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.

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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?

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

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A hobgoblin is, in European folklore, a spirit of the hearth or fireside (the “hob”). Hobgoblins are considered meddlesome and mischievous beings.

In the universe of Marvel Comics, the Hobgoblin is one of Spiderman’s nemeses.

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In his well-known 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” the American transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson stated that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” by which he meant that one should not conform to the fashion of the age, but should rather be original in all that one thinks and does from one day to the next.

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The misquotation of Emerson’s maxim is the punchline of one of my favorite movies, Next Stop Wonderland.

In his 2013 biography of Wagner, Raymond Furness noted:

A foolish consistency may well be the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson once wrote; Wagner’s mind was certainly not one of these. 

In fact, it was Wagner who, in 1846, first coined the term “absolute music.” He meant it in the most pejorative way possible, calling music that was disengaged from the meanings and energies of daily life, history, and the imagination “a hobgoblin in the brain of our aesthetic critics.” Indeed, according to Mark Evan Bonds, Wagner believed that

The notion of an artwork unconnected to the world around it . . . was quite literally inconceivable.

In other words, to Wagner, music could never be abstract, referring only to itself, existing in a realm untouched, unaffected, and unadulterated by any gesture or fact outside of itself.

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In matters of absolute vs. program music, Wagner’s nemesis would be not The Hobgoblin, but Brahms.

But . . . is absolute music even possible?

What do you think?

Variations on a Theme

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(Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann.)

Robert Schumann, no. 4 of Bunte Blätter (Colored Leaves), op. 99.

In 1853, his wife, Clara (Wieck) Schumann, wrote a set of variations on this piece.

The following year, Schumann was confined to the insane asylum at Endenich. Clara, who gave birth to their seventh child that May, was forbidden to visit him, as his doctors believed it would worsen his condition. Brahms, who moved in with Clara and her children, wrote his own variations on the same theme from Bunte Blätter to console her, and as a tribute to the man they both loved.

Music professor Robert Greenberg muses:

What is it about older women? A cynic might claim that a young man’s attraction to an older woman reflects nothing but an Oedipal desire to sleep with his mother and a longing to be babied. But we are not cynics. We understand that Clara, as a professional musician, saw past Brahms’ childish appearance the moment she heard him play his own music at the piano. We understand that this beautiful, smart, experienced woman treated Brahms like a man and as an equal, not like a little boy . . . 

Was Clara a cougar, a Mrs. Robinson-type BABE out looking for a naïve but energized (*wink*wink*) young man with whom she could partay heartay?

Answer: Um, no.

How are the Clara Schumann and Brahms variations different? In what ways are they faithful to the original theme by Robert Schumann, and in what ways do they differ from it? Do you believe that the variations enlarge, expand, and (perhaps) even improve upon the original theme by Robert Schumann? How so?

 

Is Absolute Music Possible?

Or does music always have an invisible program?

Consider Johannes Brahms, the ostensible champion of absolute music.

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Brahms as an old man, the way he’s most often pictured.

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Brahms in 1853, the year he met the Schumanns. The night of their first meeting, Robert Schumann wrote in his diary: “Visit from Brahms (a genius).” Soon afterwards, Schumann would write an essay in the journal he had founded, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, called “New Paths,” in which he predicted that the young Brahms would chart the path for German music.

I thought . . .  there should and must suddenly appear one that were called to give voice to the highest expression of the times in an ideal way, one who would bring us mastery not in gradual developments, but rather, like Minerva, should spring fully armored from the forehead of Zeus. And he is come, a young blood, over whose cradle graces and heroes kept watch. He is called Johannes Brahms, came from Hamburg, creating there in dark tranquility . . .  He bore, as well in his outward appearance, every sign that would announce to us: this is a chosen one. . . . His comrades greet him upon his first journey through the world, where wounds perhaps await him, but also laurels and palms; we welcome a strong champion in him.

Brahms was born in 1833 into extreme poverty in Hamburg, on the German coast of the North Sea (most famous now as the city where the Beatles had their first success in the early 1960s).

The tenement where Brahms was born.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Hamburg city authorities refused to invest in infrastructure in poor neighborhoods, so that families like Brahms’s lacked access to clean water. Deadly epidemics of cholera, which is spread by water contaminated with sewage, spread through the slums of Hamburg throughout the century, culminating in an outbreak that left 10,000 people dead in 1892.

Patients being brought to hospital during the Hamburg cholera epidemic of 1892. Note the building in the background, which looks exactly like the building where Brahms grew up.
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Brahms as a teenager.

