Clara at 200

A clever student-created animated bio, “The Wild Life of Clara Schumann.”

Clara’s beautiful Lied “Beim Abschied.”

The poem, by Friederike Serre, translated by Richard Stokes.

On departing

A purple glow shines from afar,
Golden now the bright day sinks,
One by one the silver stars
Awaken in the skies.
And the Queen of the Day
Bows her head and goes to sleep;
One more greeting, now goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

Shadows cover the broad earth,
Night lies on the meadows.
Pray be still now, poor heart,
That the day has wearied so!
O appear, gently, mildly,
Sweet image in my dreams.
One more greeting, now goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

Ah, hot tears run down my cheeks;
Now a feeling of bliss,
Now a painful, fearful longing
Is set to break my heart.
Only dreams can restore
That happiness too quickly vanished.
One more greeting, now goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

When I gaze into the dusk,
And the sun sets,
I think of all the pain
That I have endured.
Ah, perhaps the morrow
Will banish all cares.
So be of good cheer! Goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

What Romantic themes can you identify in the text and in the music?

Pianist Jonathan Biss attempts to decode the Schumanns’ relationship.

The wonderful scene where Brahms shows up at the Schumanns’ door in the 1947 film Song of Love.

Romantic Frenemies

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The conflict between Brahms and his posse, and Wagner and his, resulted in a “manifesto” written by Brahms and published in the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo in 1860:

The undersigned have long followed with regret the proceedings of a certain party whose organ is Brendel’s Zeitschrift für Musik. The said Zeitschrift unceasingly promulgates the theory that the most prominent striving musicians are in accord with the aims represented in its pages, that they recognise in the compositions of the leaders of the new school works of artistic value, and that the contention for and against the so-called Music of the Future has been finally fought out, especially in North Germany, and decided in its favour. The undersigned regard it as their duty to protest against such a distortion of fact, and declare, at least for their own part, that they do not acknowledge the principles avowed by the Zeitschrift, and that they can only lament and condemn the productions of the leaders and pupils of the so-called New-German school, which on the one hand apply those principles practically, and on the other necessitate the constant setting up of new and unheard-of theories which are contrary to the very nature of music.

Wagner was outraged by this screed, and branded its authors “Jews,” one of his favorite epithets.

A few days later, an answer appeared in the Neue Zeitschrift:

Dread Mr. Editor,

All is out!——I learn that a political coup has been carried out, the entire new world rooted out stump and branch, and Weimar and Leipzig, especially, struck out of the musical map of the world. To compass this end, a widely outreaching letter was thought out and sent out to the chosen-out faithful of all lands, in which strongly outspoken protest was made against the increasing epidemic of the Music of the Future. Amongst the select of the out-worthies [paragons] are to be reckoned several outsiders whose names, however, the modern historian of art has not been able to find out. Nevertheless, should the avalanche of signatures widen out sufficiently, the storm will break out suddenly. Although the strictest secrecy has been enjoined upon the chosen-out by the hatchers-out of this musico-tragic out-and-outer, I have succeeded in obtaining sight of the original, and I am glad, dread Mr. Editor, to be able to communicate to you, in what follows, the contents of this aptly conceived state paper—I remain, yours most truly,

Crossing-Sweeper.

Office of the Music of the Future [Zukunftsmusik]

In spite of this mocking response, the anxiety over who would inherit the mantle of Beethoven caused real anxiety among culture-minded Germans; David Thatcher goes so far as to call the Absolute vs. Program Music dispute a “civil war”; indeed, it’s even been called “The War of the Romantics.” Brahms and Wagner were each competing, as it were, to wear the mantle of Beethoven, and to carry the genius of Germanic music into a new era. As conductor Russell Ger puts it:

From our perspective it seems fantastically overblown. Could people really get that worked up about something like this? Well, unfortunately we have a tragic parallel in the two great rap artists Biggie and 2Pac. The feud between these musicians resulted in two gang-related homicides, with both men being cut down in their prime. This is equally beyond comprehension. 

In the 19th Century, the conflict was somewhat more restrained, with only occasional outbursts of physical violence at concerts. The war was predominantly restricted to vociferous condemnations in print and vocal denunciations at performances.

