the door – “Do you have a minute...?” – and he storms out of the room, shouting, “I can't work under these conditions!”)

But that was not Brahms – for which his landlady and his neighbors were no doubt grateful.

Two: there is a fragment of a sketch of only fourteen measures from the opening of the A Major Quartet that somehow escaped Brahms' frequent conflagrations. It shows the barest outline of the melody in the right hand and the simplest of harmonic suggestions in a bass line in the left – two lines only. We think of Brahms' music as dense both in terms of texture and harmony, the way he fills in those inner voices (pianist-friends of mine – in fact, pianist-friends of Brahms' – complained about his fistfuls of notes), but here, at some point in this gentle music's genesis, is the simplest of outlines, barely suggesting its potential.

Under the bass line, he scribbled in the traditional “figured bass,” that system of numerical notation Baroque composers used to imply what the chords would be. In Bach or Vivaldi's days, that was the shorthand that let keyboard players know what they needed to improvise (it comes as a shock to modern listeners to think a composer would leave such things to chance). And that was the shorthand that Brahms was using to get to the heart of his “raw material,” what made it work: a melody that had its own integrity driven by a harmonic implication inherent in the way those chords moved. He wasn't going to waste time figuring exactly what those inner pitches would be: for now, it was enough to know what we might call “the universal set” of pitches for this particular passage, this specific chord might be. That could always be filled in later.

I've often described the elements of music like a body: what we hear first and respond to most immediately is usually the Melody which, therefore, is like the person's skin (or outer physical appearance). What becomes the skeletal basis that supports the body is the “Form” (whatever it might be, “Sonata,” “Rondo,” Variations, “ABA”) which, along with the harmonic cadences, gives the music its structure. We don't see it but we know it has to be there; otherwise, if it's not there, or not very well handled, the body is like a heap of skin and muscle on the floor, unable to move.

The Harmony – the interaction of individual chords into longer progressions and phrases – is like the body's muscles that give it the ability to move (any of you who, like me, are out of shape and suddenly go for a run quickly discover how important muscles are in your ability to move).

The Rhythm (including the sense of beat or pulse, or the meter it's in), for lack of anything else anatomical, may be the blood that brings life to the muscles and the skin: a piece lacking a decent sense of rhythm might be considered anemic (after all, we talk about the music's “pulse” in one sense; why not another?).

To Brahms, the important things were the surface (melody) and its muscular support (harmony), but most importantly the harmony's bass line as it drives to the point where a phrase articulates the simplest elements of structure and how it grows from there (“the leg bone's connected to the...”).

Later in his life, when Brahms would examine young composers' works, he often covered up the inner voices of the piano parts of songs, for instance, because if the melody wasn't interesting, and the bass-line wasn't strong enough to give it direction, it didn't matter what you did with all the stuff in between!

As for Brahms' sketch – assuming this is typical of his approach – he would then take this (so-to-speak) skeletal outline and fill it in when he had the time once he had worked out the Important Things. And if it wasn't satisfactory, he'd put it aside (Brahms had more back-burners than most great chefs would have access to) and come back to it later. Perhaps years later. Not that he was working on it all the time during the years it might take (presumably, the G Minor Quartet took six years to reach its final shape), but it was germinating in the back of his mind and – who knows? – perhaps something would jar a bit of it loose and suddenly – “InspiRAtion!!” – he would find a solution.

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Baron Dalwigk in 1861
By the way, speaking of dedicatees, while I'd mentioned the pleasant landlady who received Brahms' dedication for the A Major Quartet, whom did he dedicate the first piano quartet to? This turns out to be Baron Reinhard von Dalwigk who receives no mention in Swafford's biography or, for that matter, in any connection with Johannes Brahms on a recent Google-search (what passes, today, for research). I did, however, find reference to the (presumably) good Baron on his own and discovered, while his family dates back to the 13th Century, he was a politician (or statesman) from Hesse-Darmstadt, a city-state in central Germany before unification who later, after 1871, would serve various posts in the government of the newly-formed German Empire. What he was in 1861 – beyond this portrait – I've no idea, except a man who was important enough in his lifetime to have received a long-list of honors, none of which include the name of Johannes Brahms or his dedication. It is tempting to think this Very Important Man might have wondered who this young composer from Hamburg was and why he was dedicated this piece of music to him (did he even like the quartet?).

We tend to think composers dedicate their pieces to friends or especially women they're in love with – why else would Beethoven dedicated his Moonlight Sonata to the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi? – but the truth is often more prosaic than that. Very often, loftily-placed dedicatees like Mozart's quartets to the King of Prussia or Beethoven's sonatas to Tsar Alexander of Russia usually “paid” for such dedications with a bejeweled ring or snuffbox which they thought sufficiently grand, though most composers, involved in the reality of paying the rent and buying food, would more likely be concerned how much they could get by pawning such an otherwise useless trinket as a bejeweled ring or snuffbox. Mozart, of course, was hoping the King of Prussia would appoint him his court composer; the King probably thought “this ring will be a delightful token of my esteem.”

So, just as the 2nd Quartet was dedicated to his landlady out of gratitude for free rent, it's quite possible Herr von Dalwigk may have loaned Brahms some money or that Brahms was hoping for something in return, perhaps a bit of influence regarding... oh, I don't know, perhaps he knew someone on the board of the Hamburg Philharmonic? Considering Hesse-Darmstadt was adjacent to the northwest corner of Bavaria, that may be unlikely: had Brahms, on his travels while concertizing, met Dalwigk there, perhaps later giving him this dedication in return for some favor or support? You see, even at almost 700 pages, Swafford's biography is still not quite so full of details about Brahms supposedly uneventful life as it might be...

- Dick Strawser

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