“Yes, Brahms is evil . . .”

I do not know who wrote the short-lived and now-defunct-blog called Nihilism, Optimism, and Everything In Between. I found this piece a long time ago, and I’m very glad that the author hasn’t taken it down. It is about Brahms’s profoundly Romantic, deeply moving Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, op. 15:

Brahms, you old Master! You weaver of dreams, you liar! You encourage my “hopeless romanticism” and you know it! Life is not as colourful as you would have us believe! Of course you know that I know, and I can hear you laughing.

You dear Master, you! You—and the worthless dreams you sell me! No, keep them coming. Weave on and on. Go from here to the depths, then further into the depths, then rise up again—portray that impossibly rich, romantic world as you always do. If only life were really as romantic.

The explosion upon the senses that is the first movement of the Piano Concerto in D minor! This is probably the single movement I have listened to most often. With very few compositions can it be said as emphatically as with this one that words can describe nothing. Yet so strong the impulse is, to tell someone, to tell someone to listen to this first movement! To tell someone how rich life can be! To call someone into this obviously-removed-from-life world!

The old Master cons me again and again into entering here. How powerfully it begins, and how soon he begins spinning his web! Before I know it I am caught, and must wend my way through to the end, just like the last time.

Yes, Brahms is evil. He is subversive to my higher development. He wants to keep me here forever. And so glad I would be if I could indeed remain here forever . . .

Read the rest here.

Yuja Wang plays the Piano Concerto in D minor with the Munich Philharmonic, conducted by Valery Gergiev.

While the anonymous blogger chides Brahms for deceiving us with false dreams of beauty, the music critic Alex Ross views Brahms as a great consoler, whose music “seems in a strange way to be listening to you, even as you listen to it.” Ross writes at the height of the coronavirus crisis in New York City, and he suggests that “at a time when an uncommonly large number of people are experiencing grief, I recommend Brahms as a counsellor and confidant.”

Ross talks about the idea of “reflective nostalgia” in Brahms’s music, which, he says, “unlike restorative nostalgia, which envisions a return to home . . . “delays the homecoming—wistfully, ironically, desperately.'”  And nostalgia — the longing for home — in Brahms’s music often sounds like the yearning for a place that one can never return to, or perhaps that never really existed, at least in the way it’s perceived in memory.

Ross discusses one of Brahms’s late piano pieces, the deceptively simple Intermezzo op. 117 no. 1 in E-flat Major. It begins as a gently-rocking lullaby, but morphs into a dark, wintry meditation, more of a series of harmonic progressions than a melodic exploration; when the melody returns, Brahms adds distant-sounding, bell-like echoes in the upper octave, which somehow increase the piece’s ethos of restrained but devastating sadness. Brahms called his Intermezzi — the name “intermezzo” means a short piece in the middle of a larger musical work, but these brief pieces stand on their own — “cradle songs for all my sorrows.”

Think too of the second of three songs that Brahms entitled “Heimweh” (i.e., homesickness or longing for home):

The text, in Richard Stokes’s translation:

Ah! if I but knew the way back,
The sweet way back to childhood’s land!
Ah! why did I seek my fortune
And let go my mother’s hand?
Ah! how I long for utter rest,
Not to be roused by any striving,
Long to close my weary eyes,
Gently shrouded by love!
And search for nothing, watch for nothing,
Dream only light and gentle dreams,
Not to see the times change,
To be a child a second time!
Ah! show me that way back,
The sweet way back to childhood’s land!
I seek happiness in vain,
Ringed round by barren shores.

The nostalgia in this song is for a time-place — “childhood’s land” — which can never be returned to. It is not a sensation of sweet yearning combined with the anticipation of fulfillment, but rather a bitter, ironic, almost desperate kind of longing. Brahms’s piano accompaniment becomes more urgent as the voice rises in the middle section, beginning with the words, “Ah! how I long for utter rest . . .” (O wie mich sehnet auszuruhn) while, in the last vocal statement, the piano intones empty chords on the repeated words “barren shores” (öder Strand).

Is Brahms a deceiver? Is he a consoler? Does he listen to you at the same time that you listen to him?

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