Brahms despised Liszt’s music, and was widely believed to hold the same low opinion of Wagner’s. Liszt was a great supporter of Wagner; his daughter Cosima became Wagner’s second wife. Wagner, in turn, hated Brahms and everything he believed Brahms stood for. As Wagner’s defender, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, put it:

What does Johannes Brahms matter now? His good fortune was a German misunderstanding: he was taken for Wagner’s antagonist — an antagonist was needed. That does not make for necessary music, that makes, above all, for too much music.-If one is not rich one should have pride enough for poverty. The sympathy Brahms inspires undeniably at certain points . . . long seemed enigmatic to me — until finally I discovered, almost by accident, that he affects a certain type of man. His is the melancholy of impotence; he does not create out of an abundance, he languishes for abundance. If we discount what he imitates [e.g., Beethoven], what he borrows from great old or exotic-modern styles — he is a master of imitation — what remains as specifically his is yearning. This is felt by all who are full of yearning and dissatisfaction of any kind. He is too little a person . . .  This is understood by those . . . on the  periphery [of socity] and they love him for that. In particular, he is the  musician for a certain type of dissatisfied women . . . . Brahms is  touching as long as he is secretly enraptured or mourns for himself — in this he is “modern”; he becomes cold and of no further concern  to us as soon as he becomes the heir of the classical composers. People like to call Brahms the heir of Beethoven: I know no more cautious euphemism.

In brief, Nietzsche says that Brahms is impotent, small-minded, with no original ideas, and appeals only to people with frustrated lives. Do you agree?

Whatever the case, Brahms quite clearly paid homage to Wagner in the second movement of his Symphony no. 1 in C minor, op. 68.

The symphony’s second movement contains several obvious allusions to Wagner’s groundbreaking “Tristan chord” (movement 2 starts at 12:52):

The Tristan chord occurs first in the prelude of Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde, and consists of F-B-D#-G#: an augmented fourth, sixth, and ninth. Any chord that contained these intervallic relationships became known as a Tristan chord.

More on the Tristan chord:

Brahms was a collector of manuscript scores, and had an autograph score of a scene from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. When Wagner found out, he demanded that Brahms return it to him. They exchanged frosty letters, which you can read here, and Brahms eventually did return the score. Wagner relented by sending him a first-edition of Das Rheingold.

Sounding “White”

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Throughout 2018, the New York Times has been running a series of stories called “Overlooked,” which are the obituaries of notable women from the past who the paper declined to acknowledge at the time of their deaths. In August, the Times published an overdue obituary for Sissieretta Jones, the first black opera singer to appear at Carnegie Hall. Jones was marketed as “The Black Patti” — i.e., the black counterpart to the reigning opera diva of the day, Adelina Patti, below.

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Jones was the daughter of former slaves. The obituary notes that, while Jones performed opera excerpts in concert widely across the United States and Europe, as a black soprano she was prohibited from appearing in fully-staged opera productions with white singer colleagues. An interviewer at the time suggested that she “whiten up” with makeup, but Jones refused.

“Try to hide my race and deny my own people?” she responded in the interview, which was published by The San Francisco Call in 1896. “Oh, I would never do that.” She added: “I am proud of belonging to them and would not hide what I am even for an evening.”

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Jones was preceded in forging a new path for black classically-trained singers by Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was born a slave in Mississippi sometime around 1820, and later taken to Philadelphia and freed when her owners divorced. She toured the United States in 1851, singing programs of opera arias and art songs, and was managed  by a white man who was evidently a racist and a supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act, and who prohibited black audiences from attending her concerts.

As the music critic for the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser enthused after Greenfield’s debut concert in that city:

A Black Swan!

Among the musical novelties of the day, the public are soon to be astonished by the debut of a young lady of African extraction, by the name of Eliza[beth] Greenfield. We had the pleasure last evening in company with a party of Musical Amateurs, of listening to her performance and must confess we were completely surprised and delighted.

Miss Greenfield possesses a voice of great purity and flexibility, and of extraordinary compass; singing the notes in alto, with brilliancy and sweetness, and descending to the bass notes with a power and volume perfectly astonishing. She sang among other pieces “When the gloom if night retiring,” with a degree of artistic finish that many of our celebrated Prima Donnas might envy.

The critic undoubtedly meant Sir Henry Bishop’s “Like the Gloom of Night Retiring”; there is documentary evidence of Greenfield having sung the piece in Buffalo.

