From the Podium: Thoughts on Brahms, the “Autumnal Giant”

by John Zoltek, Glacier Symphony Artistic Director and Conductor


John Zoltek
Glacier Symphony Artistic Director and Conductor

Our upcoming concert Magic Mountain features the acclaimed pianist Andrew Tyson playing Grieg’s popular Piano Concerto in A minor; Night on Bald Mountain by Russian composer Mussorgsky and the great Johannes Brahms’ towering Symphony No 1 in C minor.

Brahms is of course considered one of the most important composers in all of music history and especially of the Romantic era. He has certainly earned the right to be a member of the 3B’s club in company with J.S. Bach and Beethoven. Although Brahms was considered a conservative composer for his time, more of a Classical-Romantic, his complete mastery of musical language and form set him apart from the spheres of ordinary mortal composers.

In my view, Brahms’ greatest masterpieces are found in abundance in the genre of chamber music. His output of works for solo piano, string quartets and sextets, and various combinations of sonatas for solo instruments like violin, cello, clarinet and others with piano, stand as a mantel of masterful craftmanship unsurpassed by anyone else from that era, roughly the second half of the 19th century. 

Brahm’s intrepid and resolute adherence to the traditional compositional practices inherited through the study and assimilation of the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven provided the deep inspiration he required to devote his entire life to a thoroughly disciplined exercise of music composition and practice.  His larger scale works include his 4 symphonies, concertos for piano, violin and violin/cello and his sacred German Requiem. All of these pieces are masterworks and indeed successfully integrate the chamber style idioms and harmonic counterpoint that define his more intimate works.

He was an extremely disciplined composer, rising early every morning to compose while enjoying his ritual of strong espresso and cigar. Later he indulged in his other favorite routine, taking brisk walks around the streets of Vienna or wherever he happened to be on holiday in a collection of spa towns that he frequented. And during these walks, he was constantly composing in his head. It was said that hardly anyone could keep up with his pace!

His love of walking and hiking probably began as a young man in his early 20’s when he took an extensive sojourn through the highlands and river valleys of Bavaria. He eventually arrived in Leipzig on the doorstep of the important music journalist Robert Schumann. When Brahms played his first piano sonata for Robert and his famous pianist wife Clara, it sparked a friendship that lasted a lifetime. Schumann heralded Brahms as the next rightful inheritor of the god-like mantel of Beethoven. This brazen announcement published in a widely read music periodical of the time was daunting to say the least for the young Brahms, barely in his 20’s. Beethoven’s dominant almost mythological presence (he died in 1827) was a constant companion to Brahms ever since Schumann’s exclamation. In fact, when Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 was performed it became known in some circles as “Beethoven’s 10th“.

Johannes Brahms | by Konrad Egersdörfer
(Source: New York Public Library – https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-82fb-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)

Brahms took care with this ambitious work, laboring over it on and off for almost two decades. The result was a dramatic symphonic statement constructed with taught traditional techniques. It begins with an unrelenting timpani thunder pulse and concludes with the open-air mountain call of an alphorn. For me this first symphony is both elemental and architectural as it conveys an abstract nature experience not unlike hiking through valleys and mountains toward the summit.

Of course, Brahms was essentially a non-programmatic composer. He rather wished his notes to be appreciated on their own terms as pure organized and enjoyable sound and form, the ideas of which cannot really be described by any words. Each listener is able to freely go where the music takes them… or nowhere at all. 

But why autumnal? From his chamber works to his symphonies, Brahms music is characterized by a profound and perhaps too comfortable bourgeois sense of malaise and resignation. Because of this, for me, Brahms music can be considered as quintessential autumnal.  His melodies, rhythms and even dramatic cadences are always handled with ultimate control and guided by an almost parochial restraint and a complete reliance on what is determined and suggested by the musical material itself. Not even the popular and gypsy rhythms that can be found everywhere in Brahms (from his youthful experiences playing piano in brothels and in “café bands”) are obvious. They are certainly present and can be detected. But these dance-like and energetic rhythms are again couched in a formal language that takes the edge off and mostly eliminates passion.   

Brahms’ musical genius lies in his complete mastery of his craft, not so much in his ability to evoke strong human responses to shared life experiences as other composers are able to conjure. When listening, one hears Brahms’ signature restrained and grey-scale sound. But in some way, you’re hear the composer’s careful organization of his musical material. Unlike a composer like Beethoven, you never really hear Brahms the man himself. His language exhibits an arm-length aged maturity, a grandfatherly oversight and care which is almost palatable. For me Brahms’ music is like a very fine wine, rare scotch or aged cheese. At best, one must have a good reference point in which to truly appreciate the deep and complex qualities of the experience. If you go deep with the music of Brahms you will never be left unsatisfied. You will uncover layer upon layer of richly organized almost organic matter woven into a contrapuntal fabric of psychological dimensions and zeitgeist. Ultimately unknowable.

By Maestro John Zoltek


Featured Image:
Music Division, The New York Public Library. “Johannes Brahms” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1899. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-82f1-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

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