Like one of the composers we're going to talk about today, we're going to do our best to avoid Wagner. And we'll do it by not listening to him. In 2017, we can't hope to understand the impact that Wagner had when he was first heard. You can't recreate the circumstances of it. The best way to think of it is perhaps to think of an Isaac Asimov story, Nightfall, in which people of a planet saw the stars once every two thousand years, go insane when they see the stars and darkness for the first time, because everything they thought they knew about their civilization was no longer true, and civilization collapses. Here's what all manner of famous artists and intellectuals of his time had to say about Wagner.
I have never found a work as dangerously fascinating, with as weird and sweet an infinity, as Tristan, -- I have looked through all the arts in vain. Everything strange and alien about Leonardo da Vinci is demystified with the first tones of Tristan. This work is without a doubt Wagner's non plus ultra...the world is a poor place for those who have never been sick enough for this 'voluptuousness of hell': it is permissible, it is almost imperative, to reach for mystical formulae at this point.Baudelaire:
His is the art of translating, by subtle gradations, all that is excessive, immense, ambitious in spiritual and natural mankind. On listening to this ardent and despotic music one feels at times as though one discovered again, painted in the depths of a gathering darkness torn asunder by dreams, the dizzy imaginations induced by opium.Faure:
If one has not heard Wagner at Bayreuth, one has heard nothing! Take lots of handkerchiefs because you will cry a great deal! Also take a sedative because you will be exalted to the point of delirium!
Most of us are so helplessly under the spell of his greatness that we can do nothing but go raving about the theatre in ecstasies of deluded admiration.
When I left the Festival Theatre, unable to utter a word, I realized that I had experienced the summit of greatness and pain, and that I was going to carry it with me, unblemished, for the rest of my life.There are literally dozens of testimonials from these and other men of genius who pay homage to someone they find a greater genius than themselves. Whatever else one thinks about Wagner, you have to realize that Wagner was, perhaps, the single most creative genius in the history of the world. He was, without a doubt, a musical genius, even if, like Berlioz, he was not much of an instrumentalist. But before he was a great musician, he was an activist, an intellectual, and a dramatist. Music itself was just the means by which he created a whole way of looking at the world that was at once spiritual, emotional, political, and intellectual. The only other 19th century artist who had this kind of impact was Lord Byron, and compared to Wagner's impact, Byron was a non-entity. No other musician in the entirety of music history has anything like this impact on the world, and for all the impact he had on music, he could have no true musical successor. He was in the grand line of poets who created a kind of anti-realist theater that takes place in spiritual or ancient worlds, and is supposed to put you more in touch with the hidden world of the spirit than the world in which we live. This kind of theater isn't much in vogue these days because it is dependent on special effects, and because the impact of special effects has been cheapened by so many movies.
Obviously Goethe's Faust was a huge influence, and so was Greek Tragedy that re-enacted myths on stage and was partially a religious rite. I have no idea if Wagner knew much about the plays of Byron or Shelley. These are plays that have powerful moments and rhetoric that perhaps were meant more to be read than produced. They owe a lot to Milton's Paradise Lost, and Milton could, perhaps, be called Wagner's literary equivalent. Whatever one thinks of Paradise Lost, the sheer grandeur and ambition and heaviness of it had a similar impact on the England of Milton's day as The Ring and Tristan had on the Germany of Wagner's. Nobody except a true believer will call Wagner anything like as great a poet as Milton or Goethe, but the difference between Wagner and all these other dramatic poets is that Wagner had music, the most spiritual of all artforms, to support his drama.
We hear this music today and a lot of it probably reminds us of film music, which owes just about everything to Wagner. But there was no such thing in Wagner's day as film, except for still photography. As best as I can boil down Wagner's impact on listeners into a single sentence, I would say that he managed make listeners of his time feel as though they were put directly in touch with the spiritual world. When people heard the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth, the music felt so spiritual to them that they felt they'd been lifted up into a higher world of the spirit, but that higher world didn't have specificity. It was as though Beethoven was merely alluding to it poetically, but it had no visual form, it had no action, no goal, no motivation. In Wagner's Music Dramas, it had all that and more. Here's how Thomas Mann describes it:
“Wagner, the discoverer of the myth as a basis for his music dramas, the saviour of opera through the myth...makes us believe that music’s raison d’être is to be mythology’s handmaiden.”
Myth in the 19th century means something very different from what it means in the 21st. Wagner's world was a world that had only undergone the Enlightenment a single lifetime ago. Moreso even than us, the 19th century was groping for substitutes to the religious faith so many people lost. It's what George Steiner calls 'nostalgia for the absolute.' If God cannot provide redemption, then maybe we can accomplish things in our own lives to redeem ourselves, and if some people are simply irredeemable, perhaps at least a group of us can be proven more redeemable than others.
We're still very far from the second half of the 20th century yet when liberal democracy is thought to be the most important contribution to quality of life. We are, rather, in an era that has overthrown God, but hasn't yet apprehended the importance of individual freedom to quality of life. Even the most sophisticated people still inhabit mindspaces that think like Christians. People who still think thought by most people that you can only achieve quality of life by apprehending a purer world that does not have the encumbrances and messy compromises of this world. The reason Wagner is so important to so many is that he shows every person who loves his music your own personal transcendence in which you can overthrow whatever it is which you think oppresses you.