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There is also evidence that a Buffalo police phalanx had to be called in to protect the singer, the audience, and the concert hall after threats of “dire disasters to the building if the dark lady were permitted to sing.”

Indeed, The Buffalo Daily Express was constrained to plead, in its review of her concert:

May we not hope that her music may tend to soften the hearts of the free and lighten the shackles of her race enslaved.

When Greenfield appeared in Cleveland, the music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted the astonishment of the audience as they heard “white” sounds emanating from a black body:

It was amusing to behold the utter surprise and intense pleasure which were depicted on the faces of her listeners; they seemed to express – ‘Why, we see the face of a black woman, but hear the voice of an angel, what does it mean?’

Sadly, there are no recordings of Sissieretta Jones or Elizabeth Greenfield; the latter died before the advent of recording, and the former, tragically, though she died as late as the 1930s, apparently chose not to record.

We have the examples, however, of many great black sopranos who have followed in the course laid down by these pioneering prima donnas.

Jessye Norman, for instance, is my absolute favorite singer in my aboslute favorite composer, Johannes Brahms — not to mention being unsurpassed in Wagner and other operatic repertoire.

Here she is singing “Divinités du Styx,” from the 1767 opera Alceste by Christoph Willibald Gluck:

In spite of the success of the success of black women singers, black men have traditionally fared less well in opera. A 1972 New York Times article, “When Will the Black Male Make It in Opera?”, describes the predicament of

Therman Bailey, a tall, good‐looking man in his early forties, [who] was signed by the Cologne Opera a few years ago. After he arrived there he was assigned a large number of roles to prepare in German. As the weeks went by, he was given more and more to learn but never a performance. He complained and finally worked up the long chain of bureaucracy to the artistic administrator, who said, “Really, we’re not sure how you’re going to look onstage.” Bailey said, “Then why the hell did you hire me? I haven’t suddenly changed color!” 

Inspired by his anger, Bailey reached over and pointed to a list of the company’s repertory. “Look at these operas! Almost every one is set in a Mediterranean country where blacks have always lived, Why can’t I do one?”

And George Shirley, the first black tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera, suggests that

white men erroneously see the black male “as a sort of superhuman sex machine. Maybe because of this, we’re a threat in all areas. No white man is threatened by a black woman, but when a black man is raised into a position of equal competition, the white man doesn’t like it. He says to himself, ‘Why should I open my world up to this guy when I al ready have to deal with so many white guys?”

This has been especially true for tenors, who sing the romantic male leads in opera, and thus are paired with (usually white) sopranos, which, in the United States especially, has been perceived as threatening and unsavory by (predominantly white) opera audiences.

Fortunately, things are changing, but opera is not only tradition-bound; it’s also not especially woke.

What does it mean to sound black? To sound white?

UPDATE, October 2019:

Opera has lost one of the greatest sopranos of the twentieth century, Jessye Norman. Read Kira Thurman’s appreciation of the diva here.

https://frieze.com/article/how-jessye-norman-1945-2019-broke-operas-rules-black-women?fbclid=IwAR0lBDGdf7k-0ejIHGRUObJ3usJOuOheGXr4Mb7noWyE1poggvK0BXX4tHU

Norman as Sieglinde in Wagner’s opera Die Walküre:

Night and Dreams

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Two Men Contemplating the Moon (Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1830).

Words and images you will encounter over and over again in the Lieder of the Romantic era: night, dark, moon, dream — in German, Nacht, dunkel, Mond, Traum (German nouns are capitalized).

Think of the thick, dark (dunkel), overgrown forests in which so many of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm take place, and recall that the Brothers Grimm were philologists (linguists) as well as folklore collectors. The brothers’ other great project, in addition to their folktale collecting, was the publication of what is still today the most comprehensive German dictionary, the Deutsches Wörterbuch.

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In the Wörterbuch, the Grimms provide another meaning for dunkel, in addition to “dark”: dämmerndmeaning dusky, dim, like twilight, the indeterminate time of day when the light yields to the dark. This haziness and indeterminacy is another prominent idea in Romanticism, in which imagination and what it produces have a greater value than reason and what it measures.

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Rocky Landscape in the Elbe (Friedrich, 1823).

In his song “Mondnacht” (Moonlit Night), notice how Schumann begins with a feeling of indeterminacy in the piano, and how, when the voice enters, it appears to be singing just a fragment of a melody. The poem is by Joseph von Eichendorff.

