Tuesday, April 19, 2022

A Little Bit of House-Music: Brahms & his Love-Song Waltzes

Who: “Stuart & Friends” with pianists Stuart Malina & Ya-Ting Chang, plus soprano Rebecca Meyers, mezzo-soprano Dianna Grabowski, tenor Christyan Seay, baritone Jonathan Hays

What: Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op.52 & Op.65; Schumann's Pictures from the East (Op. 66); and Rachmaninoff's Six Pieces for Piano Duet, Op. 11

When: Thursday, 7:30, April 21st

Where: Market Square Church, downtown Harrisburg 

 Please note: Masks are now optional and proof of vaccination is no longer required to attend our April and May concerts.

House-Music” certainly means something different today than it did in the 19th Century. Now, it's a style of electronic dance music originating in the 1980s, but to composers like Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff, it referred to music composed specifically to be performed in people's homes, not concert halls or the music rooms of aristocratic palaces. It was geared to be played by amateur musicians, not professionals, and though not designed for virtuosos of the concert stage, the more intimate setting of someone's living room or parlor made for a more intimate musical style as well, both in the composition and its performance.

This post is mostly about the combination of piano duet and songs on the first half of the program, music for a gathering of friends to make “social music” for their own entertainment and for the family and friends making up the chamber-sized audience (imagine, if you will, you are seated in someone's living room). Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes are both a series of dance pieces for piano four-hands and a collection of songs written for various combinations of a mixed quartet of singers. They can be performed by the pianists alone (one pair of pianists referred to it as “the karaoke version”) but the songs can also be sung by a small choir and, in this format, they are much-loved by amateur choral groups around the world. There's even an orchestral version for larger choirs which, IMHO, is a bit heavy-handed for the music, but it only attests to the music's popularity.

On the second half, Stuart Malina and Ya-Ting Chang will play works by Robert Schumann, his “Pictured from the East,” and Rachmaninoff's youthful collection of Six Pieces, Op. 11. In this post, you can read about them and listen to videos of them after the Brahms.

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In several past posts, I've described the “piano duet” (more amicably called “piano four-hands”) as the do-it-yourself home entertainment system of the 19th Century, before there were recordings and stereo systems, even radios, that turned music into a passive experience. We read accounts of Mozart or Haydn playing before aristocratic audiences in their palaces, but once the new century's economy created a middle class who wanted their own musical entertainment but were unable to hire performers or have a musical staff on hand like Prince Esterházy, not only did “free-lance” musicians find new employment as music teachers for the children (especially the young ladies) of bourgeois families, they also discovered composing new works especially designed for the burgeoning “amateur market” so these families could make their own music.

Wiling away an evening before there was television, a family (with friends, perhaps, invited over) would gather 'round the parlor piano (or, if wealthy enough, a grand piano in the music room) and listen to members of the family run through their favorite selections: a scene comes to mind from George Eliot's Middlemarch where young Fred Vincy plays the flute to his sister Rosamond's accompaniment. Piano duets, with two people sharing a bench (and staking out their turf on the keyboard), were a favorite way of “making social music.” In addition, others would raise their voices in song: many of Schubert's songs, and a great many collections of dances and various piano duets, were written for “the amateur, home market,” and where there was one singer, there were probably others.

The phenomenon of the “Part Song” is (pun intended) part of this same social music-making legacy. Schubert supplied this aspect of the Amateur Market with numerous “vocal quartets” for various combinations, sometimes mixed voices or perhaps four men or four women as the text required. The important thing, here – despite the definition perpetrated by Wikipedia – is, this is not originally intended as “choral music” unless Wikipedia's idea of a choir consists of 2 or more singers... And it's true many of them will work well with more than one singer on a part but, at least as the composer intended, very few households might have a chorus of 50 on hand for an evening's music-making.

(A typically dour Victorian photograph of a family in the midst of an evening of social music-making: one hopes they're not singing the Liebeslieder Waltzes here...)

Brahms' two sets of “Love Songs” (which, except for the conclusion of the 2nd set, also happen to be waltzes) is the result of this legacy of domestic music-making, combining the piano duet – not two pianos – with four singers often grouped (for variety's sake, if nothing else) in various combinations of solos, duets, and quartets. Yes, they are frequently heard performed by choral groups and the piano part has been arranged for orchestra, but the way we'll hear them in this concert is as the composer intended them – except for the fact we're sitting in a church rather than, say, Clara Schumann's living room surrounded by family and friends. A very real definition of chamber music in this setting would be "music made by friends for friends," and in this case, composed by a friend as well.

