HEAVIER THAN HEAVEN
I was laying out under the tree reading. A hard winter and early spring meant that there was not enough foliage to shade me. I could not help it, the sun was closing my eyes. I managed to keep my knees bent, the discomfort of which prevented me from falling into too deep a sleep.
I momentarily awoke from every sound, the same way someone drowsing on a plane or train does. In this way I could sleep a little with no fear of being out too long and getting sunburned. Momentarily there was one of those phantom winds as can occur even on a hot day. The palm tree's frond rhythmically hit the trunk, a soft castanet concerto. It could almost be the start of a tango as the conductor and always prepared percussionist call the band to arms.
Marina was supposed to spend her weekend at a Dacha among other Tango enthusiasts. We spoke briefly and she said that she had not had many offers to dance but I think she was just being humble. I wondered if she would try the restaurant I recommended whose specialty was lamb. It was no slight against my judgment but she probably would not.
The tango also reminds me of a favorite section of Brahms' Fourth Symphony. If you meet someone at a party or some other such function and do not expand beyond the dynamics of a handshake and momentary small talk as you both reach for the salmon puffs which are making the rounds, in the future should you strike up an acquaintance with that person that then blossoms into a friendship one may remember back to the function where you met but it is intellectual, the date and place but not any kind of emotional resonance of how you felt towards a then unknown them.
It was a program which was a double bill celebrating Johanne Brahms' (1833-1897) centennial along with an anniversary of Franz Schubert's (1797-1828). I went with Cindy as she was enthused more than I about the two composers and would appreciate it even if I did not. At the time I was far more into the baroque era composers and music. I would eventually time travel, embracing different composers from all the eras; some of whom although I could not imagine it then, would become important personal totems and sources of almost daily inspiration via their works.
I am lucky that with the performance of Brahms' Fourth Symphony as with most things involving my power of recall, I am able to remember my then emotional landscape despite the fact it was my first encounter with the piece which further down the road I would come to highly esteem. Now, I know the symphony yet I can recall those first impressions of an alien thing too.
Brahms was born into a musical family, his father being a double bass player and his mother a seamstress. Later in life Brahms would often be considered the heir apparent to his hero Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Aside from the inspiration Brahms would eventually cull from Beethoven's work, their early lives followed similar trajectories, mired in hardships.
Brahms' father's career was effected by the constant lack of or struggle for the most basic necessities of life, including clean clothes and like the rest of his family, food. The time and energy taken up by this pursuit caused him to be irritable; alienating potential allies and friends. Brahms' mother was seventeen years older than her husband and the two of them often fiercely fought in front of their son. To further add to his Dickensian youth, at school both classmates and teachers alike went out of their way to make his life miserable; a past time they found great sport.
One of his few pleasant distractions from the deprivation and fighting was making up melodies. Brahms had no knowledge of the proper form of written music and so invented his own notation with which to preserve his songs on paper.
Not out of good parenting but to eventually have another source of income for the family, some of what very little money his father earned went to a piano teacher (Otto Cossel) for Brahms. He proved to be a quick study and was soon giving return on the investment by playing dive bar bordellos on the waterfront.
By the age of ten Brahms had gone as far as he could with his teacher and was able to further his musical education by studying under Eduard Marxsen, one of Hamburg's best teachers. Once again Brahms rapidly absorbed all his teacher had to offer, so much so that by the age of fourteen he gave a recital, the program for which included one of his own compositions.
Despite his skill, his family's financial situation prevented him from being able to concentrate solely on composing. Practicality dictated that he compose and arrange vapid fluff pieces for public consumption for which he received mere pennies a piece. To save what little dignity his poverty allowed, he did these under non de plumes (G.W. Marks & Karl Wurth). All the strain, mental and physical, caused a serious breakdown of his health. A better off relative took Brahms to the country to recuperate. He used this enforced idyll to write some serious music (songs, piano pieces, and piano trios).
Once his health was regained he was back on the treadmill until 1853 when he met Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi. So well did they get along and did he appreciate Brahms' pianistic talent that he asked him to tour with him as an accompanist. This tour allowed Brahms to start to make connections in the real music world and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Eduard was the impetus behind Brahms meeting Franz Liszt (1811-1886) who was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of his age, in Weimar. Politically astute, Brahms declined an offer to play for him but did show him some of his compositions, one of which Liszt played and admired. Liszt in turn played one of his own sonatas for Brahms during which he fell asleep. They parted with Liszt presenting Brahms with a cigarette case, a sign of respect for what would be a long tumultuous relationship between the two musical titans.