The text in translation by Richard Stokes:

It was as though Heaven
Had softly kissed the Earth,
So that she in a gleam of blossom
Had only to dream of him.

The breeze passed through the fields,
The corn swayed gently to and fro,
The forests murmured softly,
The night was so clear with stars.

And my soul spread
Her wings out wide,
Flew across the silent land,
As though flying home.

Here is Brahms’s setting of the same text.

How are the two musical settings different? Which do you think is more effective in capturing the “night” feeling of Eichendorff’s poem? Why?

 

Mountain Music

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The sound of the French horn provides one of the most emblematically Romantic timbres in nineteenth-century music. Why is that?

The French horn derives its origin from the hunting horn (in German, waldhorn or forest horn) — a brass instrument played while hunting on horseback to call back the hounds from the hunt.

Some horns, like the alphorn, were used in mountain regions to communicate and signal across vast distances.

And horns were used in the Middle Ages to call troops to battle.

So the sound of the horn is associated with the pastoral, with nature, and with the simple folk, peasants and hunters, people steeped in forestcraft and woodlore, men and women who are close to the land, and also with centuries past. The idea that the simple folk are the inheritors of a unique knowledge and wisdom is an important Romantic trope, part of the culture of resistance to the advancing technological specialization and industrialization of the age.

As the early nineteenth-century music theorist C.F.D. Schubart wrote:

The entire forest stops and heeds when the sonorous horn is sounded. Deer lie at the spring and listen; even the frogs slip out of the water; and sows lie nearby in sweet slumber, while their piglets suckle in 3/8 time. . . A horn call summons the dogs, that they might brave the frightful forest and pit themselves against the jaws of the boar . . . But the same all-powerful horn, ringing out in gentle tones from forest hills, compels the deer lying by the mossy spring to raise up its antlers and, as it were, to soak up the sound.

The nineteenth-century Männerchor (men’s chorus) was meant to imitate the sonic ambience of the woodland horn, and to evoke a feeling of the pastoral and the out-of-doors.

Brahms wrote his Four Songs for women’s choir, harp, and two horns — including the “Song from Fingal” — to evoke both folk music and a sense of nostalgia for the past: the first song is self-referential, about the effect of hearing a harp played in the landscape; the second song is a setting of “Come away, death” from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; the third song is about a gardener who loves a lady in vain, and anticipates his death from grief; and the fourth is a setting of a German translation of the Ossian verses. 

Years later, Brahms would return to the pastoral sound of the horn to open his second piano concert on B-flat Major, op. 83. As Bill McGlaughlin has observed, this is more than music: it is a landscape in sound; the horn almost seems to call out of the mists, as if from one mountaintop to another.

And of course you remember Beethoven’s horns in his Symphony no. 3. What does Beethoven intend his horns to mean?

Piping Down the Valleys Wild: Some Literary and Historical Sources

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The title page of Songs of Innocence (1793) by William Blake (1757-1827). You can view the entire 1793 edition and read commentary at the Tate Museum’s website.

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An 1802 poem along similar lines by William Wordsworth (1770-1850):

My heart leaps up when I behold
  A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
  Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

How do Blake’s and Wordsworth’s poems express a fundamental tenet of Romanticism?

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The Dream of Ossian (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1813).

Some years earlier, the Scottish poet James Macpherson had published Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, which he claimed were his translations of texts by Ossian, a forgotten third-century Gaelic bard whose poems had been lost until Macpherson himself discovered them on a trip around the northern coast of Scotland. Fingal was the legendary king of Caledonia, in northwestern Scotland. It is now commonly accepted that Macpherson wrote the poems himself, but at the time Thomas Jefferson enthused over Ossian, “I think this rude bard of the North the greatest Poet that has ever existed.”  Fingal was wildly successful, and was translated into every major European language. Napoleon adopted Ossian as his own guiding poet, and is said even to have gone into battle with a copy of Fingal in his pocket; the artist Girodet, the official portraitist to Napoleon’s family, painted this scene of Ossian in paradise, welcoming the souls of the French officers killed in the Napoleonic Wars, in 1805.

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Why was Ossian — later acknowledged to be a fraud — so important to the Romantics?