The Big Question, once you get past the sheer entertainment value of the music, is, okay, if they're love songs, is there someone to whom they're directed? Are they just random songs about love written by a composer in his mid-30s, love being a favorite topic for things artistic (witness the most popular novels of the day, and the reams of poetry written during an age that wasn't called "Romantic" for nothing)? Most people will say they're the result of the composer's unrequited love for Clara Schumann, who, aside from being one of the finest pianists of the day, was the widow of the composer Robert Schumann. And Brahms had met them both in the fall of 1853 when Brahms, just 20 years old, showed up on their doorstep with a pile of manuscripts under his arm, including piano sonatas (Schumann called them “veiled symphonies”), string quartets, and songs. For Brahms, it was a life-changing encounter.

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Rather than give you a detailed “analysis” of the individual songs in the collection, I'm going to offer you a bit of insight “behind the scenes” with what was going on in the composer's life at the time the music you'll be hearing was written. Unfortunately, it's a long story since, as with many composers and many of their compositions, a work doesn't always spring up isolated without some sort of biographical context. And in this case, there is so much back-story, it reads like a sub-plot for, say, a George Eliot novel (if Brahms and the Schumanns had been Victorians instead of good middle-class Germans). And I chose the reference to Middlemarch because the novel was written between the years Brahms produced his two sets of Liebeslieder Waltzes, and was set shortly after Schubert had died in what might be considered, with its ubiquitous “Schubertiads,” a Golden Age for Domestic Music.

But first of all, the music: there are two sets of songs, 18 in the first and 15 in the second. The first set is the one most involved in the back-story I'm about to tell; the second was a sequel inspired by the financial success of the first set, composed to fulfill the demands of the amateur market. It is, however, not without its own context (read on...).

Here is a recording, one of the best I've heard of the original version, with an unlikely quartet of singers as you'd find in your average bourgeois household, with one of the pianists being a famous conductor familiar to fans of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Here are soprano Edith Mathis, alto Brigitte Fassbänder, tenor Peter Schreier, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and pianists Karl Engel and Wolfgang Sawallisch. The recording was made in 1981. Beneath each video-clip is a link to a collection of the poems Brahms set.


(You can read the texts here.) 


(You can read the texts here.) 

(The final song, setting Goethe's Zum Schluss, begins at 16:07) 

The poems, inspired by folk poetry or actual folk songs from Central and Eastern Europe, are by one of Brahms' favorite poets, G. F. Daumer, best known for his love-songs, but who also wrote more “serious” poems inspired by his early theological studies and directed “at the hypocrisy he associated with Orthodox Christianity.” (An interesting story: Brahms, not long after the success of his 2nd Set of Liebeslieder Waltzes, went to visit Daumer, living in retirement in northern Bavaria, imagining, as he described it to a poet-friend, “a touching moment, a heartfelt exchange between colleagues, a new insight into the poems,” but instead, meeting “a little dried-up old man!” “I soon perceived he knew nothing either of me or my compositions, or anything at all of music. And when I pointed to his ardent passionate verses, he gestured with a tender wave of the hand to a little old mother almost more withered than himself, saying, 'Ah, I have only loved the one, my wife'!” So much for meeting our idols...) 

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The Schumanns (1847)
In order to appreciate the story behind these songs, you need to go back to that fateful February day, just months after Brahms met the Schumanns in Düsseldorf when Robert, tormented by increasing bouts of an illness once described as “manic-depression” and attacks of tinnitus which “unhinged his reason,” threw himself into the Rhine in an attempt to commit suicide. (You can read my post, “And Schumann At the Close,” here.)

Having become close to both the Schumanns – Robert was definitely his mentor in the brief time he knew him, but Clara would become a life-long inspiration – Brahms changed his plans and came to help Clara deal with the reality of a husband who, having survived the attempt, was immediately sent to what was then called an asylum in Bonn (in the remaining years of his life, she would never see her husband again) and a large family to raise. In fact, at the time of Robert's attempted suicide, she was pregnant with their 8th child, born two months later (a son, Felix, named after their late-friend, Mendelssohn).