This is, ultimately, the kind of musical transcendence I've been talking about since the beginning of this class. The transcendence you hear is always vague, and always personal, but it's unmistakably there. If you sit through Tristan und Isolde or Götterdämmerung, you can't mistake this feeling at the ending of some kind of mystical transfiguration taking place. You've been sitting in the dark for the better part of six hours, and the harmonies seem to have been building to some kind of resolution for the entirety of the day. But the musical goal, the resolution, keeps getting pushed back further and further like a goal that seems forever more distant. By the time you get there, the release you feel is ecstatic.
Myths are, almost by definition, open-ended. Like music, every person can derive their own meaning from a myth. In the days before Nazism, Wagner's works were often interpreted in support of democracy, and even today, many socialists interpret Wagner as Bernard Shaw did, a kind of theatrical Karl Marx who shows in drama how heroes will arise and redeem us by overthrowing capitalism. But there are very few myths in human history that cast Jews in a good light, because Judaism is the monotheistic religion without transcendence. We are the people who survived everything because of our ultra-realistic dealings with the humiliating compromises it takes to survive in all situations. The revulsion of antisemites is as much because of how Jews are oppressed as it is because of how Jews seem to oppress others.
It's important to both realize that the racial overtones of Wagner are unmistakably there, and also not exaggerate the extent of their presence. If Wagner's antisemitism or German jingoism were anything more than subtly present, he wouldn't be nearly so great an artist or so inspiring to so many different kinds of people. Part of what's extraordinary about characters in his operas like Mime or Beckmesser or Kundry - who are often seen as antisemitic stereotypes - is that it's just one of dozens of different ways that you can interpret them, and also one of a dozen different ways Wagner means for you to interpret them.
The freedom of Wagner promised is was incredibly dangerous in both ways that make the greatest of great art and also lead people down paths of absolutism. It's the best possible evidence Plato could ever get that the famous quote about the importance of banning music form the Republic:
Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.That's obviously an extremely specious claim - the kind that would be used by Goebbels as justification to ban music of his day. Wagner is obviously not the reason that Europe erupted in war. But there's also no question, Wagner is a symptom of a world that decided it had had enough. The Ring premiered in 1876. Fifteen years earlier, Russia freed its serfs. Ten years earlier, America freed its slaves. Five years earlier, Germany finally united. This was also the period when Italy finally united and the Austro-Hungarian Empire guaranteed equality under the law for all races.
All over the world, countries seemed to be accomplishing the goals that they had long since worked so hard to achieve at expense of blood and treasure too enormous to truly be measured. Yet rather than make them happier, these accomplishments had so depleted them of morale that they felt worse than ever. The new world weren't all that much better than the old one, and did not feel worth the sacrifice they made. People everywhere began to imagine a world that smashes its current systems to bits so that they can start over and build a better one. That dream never ceases to be dreamed, but it has never brought anything about but systems that are little better than what came before, just different, and even if the systems sometimes seem better from epoch to epoch, less people in poverty, less people killed, quality of life generally higher, the time comes when they inevitably crash, and the crash seems to be correspondingly worse every time. The Napoleonic Wars killed ten million people, all the various theaters of the World Wars between them killed at least two hundred million if you count the Spanish flu and the deaths under totalitarian states. If there's a world war with nuclear or biological or chemical weapons, there's no reason to assume that it won't claim well over a billion lives. Maybe life will be a little better for the survivors, a fairer system of government and economics, but war is as simple and unavoidable a fact of life as sex or music. It just happens, and it's so unpredictable that no one ever accomplishes the objectives they started with. It's the ultimate demonstrator that we're not in control of our own lives; we emerged from the Earth, we are the Earth's property, and the earth will claim us for its own uses whenever it decides. Whenever one feature of the world dominates the ecology over the other, some kind of war strikes, and the world everybody knew falls away - it's a self-cleansing mechanism, and there has never been anything in the history of the planet that has dominated the world's ecology to contemporary America.
This shouldn't be that much of a worry for you guys, but not everybody makes it to a ripe old age, and the world clearly doesn't have the resources to get us all there. When people see each other as impediments to getting what they want, they resort to violent means to getting them out of the way. Life is not beautiful, art is beautiful, but perhaps art is beautiful because it's the best way we have to learn about life.
And the 1870s was the moment when Europe began an inexorable descent into an abyss from which it would not come out for an entire lifetime. Just as people and machines grow old, so civilizations seem to also. In 1805, Wordsworth could gain fame by writing these lines about the French Revolution:
OH! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!Look at the imagery here. "Budding rose above the rose full blown,... they who had fed their childhood upon dreams, The playfellows of fancy, who had made All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength Their ministers. Wordsworth wrote this right in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, the Napoleonic wars had yet to kill most of its victims. But by 1805, his hopes for a better world were already dashed, but even in the middle of a terrible war, he could still look at his hopes and hopes of millions of people now dead with nostalgia. If Wordsworth only knew what might come a century later, it would have boggled his mind completely.
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
When most intent on making of herself
A prime Enchantress--to assist the work,
Which then was going forward in her name!
Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth,
The beauty wore of promise, that which sets
(As at some moment might not be unfelt
Among the bowers of paradise itself)
The budding rose above the rose full blown.
What temper at the prospect did not wake
To happiness unthought of? The inert
Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!
They who had fed their childhood upon dreams,
The playfellows of fancy, who had made
All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength
Their ministers,--who in lordly wise had stirred
Among the grandest objects of the sense,
And dealt with whatsoever they found there
As if they had within some lurking right
To wield it;--they, too, who, of gentle mood,
Had watched all gentle motions, and to these
Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more mild,
And in the region of their peaceful selves;--
Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
Did both find, helpers to their heart's desire,
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
Were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,--the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!
