Late Quartet

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A sketch Beethoven made for his String Quartet no. 14 in C# minor, op. 131.

The last works Beethoven wrote were a series of six string quartets. Why do you think, in the last two years of his life, he turned to this extremely difficult form?

Richard Taruskin suggests that:

The intimacy of chamber music offered the composer the possibility of a heightened subjectivity, a medium where he could speak his inmost, private thoughts and confide his deepest private moods as if to a music diary. There are pages in the late quartets that can seem almost embarrassing to hear in public, as if hearing were overhearing –eavesdropping on the composer’s afflicted personal existence, invading his privacy. 

The String Quartet no. 14 begins with a fugue, which Richard Wagner later called “surely the saddest thing ever said in notes,” and which twentieth-century musicologist Joseph Kerman called the “most moving of all fugues.” Schubert said of the quartet, in despair, “After this, what is left for us to write?” And Schumann wrote that the quartet had a “grandeur . . .which no words can express. [It seems] to me to stand . . .on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination.”

Why does Beethoven start with a fugue, breaking with the longstanding convention of writing a first movement in sonata form? Does a fugue contain the same spirit of conflict as sonata form, with its struggles between themes and keys? If not, what does it symbolize/suggest?

And the quartet has seven movements, not four — and they are unusual movements. What is going on here? How do the movements differ from each other? How do they carry forward a single unified idea?

 
Movement No. Tempo indications Key Meter Length
I. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo C minor cut time About 7 minutes
II. Allegro molto vivace D major 6
8
About 3 minutes
III. Allegro moderato – Adagio B minor common time About 45 seconds
IV. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Più mosso – Andante moderato e lusinghiero – Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice – Allegretto A major 2
4
About 14 minutes
V. Presto E major cut time about 5​12 minutes
VI. Adagio quasi un poco andante G minor 3
4
About 2 minutes
VII. Allegro C minor cut time About 6​12 minutes

Is Beethoven perhaps playing with time and space again as he moves, in his last years and in failing health, to embrace the infinite?

In his long poem Four Quartets, completed in 1943, American-British poet T.S. Eliot consciously attempted to imitate the late quartets of Beethoven. He writes in the first of his poetic “quartets,” Burnt Norton:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. . . .

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Is this what Beethoven is getting at?

Christopher Walken, as a master cellist and master teacher, quotes Eliot as he introduces the op. 131 Quartet to his students:

The Hero’s Funeral

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In the BBC film about the first rehearsal of Beethoven’s Third Symphony which you are going to watch later this week, the second movement — the funeral march — causes general consternation among the listeners. The Princess Lobkowitz talks breathlessly about picturing the funeral cortège, with black horses; the Prince’s nay-saying cousin, the Count von Dietrichstein, who has earlier dismissed Beethoven, is truly moved, even disturbed, by the music; and the Princess’s maid weeps openly.

But . . . who has died?

On November 22, 1963, Erich Leinsdorf, the Vienna-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who had come to the United States in the 1930s as a refugee from the Nazis, was preparing to lead his orchestra in a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov, when he got word of President Kennedy’s assassination. The orchestra’s music librarian, William Shisler, quickly pulled the parts for the second movement of the Eroica instead. Listen to Leinsdorf’s announcement from the podium of the assassination, the shock of the audience, and the way that the orchestra plays. Does this performance of the second movement sound different to you? How?

In 1944, when it was abundantly clear that Germany was losing World War II, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler led the Vienna Philharmonic in a recorded performance of the Eroica. How is this orchestra’s performance of the second movement different? Do you have the sense that it is informed by the knowledge of what is going on outside the concert hall?

In fact, Wilhelm Furtwängler is a controversial figure in the light of history. Unlike many of his peers among the German artistic and intellectual classes, he did not go into exile during the Third Reich.

The crucial question which would plague Furtwängler for the rest of his life was why he stayed behind when all the other great artists fled. The standard explanation is that he lacked moral fortitude. But, as so often emerges with ethical issues, the full story is far more complex. If anything, the opposite is true: Furtwängler stayed primarily out of a sincere, albeit naive, conviction.

Out of the depths of his cultural and intellectual roots, Furtwängler regarded Hitler and Nazism as a passing phase in German politics. . . . Furtwängler saw two Germanies: the permanent, cultural one of which he remained a proud member, and an irrelevant, political one which was a temporary nuisance. To Furtwängler, there was no such thing as Nazi Germany, but rather a Germany raped by Nazis. Furtwängler truly believed that by maintaining his artistic convictions he would succeed in resisting Hitler and upholding the everlasting purity of great German culture. All of his wartime activities were bent upon achieving this goal.

Furtwängler believed to the depth of his soul that music was a force for moral good, a route out of chaos that would assist the cause of humanity. In 1943, he wrote: “The message Beethoven gave mankind in his works . . . seems to me never to have been more urgent than it is today.” He later told the Chicago Daily Tribune: “It would have been much easier to emigrate, but there had to be a spiritual center of integrity for all the good and real Germans who had to stay behind. I felt that a really great work of music was a stronger and more essential contradiction of the spirit of Buchenwald and Auschwitz than words could be.” 

. . . Furtwängler had dedicated his entire life to perpetuating the traditions of German culture . . . . German music was the sole reason for his existence. Indeed, in 1938, after the annexation of Austria, the already overworked conductor doubled his duties by taking charge of all musical activity in Vienna, as he felt compelled to preserve that city’s proud tradition and in particular the independence and excellence of its famed Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which was threatened with State control.

