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Preview: Symphony places Brahms in context

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 21, 2012 - Writing about Johannes Brahms is a bit like virtual name dropping, for one cannot discuss this composer and his work without referencing others.  

First there is the matter of his contemporaries’ views of him, as illustrated in a comment made by conductor Hans Von Bülow, who slated him as “one of the Three Bs” — Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig Von Beethoven being the other two, of course.

And subsequent composers have reverently, and sometimes even irreverently, acknowledged Brahms’ influence on their compositions. British composer Edward Elgar purportedly noted that when “I look at the Third Symphony of Brahms, and I feel like a pygmy.”

Certainly, his Third — and for that matter his Seventh — have been revered for their signature “Brahams style,” which honored traditional composition and enriched it with bold interpretations of harmony and melody and to some extent redefined rhythm. Brahms was certainly prolific, issuing forth a wide range of large and small pieces that reflected his virtuosity, his rich textures and his complex layering of sound.

His Fourth Symphony, which the St. Louis Symphony will render this weekend under the direction of rapidly rising star conductor Jaap van Zweden, originally of Amsterdam, invokes much of his classic “Brahmsian” style and his notable (no pun intended) moments, particularly during the passacaglia-themed finale. Passacaglia derives its name from the Italian verb “to walk or stroll.”

The program

WAGENAAR Cyrano de Bergerac Overture, op. 23 (1905)

MOZART Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503 (1786)

Martin Helmchen, piano

BRAHMS Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98 (1884-85)

Rhythm and time speak to more than Brahms’ compositions and symphonies. Perhaps more than most in the world of notes and chords, the German composer illustrated the idiom “timing is everything.” -- not only in the manner in which he laid down notes on the page, but also in the space between his birth and his death.

For just as each of his measures led to the next, at times building on — and at others deriving from — its predecessor, so did Brahms’ musical dexterity influence other musicians and the man himself.

His life was not without scandal or criticism, though, and he was a bit of a puzzle for those living in his time and those who have followed.

Raised in utter poverty, Brahms was an accomplished pianist and cellist and began composing at an early age. Still even as a child, he allegedly helped cover the family’s expenses. He himself relayed stories of his tawdry childhood as a musician in dives and dance halls, bars and brothels, interacting with prostitutes from an early age.

His unconventional choice not to marry, coupled with a broken engagement and a long-term, though complicated and unconfirmed, relationship with Clara Schumann, the composer-pianist wife of composer Robert Schumann’s led to much speculation. Brahms first encountered Schumann when he was in his 20s and seeking a mentor of sorts. What he got was quite more than he likely ever envisioned.

While there is no definitive proof of a love affair between him and Clara Schumann, a woman 14 years older than Brahms, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence. For one, he rushed to her at the time of her husband’s death and remained there for the next two years, forgoing his own career and choosing instead to live above her apartment. The arrangement triggered, at least, great speculation and, at worst a scandal of sorts. The fact that they burned and destroyed all of their correspondence furthers the story, though some recent historians have theorized that the relationship was simply gossip and nothing more.

Eventually, Brahms moved out and moved on creating other works, including his “A German Requiem” in response to his mother’s death. His Requiem confirmed his “New German” musical style that insisted on order and rested in what he called “pure music,” paying homage to traditional classical style while deriving its own sound and voice. Brahms revered Beethoven and Mozart, whom he emulated in various works.

The symphony audience will have the privilege of  hearing context and the opportunity of making connection between these two notable composers as the musicians will also perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, prior to the Brahms. Dutch pianist Martin Helmchen will make his St. Louis debut performing the melodious and playful concerto.

The concert will open with the little played and lesser known “Cyrano de Bergerac Overture, op. 23” by Johan Wagenaar. Beginning with this piece, the audience will be treated to an evening of inspiration, history, as the musical and historical underpinnings of each piece references the melody of the others.

Elizabeth Harris Krasnoff is a freelance writer.