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?

Going Home

Goin' Home

The second movement of Dvorak’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”). What is the instrument that plays the poignant solo?

Dvorak Largo theme

It was thought that Dvorak took this melody from an African-American spiritual that his student and assistant, the composer Harry T. Burleigh, sang for him. 

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(For more on Harry T. Burleigh and his music, this is an excellent resource.)

However, Dvorak’s melody, though it may have been influenced by spirituals, was original. The melody was transcribed, set to text, and published as “Goin’ Home” by Dvorak’s pupil William Arms Fisher, who wrote in the preface to the published sheet music (using the typical language of the time):

The Largo, with its haunting English horn solo, is the outpouring of Dvorak’s own home-longing, with something of the loneliness of far-off prairie horizons, the faint memory of the red-man’s bygone days, and a sense of the tragedy of the black-man as it sings in his “spirituals.” Deeper still it is a moving expression of that nostalgia of the soul all human beings feel. That the lyric opening theme of the Largo should spontaneously suggest the words ‘Goin’ home, goin’ home’ is natural enough, and that the lines that follow the melody should take the form of a Negro spiritual accords with the genesis of the symphony.

“Goin’ Home” sung by the great American bass-baritone, actor, and Civil Rights activist Paul Robeson.

In the 1948 film “The Snake Pit,” which takes place in a psychiatric hospital; a band comes to play as entertainment for the inmates.

Sung by the Georgia Boy Choir:

Alex Boyé with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

Jazz pianist Art Tatum’s version from 1949.

Jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler included it on his 1964 album Swing Low Sweet Spiritual — reinforcing the theme’s similarity to a spiritual.

Operatic bass Soloman Howard in a version that swings.

Abigail Washburn, with the Silk Road Ensemble, which plays a mix of western and Asian instruments, singing it in Mandarin.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays it as a “song of comfort” at the height of the pandemic in March 2020 in the style of a down-home folk song.

Classical Music Can Save Your Life

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It saved this violist’s life during the Great Depression.

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Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen told the great African-American mezzo-soprano Barbara Conrad in the 1970s that her singing might make the difference between life and death for someone in the audience.

Miss Conrad was one of the students who broke the color barrier at the University of Texas. 

I can believe her singing might make that difference.

 

Can Opera Be Woke?

Verdi’s 1887 opera Otello is based on Shakespeare’s great tragedy Othello, or the Moor of Venice. Othello, a heroic general who is manipulated by his aide-de-camp, Iago, into his tragic events leading to his own destruction, is a role considered by many to be the pinnacle of a classically-trained actor’s career. As such, well into the twentieth century, virtually all performances of the play cast a white actor in dark — even blackface — makeup as Othello.

The great actor and singer Paul Robeson broke the role’s unspoken color barrier in 1930 when he played Othello in London.

In recent years, thoughtful and innovative productions of the play, like the so-called “photo-negative Othello” conceived by Sir Patrick Stewart, have enabled audiences to approach the story and its characters in increasingly nuanced ways. Stewart’s Othello reversed the racial roles: he played the title role as a white man, while everyone else in the cast was black. Read reviews here and here.

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Up until the early years of our own century, however, the sung version of Othello — the title character in Verdi’s opera Otello — continued to be sung by a white tenor in dark (some would say blackface) stage makeup.

The reasons for this are complicated. Otello is a notoriously demanding role, and the number of operatic tenors worldwide who can sing it at the highest level is limited indeed. What’s more, the number of black operatic tenors is been small, and not for lack of talent. Opera been traditionally considered a white, European cultural practice, with little to attract young black singers. But also, more nefariously, opera’s primary consumers have traditionally been moneyed older white patrons, whom opera producers have not wanted to “offend” by showing the traditional romantic pairing of tenor and soprano the male partner a black man and the female a white woman.

Most black singers believe while most audiences have no objection to white men making love to black women on stage, the idea of a black man making up to a white woman arouses too many racial prejudices . . . . Many whites agree. Ellen Faull, for many years a leading soprano with the New York City Opera and now a voice teacher, thinks that the boards of opera companies want to keep black men in a subservient role. [African-American tenor] George Shirley, who between 1961 and 1972 sang well over 20 leading tenor roles at the Metropolitan Opera, agrees. . . .”Women present no problems to male dominance. Black men do, especially — as some whites think — sexually.”

It wasn’t until 2015 that the Metropolitan Opera, one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world, announced it was doing away with blackface in Otello. From now on, every production of the opera at the Met will be sung by a tenor in his own skin. In most stagings of the opera, this implies that a white tenor will take the role and sing the character as a white man, no longer as the “Moor of Venice.”

The abandoning of blackface makeup in Otello has itself been controversial, with some critics asking: Does this work as drama? Is it true to Verdi’s (and Shakespeare’s) original intentions? Some African-American opera singers have noted that Othello’s skin color is an integral part of the plot of the play and the opera (read an interesting round table discussion the Washington Post conducted with four black opera singers: “The Rarity of Black Faces, Not Otello in Blackface, Should be Issue in Opera”).

Do you think Peter Sellars’s updated, multiracial Don Giovanni works? Do you think Sellars’s casting choices are colorblind — i.e., based solely on vocal ability — or intentional? If intentional, what do you think Sellars is trying to say about race in society? Do you think he is right or wrong?

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For an overview of some of the contributions of African Americans to opera, read “African American Opera Singers are the Best Opera Singers in the World.”

Don Giovanni Goes to Prison

Two years ago, Pier Paolo Polzonetti, an Italian-born music professor at Notre Dame University, wrote an essay about teaching Don Giovanni to a music history class that he taught inside a maximum-security prison. His essay, “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison: Teaching Opera Behind Bars,” was published on the blog Musicology Now, run by the American Musicology Society (AMS), the most prestigious academic association for music scholars.

Polzonetti’s blog post ignited controversy among music scholars and students across the internet. He was accused by some of condescension, colonialism, and racism for opining that his inmate-students were more familiar with the “blatant lyrics and pounding beats” of rap than they were with opera, and for suggesting studying opera could help prisoners gain emotional self-control. He was defended by others, who in turn accused Polzonetti’s accusers of political correctness.

Here is a Reddit dialogue with comments by the opposing factions.

Here is a post by one of Polzonetti’s detractors.

Here is a post by one of Polzonetti’s defenders.

What do you think?

 

Don Giovanni in the Hood

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All the trigger warnings.

“Here’s how Peter Sellars describes his [updating of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni]: ‘There’s a rape and a murder in the first 90 seconds of Don Giovanni … It’s probably the greatest opera ever written. … Don Giovanni is an opera that, 200 years later, we’re still struggling to try to understand.'” (From a 1991 review: read the whole thing, “Peter Sellars’s Streetwise Don Giovanni,” here.)

Another review: “Sellars’ Don Giovanni Wallows in Gore and Grime of a Bronx Slum.”

In fact, even the tamest, most traditional production of Don Giovanni could probably do with a trigger warning.

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

More Unusual Scores

Near Eastern notation used from c. 1200 to 1800, and still used in the Armenian Orthodox Church today.

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Brian Eno’s score for Music for Airports:

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Which sounds like this:

“Miniwanka” by R. Murray Schafer:

Voice Piece for Soprano by Yoko Ono:

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Which sounds like this:

One composer saw this:

birds on a wire

and heard this:

What does this sound like?

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Here are some interesting directions in various scores, but unfortunately we don’t hear them played:

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.