Thursday, August 27, 2020

Brahms and the Power of Music to Soothe: The Adagio from his 2nd Piano Quartet

This week’s dose of great music features one of my favorite movements in the entire chamber music repertoire, the slow movement of the Brahms Piano Quartet in A Major.  I am always grateful for this music’s deep exploration of the heartaches inseparable from the human condition. There is a bittersweet tenderness of unfulfilled longing, vivid memories of youthful passion, and dreamy contemplation, which add up to an astoundingly insightful masterpiece, particularly for a 28-year old composer. Enjoy!” – Peter Sirotin, Director of Market Square Concerts

This performance of the Poco adagio from the 2nd Piano Quartet of Johannes Brahms features violinist Peter Sirotin, violist Michael Stepniak, cellist Fiona Thompson, and pianist Stuart Malina, recorded in July as part of Summermusic 2019 a little over a year ago (regardless how long ago it feels...). (The concert, which also included Brahms' 1st Piano Quartet, was recorded at Market Square Presbyterian Church by Newman Stare.)

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After what Peter said about this one movement, out of all the chamber music Brahms composed – or anyone else, for that matter – being his favorite, I would have to say the same thing. After the concert, I'd mentioned to Stuart Malina how much I enjoyed their playing, especially of the Adagio, which was one of my all-time favorites, and he said, with typical Stuartian enthusiasm, “I know, mine, too! Isn't it incredible? Michael [Stepniak, the violist] told me the same thing after a rehearsal.”

What is it about this music that has this kind of impact on so many of its listeners?

Without applying a “program” or story behind the music – either in the sense it's telling a story or was inspired by one – I know my first response to hearing it for the first time was to sense a gentle rocking motion, so comforting, like being in a boat on a calm lake on a brilliant, relaxing summer afternoon, perfect weather, perfect place; and by the end of the first phrase having such a smile on my face, how the cadence is extended with these echoes interweaving between the parts (at 0:47, 0:54 and 0:57), heightened by that one note (at 0:59) in the violin part in the final cadence (I'll get to that in a minute) which made me sigh: just the right note! So effortless. So soothing

How does he do that!

And then, welling up from underneath, this ominous wave in the piano (at 1:12), intruding on this gentle stepwise rocking motion, followed by an emotional outburst until (at 1:56) reminding us life is not always going to be mere pleasantness, we soon return to the opening's rocking stability (at 1:56), but now with the roles reversed, the melody in the strings, the inner voices in the piano.

That “ominous wave” is nothing more than a diminished-7th chord built on the tonic note – in this case, an E – a chord that was all about “harmonic instability.” When Carl Maria von Weber used it as an independent chord, a sharp attack, tremolo, in the horrific “Wolf Glen's Scene” of his often supernatural opera, Der Freischütz in 1821, ladies in the audience swooned at the shock of it! Here, it's not so horrifying, but it still has the ability to unsettle one, doesn't it?

What did Brahms “mean” by this? Probably nothing more than just wanting to introduce an unexpected note of tension into all this wonderful harmonic simplicity of the opening phrase. It becomes a frequent and easily recognized “sound” heard throughout the piece, and almost always presaging some emotional contrast, until one last appearance at the very end, perhaps signifying not the happiest of resolutions if, in fact, a final resolution at all... But whatever it “means” to a listener like me thinking of rocking gently in a boat when a wave comes by and unsettles the atmosphere, no, Brahms never mentioned anything, certainly not like that. It wasn't his way – but then, I wonder if the technical idea of the music itself (how it works harmonically) came before the emotional response a listener might have to it? In Brahms, a “classicist” when it comes to Romantic Composers, it's the proverbial chicken-and-the-egg, but as is also typical of Brahms, the abstract idea and the emotional content could easily be go hand-in-hand.

Before I run out of clichés, let's look at the first page of this movement, here from the original edition of the work. When you listen, you're probably not listening for technical details like the number of measures in a phrase or how a cadence works, you're listening for the overall satisfaction all of this gives you (or doesn't).

The Opening Page of Brahms' Adagio

The basic harmonic plan of this whole phrase – the complete first page, a minute of music – is so simple, any sophomore theory student taking a basic harmony class could probably have written it (well, almost...), though I think Herr Professor von Pauker would raise an eyebrow at the student's use of his five-bar phrasing when we have it pounded into our heads that, in text-book music, music moves in four- and eight-bar units. But at least the half-phrase sounds natural enough, so Herr Professor begrudgingly lets it go. 

Most students would no doubt have ended this phrase at the cadence in the first measure at the bottom of the page, going right to the last measure with the stepwise motive in the cello (placing the piano's resolving chord on the downbeat). But notice how Brahms extends the phrase with echoes of the downward melodic cadence interweaving in different registers between the instruments. I've enclosed these in green boxes: one, two, and three. 