As Clara returned to concertizing – she needed to, she defended herself, not just because she needed the music: she needed the money! – Brahms would come and stay with the family as a kind of baby-sitter. Marie, the oldest, was only 13 at the time. Another daughter, Julie, was all of 9. The younger children called him “Uncle Johannes,” if you can imagine the Brahms we know (with the most famous beard in Classical Music) compared to the 20-something Brahms crawling around on the floor giving them piggy-back rides! 

The photo above was taken around 1860 and includes five of the Schumann children: Felix (the youngest), Elise, Julie (standing, center), Marie (the oldest), and Eugenie. 

Fast forward to 1868. Brahms, who was often something of a jerk, had managed to insult his friend Clara (frequently) but this time their relationship had come to a standstill. Always a self-critical composer, Brahms often would “submit” a new work to Clara for her approval as much as for her suggestions; occasionally, a work that did not pass muster might be completely revised (the Piano Quintet of the early-1860s began as a sonata for two pianos, was converted into a string quintet before finally gaining the seal of Clara's approval in 1864 as the Piano Quintet we know today); more often, the work was consigned to the wastebasket or the fireplace (Brahms' most characteristic advice to young composers was to buy a wastebasket).

There is, of course, the old story Brahms was in love with Clara Schumann, but, being modern and prone to active imaginations, we imagine “being in love with” and “becoming lovers” as a logical progression. Certainly, arm-chair psychologists have had numerous field-days hypothesizing about their relationship, whether it was “platonic” or something that had been realized or merely “unrequited love.” Certainly, being 14 years older than Brahms, there might have been a motherly instinct (a woman who'd had 8 children by the time she was 35) towards the young composer who, let's face it, lacked considerable finesse in his own personality.

But there's another woman behind the love-songs Brahms, now 35 himself, was writing in 1868: and that would be Clara's younger daughter, Julie, who was now 23. You can argue it as a case of “transference,” but Brahms did have relationships, mostly, it seemed, platonic and unrequited, with a few young women in the intervening years, some of them more serious than others: infatuations might be a more accurate term.

While we're aware of the 20-some years it took Brahms to complete a first symphony (not necessarily his 1st Symphony), there was also a piano quartet, originally in C-sharp Minor, he had begun around the same time, not long after Robert's suicide attempt but before Robert died in the Bonn asylum. In the mid-1860s, he picked this up again, rewrote it in C Minor (the same key the 1st Symphony would be in), and, sending it off to his publisher with a note referencing Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther – a novel about a young man in love with another man's wife who then goes off and, having been rebuffed by his would-be love, shoots himself with a borrowed pistol – which of course has given all manner of fuel to the argument about his relationship with Clara.

It seems, however, there was another woman he longed for, now. He didn't exactly keep it a secret but he never told the object of his ardor much less her mother. During 1868, he composed a number of love-songs to poems by Daumer (published between Op.46-49) which he mentioned to more than one friend being inspired by a certain someone...

Another song he wrote at this time was the Wiegenlied of the Op.49 set, written to one of his “old girlfriends,” Bertha Faber (neé Porubzsky) now happily married, to celebrate the birth of her first child, a Cradle Song which the world would eventually know as “Brahms' Lullaby.” A simple folk-like text with a simple folk-like melody, it is accompanied by a reminiscence of an earlier song he had composed for Bertha which she would be familiar with: so while she is singing her infant son to sleep, Brahms explained, “a love-song is being sung to her.” I mention this, chronological context aside, merely to show “this is how Brahms' creative mind worked.”

As their latest tiff dragged on and Brahms missed his association with Clara and by extension her family (he was still very much a part of this family), he sent her a postcard from a holiday in Switzerland on which he jotted down a long slow alp-horn melody, under which he wrote the words, “High on the mountains, deep in the valley, I greet you a thousandfold.” A few years later, he would take up this theme and turn it into that famous moment when, out of the murky introduction of his C Minor Symphony's finale – which had, as usual, so far stymied him – this horn-theme soars out over the orchestra. Whether anyone else would know or not was immaterial: Clara could not help but recognize the significance of that tune "I greet you a thousandfold."

Whether it was the result of this September postcard or not, Brahms met Clara and the family in October while they were all traveling and staying in Oldenburg. He had, as usual, a bunch of new pieces with him, finished and unfinished, to play for her as they resumed their old familiarity: among them, his latest four-hand duet, the waltzes of Op.39. At a party, they read through a few of his new Hungarian Dances (yet to be published). There were also some part-songs he dubbed Hausmusik – music to be played in the home – as biographer Jan Swafford described them, “confectionery tunes with a large helping of Viennese Schlagobers (whipped cream) for four-hand piano and vocal quartet.” They may have paid tribute to his love of Schubert's dance music – he had just edited a volume of his Ländler, the folksy precursor of the Waltz – and we know Brahms was a big fan of one of the most popular “pop musicians” in Vienna, Johann Strauss Jr., “The Waltz King.” Brahms' waltzes, however, are “the Viennese Waltz á la Brahms.”