From his visit to Liszt, Brahms found himself in Duesseldorf where he met Robert (1810-1856) and Clara (1819-1896) Schumann. Initially, Robert's high strung temperament made him impatient with Brahms but he did agree to listen to some of his piano music (Sonata in G Major). The start of the piece stoked Schumann's enthusiasm so much that he ran off to fetch his wife from the kitchen. She shared in her husband's excitement. They were so supportive of Brahm's talent that they invited him to live with them, which he did for three months over the course of which they shared their musical knowledge and theories.
In his diary (Sept 30,1853) Schumann calls Brahms a genius. There was a now long established tradition of composers supplementing their income and gaining allies by teaching (Liszt, Chopin et al) or through journalistic writing (Berlioz, Wagner et al). Robert Schumann continued on in this practice by contributing articles to journals and papers. On October 28, 1853 he wrote an article for Neue Zeitschrift Fur Music in which he holds Brahms, who was still largely unknown to the more casual music aficionados up as the embodiment of all that is great musically in their post-Beethoven era. This leg up provided by the article, and a little further bolstering by Schumann made publishers take interest in Brahms' early piano work. A side effect of the growing buzz was Brahms' invitation to play at The Gewandhaus (Leipzig) which was an honor for any composer/musician.
Upon returning home to Hamburg, Brahms learned of Schumann's mental breakdown and following a suicide attempt and subsequent institutialization into an asylum. He sped back to Duesseldorf to lend his moral support and help Clara to whom romantic feelings had already been growing. During this time of crisis he took lodgings above that of the Schumanns'. This would be for both convenience and proprieties sake as Clara had begun to take notice of Brahms too. Regardless of what some of Brahms' motives were, he did serve as a surrogate father, helping Clara with her children and he also went to visit Robert at the asylum. Brahms kept these duties up right until the time of Robert's death.
As much as Brahms owed Robert Schumann, his death allowed him to bring his feelings for Clara out into the open. Although there would be many other women, Brahms would remain true to her in his fashion for the next forty years. Theirs was a true partnership in that for Brahms, Clara was more than a mere muse; giving him invaluable advice in all things which he always respected.
There is a lot of speculation as to why they never married. Some would point to Brahms' temperament; he was a serial seducer not in Casanova quantity but in similar intensity. Once he achieved a place in the object of his passion's heart and things became serious he would run away, often referring to marriage as "fetters". He always wrote and thought of Clara but would fall powerfully in love with others concurrently, maintaining the same conquer and flee pattern. To some extent his mental make up, growing up with so little, made him want to hold onto all that was his, including his heart and freedom no matter how improved from childhood his situation now was. But that is too simplistic an explanation; there was a political aspect to it as well at least in regards to he and Clara. Phobias aside, to marry Clara, someone's star would have been somewhat dimmed be it Schumann's posthumous reputation which Clara would spend the rest of her life keeping alive or Brahms' as he would always have the addendum of "Having married the widow of composer.." on his biography.
Brahms would always remain grateful to the initial momentum given to his career by Robert and Clara but for the both of them it was better that no one in the menage au trois reputation need be sacrificed or lessened for the good of the other. It also prevented any enemies in the intrigue rich musical world from obtaining any gossip as ammunition.
Like Brahms, Clara was pragmatic. Career and legacy considerations aside, She had married Robert at an early age and while he was talented and not abusive it had been far from the idyllic fairy tale all young women dream marriage to be, she most likely was not in a rush to hand over her freedom so totally, regardless of how talented and close she and Brahms were. It has sometimes been suggested that Brahms kept his distance to some extent on account of syphilis. While this disease seems to have been running rampant among Brahms' peers (Franz Scubert 1797-1828, Hugo Wolf 1860-1903, Frederick Nietzsche 1844-1900 et al) Brahms did not show a lot of the tell tale signs and even in his later years with other health issues, never showed a decline in his mental powers but merely a normal for old age slow down in production quantity. There is evidence that he suffered from sleep apnea which would occasionally cause him to be irritable during they day, his temperament is also explainable from his hard early years which no matter how far removed or overcome always permanently effects a person's mental make up. Clara had at this point already had children and had stood by her husband during his long illness so it would; despite social stigma not seem to be much a deterrent had they really wanted to marry. As it was, Clara spent her life as custodian of her husband's artistic legacy but also touring as piano soloist for premiers of different pieces by Brahms.