But ninety-five years later, Thomas Hardy wrote The Darklng Thrush, a very different poem:
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Wordsworth was to the 1800 decade of English poetry what Hardy was to the 1900 decade, the singular dominant voice, and they both expressed the spirit of their times. No one sane would choose to live in 1805 England over 1900 England, yet even if Wordsworth was disappointed by the French Revolution, he was in many ways living in a new world, and he could both look to the past wistfully and look to the future with some kind of hope.
But look at the dark, gothic, almost diseased imagery of the second poem. I don't think I need to point it out. It's everywhere. The difference between the two eras was, ultimately, one of optimism vs. one of pessimism.
Think back to the 1950's, everybody in America, everybody white anyway, looked to their future with optimism and hope, and the hopes of your generations were largely borne out. What ultimately does it mean to have hope in my generation? America is twenty trillion dollars in government debt, thirty-five trillion dollars of personal debt, there will soon be less than three working people for every retiree to support social security, and we are still utterly dependent on oil both for transportation and for jobs. Read American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips, no liberal he - a Nixon advisor no less, for more on the hopelessness of that situation. Alt-right, conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive, or socialist, almost everybody is now in agreement that we live in an old civilization that has much less hope for a bright future than you did at our ages. The only people who don't realize that yet are people too privileged to be protected from the realities of our era.
This is the reality we faced after we won the Cold War. We got what we wanted, we accomplished the ultimate goal of making the world fundamentally safe for liberal democracy, both at home and abroad, and the struggle of getting us there was so unbelievably difficult that we were faced with a fact that our victory was a poisoned chalice. It only served to show all the things wrong with our country in greater relief, and so far, the struggle to make those problems better is making things still worse. The problems of America are no longer problems that you can solve, you can only survive them.
And that was the realization of Europe around 1876. (Mravinsky/Leningrad)
That's how Russia expressed the new pessimism. Let's hear how Vienna expressed it. (Furtwangler/NDR)
And now how Prague did. (Davis/Concertgebouw)
Whether it was because of Wagner, or because of some vague zeitgeist, a new kind of symphony was born at this time. An expanded orchestra, expressing heavier emotions, and a level of dramatic heft you don't generally find in Mendelssohn or Schumann. It was the symphony as written by a generation who began to despair that the transcendence promised by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony isn't possible. The only people with real hope for the future were political and aesthetic radicals like Wagner and Berlioz. Everybody else was drawing to the realization that the world they knew was not in any better shape than the world before them. Everything they knew about their worlds was either going to end or it was going to change severely. Nothing gives the human mind greater anxiety than change, and the realization that the world would change did not happen in Europe overnight. It happened over the course of a half-century, bit by bit, until all it needed was one little explosion to set off an entire continent.
But before we do, let's play a little of the funeral music for this old world. (Barenboim/Berlin Sta.)
The rest of Bruckner 7 is great, but it's not THIS great. Compared to the eighth and the ninth, Bruckner 7 is a little too untroubled, compared to the Fifth, it has too many formal problems. Compared to the Sixth, it's not nearly as emotionally complex. What it does have is what is, if only for me, the greatest slow movement ever written. The ideal slow movement which every other slow movement has to compare itself. Just about every note of it is perfect - there's one transition to a distant key that isn't well-managed about two-thirds of the way in, but that's like looking at a single hand on Michelangelo fresco done by an assistant.
Perhaps because Bruckner's Seventh is not as complex as his other late symphonies, it was Bruckner's only true triumph in his lifetime. He was sixty when it premiered. He was still basically unknown outside of Vienna except occasionally as an organist, and those who heard him said he was possibly the greatest organist of the century. But it was only Vienna that heard him as a composer with any frequency, and most of Vienna hated his music. The Viennese satirist, Karl Kraus, has a very good description of what Bruckner went through at the hands of music critics.
"Has torture been abolished in Austria?
It is still permissible to torture geniuses to death.
In full view of the public!
Smetana (great writer of operas, also composed the Moldau) was tortured until he died demented.
Smetana's life was a slow death by starvation.
When he was no longer able to hear it, definitely unable to hear it, they called him the Mozart of our time.
How much good that does a man when he is already lying between boards that are not associated with all the world being a stage!
Smetana is finished . . .
Anton Bruckner (great Austrian symphonist) is placed in the dock. The penal process continues.
Hanslick (a music critic, Jewish) asks:
Do you plead guilty to having written symphonies?
Bruckner is silent and creates.
The chief judge gently applies the small thumbscrews.
He declares that he leaves the Musikvereinssaal (Vienna's most famous concert hall) before a Bruckner symphony is played in order not to witness the desecration of the Musikvereinssaal.
The crowd hoots. They leave the Musikvereinssaal before every Bruckner symphony.
Bruckner's bones crack.
But Bruckner has a strong constitution.
Assistant Döpke (another music critic) rolls up his sleeves.
The chief judge asks:
Anton Bruckner, do you plead guilty to having written a quintet?
Bruckner is silent and creates.
Assistant Dömpke steps forward: "Anton Bruckner composes like a drunkard!"
The crowd hoots.
Bruckner's bones crack.
But Bruckner has a strong constitution.
Assistant Kalbeck (another music critic) is called. He presses his slouch hat down over his face.
