Today, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is often thought of as a portly, avuncular old man with a long beard. But when Brahms, newly arrived in Düsseldorf, knocked on the door of Robert and Clara Schumann one fall day in 1853, he was a slight 20-year-old, tall and thin, with silky brown hair. He was welcomed in and shown to the piano, where he was invited to play his own compositions. The impression that the mild young man made on the noted composer and his wife, one of the greatest pianists of her day, was immediate and tremendous. “Brahms,” Robert Schumann wrote the following month in an article published in his journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, “seems, like Minerva, to have sprung fully armed from the head of Kronus.”
On November 1, NOVA will present the second of a multi-season cycle of concerts featuring music from Brahms’ early years. (We heard the opus 11 Serenade in D Major last season, performed in its original orchestration for nine instruments.) By the 1850s, the varied and ambitious scope of Brahms’ compositional style was already in evidence. The works that Brahms presented to the Schumanns were, in Robert’s telling, “each so different from the others, that all seemed to flow from their own unique source,” and by the end of the decade Brahms had already published three piano sonatas, a large set of piano variations on a theme by Schumann, numerous solo songs, his first piano concerto, and the two chamber works you will hear on NOVA’s upcoming program.
Johannes Brahms in 1853, the year he met Robert and Clara Schumann.
Brahms’ incorporation into Schumann’s circle was shockingly alacritous. He had arrived on 30 September. On October 13 Schumann wrote the essay quoted above, which appeared in the October 28 issue of Schumann’s journal under the title “New Paths.” On October 14, the noted vioinist Joseph Joachim arrived unexpectedly in Düsseldorf. Joachim was a friend of the Schumanns, and on October 15 Robert Schumann, Brahms, and the composer Albert Dietrich began to plan a sonata. Each composer would contribute one or two movements, and each movement would be based on the notes F, A, and E, in reference to Joachim’s personal motto “Frei aber Einsam” (“free but lonely”). Dieterich wrote the opening movement, Brahms the Scherzo, and Schumann the slow movement and the finale. Schumann’s two movements were later incorporated into his Violin Sonata No. 3, while the fate of Dietrich’s movement is unknown. Joachim, who held the original manuscript, allowed Brahms’ movement to be published independently only in 1906, almost ten years after the composer’s death. The Piano Trio in B major, Op. 8, was composed around the same time (1853-54), and would be Brahms’ first individual chamber composition to be publicly performed. (The trio would undergo major revisions in 1889; this is the version typically played today.) The String Sextet, Op. 18, written in 1859-60, came next. Full of youthful imagination and spirit, it will join the Scherzo from the so-called “F.A.E. Sonata” on NOVA’s concert.
Brahms’ compositions, even from his early years, are marked by rich harmonies, lyrical melodies, and a monumental grandeur. Yet despite his thoroughly Romantic musical language, Brahms would, throughout his life, continue to structure his works according to Classical forms. Moreover, he never adopted the nineteenth-century trend of writing “program” music, i.e., music meant to depict a particular image or narrative (a “program”). For this reason, his music was attacked by his contemporaries as hopelessly old-fashioned. Especially vehement were the supporters of Franz Liszt, who, in addition to wildly virtuosic piano works, had begun composing extended programmatic “tone poems” for orchestra. In March 1860, an editorial was published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (no longer under Schumann’s control; he had died, after a long battle with mental illness, in 1856) asserting that only musicians who supported the new musical trends (read: who wrote program music) could be considered serious musicians. In response, Brahms and Joseph Joachim wrote and circulated a petition declaring music’s right to express its own “spirit” without being beholden to an external program. Before the petition had been circulated to collect signatures, however, it was leaked to the press; the resulting scandal deeply embarrassed Brahms and he never again publicly expressed his aesthetic sentiments.
But in 1933, Arnold Schoenberg, one of the leading musical figures of the day, gave a radio lecture on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Brahms’ birth. In this lecture, titled “Brahms the Progressive,” Schönberg lauded precisely the attributes that Liszt’s circle had disparaged, particularly Brahms’ clarity of musical ideas and balance of form. On November 1, Utah audiences will have the opportunity to hear and judge first-hand the progressive chamber music of the young Brahms. (Click here for our article on Schoenberg from last season.)
He may not have Robert Schumann writing laudatory editorials in his favor, but the young L.A.-based composer Andrew Norman has enjoyed tremendous success. The winner of the Berlin (2009) and Rome (2006) Prizes, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (2012), and a faculty member at USC, his works have been performed by symphonies including the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics, the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich, and the Orchestre National de France. Emanuel Ax, Jeffrey Kahane, Jennifer Koh, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have all recently commissioned works from him. In contrast to Brahms, Norman does not eschew extra-musical ideas and associations in his music. As his biography expresses, “Andrew is increasingly interested in story-telling in music, and specifically in the ways non-linear, narrative-scrambling techniques from cinema, television, and video games might intersect with traditional symphonic forms.”
The art of Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla was one inspiration for Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo.
NOVA’s concert on November 1 goes hand-in-hand with the premiere of Norman’s percussion concerto, with Colin Currie and the Utah Symphony, on November 6 & 7, 2015. (For more in Norman, see http://andrewnormanmusic.com.)