The young Brahms, who was a musical prodigy,
when he was 13 . . . was sent by his cash-needy father to the bawdy houses by the waterfront, where he entertained the rough element with gypsy songs, quadrilles, and sailor’s ballads.[Biographer Jan] Swafford places great stress on this experience (which lasted less than a year), arguing that it accounted for “shadows” on Brahms’s consciousness and his complicated relations with women. He writes, in one of his typical psychoanalytic flights, “As with the poetry [books that the young Brahms propped up on the music desk of]  the whorehouse piano, [Brahms] needed to create refuges in his mind. So he withdrew into a hall of mirrors where he could refract his identity.”Swafford also dwells — obsessively, lasciviously — on Brahms’s looks, his “sheer attractiveness.” Over and over, he describes him as “a slight, girlish boy, . . . . fair and pretty as a girl,” with “maidenly features, . . . . forget-me-not eyes,” and “long blond hair” framing a face that was “girlishly pretty — virginal and innocent.” He suggests, with no basis whatever, that men in the taverns may have taken liberties with him.
Did Brahms “compose” his life experiences? He frequently wrote in triple and compound meters, which give a wave-like sense of flow; perhaps he was referring to his boyhood on the shores of the North Sea. You can hear that watery sound in the 3rd movement of his Symphony no. 3 in F Major. The movement is in F minor, and has a rising-and-falling, incomplete melodic theme that evokes melancholy and anxiety.

Brahms’s deeply emotional music is always held back from despair by a sense of restraint, making it even more moving. For instance, the song “O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück” (Oh, if I only knew the way back) — which is also in 3/4 — is deeply touching, but not tragic. At 1:13, where the B section begins, you hear a kind of fluttering anxiety similar to that in the 3rd movement of Third Symphony.

The text:

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.

(Translation © Richard Stokes, author of The Book of Lieder, Faber, 2005)

At 2:56, on the words “Ringsum ist öder Strand” (Ringed round by barren shores), the chords accompanying the voice become “barren” themselves, empty octaves. See the score here:

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When the most comprehensive biography of Brahms to date, by Jan Swafford, was published in 1997, it raised some controversy. Reviewing it in The New York Review of Books, the musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen took the author to task for suggesting that during his time playing in the waterfront brothels of the Sankt Pauli District, the young Brahms was sexually abused both by the “St. Pauli girls” and the sailors who frequented them.
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Swafford defended himself:

In my book I take Brahms at his word: he played in sleazy waterfront bars [in Hamburg] as a teenager, was sexually abused by prostitutes there, and the experience traumatized him. It was because of the depth of trauma he spoke of that I added a speculation:  . . .  perhaps Brahms was abused by sailors as well. Mr. Rosen and another critic have tacitly accused me of adding that detail for sensational effect. . . . [But] I . . . left it there for two reasons. First, there is the trauma Brahms spoke of, the “deep shadow on his mind.” This heartfelt statement is hard to understand if he were abused only by prostitutes, because Brahms frequented brothels from his teens on. Why would the ordinary activities of the places remain so terrible in his memory? (Brahms was, in fact, tough as nails.) Second, the bars were frequented by sailors fresh off the sea. What was to stop the worst of them from abusing a beautiful boy who was entirely at their mercy?

Rosen wrote back:

I will be very interested if Professor Swafford’s forthcoming article presents real evidence that little Brahms was molested by prostitutes. Even if the challenged opinion that the cafés he played in as a child were brothels is accepted, the rest is speculation. The secondhand evidence is that he said he “saw things and received impressions.” Any port city like Hamburg may present scenes that might shock a child. Swafford leaps from this to an assertion that what Brahms saw was things being done to him, the impressions received were prostitutes’ hands on his young private parts. This is how he takes Brahms at his word. He makes a further leap and assumes that being the object of sweet dalliance by prostitutes as a pubescent child will cause a man to be incapable later of a relationship with a respectable woman. Of course, this could be the result of having found the attentions of prostitutes rather agreeable so that the elderly Brahms preferred frequenting brothels to marriage, but this is not horrid enough for a modern biographer. We need a further speculative leap: How about sexual abuse by sailors?

Whatever the case, perhaps all of Brahms’s music is biographical — is actually, in a sense, program music. He said of his solo piano Intermezzi op. 117 (1892) that they were the “cradle-songs of my sorrows.”

What do you think?

Black Men Play (with) the Classics

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More cross-cultural encounters:

The great jazz pianist Jason Moran (above right) plays one of the late piano works of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), the Intermezzo op. 118 no. 2, with his trio, the Bandwagon.  Listen to what happens.

The piece as Brahms wrote it:

Poem: “Black Boys Play the Classics”

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(Photo: Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897.)

Another example of “complicating” the repertoire.

Is this poem about cultural appropriation or cross-cultural encounter?

Black Boys Play the Classics

The most popular “act” in
Penn Station
is the three black kids in ratty
sneakers & T-shirts playing
two violins and a cello—Brahms.
White men in business suits
have already dug into their pockets
as they pass and they toss in
a dollar or two without stopping.
Brown men in work-soiled khakis
stand with their mouths open,
arms crossed on their bellies
as if they themselves have always
wanted to attempt those bars.
One white boy, three, sits
cross-legged in front of his
idols—in ecstasy—
their slick, dark faces,
their thin, wiry arms,
who must begin to look
like angels!
Why does this trembling
pull us?
A: Beneath the surface we are one.
B: Amazing! I did not think that they could speak this tongue.
(Toi Derricotte, “Black Boys Play the Classics” from Tender. Copyright ©1997 by Toi Derricotte. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, http://www.upress.pitt.edu. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.)
Brahms did not actually write any string trios, i.e. pieces for two violins and a cello. Perhaps the boys the poet describes were playing one of his piano trios, with the piano part transcribed for violin.