The chief judge asks:
Anton Bruckner, do you plead guilty to writing symphonies against us to this day and to enticing foreigners?
Bruckner is silent and creates.
Assistant Kalbeck begins to "tighten" Bruckner.
The crowd hoots.
Bruckner's bones crack.
But Bruckner has a strong constitution.
He is decleared insane.
But he does not want to go insane. He has faith in God and believes in art.
He writes his Ninth and dies.
Assistant Kalbeck is still "tightening" him . . ."
Bruckner is still misunderstood, he has always been misunderstood, and the misunderstandings continue to this day. What's important to remember about Bruckner is that he was thought of by many people as the symphonic equivalent to Wagner, and he was writing in the most Jewish city of the German-speaking world. Wagner was known as an anti-semite, however selective, and he particularly hated the privileged, starchy Jewish bourgeoisie which produced Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn, Judaism, and the bourgeois were all concepts he hated, and so, during Wagner's lifetime, Vienna became a city whose discourse was dominated by people who hated Wagner back. They, of course, worshiped the epitome of the German middle class composer of their day, Brahms, whose closest friend was Joseph Joachim, a Jewish violinist. But this criticism particularly hurt Bruckner because he was so insecure in the face of authority. He had no self-confidence, and seemed to believe that every other professional musician was more of an authority than he, so if a conductor gave the slightest criticism, it could cause Bruckner revise his symphonies endlessly. There are as many as half a dozen different versions of many of the symphonies, much of which is complicated by which ideas are Bruckner's and which ideas are musicians who are clearly inferior to him. And then there's a further level of complication. Until the 1930's, Bruckner's music was barely ever performed in any of the half-dozen of his original editions. His music was performed in additions by supposedly well-meaning students and conductors, one of whom in fact was Gustav Mahler, who rearranged just about everything he conducted to make it sound as he thought it should. But just to show you how stark these changes are, let's go back to the end of the Fifth Symphony.
Here's how Bruckner wrote the climax of the Fifth Symphony, in all its organ-like glory . (Schuricht/Vienna) This is Bruckner straight, no chaser, with all his very plain, organ-like orchestration. Just strings, regular winds, regular brass, and timpani.
Now, here's the Franz Schalk edition, (Knappertsbusch/Vienna) Franz Schalk being one of Bruckner's closest pupils and a reasonably famous conductor of his generation. This edition has a harp, a piccolo, cymbals and triangle, the balances are completely rewritten, and it becomes something much more generically romantic. It's perfectly nice, but the Bruckner is missing. The cymbals and triangle cheapen it, it makes him just another composer influenced by Wagner who can't recapture Wagner's magic.
Bruckner loved Wagner's music and was influenced by it, but to nowhere near the extent that people say. People think of Bruckner as a symphonic Wagner because his symphonies are louder and longer than any symphonies up to this point. But let's listen to a few things. First, let's listen to that amazing passage in Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, which was premiered in 1865, thirty-seven years after Schubert's death, but just as Bruckner was beginning his First Symphony. The conductor of the premiere was Johann von Herbeck, the director of the Vienna State Opera, who was Bruckner's greatest champion in Vienna and secured Bruckner an appointment as a professor at the Vienna Conservatory. Unfortunately, he died a few years later and wasn't around to champion Bruckner against his many opponents.
So listen to this extraordinary passage from Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. (Kleiber/Vienna) It's almost as though Schubert returned to the world in 1865 from beyond the grave with a masterpiece for which the world was now prepared. Listen particularly to the upper brass and those dotted figures da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum...
Now, let's listen to the just as extraordinary beginning of Bruckner 8's finale. (Karajan/Vienna) And particularly listen for the galluping in the strings.
The question of what Schubert would have written had he lived longer will never be answered in this world, but there's a little evidence that he'd have written symphonies not unlike Bruckner or even certain passages in Mahler.
Now let's look at something completely different. Organ music. (K. Richter) Until Berlioz and Wagner, the climaxes of organ music were still fundamentally louder than the orchestra (no pun intended).
Finally, let's quickly look at a small bit of Bruckner's church music. (Monteverdi Choir) At the end of Os Justi, my favorite of his choral pieces along with the Ave Maria, Bruckner bows in humility and homage to Gregorian Chant, music of a completely different era. His knowledge of music takes in the entirety of the sacred choral tradition from Gregorian Chant up to Mendelssohn. Listen to this passage from earlier in the same motet. It could have been written four-hundred years earlier by Palestrina.
It's not that Bruckner wasn't influenced by Wagner, he certainly was. But there were all manner of influences on Bruckner that were more powerful. Wagner was not a musical father so much as a musical older brother who arrived at similar conclusions through completely different methods. Bruckner and Wagner could not have been more different as people - Bruckner was basically a reactionary peasant who always deferred to traditional authority, Wagner was a revolutionary who thought of himself as the authority. The one thing they had in common was their musical seriousness, and their contempt for music as something merely to be enjoyed. Which is not to say that there isnt' fun in either of their music, but the 1850's and 60's were in many ways dominated by lighter music: Offenbach operetta, Strauss waltzes, and,... gasp!... Verdi! How dare he!
When Bruckner was nearing sixty, Wagner was seventy. Wagner was in poor health, everybody knew that his days were numbered, and according to Bruckner, the theme of the second movement occurred to him on the day he realized that Wagner's time was limited.