Could it be because these seemingly ancient poems spoke to the longing for a unified culture and community, one based on spiritual aspirations rather than on the arbitrary borders set out by the various monarchies of Europe?

Or could it be because of the Ossianesque atmosphere of mist, of caves, of the bleak landscapes of the North?

You can read selections of Ossian’s poems here.

“Das Mädchen von Inistore” (The maid of Inistore), one of Schubert’s settings of Ossian (Macpherson) in German translation.

The text, in English:

Weep on the rocks of roaring winds, o maid of Inistore! Bend thy fair head over the waves, thou lovelier than the ghost of the hills, when it moves in a sunbeam, at noon, over the silence of Morven. 

Brahms set the same text for women’s choir, harp, and two horns. Note how the instrumentation adds a sense of the mystical and the mysterious.

Mendelssohn, after a trip to Scotland, wrote his Hebrides Overture, which he subtitled “Fingal’s Cave.”

The mystical love of nature — at a time when the degradation of the natural world by industry was starting to be noticed — is a hallmark of Romanticism. It is perhaps fitting, then, that at a time of great alarm over climate change, some of nature’s most radical defenders of the earth have adopted the philosophies of Romanticism’s most noxious offspring, Nazism.

Gypsy Kings

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The verbunkos, a Hungarian Roma dance. The musician is playing a gajda, a free-reed pipes made from goatskin (the goat’s head is still attached!).

The third movement of Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D Major.

The young Brahms first heard Roma music as a boy in Hamburg, which, as a major port on the North Sea, was a way-station to America for refugees from the many failed revolutions throughout Eastern Europe in 1848-49.

In 1853, Brahms embarked on a concert tour with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi. Reményi was himself a refugee of the failed Hungarian revolution of 1848, had been banished from Austria-Hungary, and had fled to the United States. He returned in 1852 and looked up Brahms, whom he’d met and played music when the latter was still a teenager, prior to Reményi’s flight from the authorities.

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Reményi (l.) and Brahms in 1852.

Reményi, who claimed Romani ethnicity, was in fact not Roma but Jewish; he was born Eduard Hoffmann. Nevertheless, he introduced Brahms to verbunkos music. Some of the folk melodies that Reményi taught Brahms appear in the latter’s Hungarian Dances for four-hands piano. 

This is a Romani instrument called a cimbalom.

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In his Hungarian Rhapsody no. 11, Franz Liszt (above) directed the pianist to play “quasi un zimbalo” — like a cimbalom. Does the piano sound like the cimbalom?

The distinctions between Romani and Hungarian musics, for Reményi, Brahms, and Liszt, were blurred; both cultures were exotic, “oriental,” other. For Liszt, moreover, Romani music was Hungarian music, and he used sonic ideas of “Gypsy-ness” and “Hungarian-ness” in his project to infuse classical music with ethnic nationalism.

Liszt’s “symphonic poem,” Hungaria, a tribute to the failed Hungarian revolution of 1848:

In fact, Liszt, in spite of having been born in Hungary, never learned to speak the Hungarian language; he grew up in a family of musicians who served the noble Esterházy family, and who spoke German and French. Nevertheless, he declared, “I remain from birth to the grave, in heart and mind, a Magyar” (Hungarian).

Other famous examples of “Gypsy” music:

Brahms Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs).

Translation of the first song:

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The translations and text of all the songs can be read here:

https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/song/3917

What makes these songs sound Romani?

In his 1875 opera Carmen, Georges Bizet composed music for the Gypsy anti-heroine, Carmen, using Cuban and Spanish music forms. Here is her famous Habanera (a Habanera is a dance form from Havana, Cuba):

Her aria “Près de ramparts de Seville” is a seguidilla, a Spanish dance.

So, as Northern and Central European composers mashed up “Hungarian” with “Romani,” the Southern European composer Bizet mashed up “Spanish” with “Romani.”

An example of actual Spanish Romani music:

“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?

Free, But Lonely

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(Joseph Joachim in 1868.)

“Frei Aber Einsam” — Free but lonely — was the personal motto of Brahms’s best friend, the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. In 1853, for Joachim’s twenty-seconnd birthday, Robert Schumann, his composition student Albert Dietrich, and Brahms decided to collaborate on a present for their friend: a sonata for violin and piano based on the musical notes F, A, and E, in honor of Joachim’s motto.

