But first, a symphony with a very original ending. (Monteux/London)
That's the end of Dvorak's 7th Symphony, which many people - not me, feel is better than even his New World Symphony. It's unquestionably magnificent though, even if, for me at least, it's a little too energetic and dance-like to have to the full weight of tragedy.
Dvorak wrote nine symphonies, only five of which are ever truly played in the concert hall, and only three of which are masterpieces. Dvorak was, by any standard, one of the very greatest composer,s and he never gets enough credit, but his greatest music, and his most 'natural' music, is his chamber music. Just to give an example of how inestimably beautiful his chamber music is, let's just the beginning of the third movement of his Dumky Trio, which begins with a few bars of music that are as perfect as the beginning of The Magic Flute or Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream. I so wish we had time to listen to the whole thing because it's just so beautiful.
Dvorak was the true successor to Schubert, a genius whose musical talent was so natural that having anything as complicated as an orchestra in front of him would only get in the way. We've already heard, and we'll hear again, that Dvorak was a master, perhaps THE master, of endings. No composer more reliably wrote great endings to his works, but he was not particularly good at openings - it's, in some ways, the opposite of Richard Strauss. The problem is that Dvorak was ultimately a melodist and a dramatist, he never quite figured out symphonic development, and who ultimately cares? He remains one of the world's great melodists, and he has the most achingly beautiful harmonies. Just think of all the melodies in the New World Symphony. Just think of that incredible homesickness at the of the New World Symphony's slow movement in which the melody literally never ends. Dvorak wrote this in Spillville Iowa in the summer of 1893, he was, off and on for about five years, the director of the first American conservatory - Jeannette Thurber, the philanthropist who founded the school, wanted a big name. She tried Tchaikovsky first, and then Dvorak.
But let's listen to that amazing ending to Dvorak 9, which unfortunately always seems to get some idiot clapping before the end. A number of critics think it's a weak ending, because it's neither happy nor sad, but to ask for either is to misunderstand the character of the symphony. It's neither a tragic symphony or a heroic one, it's a homesick one, or a pathetic one. When we say pathetic in contemporary America, we usually mean it as a term of contempt, but contempt is the exact opposite of the word's traditional meaning. Pathetic means a state deserving of compassion, and contemporary America has no word for that. No further comment... But listen to this ending - it's dramatic yes, but you hear the hurt in Dvorak's soul. (Nelsons/Bavarian Radio) (at 40:58...) We're going to skip a minute here
Dvorak's last three symphonies are masterpieces, but it took him six other tries to get there. The Fifth and Sixth are wonderful, but the Fifth has some pretty severe flaws, and the Sixth? Well, let's just compare it to a certain other piece of music written three years before by Brahms, Dvorak's closest musical friend.
First, let's play the beginning of the uncharacteristically festive finale to Brahms's Second Symphony. (Bernstein/Vienna) And now the beginning to the finale of Dvorak 6. (Davis/London) As they used to say in Vaudeville: old gag, new twist.
And now, let's go to the end of both of them. First, this time, the magnificent ending of Dvorak 6 (Davis/London). Now the perhaps even more magnificent ending to the Brahms (Solti/Chicago).
These are Beethovenian endings - not necessarily heroic, but affirmative and celebrational, wonderful endings, but not particularly original. Originality works in the exact opposite way we generally think it does. Unless you've imbibed and assimilated everything which came before you, you have no idea if you're being original or not. It's much better that a piece of music sound derivative than that it sounds insipid. Until the point of Dvorak 6 and Brahms 2, they put new spins on old types of material in their symphonies. In order to write something completely original like the ending of Dvorak 7 or 9, Dvorak first needed figure out how to put new spins on old endings, and Brahms really did too. Consider let's consider a piece you all probably know very well that Brahms may have gotten that last little bit of material for his finale for his 2nd symphony.
