By Ken Johnston, Concertmaster
I just read the wikipedia entry on the life and work of Johannes Brahms. A good part of me wishes that I hadn’t. I’d already done a good bit of looking into his life, and although to my knowledge everything on wikipedia here is “correct”, I’m still a little scared of the internet when it comes to this stuff. I recently performed Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in Cleveland, and when I looked around online to see what had been written about this piece, I found one site after another that described the Clarinet Quintet primarily in one word: “autumnal”. (I’m wondering who started using that one.) But, hhhmmm....as a sometime classroom teacher of music history, I might find it fishy if an entire class of kids submitted papers with this term as a chief descriptor. So, I’m thinking that when it comes to history online, people get to copy off of anyone they please, and this is too bad because occasionally, the good information that might actually be there is bound to look cheap.
In any event, rather than tell you specifically about the Brahms’ Requiem and our upcoming performance of it, I’d be happier speaking in more general terms about Brahms himself. Here’s the usual question- Who from history would you like to have a drink with? For musicians, Brahms might be somewhere on that list. Why? Well, in early childhood, all of us once tugged at long beards. A stout older guy with a long beard is invariably harmless. Plus, Brahms, as Wikipedia also acknowledges, was renowned for not wearing socks. Someone of my generation would of course remember Miami Vice, but there’s no comparison here. Don Johnson with a beard would never quite make it. Besides, Brahms wasn’t always a stout older guy, you know. Here is a photo of him in reckless youth, in a blog which even remarks on his good looks.....
We have a soft spot for those who have offered so much to the world, but don’t seem to have the confidence to match. If you read anything at all on Brahms, you’ll see that he threw out a good deal of what he wrote. Perpetually insecure, he seemed pained to show anyone what he’d done at all. Oddly, the more insecure he got, the better he wrote. It’s a weird phenomenon; we picture artists simply expressing what they feel at any given time, but in fact, their life circumstances match in no way what they create. Mozart writes a cute but nonetheless good minuet as his wife gives birth in the next room. Beethoven writes some astoundingly peaceful stuff as he lies in pain from every corner of his body. Tchaikovsky writes his darkest music when he is actually happy. (The unhappy Tchaikovsky wrote nothing at all.) And Brahms, forever paranoid that he would never live up to the high public esteem in which Robert Schumann held him, shows us his most beautiful things only after he rescues them from the fire.
The story of the rescuing-from-the-fire is one that actually wakes people up in a music history class. The cool part is that I make none of this up. Brahms was in the habit of writing music and giving it to someone for a final check-up before submitting it for publication. Who? A woman, of course! (This one was a world-class musician herself.) Who else can really affirm for a guy anything he’s done? This particular woman is notable in her own right, but Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms were great friends even before her husband died. He remained a bachelor, and she never remarried, but they remained intensely close until her death in 1896, which makes for a passionate relationship of sorts lasting half of an entire century. So....did they or didn’t they?? I’m sorry to say that we don’t really know. You’re free to scour anything you find. In fact, we have many of the letters they wrote to each other. I’ve seen everything on this in any book available, since I’m the type to spend free time doing just this sort of thing, but if you can find me a real answer, I’d be impressed. In any event, it seems to have been the lovely Clara Schumann who convinced Brahms that he was a worthy soul, and when I get the chance to have a drink, or three, with a historical figure, I intend to do the same for him, even if it means less coming from another guy.
A couple of final notes before the Brahms Requiem, which I hope you mean to hear....
First, a story. As an undergrad in music school, I was rehearsing one of Brahms’ violin sonatas with a pianist and saw stars out of the corners of my eyes. I shrugged it off, and then during the performance, the same thing happened. I didn’t think of it till years later, when I performed another of his sonatas and the same thing happened. Strange, yes? It’s difficult to breathe comfortably when you play Brahms. His phrases tend to overlap, and they are LONG. Subconsciously, I breathe with phrases as much as I can when I perform, but with Brahms, I just end up hyperventilating a bit.
Second, to translate for wikipedia, because it can’t seem to be bothered to help out-
Brahms is described as being one of the final great classicists, as well as a contrapuntal master above all else. A classicist is someone who creates things within any kind of existing logic, rather than pushing boundaries and making a new set of rules. Brahms never stopped writing in the old ways. I have to remind myself that during his life, Wagner had already gone off on his many tangents. Tchaikovsky and many others were doing their “new” things. Tchaikovsky never liked Brahms’ music- (even a genius can be an idiot.) There is one anecdotal story of the two meeting awkwardly at a rehearsal. Both were shy. Brahms the classicist means that he wrote, for the most part, in the ways of the early 19th century. He wrote universal music, not “german” music. Also, when in doubt regarding what counterpoint is- picture a singer singing a melody. There is no real counterpoint here. Now picture two singers singing together. Automatic counterpoint of one kind or another. Whenever we speak of musical lines and how they fit together, be it two singers, or three violinists, or a whole orchestra, we are speaking of counterpoint. When you hear the Requiem, listen closely to the final few minutes of the 6th movement. This is a gorgeous few minutes of music, but if someone were to ask you to hum it, you might wonder why it doesn’t feel the same when you try. This moment is beautiful because of all of the lines intertwining, not because of a single melody that you could hum. This kind of thing is what Brahms was really good at doing, and this is what we call a “contrapuntal master”.
Brahms is said to have been a creature of habit. At the end of his life, he supposedly drank two beers every day, smoked two cigars, and took a daily walk. I’ve been to Detmold, Germany, where he spent some time. I can also give an oblique thanks to the german people for keeping his favorite bar alive! He succumbed to cancer, but died comfortably as these things go. It is said that after losing a lot of weight, (his suspenders barely worked), he simply took a nap and never woke up.