Sunday, November 3, 2013

Post-modernizing Brahms

The thing to realize is that every era has its characteristic quirks and tics--ours included. These quirks and tics are found at different intellectual levels. Musically speaking, at the highest level of thought we find the obsessions of musicologists who are no longer content to merely curate the great works of Western music, but must now critique them from the viewpoints of sociology, politics, race, gender and class. It makes it a tad awkward being a contemporary musicologist because most of your subject matter is, unfortunately, Dead White European Males! How odd to be at odds with your subject matter.

Brahms is a particularly strong example: there are few composers who are more Dead, White and European. His very look is ultra-patriarchal:

Richard Taruskin, in his Oxford History of Western Music credits Brahms with having worked out the essentials of how to be a composer in the modern world: "the first major composer who grew up within, and learned to cope with, our modern conception of 'classical music'." There were two major currents in 19th century composition in the German-speaking world, still the nexus of classical composition. One was the "New German School" founded by Liszt and Wagner in which the traditional classical forms such as the symphony were overthrown in favor of the symphonic "tone poem". Abstract music was devalued in favor of program music and opera and even in opera the works of Wagner were devoid of traditional recitatives and arias. Some writers were convinced that the classical forms such as the symphony were gone, never to return. Brahms surprised everyone by doing just that, reviving the abstract forms of the symphony and sonata. The problem was that a modern composer like Brahms was setting out to write music that could take its place in the museum of orchestral repertoire, music that at the same time had instant lasting value, distinctive musical personality and also was new and fresh. How could you possibly satisfy these conflicting demands? The answer was by accepting the kind of musical challenge posed by a composer like Beethoven, but finding new ways to meet that challenge.

Journalism too has its characteristic quirks and tics and we see them in a new article about Brahms on the occasion of a traversal of all his symphonies and concertos in London by Ricardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra. Tom Service writes:
 It's precisely Brahms's ubiquity on concert programmes that means he's a composer who needs more rescuing than most from the accreted myths not just of performance practice, but of how we think about the man and his music; hoary old ideas like the beard, the self-pity, the (supposedly) buttoned-up academicism and historicism.
What's he saying exactly? Not quite what he seems to be. One essential feature of journalism is that they never state anything very clearly and they never quite give you what they promise! Notice how Mr. Service is gesturing towards the kind of critique that musicologists do: the problematizing of traditional approaches as "myths". But he is not going to actually tell us anything about any myths of performance practice, or anything else for that matter. This is just journalistic hand-waving. As is the mention of "the man and his music". How, by the way, is "the beard" a "hoary old idea"? We never hear anything more about Brahms' "self-pity" or academicism or historicism either. I suppose merely trying to explain any of these words or how they apply to Brahms would use up all of his word-count.

Mr. Service goes on to mention several pieces by Brahms, but the last is the most interesting from our point of view:
Brahms the postmodernist: the finale of the Fourth Symphony is a passacaglia, built on one of the strictest musical forms there is, with a repeated eight-bar theme that ties you in as a composer to a mere handful of options of key, harmony, and expressive possibility. Or so you might have thought. But Brahms closes off his symphonic cycle with a piece whose emotional intensity comes precisely from its formal constraint. What you hear in this music is a continual friction between implacable structural rigour and sheer expressive power. (For some, anyway: Thomas Adès, for one, hears this piece as a musical sham!) It's a forerunner, in a sense, of the kind of neo-classical historical objectivity that Stravinsky would attempt, but all of that historical referentiality paradoxically means that the finale of the 4th is also Brahms at his most personal. No-one else in the 19th century could have conceived this music's white-hot concentration and compression - as Chailly and the Gewandhaus will surely reveal next week.
This is written as if it were news or something. But here Mr. Service is just doing what any curator of Western music ought to do: point out to us the basic musical and aesthetic facts about an important piece of music. All that he mentions here is the basic information about the movement that has been known to anyone who was interested since the premiere in 1885. Nothing about Brahms or the symphony suggests in any way that he was a "post-modernist" so one suspects that Mr. Service is pretty foggy on that concept as well.

The quirk of journalism is to always present the widely and long-since known as the newly-discovered. Which is why journalism is usually a poor conduit for good information about classical music--unless, of course, you are the latest iconoclast like John Cage or Stockhausen.

Let's have a listen to the last movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 4:

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