Official appointments always seemed a sort of shorthand for financial safety for Brahms and also a way to further accumulate power. In 1857 he served as music master to the Prince of Lippe-Detmold. This gave him further financial stability and allowed him to undertake writing his first orchestral works (2 serenades, concerto No.1 for piano and orchestra).
With Brahms on piano and Joseph Joachim conducting, the concerto premiered in Hanover (1859) and proved to be unpopular. Five days later the performance was repeated in Leipzig and proved to be no more popular there. It did not bother Brahms who wrote that he was glad for the failure as he said it enhanced his courage for future undertakings and also deepened his concentration.
Having to regroup but not become inactive, he lead a women's choir in Hamburg (1860-63). He continued writing (Sextet for Strings, Variations on Theme by Handel for Piano which was performed by Clara Schumann and Piano Quartet in G Major). There was also the manifesto which articulated a long brewing feud between the two major schools of German composing. The "War of the Romantics" saw composers and critics dragged sometimes unwittingly into a sort of musical civil war. Although he had merely signed the manifesto, Brahms and the legacy of Schumann were the figureheads of one school out of Leipzig/Berlin with Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) who had founded the Leipzig conservatory as a sort of pope to Beethoven's deity. The other side was called Neudeutsche Schule out of Weimar with Liszt and Richard Wagner as the prime movers.
It had not actually been any of the key composers who stoked artistic differences in directionality into vitriol but critics seeking to keep and obtain more power. There were manifestos, articles where shots were fired back and forth.
The fundamental differences were that it were felt that Liszt and his camp valued flash and novelty completely breaking the tethers of tradition to sometimes create pieces which were more cacophony than music. The Brahms/Schumann camp wanted to work off of their artistic forefathers, organically adding some new components while never obscuring where they came from in regards to inspiration and technique. The other side saw them as dull, conservative and often in response to the "Music of the Future", reactionary.
Although tempers would flare up as is evidenced by many of the key players' private diaries, they still were relatively civil in public, occasionally finding things in each others work to admire even if left uncommented upon to the general public. Like all schools or movements, the people who start them often do so out of rebellion towards the restrictions of the old established order, more so in Liszt's movement's case. Echoes of what would happen with others in the vanguard, the rebellion would establish its own rules and become restrictive in its own right. Liszt would always support and interact with Wagner but Wagner's was an ego which devoured and saw everything in terms of what was owed him. Liszt himself would later on venture outside of the tenants of his side, no longer thinking in terms of movement or schools but in terms of what was out there which was worthwhile to add to his palette. Before all the key players were gone, the argument would prove itself a moot point vehemently being discussed more by those who had largely been catalyst in first place, critics and academics.
In 1862 Brahms visited Vienna, the capital of the music world and all its accompanying intrigue. He brought some of his scores with him. He showed the music to critic Julius Epstein who immediately set up a meeting with Joseph Hellmesberger who lead a famous string quartet and was concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic. Shades of Schumann before him this powerful music figure dubbed Brahms Beethoven's heir apparent after seeing Beethoven's Piano Quartet in G.
That Nov 16th three members of a quartet with Brahms on piano premiered the work. In Vienna at this point in his career the casual concert goer was more enthusiastic about Brahms' playing than his composition. This was the age of the virtuoso and therein often lay the audience's focus. With hearing/seeing music live even if the technical aspects are not completely understood, there is an emotional immediacy from which even the non enthusiast can derive a satisfaction.
While some of his music was found to be emotionally over heavy (Quartet in G Major) his work did still manage to draw inspiration from some aspects of Beethoven, so for the public, it was not remote soil from which his art blossomed. This allowed for it to not be outright rejected. His Piano Quartet in A Major regained the good will of the Viennese public as it more easily showed some of the stylized influences of his predecessors of The Viennese School. To underscore the point his Variation on a Theme by Hayden was also performed.
Brahms wished to parlay this success into the position of musical director of the philharmonic society in Hamburg. The position would go to Brahms' friend Stockhausen and although he did not begrudge him his success he was upset. He decided to leave Germany and head back to Vienna where he had just enjoyed some success.
