Although the larger orchestra compositions of Brahms are constantly played in nearly every major concert hall in the world, you rarely have a chance to hear them all in a single week.
Beginning next Saturday night in the Kennedy Center, the Cleveland Orchestra, under the direction of Lorin Maazel, will play all four symphonies, both piano concertos, the violin concerto and the double concerto for violin and cello, the Haydn Variations, the two overtures, the A Major Serenade and finally, on the following Saturday night, the Requiem.
In the latter, the orchestra will be joined by the Choral Arts Society, soprono Faye Robinson, and baritone Thomas Stewart, Isaac Sten will plaisha Dichter and concertos in D Minor and B Flat.
Seasoisha Dichtger and concertos in D Minor and B Flat.
Season after season, every note of this music, with the exception of the serenade, is heard regularly in Washington, as it is in almost every American city with an orchestra of any size. The symphonies are ven in the repertoire of many of the country's amateur, or community orchestras. We have come a long way from the famous old Boston battle cry, " Exit in case of Brahms!"
Familiarity seems to have little effect on the solid affection with which these works are viewed by large segments of the public, except, if possible, to increase that affection. For purposes of later debate, let's group the symphonies, three concertos, the variations and the Requiem as those the public most loves, leaving out, for the moment, the double concerto, the unfamiliar serenade and the overtures. There are seasons when no other composers, not even that Beethoven of whom Brahms stood so much in awe, exceeds the younger composer in numbers of performances.
In the fall of 1853, in the music journal he had founded, the Neue Zeitschrift Fuer Musik, Robert Schumann wrote under the heading "New Departures":
"Years have passed - 10 to be exact - since I have last allowed myself to contribute to these pages, so rich im memories for me . . . I felt, in following the progress of these select ones (of a new significant talent, a new force in music that one day there must suddenly emerge the one who would be chosen to express the most exalted spirit of the times in an ideal manner, one who would not bring us mastery in gradual developmental stages, but who, like Minerva, would spring fully armed from the head of Jove. And he has arrived - a youth at whose cradle the graces and heroes of old stood guard. His name is Johannes Brahms; he came to me from Hamburg."
How fortunate for Brahms, who was just 20, that Schumann's extraordinary discernment was operating so acutely, if for the last time. In less than six months, Schumann's mental illness had become so extreme that he had to be confined to an institution in Bonn for the rest of his life. But Schumann's judgments, though written before Brahms had composed one of his major works, have been so fully borne out that his gifts of prophecy, dramatically exercised for Chopin as for Brahms, seem startling indeed.
There is wide, if not by now universal, agreement about the beauties of the Brahms orchestral sound, the various structures he used in his four symphonies, the storms of the D Minor Piano Concerto compared to the far greater spiritual repose of the B Flat Concerto that followed it 22 years later. And there are many who are melted down by the beauties of the horn solo in the finale of the First Symphony, or the rapturous oboe solo that introduces the slow movement of the Violin Concerto.
Perhaps the chief advantage to having all these works performed within a single week, even knowing they will all be heard again in the coming season, having been heard in the one just past, is the opportunity to compare them in fairly minute detail in a compact time span.
It also makes an ideal moment to recall some of Brahms' comments about these works as they were coming into being. To Carl Reinecke, conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus conerts, Brahms wrote about his First Symphony: "And now I have to make the probably very surprising announcement that my symphony is long and not exactly amiable." Of the very different, and much more lyrical Second Symphony, Brahms wrote his longtime friend, eminent surgeon Theodor Billroth, "Whether I have a 'pretty' symphony or not, I don't know. I'll have to ask persons cleverer than I am."
Among Brahms' more talented piano pupils had been the 16-year-old Elisabeth von Stockhausen whose lessons Brahms abruptly terminated when he found he was falling in love with her. But once she was safety married to an untalented composer named Herzogenberg, Brahms happily included her among his closest friends and confidantes.He wrote frank and vastly amusing notes to her about two of his greatest works. About the Fourth Symphony, he kidded:
"Might I venture to send yuu a piece of a piece of mine, and would you have time to take a look at it and write me a word? On the whole, unfortunately, my pieces are pleasanter than I am and need less setting to rights'. But the cherries never get ripe for eating in these parts, so don't be afraid if you don't like the taste of the thing. I'm not at all eager to write a bad No. 4."
Brahms also sent this former pupil one of his most famous jokes, after he had finished his monumental second piano concerto, one of the few in the entire literature with four movements. He wrote her, "I want to tell you that I have written a tiny little piano concerto, with a tiny little scherzo."
Every knowledgeable Brahms audience knows the adagio of the violin concerto as one of the high moments in Brahms. What happened to the music of the two movements the composer took out?
The teo overtures are permanent openers for thousands of concerts every season. The serenade, one of two such works Brhhms wrote during the years when he was gearing up to write a symphony, has charm and a feeling of new sounds, especially if listeners can hear it without remembering the larger works that would follow it. In terms of actual length, it is longer than the Third Symphony. Brahms himself often spoke of both the D Minor Piano Concerto, and the Double Concerto as compositions that did not ultimately satisfy him fully.
Many feel he never found the solution - if there is one - to the problem faced by no other composer: that of writing a concerto for solo violin and solo cello. Next week Maarel will be joined by his concertmster, Donald Majeske, and celist Janos Starker as they again look for the answer.