Bruckner does something he rarely ever did otherwise to his music, he adds a non-traditional instrument. Particularly, the Wagner tuba, literally an instrument Wagner designed, which makes a powerful but incredibly odd sound, not quite a french horn, not quite a trombone (Thielemann/Vienna). Here is are two relatively famous passages for the Wagner tuba. The first one shows just how strange this instrument is. (Thielemann/Vienna) The second one shows how much more powerful and easier crescendo it can make than French horns. (Solti/Vienna)
That is all the Wagner we're going to play this class, and I think that's just enough to show you just how powerful and shocking Wagner can be.
But what, in Wagner, is used for enormous dramatic effect, is used in Bruckner purely for the beautiful and sad sounds it can conjure. Both in blend and as a solo chorale. (Haitink/Concertgebouw)
Bruckner is never out for shock, but he is out for awe. We talked quite a bit about eros being an inspiration for lots of composers and we'll talk plenty more about that. But it's possible that Bruckner was never intimate with a woman his entire life. He was clearly not asexual, he awkwardly proposed marriage to a series of teenage waitresses, but the fanaticism of his Catholicism, his extreme obsessive compulsion - he sometimes insisted on not going indoors until he could count all the flowers and trees and he would dot the S's in his books, and his obsession with dead bodies - he would visit morgues on the regular, meant that he was neither someone who had the confidence or the appeal to attract women. Eros for Bruckner was beyond sensual, it was completely spiritual, and we hear this non-sensual eros everywhere in this music, which has such perfectly constructed long crescendos and decrescendos. Let's now take seven minutes to hear the best of them all. (Haitink/Concertgebouw) Legend has it that Bruckner added the coda right after hearing that Wagner finally died. When Wagner's most famous admirer died himself, it was Bruckner 7 which Deutsche Rundfunk played as a memorial to Hitler.
Bruckner is still misunderstood. He was not a Nazi, he was not even a Wagnerite in any intellectual manner, in many ways he was the opposite of a Wagnerite. He was as pure a soul as he was a musician, he was a person of very profound humility and very little self-belief who meant everyone well. The Viennese critics and audiences largely hated him, but his most famous students, almost to a man, were downright worshipful in how they spoke of him. He believed, as so many reactionaries do, in decency, and respect, and deference to authority, and that generosity toward one's fellow man would earn you a place in heaven. None of these are bad qualities in of themselves, they only become bad qualities when they're manipulated by much more practical people than Bruckner could ever have been. He expressed, in a sense, the soul of German conservatism, a soul that was completely corrupted long after Bruckner died. He was, almost beyond doubt, the greatest symphonist in the century between Beethoven on one side, and Mahler on the other; and while Mahler now gets his full due, Bruckner's day has yet to come. This is not the last we will talk about him, because it is, in many ways, understanding the Bruckners of our day that has become so crucial to our future.
So with Bruckner, we've talked about how the reactionary reacts to revolution. He might reject revolution completely, the way Dostoevsky did, but he also may see common cause, as Bruckner did. When 'You Know Who' came to power, one of the first things he did was to grant Communists immunity, because he knew that once you perceive the entire world through the lens of any dogma, it doesn't really matter which dogma you embrace and once you embrace that kind of ideology, you have the willpower to do things no ordinary human being can do. The real enemy was not just liberal democrats, but conservatives who believe in caution and skepticism.
So the perhaps the archetypal conservative among composers is Johannes Brahms. He is not a Conservative with a capital C, he is merely cautious about getting everything exactly right. With Beethoven, there was a quantum leap in the quality of compositions. Except in Italian opera, ambitious composers after Beethoven no longer saw it as sufficient to slap something together in a week. Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Bruckner, all spent years trying to get certain works exactly right, and often went back to revise them. Wagner would of course take years to finish his operas, but the length and size of the operas could never have taken anything but years.
But with Brahms, there was another quantum leap. Brahms was perhaps the first composer who would not let anyone play music of his that he knew was in any way subpar. It took Beethoven four years to write his Fifth Symphony. To write Brahms's first symphony, it took him twenty years and he only published it when he was forty-three. Legend has it that before he published his first string quartet at forty, he not only worked on it for ten years, but had written twenty others that he threw out. The consistent greatness of Brahms's music is just about without parallel in music history. There is almost not a single weak piece in his entire output. And yt there are still a lot of people who don't like his music. I've heard and read people call it everything: too classical and too romantic, too sentimental and too dry, too passionate and not dramatic enough, some call it too adult and yet Bernard Shaw called him a gifted musical baby. So many people can't warm to Brahms in ways that elicit a lot more about what their musical priorities are than what Brahms is. Brahms grows his music at such a cellular level that if you need the appeal to be stated outright, you will never see into what is extraordinary about this music.
In its way, it's the most extraordinary music in the world. It would be silly to call Brahms wrote the greatest music ever, that's clearly not true. But there is a way in which I would call Brahms the greatest composer of the common practice era. Not because he wrote the greatest music, but because he was better than anyone before or since at doing those things which distinguish composers from other creative musicians. Like Beethoven, he wrote some good melodies, but he ultimately wasn't a first-rank melodist. But like Beethoven, like Bach, and like nobody else, he saw those absolute theoretical parts of music, the form, the harmony, the counterpoint, the rhythm, and he assembled his music bit by bit on a level so microscopic that the instruments which play it don't seem to draw attention to themselves at all. They're just vessels through which Brahms transmits pure music, and transmits it with a consistency that not even Bach or Beethoven reached.