The Nazis needed Furtwängler . . . Hitler deeply admired his artistry. The [Nazi] Party itself was keenly aware that Furtwängler was the foremost symbol of the past glory of German culture and that his loss [if he left Germany] would be a final blow to national prestige which would validate all the foreign criticism.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to see Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for Hitler’s birthday in 1942 as, at best, a misunderstanding of “the message that Beethoven gave mankind in his works.”

What do you think that message is?

As George Grella, Jr. notes:

Beethoven cannot choose his listeners, and so both the Allies and Axis in WWII thought he was on their side. For the Allies, the four-note motif that opens Symphony No. 5 meant V for Victory. But what did the Nazi party functionaries think when they heard Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic play the anti-tyrant Symphony No. 3 (Beethoven was a subversive, spied on by the secret police, and with public disdain for the aristocrats who had earned their privilege due to the merit of being born to the right parents), or when they heard the chorus in Symphony No. 9 sing about brotherhood? And why are the wartime broadcast recordings of those performances so full of poetry, so beautiful and emotionally intense? Those recordings are among the greatest Beethoven one will hear: does this mean fascists deserve Beethoven?

Beethoven scholar Maynard Solomon suggested that Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament is the literary corollary to the second and third movements of the Eroica Symphony: in the Testament, Solomon suggests, Beethoven “metaphorically enacted his own death in order that he might live again.”

Do you agree?

A contemporary critic wrote in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (The Comprehensive Music Journal) in 1814:

[In] the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony . . . Certainly, a magnificent person is here being led to the grave; these tones tell us so in the clearest possible way.

And Beethoven wrote other “death of the hero” pieces in the early 1800s, including his Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, known as the “Funeral March” sonata (the sonata takes its name from the second movement, which Beethoven titled “Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe” — funeral march on the death of a hero). Movement 2 starts here at 9:10.

As Beethoven wrote to the Countess Anna Marie Erdödy in 1815:

We finite beings, who are the embodiment of an infinite spirit, are born to suffer both pain and joy; and one might almost say that the best of us obtain joy through suffering.

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.

German_dictionary

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?

Heaven and Earth Will Tremble

Eroica_Beethoven_title

(The title page of Beethoven’s manuscript of his third symphony, with the dedication scratched out.)

In October 1803, Beethoven’s friend, student, and acolyte Ferdinand Ries wrote to the music publisher Simrock:

[Beethoven] wants to sell you [his new] Symphony for 100 gulden. In his own opinion it is the greatest work he has yet written. Beethoven played it for me recently, and I believe that heaven and earth will tremble when it is performed. He is very much inclined to dedicate it to [Napoleon] Bonaparte, but because [Beethoven’s patron Prince] Lobkowitz [will have sole rights to it] for half a year and will give 400 gulden [for that privilege, after that time period Beethoven] will entitle it “Bonaparte.”

The scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell proposed the existence of a universal “mono-myth” that transcends time, place, and culture: the hero’s journey. According to his theory, every culture in human history has a core story: that of a hero — usually, at first, someone who appears unlikely and ill-equipped for the task — who is called to a quest, goes on a journey, undergoes a crisis, wins a decisive victory, and returns transformed.

Campbell-Myth-quest

Do you think that this template can be applied to the symphony Ries refers to above, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 in E-flat Major, the “Eroica” (Heroic)?

Who is the hero of the Eroica?

You can read the orchestral score here.

You can download it here:

IMSLP52766-PMLP02581-Beethoven_Werke_Breitkopf_Serie_1_No_3_Op_55

Go here for a harmonic analysis.

Addendum, April 2020: The Hero’s Journey updated for the coronavirus pandemic.

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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piping2

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. 

Brahms drew on Hungarian/Romani music in other pieces as well. The last movement of his Op. 25 Piano Quartet in G minor is marked “Rondo alla zingarese” — Rondo in Gypsy style. The sound quality of this live recording is not the best, but I chose it because the young players play it with both passion and authority, and, to my ear, capture the spirit of the “all zingarese” style — the wild, sawing bow-strokes, the heartfelt slurs, and a tempo so fast that it threatens to send the piece spinning out of control. It is not beautiful. It is un-beautiful. Brahms was going for something other than beauty. What was it?

The goal of live musical performance, after all, is to give the impression that this is the first time the piece has ever been played — that the players are making it up as they go along, that it is coming from them, from their deepest emotions, from their spirits.

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” interchangeably 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:

He Who Knows Longing

Johann_Heinrich_Wilhelm_Tischbein_-_Goethe_in_the_Roman_Campagna_-_Google_Art_ProjectJohann Wolfgang von Goethe in a traveling robe on a trip to Italy.

In 1795, Goethe published his novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship), a Bildungsroman (novel concerned with the growth of the individual human spirit) about a young merchant who, dissatisfied with his life in business, goes off to join a group of traveling street performers. He meets Mignon in their midst, a vulnerable and melancholy young singer and actress with a shadowy past. Goethe gives Mignon several memorable songs, written in verse, to sing in the course of the novel’s narrative. These few verses in a now largely-forgotten novel would become generate some of the greatest Lieder of the nineteenth century.

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Mignon by Dutch artist Ary Scheffer, 1836.

Mignon, it is eventually revealed, is the product of an incestuous union between a brother and sister who had not been raised together and met later in life. She has been kidnapped from Italy and taken to wander the German-speaking lands with the other performers. She is in early adolescence, androgynous (other characters in the novel don’t know at first whether she’s a boy or girl), a creature seemingly on the threshold of this world, who longs for another one.

Mignon’s song “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” (Only he who knows longing) was set to music hundreds of times, both in German and in various translations, throughout the nineteenth century. Here are several settings.

Schubert:

Schubert again:

Schubert again, in a setting for Männerchor:

Beethoven:

Schumann:

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel:

Which of these do you think best expresses Sehnsucht?

“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.