Julie Schumann in 1868
Whether he showed them to her in Oldenburg or not, we don't know, but the next May, they all gathered in Baden-Baden where Brahms and Clara would try out these new “Love-Song Waltzes” as the rest of the family and several friends gathered around to join in singing or just sat to listen. Then, on May 11th, Clara excitedly told Brahms the news: Julie was to become engaged to an Italian count! You can almost here her “Isn't that wonderful?” as Brahms “choked out a response and ran from the house.”

As Swafford continues (paraphrasing lines from p.349 in his biography),

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So that was it. Suddenly everything became clear to her: the reason not only for his flight but for his moods going back years, his rudeness, his awkward kindness toward Julie, her confused withdrawal, his restiveness in the Schumann house. Surely somewhere in his mind he had known that sooner or later, for a reason hopeful or tragic, the moment of losing his fantasy was inevitable. But when it came, the moment was no less terrible for that.

Now he suddenly went limp. “Johannes is quite altered,” Clara wrote in her journal; “he seldom comes to the house, and speaks only in monosyllables when he does come. And he treats even Julie the same way, though he always used to be so specially nice to her. Did he really love her? But he has never thought of marrying, and Julie has never had any inclination towards him.” [Conductor] Hermann Levi confirmed it to Clara: Brahms had spilled his feelings to Levi and probably to others. Likely, there had been late-night session with Brahms anguishing, entreating friends to tell him what to do about her, what to do. Rumors that Clara never heard had been going around. That spring in a Hamburg ship, somebody innocently to Elise Brahms [Johannes' older sister] that a Viennese gentleman with her name was engaged to Clara Schumann's daughter.

...The magnificent side of Clara Schumann came forward when Johannes' helpless infatuation revealed itself. If she had no great insight into human nature, Clara seems to have understood the irrational impetus of love and respected it. She had broken with her father for sake of a passion she regarded as holy [her love for Robert Schumann] and maybe she saw all love as no less holy, even if hopeless. She could have taken Johannes' love for Julie as a betrayal of herself. Instead, she saw it for the sad spectacle it was, between two people whom she loved. The chances are that she and Johannes never spoke directly about it at all. But for a long time, Clara would be very gentle with him.

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This change in his life might also explain the change in mood for the second set of waltzes, which he continued working on but didn't complete for publication until 1874 as Op.65. No longer “confectionery tunes and whipped cream,” we hear of darker moments when the lover is compared to a rose that “will bleed its leaves when it dies,” or when “a poisoned arrow infects the target of my heart,” or, with a touch of humor, “I won't hear another word about love: you'll only let me down.” (I've joked about how Brahms could've called this 2nd set the Liebesleider or "Love-Sorrows" Waltzes.) 

To conclude this set, Brahms chose a poem by Goethe and though it is not technically a waltz (despite being in triple time): “Now, you Muses, enough! / In vain you strive to describe / how misery and happiness / move in a loving breast. / You cannot heal the wounds / that Amor inflicts, / but solace comes / you Kind Ones, only from you.”

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Allgeyer, Brahms, & Levi
The day before Julie's wedding to her count, in September of 1869, shortly after Brahms published the first set of Liebeslieder Waltzes, several friends gathered at Clara's, and she wrote in her journal, “there was music and laughter... and [the lovers] cooed over their presents.” Swafford continues, “Brahms' personal gift to Julie was a daguerreotype of his mother. He, [Hermann] Levi and [Julius] Allgeyer together gave the couple an embossed brass platter, and had a photo taken of themselves contemplating the gift” [see left]. Allgeyer, who towered over Brahms, “indulgently leans over so as not to dwarf Brahms” who was very self-conscious about his being short. Levi, for the same reason, is seated...” It's an almost comical pose, the three friends, such seriousness as if examining some ancient artifact hoping to unlock some historical secret (perhaps, in a way, Brahms was). You'll notice Brahms is still clean-shaven, even at 36 (the beard came after the 1st Symphony was completed).

