Aimez-vous Brahms ? by Robert Markow
/ September 2, 2002
Each of his twenty-four chamber works has earned
a place in the sun--something no other major composer can claim, not even
Do you love Brahms? Of course!
Brahms has been one of our greatest musical heroes for over a century. The fact
that the upcoming Montreal Chamber Music Festival ("Aimez-vous Brahms/For the
Love of Brahms," September 21 to October 5, 2002) is presenting his entire
chamber oeuvre1 in a non-anniversary year is a tribute to the composer's
No one questions Brahms's
popularity today. In chamber music he reigns supreme. No other composer in the
latter half of the nineteenth century wrote so many masterpieces in the genre.
Dvorak may have written more individual compositions, but not all rise to the
level of Brahms.
The Brahms chamber repertoire
contains no obscure works lurking in dark corners, unlike most other composers.
Chamber music spans his entire forty-year career, from the youthful 1854 Piano
Trio, Op. 8, to the two autumnal Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120 of 1894. Each of his
twenty-four chamber works has earned a place in the sun--something no other
major composer can claim, not even Beethoven.
Chamber music lies at the very
core of Brahms's artistic evolution. As with Beethoven and the piano sonata, so
with Brahms and chamber music: this is where he shows the greatest development.
His models were the works of the Viennese classicists (Haydn, Mozart, and
Beethoven), developed and refined. His adherence to tradition is seen in the
fact that every chamber work but one (the Horn Trio) opens with a sonata-form
movement. Finales are also either in sonata form or, in a few cases, variation
form. Most are in four movements.
Brahms's reputation and
influence in his own day is evident in the dozens of compositions dedicated to
him - from both Robert and Clara Schumann, Joseph Joachim, Josef Rheinberger,
Karl Goldmark, Dvorak, Bruch, Busoni, Reinecke, Reger, Johann Strauss, Jr., and
a host of lesser names.
In the early twenty-first
century, the question "Aimez-vous Brahms?" seems absurdly rhetorical. Yet during
his lifetime and well into the twentieth century many regarded him with
suspicion and prejudice. To some he was a reactionary, a classicist adrift in a
sea of romanticism. "Music of the Future" was being written by the likes of
Liszt, Wagner and Strauss, while Brahms was mired in the past. But in 1933, the
centenary of Brahms's birth, Arnold Schoenberg gave a radio talk, later
published as an article, called "Brahms the Progressive," in which he posited
that Brahms was far from being merely a sentimental reactionary. Rather, he was
"a great innovator in the realm of musical language." True, he used the old
classical forms and techniques, but he compressed his material with great
economy, like many twentieth-century composers. The use of asymmetrical phrase
constructions, convolute motivic development, harmonic ambiguity often rivalling
Wagner's, rhythmic complexity, the obscuring of formal boundaries, and extreme
attention to the craft of composition are all further "progressive" elements
that Schoenberg noted in Brahms's music--qualities most obvious in his chamber
music. The critic William Youngren aptly calls him a
The sophisticated modern heroine of Françoise Sagan's 1960 novel,
rejects the conventional, safe, romantic world represented by the music of
Brahms. Yet during his lifetime and for a good while thereafter, Brahms was
widely regarded, particularly by critics and tastemakers, as anything but
conventional or romantic. His music was considered difficult, academic, turgid,
and arid. In 1900, when Boston's Symphony Hall was being built, certain wags
suggested that signs be fitted over the doorways reading "Exit in case of
Brahms"! Even some of our greatest composers did not see eye to eye with
Tchaikovsky: "I played over the music of that scoundrel
Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity
is hailed as a genius. Why, in comparison with him, Raff is a giant, not to
speak of Rubinstein, who is after all a live and important human being, while
Brahms is chaotic and absolutely empty dried-up stuff."
- Wolf: "The art of composing without
ideas has decidedly found in Brahms one of its worthiest
- Mahler: "I have gone through all of
Brahms pretty well by now. All I can say of him is that he's a puny little
dwarf with a rather narrow chest."
- Britten: "It's not bad Brahms I
mind', it's good Brahms I can't stand."
Brahms himself was intensely
self-critical. He repeatedly sought advice and reassurance from close friends
and colleagues. Anything that failed to meet his own exacting standards was
destroyed, including such early works as a piano trio in D minor, a string
quartet in B-flat major and a violin sonata in A minor, all written before 1853.
Brahms claimed to have written and discarded some twenty string quartets before
bringing forth his first to the world (like the First Symphony, a work in C
minor), although this claim is probably exaggerated. But virtually everything
that remains bears the mark of excellence. One recent biographer wryly suggests
that the most essential item of furniture in Brahms's household was the
Then there is that enigmatic,
four-movement Piano Trio in A major, op. post., which came to light only in
1938. Stylistic and circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that it is the
work of the young Brahms, but the proof is inconclusive, and most scholarly
sources today designate it as "attributed to" Brahms.
In a talk given in 1983, the
late, renowned Brahms scholar Karl Geiringer developed the notion of ambivalence
in Brahms, whose music could be meticulous and formal yet expressive and warm.
The ambivalent and contradictory elements in Brahms's music reflect the man
himself. He yearned to be a family man yet never married. He enjoyed earning
money but disliked spending it. In spite of being passionately fond of history
(both musical and otherwise), he made every effort to destroy the outward
evidence of his own existence. A staunch German all his life, he yet chose to
live in Vienna.
A glorious world awaits
audiences who attend one or even all eight evenings of this year's Montreal
Chamber Music Festival. Whether it be the massive sonorities of the B-major
Piano Trio, the fiery energy of the finale of the G-minor Piano Quartet, the
ardent romanticism of the E-minor Cello Sonata, the joyful exuberance of the
finale from the Horn Trio, the aching melancholy of the slow movement of the
B-flat major Sextet, or the autumnal glow of the Clarinet Trio, there are
abundant riches to cherish in the world of Brahms's chamber music.
Box Office: (514) 489-3444, or 489-7444, or 489 7711 (fax)
or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org All concerts start at 7:30pm. Tickets
will also be available at the chalet on Mount Royal from 7:00 p.m. on concert
Two additional works are included in this Brahms celebration: the isolated
movement of a violin sonata Brahms wrote with two other composers, and the Two
Songs with viola and piano.