Now, within those you'll see little red arrows pointing out a D-natural which is a note outside the scale of the tonic E Major and points up a harmonic suggestion leading to the sub-dominant A Major chord, a way of “coloring” the basic cadence with an ever-so-slight digression away from the tonic, but not quite (All-Mighty Bach, after all, was very fond of this in his final cadences!). While there's an unwritten rule that repeating (or restating) something three times is sufficient, what appears to be the fourth time expands on the idea not as a repetition but as a “development” of it, and Brahms, in this case, places that D-natural more prominently in the upper voice (here, the violin with the viola moving in parallel thirds below it for a fuller texture), which becomes that “Ah!” moment I'd mentioned earlier.

And at that point, Professor von Pauker knows this student will become a composer.

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There are contrasting themes and returns of the opening theme through these brief 11 minutes as Brahms creates considerable variety with his emotional content on the surface, but never far from that surface is this rocking, upwards-then-downwards step-wise motive of gentle eighth-notes. This helps unify the piece into a single fabric, holding everything together in our memory (and "form" in music is all about what we remember and recognize while we're listening to it flow past).

In the first movement, there was an awful lot of hemiola, one of Brahms' significant musical fingerprints. Now, hemiola has nothing to do with blood (unless you consider rhythm the “life-blood” of the music): it's an old-fashioned musical term for, among other things, juxtaposing two against three (or vice-versa). In other words, as you listen to Brahms' gently rocking pulse (another musical medical term), count “1 – 2, 1 – 2.” Now, keeping the beat the same, subdivide it into three, like this: “1-2-3, 1-2-3.” If you can do that back and forth, excellent. If you and a friend are counting, and one of you is doing “1-2, 1-2” and the other switches to “1-2-3, 1-2-3” so you're singing them simultaneously, that's an example of hemiola. And Brahms does that a lot. It adds to the rhythmical ambiguity – is it in duple time (2/4) or triple time (3/4)? And it adds to the textural complexity.

Now, in the opening appearance of this theme, it's fairly simple. In fact, the use of triplets occurs only twice – I've marked them with a blue bracket in the piano part). But listen each time the opening theme returns: in the inner voices or in the accompanimental background, the use of triplets increases each time. Though it's clearly the same theme, it's presented slightly differently to create a little variety within the overall unity.

This again is something a composer would do: a student would have just repeated the theme as is each time. Bor-ing...

So what was going on in Brahms' life when he wrote this?

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Brahms in 1863
In the spring of 1861, Johannes Brahms, about to turn 28, returned to his hometown of Hamburg, a major German port on the Elbe River in the north of the country. Already recognized as a pianist and a composer, the plan was for him to conduct the Philharmonic in a program that included his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, who played his own very popular violin concerto (known as the “Hungarian” Concerto since it employs many elements of the traditional 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, one of these friends, “Frau Dr. Rösing,” described him in a letter to a friend:

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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 A Major Piano Quartet to the good Frau Doktor.

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 he'd 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 of Brahms, published in 1997 and weighing in at almost 700 pages. 

In addition to the two piano quartets on this first program of Summermusic 2019, both of which “date” from this same summer of a 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.

“What if...?” Brahms had gotten the job, stayed in Hamburg, never had as much time to compose, never moved to Vienna and, perhaps, never became the influence he did on other composers? If he had a career conducting an orchestra, perhaps he would've written more symphonies, and maybe some more concertos for his friends to come and play in Hamburg – after all, it worked for Mahler (the symphonies, at least), who survived as a “summertime composer.” Or maybe not...

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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. But in fact, he'd been working on them for some time long before that fruitful summer.

Point of fact: the G Minor (Op. 25) 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 (Op. 26) 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.

Incidentally, the piano quartet he'd started even earlier than these two, in C-sharp Minor, wasn't completed until 1875 (one year before he finally completed his 1st Symphony), fourteen years later, and now appearing in C Minor as Op.60. So while he may have been working on all three of them initially, perhaps as far back as the mid-1850s, they all share a common genesis. 

(By the way, the C Minor Piano Quartet has another gorgeous slow movement. You should check it out if you have time.)  

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There is a fragment of a sketch from the opening of the A Major Quartet that has somehow escaped Brahms' frequent conflagrations. It show 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 harmonic shorthand we call "figured bass" implying what chords were needed, where.  Anything else could always be filled in later.

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 pots and pans) and come back to it later. Perhaps years later. In the case of these two piano quartets, perhaps six years later!

So, as you listen to this single movement from his 2nd Piano Quartet, notice the melody and notice the bass-line – in whatever instrument's playing them – then listen to how the inner-voices (what a harmony student would consider “filler”) fill out and complement the outer layers. But Brahms isn't writing “filler” here: often, what he did, creatively, is stuff only young harmony students can dream of.

– Dick Strawser

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