Brahms also wrote a “bridal song” for Julie which he sent to Clara after the wedding, known rather blandly as “The Alto Rhapsody,” a work for solo alto voice, men's chorus, and orchestra, setting lines from Goethe's “Winter Journey in the Harz Mountains,” one of Brahms' bleakest and darkest works. In one section, the soloist addresses a nearly invisible figure, a young man who recedes into the thickets and “the barren waste” of the winter landscape “swallows him up.”

“Ah, who can heal the pains / Of one for whom balm has become poison, / And who sucked hatred of mankind from the abundance of love?”

In the concluding hymn, the men's chorus sings “If... there is a tone / his ear can discern, / Refresh his heart! / Open to his clouded gaze / the thousand springs / Alongside him as he thirsts / in the wilderness.”

Goethe's poem was written “at a turning point in his life, away from his youth and toward a more mature vision of his life and work.” Clearly, Brahms was aware of the same, having come under the spell of Young Goethe's passionate Werther with the C Minor Piano Quartet and now with the “solitary misanthrope” of Goethe's desolate poem.

So, with the Rhapsody, then, which begins in C Minor and ends with a benediction in a soothing C Major, Brahms bade farewell to Julie – alas, always frail in health, she would die in childbirth only a few years later. Then he turned to something else that had been haunting his path, with or without the footsteps of Beethoven trudging behind him, something he'd first started sketching not long after Robert Schumann's suicide attempt 20 years earlier. In another seven years, after figuring out what to do with that symphonic finale that continued to elude him, he took the Alp-Horn Tune he'd sent to Clara and turned it into that glorious transition from darkness into light; with its subsequent hymn, a tribute to Beethoven's “Ode to Joy.” It was a symphony not unlike Beethoven's 5th in plan, beginning in a fateful C Minor and ending in a blast of C Major triumph! Whether he succeeded in exorcising either ghost, Beethoven's or Clara's, is unclear, but at least, once done, he continued. 

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The second half of the program consists of two piano-duets, the Bilder aus Osten or “Pictures from the East” that Robert Schumann composed in 1848. These six "impromptus" were inspired by a translation of a medieval Arabic poet popularly known as Hariri who was born in what is now Basra, Iraq, in the mid-11th Century. Schumann, however, never set Hariri's actual poems but used the “ideas” behind the poems to create Character Pieces similar to what he'd done in Kreisleriana which Stephen Hough played for MSC in February: you aren't really being told a story, but he creates an atmosphere (with generic mood-indicating markings rather than titles) in which you, the listener, place yourself and imagine your own story. Schumann compares Abu Seid, the hero of Hariri's poems, to the German trickster, Till Eulenspiegel. Imagine what you will.


Rachmaninoff in 1892
With Rachmaninoff's set of six pieces, Op.11, we find a transition from household music for amateurs to something geared more for concert repertoire, written for two young pianists who were budding concert artists (besides, I doubt many Victorian spinets would survive its last movement). They were written in 1894 when Rachmaninoff was 21, a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory with a “Free Artist” Diploma he'd received two years earlier, and well on his way as a pianist and a composer. Stunned by the death of his idol Tchaikovsky in November of 1893, his 2nd Piano Trio, composed in Tchaikovsky's memory, was premiered at the first concert of Rachmaninoff's music in Moscow the following January.

Rachmaninoff often spent holidays and summers with his aristocratic cousins on their country estate near Tambov, where he enjoyed playing piano duets with various members of the family. As a teenager, he wrote two pieces for piano six-hands for the three Skalon sisters, frequent guests of the family. His first cousin, Natalia Satina, three years his junior, was also a budding young pianist, so there was a great deal of music-making during these visits and, surrounded by this care-free and isolated environment, Rachmaninoff composed a great deal of music here. One of these works, his Op. 1 Piano Concerto, was written for another first cousin, Alexander Siloti, a native of Kharkiv, Ukraine, who had studied with Tchaikovsky and had given many performances of Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto to the composer's acclaim. 

Eventually, Rachmaninoff, in the years after the disastrous premiere of his 1st Symphony in 1897, would marry Natalia Satina after receiving special dispensation since first cousins were not allowed to marry. After two years of depression over the symphony's failure and the seemingly unrelenting delays in being able to marry Natalia, he then wrote his 2nd Piano Concerto in 1900, but this time the composer was the soloist and Siloti conducted. The rest, as they say, is history.

- Dick Strawser