So now, a very particular passage in the Third Symphony, not of Dvorak or of Brahms, but of Schumann (Barenboim/Berlin St.). Schumann was not a natural symphonist, and take my word for it, those final two measures we heard have very little to do with the rest of the Symphony. So now listen to what Brahms, who of course knew Schumann's music better than anyone, save Robert's wife Clara, does with these two measures. It's perhaps the only truly derivative part of Brahms's Third Symphony.
Brahms Three is, in my opinion, both best of the four, and clearly also the least popular of the four because it's he least traditionally Beethovenian - it's a Brahms Symphony, so it's still played all the time, but performances of Brahms 3 are just a little bit rarer - and when it's performed, it's often on the first half of the program and there's a longer, flashier work on the second half.
Brahms 3 is a kind of Beethoven Symphony in reverse. Beethoven puts the minor key struggle in the beginning, and the triumphant movement at the end. In Brahms 3, the order is reversed. 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) The Symphony is in F-Major, and yet, the second note, 'Aber' or 'but'. It's not an A, but an Ab, which is a minor key note in F. The chronically anxious and melancholic Brahms always has a 'but.' Minor key emotions are always threatening Brahms's confidence, and Brahms needs to find ways to overcome his fears, because in a struggle like Beethoven, he does not have Beethoven's self-confidence to know he'll always win them.
So let's listen for a minute or two 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 occasionally called 'Brahms with wrong notes,' said that Brahms was not a musical conservative but a misunderstood progressive, and he particularly loved this process of Brahms in which the older master 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 a few minutes later.
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 Wagner.
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 lulling 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. (Sinatra) OK, this is kind of an abomination, it takes Brahms's amazing melody and puts it into a completely different meter.
So let's hear that famous and gorgeous theme in the original. 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. Listen to the Beethoven 5 rhythm? It's completely disguised, but it's everwhere in there! But it's not just Beethoven's 5th. There's another Schumann reference in there - Schumann's 4th Symphony.
Now let's hear the anxious second subject of the third movement.
What is that possibly setting up in the finale that we've already heard? (Walter/Columbia)
So now, let's finally get to the last movement. Which in a Beethoven symphony would be the opening. Within thirty seconds, 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 instead, let's hear one of the more magnificent passages in Wagner's Ring (Boulez/Bayreuth). This is the Forest Murmurs in Act II of Siegfried - which has to be easily the most underrated Wagner opera and the most neglected of the Ring Cycle, though it's frankly much more engaging than Das Rheingold. Now let's go straight to that magnificent, peaceful, anti-Beethoven ending of Brahms 3 and hear how, through Wagner, Brahms subverts Beethoven. (Furtwangler/Berlin)
Only someone who completely idolized Beethoven could have written something in such opposition to Beethoven's model. Wagner wrote something completely different from Beethoven, in many ways he transcended Beethoven. But the third symphony is 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 didn't recapture the spirit of Beethoven's revolutionary zeal, and in 1883, I doubt anyone could. Wagner's revolution was very, very different from Beethoven's. Beethoven's revolution was, ultimately, an affirmation of the self, Wagner's was, in ways we won't get into, a renunciation of the self. 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.
So now, let's go to the Fourth, which Brahms wrote the next year, at the age of 51, and in many ways is a companion piece to the Third just as the First and Second belong together. I would say the Third is the best of Brahms's 4. It's the most characteristic of Brahms's music. It's the closest to the more peaceful world of his four instrumental concertos, which in my opinion are even better than his symphonies, and also of his chamber music. Brahms did drama extremely well, but what he did even better was a luminous lyricism that exists in this ambiguous state between melody and form. The developing variation in which his music is always evolving in the most luminous way. And there's no better example of this than the Fourth.
Listen to what we call a melody in the opening of the Fourth Symphony. It's so basic that it's barely a melody.
It's just a chain of thirds - in varying octaves: B-G-E-C-A-F#-D#-B. And then, the chain of thirds goes up again: E-G-B-D-F-A-C. Rhythmically it's so foursquare that we have to call it something between a dance and a trudge.