(Schumann - FAE Intermezzo Kremer/Pletnev)
This is a movement from a violin sonata that Schumann, Brahms, and a Schumann pupil Albert Dietrich collaborated on. It was just a year before Schumann went into the asylum. Each movement is based on the same three notes - F A E - which was Joseph Joachim's personal motto 'Frei aber einsam', 'free, but lonely.'
This is the scherzo that Brahms contributed to the same sonata. It's both the same composer as thirty years later, and a very different one. Overconfident, Byronic, enamored of Hungarian music. The year of this sonata was 1853, and Schumann had come out of retirement as a critic to issue this proclamation about the 20 year old Brahms's work:
...such developments would suddenly emerge an individual fated to give expression to the times in the highest and most ideal manner, who would achieve mastery, not step by step, but at once, springing like Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove. And now here he is, a young fellow at whose cradle graces and heroes stood watch. His name is Johannes Brahms.This is both the greatest piece of publicity any young composer has ever gotten, and also puts unbelievable pressure on the young person to achieve what was promised. By the time Brahms had achieved what Schumann promised for him thirty years later, he was probably a very different composer from the one Schumann envisioned. He was, almost deliberately, not a bold Beethovenian, but a kind of counterweight to Beethoven who scaled back the ambition of the symphony.
We're going to return to Brahms's Third Symphony later. Though it's hardly unplayed it's the least played of his four but in many ways it's his best. For the moment, I just want to point out one thing. This is how Brahms begins his Third Symphony (Walter/Columbia). An absolutely bold, Eroica like gesture. And the first three notes: F Ab F - 'Frei aber froh,' 'Free, but happy.' This was the motto Brahms took in contrast to Joachim's, and possibly in relation to memories of how 'Frei aber einsam' was tied up in Schumann's tragedy.
Brahms had a first-row seat for what happened to Schumann. After Schumann's suicide attempt, Brahms moved to Dusseldorf to help take care of Schumann's large family. He visited Schumann many times in the asylum, and acted as a go-between for Robert and Clara, who was not allowed to speak to Robert for fear of overexciting him. He was, basically, the Schumann family's substitute father. Whether or not he and Clara ever had a romantic relationship has always intrigued lots of speculation, but I think that speculation is exactly the wrong takeaway. Whatever happened or didn't between Brahms and Clara Schumann, Brahms seemed to learn from Schumann's example that he had to give himself completely to music. It might have been the stress of balancing a musical career with family demands that killed both Schumann and Mendelssohn, and if Brahms met the fate of those two, he also might leave a family behind without a father to take care of them.
Brahms ultimately achieved more as a composer than either Mendelssohn or Schumann, but he achieved more at the expense of a personal life. His entire sex life was prostitutes and brothels, and he always lived alone. Was he free but happy? Probably far from it, but he lived into his sixties, and he got the most out of his musical gift. So let's now listen to how Brahms ended his Third Symphony. (Furtwangler/Berlin)
As we'll see, Brahms 3 is in many ways the anti-Beethoven Symphony, almost a Beethoven symphony played backwards. It is Brahms accepting the fact that heroic Beethovenian greatness is ultimately not his lot, and being at piece with that. But it took him a long time to get there. Here, again, is the beginning of the first symphony. (Furtwangler/NDR)
This is clearly supposed to be in the Beethovenian mold, but in many ways, it's so far beyond anything Beethoven ever did.
What's the first thing you noticed? (timpani)
The timpani, along with the other bass instruments, is the anchor; it's the center of a musical event horizon around which a black hole forms. The strings go up stepwise note by note, the winds go downward note by note, until they switch directions. No opening in Beethoven, not beginning of the third or the ninth, is as mindblowing as this. The closest thing to it is the beginning of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. (Richter/MBO) The winds go one way, the strings another, and the bass orients them down on the same note. Furthermore, the strings go up on every up-beat, which sets us up for the way Brahms disorients us. Rhythmic displacement. Try to count along with this next section, it's almost impossible to follow the beat. (Furtwangler/NDR)
But then comes the real genius. Here comes the way he reintroduces the opening like producing a second black hole from inside the event horizon (Furtwangler/NDR). And now, let's go forty-five minutes into the future, to hear how Brahms produces the ending.
So now let's go to the body of the movement. (Solti/Chicago) The melody itself is based on that weird transitional material that eventually becomes the engine of the work's climax. And in case it's subtle for you to hear, Brahms makes it more explicit forty seconds later.
So now let's hear how Brahms is a real master of rhythm. Rhythm is just about the last thing we think of with Brahms, but he's a master of it. He's not a master of rhythm the way John Bonham or Keith Moon were. Rhythm in classical music, like everything else, is not particularly a bodily experience. When you use rhythm creatively in classical music, it's not usually get you into the music, it's to take you out of it. To disorient you. To make your headspace feel different. Mozart was a master of this, so, obviously, were Stravinsky and Bartok. I don't want to get too theoretical with Brahms, which can be a danger, but listen to this very gentle section of music. You think you know where the down beat is. But it's exactly where you think it's not. Let's start a little earlier. This time, try to count through this section. It's a very fast six-eight, so all you have to do is beat one-two one-two one-two...
This kind of rhythmic disorientation never ceases in Brahms, it's not only to disorient you, it's a way to differentiate the pulses between different sections so that you unconsciously know exactly where a particular section begins and ends. Brahms has more tricks like this up his sleeve than any composer ever has.