The politics of the Viennese music scene were different for a resident than that of a virtuoso or composer who was passing through on tour. A power base needed to be established as did a local reputation which set oneself above being merely a member of someone else's camp. Brahms spent his first year in Vienna conducting at the Singakademie. He also met Wagner who was cordial despite the manifesto. His conducting was followed by a stint teaching piano. Eventually he was named director of Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (1872). While invested in all these activities he continued to compose.
Over the course of the next decade both of his parents would die (1865 mother, 1875 father.) Regardless of how unhappy his childhood had been, Brahms had financially supported them his entire adult life. Now, no longer having the extra financial expenditures to dole out allowed Brahms to further accumulate money which he used to free himself of all duties save that of composing.
A German Requiem was emotionally inspired by the death of his mother. This piece had its first complete performance in 1869. It was subtly radical in forgoing the traditional requiem text for ones which Brahms himself picked out and called for to be sung in German not the typical Latin. There was an innovative ever shifting of soloists and chorals with an undulation of motifs taken up in turn by both. Also unique was an emphasis more on humanistic grace than the deferred spiritual.
The positive reception of what he sometimes worried would be viewed as too radical a work served to facilitate the start of Brahms important mature orchestral works (1873).
Even quicker to be accepted by the public was (1873) Variations on a Theme by Hayden which had already been put in the public's conscious through a series of concerts which had preceded the premier of the requiem. The two successes in a row empowered Brahms to take on the task of writing a symphony. Until this moment in his career the ghost of Beethoven had stymied any attempt at such an undertaking. And even emboldened as he became from his success his first symphony would take four years to write, being completed in late 1876. This first symphony is sometimes referred to as "Beethoven's Tenth".
Brahms' next three symphonies would be written in a much quicker pace (1877-85) and although stylistically there would be no radical departure from his influences Brahm's own voice in these works was the loudest.
His symphonic work proved a great success. Once Brahms' symphony related fame was on the rise, he was savvy enough to tour not for money but to enlarge the public's knowledge of his compositions.
Hans von Bulow (1830-1894) had started out in the Liszt/Wagner camp. He had actually married Liszt's daughter Cosima who would eventually run off with Wagner; who would insist on still working with von Bulow as his conducting abilities made him one of the (then) preeminent interpreters of Wagner's oeuvre. After many years of this, von Bulow now switched his loyalties from Liszt/Wagner to Brahms. Ostensibly it was a decision based solely on choice of artistic direction. He felt that Brahms' way had become the organic continuation of Beethoven's artistic line. He devoted much time and energy to promoting the work of Brahms.
All the various forces at work on behalf of Brahms plus his own innate talent brought about much admiration for Brahms. The admiration would bring real power and the real power brought followers and an inner circle who helped with the mundane practicalities of daily living.
Brahms was in demand now and he fell into a rhythm which he would maintain for the rest of his life, touring and performing as both conductor and pianist and then doing the lion's share of his composing in the summer at his studio in the mountains just outside of Vienna.
On the surface to a new listener Brahms' music would appear to be all heaviness but it actually had carefully crafted moments of contrasts, amidst all the heaviness are to be found moments of beautiful delicacies shining gem-like, an impossibly long icicle hanging off the corner of a building, catching the sun. Despite the exactitude of his composition his three room apartment in Vienna where he lived for twenty five years (Karlgasse) was completely cluttered and far from elegant.
Brahms himself embodied such contradictions. He could be imperious yet liked to play with tin soldiers in the privacy of his home. Always exacting in his business dealings and investments, Brahms would dress shabbily wearing outfits until they wore out before buying a new one of similar quality. Upon his death earnings from his published works alone was $100,000 (today's equivalent). He brewed his own coffee and ate at restaurants patronized by Vienna's untitled, regular citizens after which he often liked to take walks and socialize in cafes.
In 1879 The University of Breslau conferred a Doctor of Philosophy degree upon him. There had always been a literary aspect to his mature works. Not in a programmatic way but the layered grandness of it with the smaller details connecting to make a unified whole the way a great multi-characters novel's structure would. Brahms had a private library of over eight hundred books, the whole of which can now be found in Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Vienna) bears further witness to this connection.