There's no way of knowing exactly what if anything Brahms meant by this except music. Brahms would often try to deceive his friends about the scale of the music he was working on. He wrote to one friend that he was working on a bunch of waltzes and polkas - which should have probably set off some alarms for them. But like Beethoven 7 or Schubert 9, there is something about this music that is a dance symphony. But it's a much more burdensome series of dances, like dances that mek you tired and make you fake enthusiasm when all you want to do is rest. It's perhaps a perfect musical metaphor for daily life. Going back and forth on the same ground, the same predictable routine. A routine that inevitably makes you want to fall asleep and dream. (Furtwangler/Berlin)
So now let's go back to Beethoven. Remember how I said, a bunch of weeks ago that Beethoven's Eighth Symphony could be considered the real First Symphony of Mendelssohn and Brahms? Well, I showed you what I meant by Mendelssohn when we talked about him, but now let's see what we mean when we say that it's Brahms. Let's listen to some of that amazing long coda of Beethoven's 8th. (Szell/Philharmonia)
It's almost impossible to hear the details of those two giant F-Major crashes, the way that Beethoven gets that effect is by instructing each basic section of the orchestra to play five different rhythms. The horns and trumpets play whole notes, violas cellos and basses play quarter notes, the winds play quarter-note triplets, the timpani plays eighth notes, the violins play sixteenth note triplets. It sounds like a jumble, but like so many things that sound like chaos in classical music, particularly in the 20th century, it's actually extreme order.
So now, let's hear that full dreamy passage in Brahms 4th and the buildup within what feels like a dream sequence that might have more rhythms in it than anything between Beethoven's 8th and the Rite of Spring. (Kleiber/Bayerisches St.)
So many musicians complain, rightly so, that Brahms is much much harder to play than he looks. That passage doesn't sound all that revolutionary, but the flutes and oboes and horns and trumpets have one rhythm, the cellos and basses and bassoons have another, the violins still another, the violas still another, and the timpani still another. Just like in Beethoven 8, five simultaneous rhythms, in the middle of a melodic line. It should sound like the most natural thing in the world, but coordinating it's a real nightmare. There was a book by Gunther Schuller, a legend of both classical music and jazz, in which he went through a couple dozen recordings of the piece and found that only one recording by an undistinguished Hungarian orchestra got the rhythms exactly right.
All these little subtle compositional tricks are both the glory of Brahms and also why a lot of people hate his music. By now, the Fourth is probably most people's choice for Brahms's best symphony, but it was the only one of Brahms's symphonies that wasn't an instant success. Some people think that it doesn't evoke mindless routine, but that it was mindless routine. This is what Hugo Wolf, a contemporary of Mahler and a great writer of lieder, had to say about it:
"He (Brahms) never could rise above the mediocre. But such nothingness, hollowness, such mousy obsequiousness as the e-minor Symphony has never yet been revealed so alarmingly in any of Brahms's works. The art of composing without ideas has decidedly found in Brahms one of its worthiest representatives. Like God Almighty, Brahms understands the trick of making something out of nothing. Enough of this hideous game!"Wolf was an incredibly expressive composer, and he responded to music that was immediately expressive. But while Brahms seems like absolute music, there are nevertheless clues that these supposedly 'hideous games' have real meanings. So what might Brahms have really been expressing behind it all? Let's now go to one of Brahms's final works, the third of his Four Serious Songs - O Death How Bitter Are You. (Fischer-Dieskau/Moore). So now let's go forward to the last movement of Brahms 4 (Szell/Cleveland)
The melodies and harmonies of O Tod, O Tod come from the beginning of the first movement, the harmonies of wie bitter come from the beginning of the last movement.
And just in case that seems a bit too coincidental, listen to this moment when falling asleep becomes much much creepier, perhaps like a much deeper sleep. (Jochum/Berlin) It's like a musical memento mori.