The next trick is, imperceptably, bit-by-bit, to tether this piece without any doubt to Beethoven's Fifth. (Wand/DSO Berlin) He sets it up with new material, a Bach-like chorale, but bit by bit, the four notes of Beethoven 5's Fate Motif get louder and more blatant until they basically subsume the chorale.
Then comes the true Beethoven 5 moment, in which Brahms tries to stage a transcendence like in our old friend, the transition to the finale. (Szell/Dresden)
So what does Brahms do. It sounds rather similar, trying to come out from the ether into the light, but he can't quite do it. (Wand/DSO Berlin) The shadow of Beethoven's Fifth is too great, and Brahms himself said about writing a symphony: You have no conception of how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us. And you hear the gigantic tread of Beethoven all the way through.
So let's now go to the amazing if slightly flawed finale of Brahms 1. Like Beethoven 9, it's not really supposed to hang together formally. But this being Brahms, he can't quite leave it as untidy as Beethoven might, and there's an enormous number of formal connections anyway. The truth is, as extraordinary as the first two symphonies are, the second two are better. Brahms doesn't really know what to do yet with the middle movements, and these middle movements both have very little to do with the outer movements. They seem as though they belong more in a serenade than in a symphony.
The beginning of the finale is extraordinary enough that I don't have to say anything except that it's probably painting a scene of very romantic, misty nature. And I'll show you why I believe that at the end of this section. Let's just appreciate how magnificent this section is to begin with. You can probably hear the fog, the midst, the wind, and the rain, for yourself.
That extraordinary moment that builds to the timpani, now let's compare it to the thunder of Beethoven 6.
The climax of the thunder is on the exact same chord!!!
But what does Brahms do? Does he give us a full storm. Let's hear what happens right afterwards. (Wand/DSO Berlin)
Brahms has skipped the storm and gone straight to the happy and thankful feelings after it. I once read a book in which a man who claims to have interviewed Brahms said that he was inspired by John 3:16. But Brahms said around the time he wrote this that he was vacationing in the Austrian Alps, and the melody made an enormous impression on him.
We all know the melody that happens next. We heard it last week, and we remember how it has a cell in it that clearly based on Beethoven's 9th, and how when it was pointed out to him, Brahms said "any jackass hears that!"
So now, let's go to the last seven minutes of the symphony. First, this cascading fugal sequence. Where have people heard this before? (Harnoncourt/COE)
Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. And now for the most extraordinary moment in the symphony. We get the first three notes of the Beethoven 9 melody, we get the Jupiter Symphony figure, and we get the first three notes of the Beethoven 6 hymn, all together, along with the timpani from the beginning, in one of the most moving passages ever written. (Furtwangler/NDR)
So now let's go to the Second Symphony. It's the weakest of the four, and yet I wonder if it isn't my personal favorite. This is the closest Brahms gets to writing an untroubled, Haydn-like symphony, but you can't turn back the clock and unlearn what you know. Even here, the undertow of melancholy is too strong to ever escape. Let's just listen to the beginning and how the clouds lour over the sunshine. (Klemperer/Philharmonia)
So now let's go to the amazing, dramatic, luminous development section. (Walter/Berlin) In which those first five notes are put through paces and contortions perhaps unwritten by five notes in even Beethoven or Bach. The rhythmic displacement here is unbelievable, the harmonies you can hear for yourself are amazing, and it's incredible how such an untroubled beginning can turn into something this turbulent. Like Beethoven, Brahms realizes that through his struggle comes triumph, but triumph is not something that Brahms celebrates, what he wants to share his triumph. There's a phrase that used to be common in my generation that I haven't much heard since college: Truth and Beauty bombs. That is always what I think of when I hear this section.
Let's go to the second movement for a moment. The inner movements are better than in the first symphony, but not too much. It gets bogged down a little at certain points, but the main theme is just gorgeous. Let's just hear it. But even here, there's an enormous amount of turbulence, which then is interrupted by ways that recall the first movement, and particularly that luminous moment of the recapitulation. You'll probably know it when you hear it.
And that little interlude brings us to, as best I can tell, the secret to Brahms's luminosity. A secret he shares with his symphonic rival Bruckner and perhaps nobody else in symphonic history. Neither of them are great orchestrators by any traditional measure. They develop material as though it's no different than a gigantic string quartet. They don't use the instruments in particularly creative ways - all the strings together, followed by all the winds, then all the brass, then the winds and brass together, then the strings and winds together, and then everybody together, and then that pattern over again. What they do use is the entirety of the musical register, from the bottom of the keyboard to the top. They both used the orchestra like an organ.
Remember, in one of the first classes, we talked about overtones. We talked about how when a note sounds, what you're in fact hearing is every note. I'll demonstrate it now. Listen very closely. (Strike low C with middle C pressed down). If you're close to the piano, you'll hear this. It's even fainter if you press down a higher note in the overtone series, but if you listen still closer, you might hear this one too (Strike low C with middle G pressed down)
The point, in both Brahms and Bruckner, and perhaps only Dvorak in addition to them, s that by using the orchestra in particularly this way, there is a beautiful luminescence, an aural glow, which only their music has. You can only get it by using extreme bass notes, and then supporting those bass notes by playing the notes that resound from it six or so octaves up. Once you get to Tchaikovsky, there's a completely different conception of the orchestra that begins. It's as though the orchestra finally becomes overstuffed, and after Brahms and Bruckner, composers can never again treat a large orchestra as though it's a humongous chamber ensemble.
