Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Diplomacy of Brahms

I’ve enjoyed the recent reports of Condoleezza Rice playing the piano for the Queen of England in a chamber performance. It’s nice to see an American as important, influential, and busy as Rice, also be so “accomplished,” in Austen terms, with such an appreciation of music – and using it in the service of diplomacy, we might guess.

But the reports, intriguingly, also suggest that she favors Brahms as a composer, and certainly she played a Brahms quintet in this recital. Perhaps Brahms is the choice of pianists. As a non-pianist, I am rather at a loss. His sonatas and other chamber music for strings have never quite made sense to me. Only the second movement of his first sextet ever seemed to have a clear, unified meaning, possibly because, it being a theme and variations, he never goes far from the melody. (Here’s an impossible version of the piece – from Star Trek!) Ordinarily, in his symphonies and so forth, it seems Brahms presents, brilliantly, a wonderful, memorable melody but then begins layering harmonies, countermelodies, modulations, until all one experiences is a wash of saccharine sound that leaves you with no footing. There’s no substance, just sugar! Certainly his music always has a structure, but often, unless the listener studies theory, he won’t see it, he won’t experience it.

Perhaps that’s what he wants. Brahms is, after all, a romantic of the most quintessential sort, always exploring and revelling in emotions. George Bernard Shaw, in his usual way, put his disapproval of this method of expression rather bombastically: “The real Brahms is nothing more than a sentimental voluptuary… He is the most wanton of composers… Only his wantonness is not vicious; it is that of a great baby… rather tiresomely addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and making a prolonged and intolerable noise.” And “Brahms is just like Tennyson, an extraordinary musician, with the brains of a third rate village policeman.”

I don’t know if the criticism of Tennyson was just – I leave that to the experts – but Shaw was hardly Brahms’ only critic. Tchaikovsky, his contemporary and fellow romantic, also denounced him as a “scoundrel” and “giftless.” Tchaikovsky’s music is also full of emotion, but it doesn’t have the same sweeping abandonment, near chaos, I associate with Brahms.

And yet something in his music must have put Brahms on the pedestal he held when he lived, and on which he still apparently exists, even in a most unromantic, skeptical society. Does that come through most clearly in his piano music? If Ms. Rice, and those who love him, would care to comment…
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