So the symphonies we're talking about today are Pathetic Symphonies. These symphonies aren't heroic, perhaps some of them would like to be, but there is no real sense of triumph. It's not hard to imagine what the first audiences thought when they heard Brahms 4, a creeping realization gradually dawning on them that there would not be a happy piece of music (Celibidache/Berlin). A symphony needs lots of work, and Brahms would often find a cabin in the woods for the summer to write his symphonies. After he wrote his Fourth, he wrote to a friend of his about it and he said:
It tastes of the climate here... In general my pieces are unfortunately more agreeable than I am, and one finds less in them to correct?! But in these parts the cherries do not become sweet and edible -- so if the thing doesn't taste good to you, don't bother yourself about it.After that deadly seriousness, you need something that will be a bit more balmy, and the second movement is not only gorgeous and moving, but there is something about it that feels much older. The whole symphony is in E-minor, but while this movement begins in E, it begins not quite in a key so much as in an old Church mode, never mind which, and then it seems to procede in E-major in the rhythm of an old Spanish Baroque dance, the Sarabande with strings imitating a guitar, and quiet winds that sound like the softest possible pedals of a pipe organ. (Kleiber/Vienna)
Fifteen minutes in, the cherries finally sweeten for a minute or two, in the leadup to that gorgeous second subject and we finally have a balm for all that suffering in the first movement, almost like a lullaby, but nevertheless, one that's interrupted a rhythmic figure that becomes more threatening with every appearance. (Kleiber/Vienna)
But of course, this being a 'pathetic' symphony, the soothing nature of it can't last for too long. It was only a matter of time before things got extremely turbulent again. (Furtwangler/Berlin) And yet, Brahms allows for us to have some consolation for our suffering. Another one of Brahms's most moving moments in music, in which, after the turbulence, we emerge with what I can only describe as a Lutheran chorale that ends the music with a peace that completely eludes this music elsewhere.
The raucous third movement is there as a counterweight, again, a palatte cleanser, that is meant like a fake handoff in football (Kleiber/Vienna).
In fact, when I was very young, the first musical joke I ever got was in the third movement of this symphony. But the real question remains, what is Brahms really trying to set up by having this movement? So let's listen to this one passage that builds and builds over eighty seconds until it gets to something that perfectly sets up the finale:
(Go straight into the finale after those five chords (Szell/Cleveland))
An so now we go into a different Baroque dance, the Passacaglia - a repeating bass line, which repeats I believe 29 times over the course of the movement in different tempos. Brahms was the master of variations of any type, and here And within it there can be held all kinds of dances. Tangos, czardases...
But then comes our old friend chromaticism, and Brahms does some incredibly beautiful and creative modal dissonance. (Furtwangler/Berlin)
And then comes the real moment of heartbreak and pathetique, the flute solo. (Bernstein/Vienna.) Then comes another kind of Lutheran chorale in the trombones that's taken up by a fuller choir of winds and brass.
But just when you think salvation is imminent, we have three of the most brutal moments in music. Hanslick, the famous critic, friend of Brahms, and mortal enemy to Wagner and Bruckner, said after hearing this symphony for the first time that he felt like he'd just been beaten up by two very clever men. After an ending like this, which seems to stomp on the hope of what just happened, it's very easy to understand why. (Furtwangler/Berlin)
Brahms was not the most natural symphonist, or, for that matter, the most natural musical genius. He was, however, the most natural composer, so it goes without saying that every one of his symphonies would be works of genius. When we think of what we currently define classical music as, something austere that repays endless relistening so long as we pay close enough attention and devotion, it's in many ways built around the way people listened to music in Vienna circa 1880, when the person whose music they most awaited was Brahms's. It's almost as though the whole experience of classical music is built around Brahms, and perhaps that's no small part of why he engenders so much hate in some and so much love in others.