So with that in mind, let's now hear the way Brahms transforms material that was begun by Haydn and Beethoven. Here is Haydn getting that particular aural glow at the opening of Haydn 102. (Bernstein/NY). Now, let's see how Beethoven builds on that at the beginning of his Fourth Symphony. (Klemperer/Philharmonia) Now, let's see how Brahms takes the exact same musical material in the last movement of the 2nd symphony, but adds an incredible shimmering effect in the strings by instructing the strings to cross between two strings to give it a further luminscence, as though the notes have no definite focus. (Furtwangler/Berlin) So, after that, let's now hear, ten years later, how the young Mahler takes that same motif at the beginning of his First Symphony. Complete with harmonics, in which you lightly touch a violin string and it sounds octaves up from the note you press, and it gets a sound in eight octaves. (Walter/Columbia) And now, let's hear the logical conclusion...
The last movement of Brahms 2 is amazing, and not completely typical of Brahms. It's the closest he came in his symphonies to real fun. (Solti/Chicago) So now let's hear how he takes that motif that sort of comes from Beethoven and which Mahler will appropriate himself ten years later.
And just in case it's not festive enough, here come the gypsies, taking up that same motif. And something that sounds strangely like an amusement park ride. Now I'm going to play you the conclusion and then I'm going to play you something you probably know very well. And now, consider where Brahms may have gotten that last little bit of material.
So now, we end with the Third Symphony. The best of the four, and the least popular because it's the least symphonic. It's kind of a Beethoven Symphony in reverse. The most triumphant movement is in the front, the minor key struggle movement is in the back. Beethoven Symphonies get gradually more optimistic, this symphony gets gradually more pessimistic.
Let's hear that opening Eroica-like fanfare again. Free but happy. (Walter/Columbia) But let's listen to how he transitions, over and over again, almost imperceptibly, to completely different sections, different moods, different material. By this point, Brahms is fifty, a completely mature master, and you can no longer tell where one section begins and another section ends. It's completely seemless. (Furtwangler/Berlin) Schoenberg, who loved Brahms's music as dearly as any composer ever has another, and whose music is very similar to Brahms in many ways, said that Brahms was in fact a progressive, and he referred to this process where Brahms is constantly and imperceptibly transitioning his musical material, called this process 'Developing Variation.'
So now, you've heard both a gentle waltz, and the turbulent waltz juxtaposed with each other, yet done in seamless transition. Now hear how he combines the two.
So now, let's hear what happens when Brahms relaxes the tension in a way Beethoven never would in a mystical section that perhaps wouldn't be completely out of place in Bruckner.
And now the ultimate heroic statement of the Eroica-like theme, plus the waltz in a completely new, heroic character!
But what happens then? He, once again, ratchets down the tension completely. It's the exact opposite of what Beethoven would do.
A quiet ending to an heroic movement! Beethoven's untamed hair would have stood straight up.
The second movement, the least thought about of the four, is extraordinary in all kinds of ways. We're going to skip the beautiful church chorale that starts it. Let's go straight to the second theme in the middle of this incredibly strange movement. And to lull us still further, Brahms gives us the most unbelievably pieceful but strange, harmonically spare, almost stagnant, interpolation of the first two notes. As though to almost deliberately put us to sleep. This sounds like it could be from Morton Feldman or even Webern. And now, let's leapfrog into the inferno of the final movement and hear this incredibly peaceful theme transformed into something that sounds like war itself. (Beecham/NBC) Not to mention, it's the same four note motif as... guess who?... Beethoven's Fifth!
Everybody's heard the third movement, even if you think you don't. It's a beautiful melody, it's also perhaps the weakest movement because compared to the rest, it doesn't have quite as much formal connection to the rest of the work. It's like a palate cleanser. Let's hear that famous and gorgeous theme. But now, let's go back to those amazing transitions of Brahms. Let's hear how he transitions back to a restatement of that theme. Do you hear the Beethoven 5 in there? It's there!
Now let's hear the anxious second subject of the third movement.
What is that possibly setting up? (Walter/Columbia)
So now, let's finally get to the last movement. Which in a Beethoven symphony would be the opening. Almost immediately, you'll hear that motif from the second movement, in a completely different cast.
We'll skip more Beethoven 5 declarations, and I think you've already gotten the turbulence of this movement, and go straight to that magnificent, peaceful, anti-Beethoven end.
Only someone who completely idolized Beethoven could have written something in such opposition to Beethoven's model. This is, in so many ways, the anti-Beethoven's 5th. Beethoven wanted victory, Brahms wanted peace. By opposing Beethoven's revolutionary edge, he preserved everything which Beethoven fought for. He may have lacked Beethoven's will to greatness, but he had his own kind of blood and iron. He had a caution that insisted on getting everything exactly right, and the same iron will Beethoven had, which allowed him to work through his caution. He did not recapture the spirit of Beethoven's revolutionary zeal, and in 1883, I doubt anyone could. Beethoven showed the way out of the struggle. Brahms showed the way to preserve a world without struggle. He showed how we can all achieve something great through weaving an endless array of ideas into a diverse and inclusive whole that incorporates everything at all times.
But not every temperament is Brahms, and clearly not everybody is satisfied with merely endless ingenuity and integration. And don't think Brahms didn't know that. Next week, we'll start with his Fourth Symphony, and we'll go through a number of other symphonies so we can end with the Tchaikovsky's Pathetique, the anti-Beethoven's Ninth.