Saturday, November 28, 2009

Arriving at Brahms' Vocal Compositions (again)

In my recent "category-based analysis" of the complete works of Johannes Brahms, I made note of just how much of that corpus involved music for voice in some way or another. My traversal of the Deutsche Grammophon Complete Edition box has now brought me to the Lieder section, which, as I have previously written, was one of the collections that first drew me to my interest in taking a Gesamtwerk approach Brahms. Listening to these performances by soprano Jessye Norman and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, all accompanied on piano by Daniel Barenboim, has reminded me of how much I have missed the vinyl recordings I used to have. It is not just that these songs cover so much of Brahms' progress as a composer through almost the entirety of his career; nor is it just a matter of the sensitivity that these performers bring to these compositions. It is also that this collection differs from the Brilliant Classics' collection of the complete works of Johannes Brahms in facilitating diachronic listening to these songs. Where Brilliant organized the vocal music around who the performers are, the Deutsche Grammophon collection is basically ordered chronologically. Thus, we have a sense of which songs have been grouped under a single opus number, even when different songs require different vocal ranges, along with the higher-level ordering from one opus collection to the text. All that is missing is the year of publication for each opus number, which can easily be resolved by consulting Wikipedia. For the record the collection begins with the Opus 3 collection of six songs published in 1853, the year of the publication of his first two piano sonatas (Opera 1 and 2), and concludes with the Opus 121 Vier ernste Gesänge, published in 1896 at the time when he was diagnosed with the cancer that would soon thereafter take his life. (The opus number 122 was assigned posthumously by Brahms' publisher.)

When we examine a complete listing of Brahms' published compositions ordered by opus number, we realize that a diachronic traversal of these song collections is essentially a traversal of the man's life. This is not a unique attribute of a composer's corpus. Ken Russell directed a television documentary about Ralph Vaughan Williams (with the expert assistance of the composer's widow Ursula) that was structured around a traversal of his nine symphonies, the last of which received its first performance shortly after his death. Similarly, I have long been interested in the autobiographical nature of the progression of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler (including the intervention of Das Lied von der Erde between the eighth and ninth symphonies). What is important, however, is that we learn to be aware of when the work of a particular composer can serve as a window on his/her life-world and that we accept that serious listening is as much a matter of looking through this window as it is getting to know the notes on the score pages.

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