Once again I find myself addressing the question of whether Johannes Brahms deserves to be stuck in the long shadow of the history of the music that preceded him, particularly that of Ludwig van Beethoven (and possibly others, as I shall try to explore in this post). This question is usually challenged on the basis of Arnold Schoenberg's "Brahms the Progressive" essay; but I think it may be better approach through dialectical synthesis. Dying in Vienna on April 3, 1897, much of Brahms work may best be viewed as both retrospective and prospective at the same time, recognizing, as Abraham Lincoln did, that we cannot escape history while facing the future with neither fear nor defiance. This afternoon's San Francisco Symphony concert (along with the pre-concert chamber music) at Davies Symphony Hall provided an excellent opportunity to appreciate this synthetic nature of Brahms' compositional technique. I shall also try to approach what the synthesis entails by once again trying to invoke the medieval trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. The last time I attempted to do this, I was writing about Elliott Carter, who is generally regarded as progressive unto an extreme but who, nevertheless, does, have a retrospective side, as I learned from the master class that Robert Mann taught last February at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. By way of a disclaimer, however, I should begin by recognizing that, every time I attempt a trivium-based exercise, my "musical interpretations" of logic, grammar, and rhetoric tend to shift. Remember, this is a "rehearsal studio;" so my ideas in this direction are still progressing without necessarily converging.
In considering the music of Brahms, the issue of logic is probably best grounded in the ways in which he deals with overall structure. In is interesting to observe that his first string quartet (the pre-concert offering) appears relatively late in his catalog (Opus 51, Number 1), which means it was preceded by both of his string sextets (Opera 18 and 36). This may have much to do with the fact that the string quartet, itself, cast a very long shadow, not just from Beethoven and the experiments he was pursuing with his "late" quartets but also from Franz Schubert. The Opus 51 quartets were published in 1873, about 45 years after Schubert had died; and even the most enthusiastic concert-goers do not hear very much from the string quartet repertoire between Schubert's last quartet and Brahms' first. From a structural point of view, however, Opus 51, Number 1, does not advance much beyond the structural legacy of the Schubert quartets.
The same cannot be said of the two works on the program of the concert, itself, the second piano concerto in B-flat major, Opus 83, and the fourth symphony, Opus 98. In this case the retrospective view of the Beethoven piano concertos has been advanced by Robert Schumann's experiments in a more integrated approach; but Brahms breaks with both Beethoven and Schumann in a variety of interesting ways. The work is four movements long, none of the movements provide an opportunity for an improvised cadenza, there is no unifying thematic thread, and the ordering of the movements borders on anticlimactic. The first movement is monumental in temporal scale and in the sounds elicited from both piano and orchestra, followed by a highly-charged but shorter scherzo, followed by an Andante that continues to explore beyond conventional forms, and concluding with an Allegretto grazioso, so "grazioso" as to leave the listener wondering what all the preceding bombast had been about. My personal view of this strategy is that Brahms was having a bit of a joke with his audience, particularly those who had found his first piano concerto to be more that a bit "too much." He claimed that this concerto would be on a bit more modest scale, but he did not really make good on his promise until the final movement!
The retrospective view of the symphony, on the other hand, encompasses Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann, not to mention other nineteenth-century symphonists, such as Felix Mendelssohn. Indeed, much of nineteenth-century music history can be cast in terms of experimentation with symphonic form; but in this case Brahms' retrospective view reaches further in the past. As a subscriber to the first publication of the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach, he chose to complete his symphony with a passacaglia, particularly the final movement of the BWV cantata (Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich). Needless to say, Brahms approach to his passacaglia is less an homage to Bach and more an indication of the progressive tendencies that so interested Schoenberg; but this takes us out of the domain of logic.
I continue to approach grammar, as I did when I was trying to apply the trivium to Elliott Carter, as a model of syntactic structure through which one can "sort out" the embellishing and the embellished. When I first proposed this approach, I wrote the following:
In just about any domain there is usually considerable argument over just what constitutes an appropriate structural representation. My own musical background is one that honors the spirit (if not always the letter) of Heinrich Schenker: A structural explanation is one that sorts out the embellishing from the embellished. This is a tradition that goes all the way back to (at least) C. P. E. Bach's systematic study of ornamentation; and Schenker's greatest insight was that ornaments could, themselves, be ornamented (which also happens to be the fundamental precept behind bebop). In Schenker's language the greatest obligation that a performer has to a listener is to make it clear where the background is and what sets the foreground off from the background.
Schenker introduced the terms "prolongation" to denote his generalization of the process of ornamentation; and he had a very high opinion of Brahms as a master of prolongation (so high that he as much as believed that, in a somewhat Hegelian manner, the music of Brahms would constitute "the end of music history," which is my phrase, not Schenker's). In this respect the passacaglia of the fourth symphony amounts to a new experiment in prolongation in symphonic form, but most of the second piano concerto constitutes a similar experiment with the formal foundations of a concerto. Personally, I find less such experimentation with prolongation in the Opus 51 string quartets (both of them); but I also feel that Brahms first began to hit his stride with prolongation several years later when he was putting his finishing touches on his first (Opus 68) symphony. Both the first and last movements of this symphony have a slow introduction (Un poco sostenuto and Adagio), very much an acknowledgement of symphonic structural tradition; but that tradition is shattered when the ear discovers that, in both movements, the Allegro that follows the introduction is basically a vastly extended prolongation of the material "introduced" by the introduction! Brahms does not repeat this trick in his later symphonies but instead explores other ways to shape large structure through prolongation, as he did in the second piano concerto. On the other hand I have long entertained the hypothesis that the eighth symphony of Gustav Mahler, which dwarfs the scale of any of Brahms' symphonies, is structured in such a way that the second movement amounts to a Schenkerian prolongation of the first. (The durational ratio of these two movements is such that the second movement is approximately three times longer than the first.)
Rhetoric remains the most difficult to grasp of the trivium disciplines, perhaps in part because contemporary education does not give it the attention accorded to logic and grammar. I continue to view rhetoric in terms of how the composer communicates with the listener, which means it is also a guide to how the execution of performance can realize that communication. This approach has worked for me for most genres of "serious" music and for much of the jazz repertoire (and most of the jazz that occupies my personal listening time). I have written in the past about "rhetorical devices" applied by Beethoven and Joseph Haydn in terms of the use of melodic figuration; and, since Albert Schweitzer took a similar approach to the music of Bach, I feel pretty comfortably with this method. Melodic figuration is certainly a major feature of Brahms' first string quartet; but I would also claim that both the second piano concerto and the fourth symphony engage techniques of orchestration for rhetorical purposes. Thus, the "forward progress" through the passacaglia in the fourth symphony is as much a matter of the development of orchestral richness as it is one of Schenkerian prolongation applied to the iterated passacaglia "theme." Similarly, there is a high level of orchestral interplay in the second piano concerto on a variety of scales; and the use of a solo cello in the third movement is, in many ways, a rhetorical reflection of the third movement of the Opus 60 piano quartet, which I recently described as "a piano concerto for 'very small orchestra.'" (The solo cello is also a key rhetorical element in the third movement of Robert Schumann's Opus 47 piano quartet.)
It would appear, then, that this one concert covered so much of Brahms' ground that it was practically a festival unto itself! Nevertheless, I plan to come back to hear the Master's German Requiem, which is a "family favorite" in our household. In many ways that is a decidedly different piece of work, but it will be interesting to see how my listening will be affected by today's experience.