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The title page is inscribed:

F.A.E.: In Erwartung der Ankunft des verehrten und geliebten Freundes JOSEPH JOACHIM schrieben diese Sonate R.S., J.B., A.D.

(F.A.E.: In expectation of the arrival of their revered and beloved friend, Joseph Joachim, this sonata was written by R.S., J.B., A.D.)

Brahms wrote the third movement, a scherzo.

The propulsive rhythm of Brahms’s contribution should be a bit . . . familiar to you.

Do  you think Brahms was consciously imitating Beethoven?

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Don’t forget that earlier that same month — October, 1853 — Schumann had written an article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in which he essentially anointed Brahms as the spiritual son of Beethoven, calling him

one whose mastery would not gradually unfold but, like Minerva, would spring fully armed from the head of Jupiter. And now he has arrived, a young blood, at whose cradle graces and heroes kept watch. His name is Johannes Brahms, . .  His comrades greet him at his first entrance into the world of art, where wounds may perhaps await him, but bay and laurel also; we welcome him as a valiant warrior.

Schumann was a very influential composer and critic, and this essay, entitled “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths) — in your course reading packet — was read as far away as America, where it was published in translation in the New-York Herald Tribune as well as other papers. “Neue Bahnen” made Brahms’s career.

It has been suggested that Schumann had been actively looking for someone to inherit the mantle of German music after the death of Beethoven — someone who was not a member of the Lisztian New German School, which he detested, but a proponent of “pure” (absolute) music.

What must it have been like for Brahms, at twenty, to have to live up to this hype?

Incidentally, Joachim was one of the first violinists to make recordings, and, when, in the early days of Youtube, I found some uploads of his remastered recordings, it was thrilling to hear his unadorned style, with very little vibrato; it gave me some idea of the way that Brahms wanted his music to sound. Here is Joachim playing his Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no. 1.

The Blue Flower

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(Clara Wieck Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Robert Schumann.)

On October 1, 1853, the twenty-year-old Johannes Brahms, who was on tour accompanying violinist Eduard Remenyi throughout the German-speaking lands, knocked on the door of his idol, Robert Schumann in Düsseldorf. He played his Piano Sonata no. 1 in C Major for Schumann and his wife, the great pianist Clara Wieck Schumann. Robert noted in his journal that night:

Visit from Brahms (a genius).

Clara wrote in her own journal:

This month brought us the wonderful arrival of the twenty-year old composer Brahms from Hamburg. It is as though he has been sent by God himself! He played sonatas, scherzos, and so on that he had written, everything brimming over with imagination and emotional intensity, and consummate in form. It is really moving to watch this man,with his fascinating features, sitting at the piano with an expression of ecstasy on his face. He has very attractive hands, which master the greatest of difficulties with the greatest of ease- his works are very hard. Robert says one can only hope that Heaven will grant him health.

One can hear how deeply the young Brahms had drunk at the spring of Beethoven; his sonata reflects much of the energy, freedom, and heroic gestures of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 29 in B-flat Major, op. 106, the “Hammerklavier”:

And the beginning of the second movement of Brahms’s sonata sounds very much like the last number in Schubert’s great song cycle Die Winterreise, “Der Leiermann,” in which the bereft protagonist encounters a mentally unstable organ-grinder walking barefoot on the ice, and he asks the organ-grinder if he might throw in his lot and wander with him.

leiermann

Indeed, Brahms patterned the second movement after an old Minnelied (love songs sung by German troubadours) called “Vertohlen geht der Mond auf” (Stealthily rises the moon).

Verstohlen geht der Mond auf.
Blau, blau Blümelein!
Durch Silberwölkchen führt sein Lauf.
Blau, blau Blümelein!
Rosen im Tal,
Mädel im Saal,
O schönste Rosa!
Stealthily rises the moon.
Blue, blue flower!
Through silver cloudlets makes its way.
Blue, blue flower!
Roses in the dale,
Maiden in the hall,
O loveliest Rosa!

The motif of the blue flower is a strand threaded throughout the poetry of German Romanticism, appearing in works by Joseph von Eichendorff, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Novalis; it symbolizes the Romantic longing for the infinite.

This German folk song talks about seeking the blue flower:

Several years later, Brahms wrote a choral setting of “Verstohlen geht der Mond auf”:

Can you find references to the blue flower in twentieth and twenty-first century culture?

What is your blue flower?