As Brahms became older and the concern's for life's basic necessities were well taken care of, Brahms retreated deeper into his art. Stylistically it was a heaviness which was not the joyless austerity of a monk's cell but a density that was near elemental such as had been achieved in some ways by Beethoven before him, deftly mixed with cerebral components. A snow covered landscape whose whiteness is viewed from a window by someone who sits reading Schopenhauer.
His work production slowed down and he talked of going into retirement. He had accumulated many honors including being given the key to the city of Hamburg (1889). A chance encounter led to a friendship with clarinetist Richard Munfeld whose talent inspired Brahms to write a series of works for him which they then successfully take out on tour.
At the funeral of Clara Schumann (1896) Brahms caught a bad cold whose infection aggravated a longstanding cancer of the liver. Brahms health went into sharp decline with him attending his last concert of his works in 1897 where he received a standing ovation. A month later he died being given a hero sized funeral, fittingly attended by both the famous and throngs of regular citizens alike.
As a matter of personal taste Brahms' fourth and final symphony is my favorite. It was finished a year after his third symphony, written over the course of two separate summer writing sessions. Brahms had often mined the structures of Beethoven's works for a sort of stylistic launching off point for his own symphonies (the huge thirty seven bar introduction to his first symphony, the pastoral aspects of his second and the way in which the third shared some of the emotional make up of Beethoven's Eroica.) There was not a radical departure in how Brahms thought of symphonic composition but Beethoven here is not his North Star.
This piece, while not programmatic gives the aural sense of an epic. It has been said that Brahms was reading Sophocle's Oedipus while composing, which even if it is true, knowing is not detrimental to enjoying the work.
The piece starts with lush rising strings ascending over the richness of the cellos stating the theme. The theme then goes on to be stated and transfigured by smaller groups of strings giving the impression of flowers all first swaying in the breeze then unfurling to reach upwards in unison despite being of different types. It is an overall lushness continuously buffeted upwards first by the cellos then by clarinet and flutes for the smaller group of strings.
Woodwinds and horns state the second theme, a seeming blood relative of a tango upon its initial entrance (roughly 1:40 into the piece). Again the theme is served up in variations executed by smaller groups within the orchestra, for this part one could imagine women in bright colored chiffon dresses on the dance floor spun by their partners until their dresses also unfurl and come into bloom.
The heroic aspects to be found in Brahms' previous symphonies here are replaced by a grandeur which maintains an overall organic tension from an underlying darkness, not of something bad but ancient feeling. It is a lush garden whose corners and pathways birth shadows not saturnine but merely of a darker green hue.
There are rapidly transitioning emotional gears throughout the work which occur so seamlessly, all the little motifs appear to perfectly fit together in puzzle box fashion. The rapidly changing and interacting of so many smaller parts also separates this work from its symphonic predecessors.
In his symphonies, Brahms used mostly compositional devices from immediately around his era. For the finale of his last symphony he looks to the past by presenting the last section in the form of a passacaglia which was a way of execuuting variations on a theme with a largely unchanging bass bottom. This technique is Spanish/Italian in origin and dated back several hundred years, changing a little along the way. Brahms presents thirty variations, so tightly wound around each other that the original theme is enmeshed with the variations it spawns. The sweet darkness which had been simmering during the other sections is, with some of the variations brought much more to the fore. Brahms uses a ground-bass motif taken from Johann Bach (1685-1750) (cantata No 150 Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget mich) but expanded upon (from the traditional five measures to eight and with chromatic additions at its fifth note) and morphed via new theories. Creating something completely new built off of the old and a heaviness which is beautiful is the epitome of Brahms and this final symphony perhaps best typifies that.
Now I wanted to hear Brahms, I also had a story bubble up. I headed home trying to decide between Calvados or coffee as I worked. My head was bent over the table in concentration to the exclusion of everything else going on around me. The symphony was perfect, it would sync up with my work and there would be no jarring silence to bring me back to the real world before I was done.
Reality and all its concerns held at bay by pen and symphony. I was on the fifth strong paragraph; peripheral movement pulls the eye far more than something which could be going on directly in front of me. The tiny Russian in his fur coat reared up on his two hind legs by the open window he had come in through. Finally catching my eye he meows, goes back down on all fours and rubs his chin on the legs of my chair. I pet him for a moment and every time I stop he goes back up on two legs, bending slightly forward as if the Tsar were before him. I think to myself that it is perfect that we are now both here alone together, exiled royalty.
image: 'Drinks While Waiting' (watercolor & paper) Wayne Wolfson
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