Music Plug #3: Brahms

I said last time that I'd been planning on plugging Brahms, but I got a little distracted by some other awesome stuff.  And yeah, it feels like a bit of a cop-out to plug one of the most famous Romantic composers, but compared to his contemporaries, I think Brahms gets short shrift.

Ludwig van Beethoven started in the Classical period but paved the way for musical Romanticism. Johannes Brahms started in the Romantic period but created works with the epic solidity of his Classical forebearers.  Brahms' compositions are deep, patient, and philosophically weighty.  He does more storytelling with color and harmony and dynamics (especially in his vocal compositions) than any of his predecessors and the vast majority of his successors.

Op. 82: Nänie

Since the works I'm planning on plugging here are long, I'll start with something a bit more manageable: Nänie, whose name comes from the Latin word for a funeral lament.  The first thing here to notice is the tone; it's a patient and touching piece with triumphant moments interspersed throughout.  The second thing to notice is how Brahms doesn't rush; he never rushes anywhere, especially when contemplating death.  The third thing to notice is the lushness and dynamic range of the choral score.

Nänie is both a song of lament and a paean to music itself.  The entire text can be found here, but I'll translate a more relevant bit to give you sense of it (I've taken some minor liberties with the original German to improve the flow).

See how the gods and goddesses cry
As the beautiful pass; as the perfect die.
But the song of the loved ones' lament is glorious
Where words alone fall toneless to Orcus.

Op. 68: Symphony No. 1, Mvt. IV

Johannes Brahms was born five years after Ludwig van Beethoven died.  He didn't release his First Symphony until fifty years after Beethoven's death. Still, in many ways it's a response to the older composer's work.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the final movement, which is both a reimagining and a refutation of Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

Despite bridging the Classical and Romantic eras, Beethoven was a child of the Enlightenment - the movement that sparked the American and French Revolutions and the age of modern science.  The Enlightenment was a time when educated men worked to advance humanity through rational thought and secular philosophy.  In following with that, the Ode to Joy is a secular hymn to love and brotherhood - arguably the greatest ever written.

The Romantics threw all of that out, returning to a more naturalist and spiritual view of the world.  They had seen too many men like Napoleon, who promised reform but instead delivered petty dictatorship.  They saw technology make war more terrifying rather than less.  They witnessed the dehumanization caused by the industrial revolution and its accompanying urbanization.  The Classical Era was the age of Newton and Jefferson.  The Romantic Era was the age of Thoreau, Shelley, Dickens, and Poe.

The last movement of Brahms' First Symphony is a statement of core Romantic values.  It's got three themes: the first is a chorale, initially played (if I recall correctly) on trombones and bassoons (a voicing trick de Meij borrowed in Lothlorien).  It only appears twice, and is very understated the first time.  This is bookended by a peaceful Alpine theme in the horns and flutes, evoking the natural beauty of Austria, where the composer spent most of his life.  Then the main theme arrives, which is an obvious echo of the Ode to Joy, a human theme of progress and brotherhood.  And yet it only plays to completion one time; after that, it starts to break up and become more fractious and disjointed.  This continues, showing how the works of man falter and fall into war and discord, until the Alpine theme breaks through again like a clarion call, and then - like a beam of sunlight piercing the storm - the chorale finally returns.  Brahms' message is clear: do not rely on humanity alone; look also to nature and to the divine for guidance!

Philosophically, I don't buy the argument, but it's hard not to get caught up in the spirit listening to the music.  I always get a little religious when I hear Brahms.

Op. 45: Ein Deutsches Requiem

The only time I've had the privilege of performing this piece as a member of the Harvard Glee Club in 1995-6.  We did a show on the university campus, then took it to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City... which means that I've actually sung on Broadway!  It's also one of the most moving pieces I've ever performed; like the First Symphony it fills me with a sense of religious wonder despite my atheism.

Nearly all of the famous requiems are settings of the Latin requiem mass, a uniquely Catholic construct.  Brahms was Lutheran, and while he was deeply spiritual you get the feeling that he wasn't particularly religious.  Spurred by tragedies in his own life, he set out to create a new requiem for the entire German people - Catholic and Lutheran, Christian and non-.  He took meaningful but non-sectarian passages from his own bible and set them to music in seven movements.

The composition is rife with repeating themes, the two most important of which are the 5-7-8 musical progression (which imparts a sort of "climbing" feeling, like ascending a grand staircase), and the phrase "selig sind" - "blessed be" - which bookends the entire work.  Here's a breakdown of the movements:

  1. Selig sind die da Leid tragen - "Blessed are they who mourn."  This haunting movement presents both of the themes mentioned above, which will be reprised later.
  2. Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (10:00) - the funeral march.  The chorus sings, quietly and lamentingly, "Behold, all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of mankind like the flowers; the grass withers and the flowers fall."  But maybe you didn't quite get it.  Perhaps you have failed to internalize the incredible futility of your existence.  Brahms won't have that.  He waits a second, grabs you by the lapels, and screams in your face: "Pay attention: WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE! EVERYTHING WE DO AS A SPECIES WILL SOMEDAY BE FORGOTTEN FOREVER!"  Then he pauses and repeats the whole thing for good measure.  The movement ends with an uplifting bit about the joy in the next world, but the opening of this movement is one of the heaviest and most powerful things in the entire work.
  3. Herr, lehre doch mich (24:00) - the first of two movements with a baritone solo.  Like the previous movement, it's a reflection on death, but this time it's personal.  The soloist searches for meaning, with the chorus echoing his thoughts, until he decides his only option is to put his faith in a higher power.  The movement ends with an amazing fugue on "The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God."
  4. Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (33:30) - a palate-cleanser between the heavy and energetic third movement and the tear-jerker fifth. Which brings us to...
  5. Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (39:15) - the only movement with a female soloist.  She sings, "Now you are suffering, but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice.  Look at me. I had only a short time ... but now I have found great comfort."  The chorus - the voice of God in this movement - sings "I will comfort you as your own mother comforts you."  In the text they're speaking to the audience, but you can't help thinking that in Brahms' mind it's his own mother singing to him from beyond the grave.  And the piece ends with the her repeating over and over "I will see you again... I will see you again... I will see you again..."   Try making it through this one with dry eyes (I can't).
  6. Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt (46:30) - the epic climax of the work. The baritone solo acts as the narrator, bringing the lost remnants of humanity through the very end of the world.  But to get there they're going to have to win the final battle, beginning "at the time of the last trombone".  Don't ask me why it was translated that way in the German, but you have to admit the image of Gabriel standing on a mountaintop, wings spread, holding a trombone is pretty frickin' awesome!  Following the battle there's a victory march; it's slightly bombastic but it's got a chill-inducing moment of sudden reverence right at the end.
  7. Selig sind die Toten (58:00) - "Blessed are the dead."  The perfect bookend to the first movement and the perfect epilogue to an epic piece of music; you can imagine it playing through the credits of the movie adaptation.  Brahms is going to bring it all the way back to the beginning, but before he does that, he gives us the text "...that they rest from their labors and their works follow after them", in a haunting, almost angelic setting.  The piece ends as it began: "blessed be... blessed... blessed..."


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