Thursday, July 29, 2010

Johannes Brahms – the sound of the human heart

My sense is that many people who like classical music admire more than love the output of Brahms. Each to their own, of course. But I do find this state of affairs to be somewhat ironic. For me, Brahms was the most heartfelt of composers. To make my case, I would divide things into heart-music and soul-music. These categories are never distinct in any composer. Shades of each come into the compositions of all the masters.

Brahms is considered a hold-over, writing music in traditional sonata form. In this respect, he went against the contemporary pulse of New Music – the more open and radical forms. Liszt and Wagner heralded the new age. Brahms was viewed as a stodgy conservative. It is only natural, then, to consider the music he cast into older forms to be essentially less rhapsodic and emotional than the melodramatic effusions of a Liszt or Wagner. To be more “absolute” music than feeling music. Ah...but this is where the heart of genius comes in.

Regarding Brahms's symphonies, only his last one really moves me, though I find depths of feeling in the previous three. As far as the other large-scaled pieces go, his two piano concertos and his violin concerto open onto passionate vistas. These are roiling, emotionally sweeping confessions of a wounded, plaintive heart.

Yet things move even deeper into heart-music with the smaller forms: quartets, trios, sonatas, solo piano.

The other approach or expression in music – what I call “soul-music” – can be hard to distinguish from heart-music. This is subtle stuff. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann...well, of course they wrote music teeming with emotion. But I maintain that the overall complexion of their output reflected moderate or extreme abstractions of the soul's agonies and ecstasies. With Schumann, we enter the realm of fantasy and imagination as elements of his soul music. Even his works ostensibly inspired by amorous triggers seem to me more upheavals of the spirit than convulsions of the heart. A certain diffuseness is in this music, making it less visceral-seeming. More commentary than confession.

On the other time-side of Brahms, we move toward Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, Debussy, Rachmaninoff....then on to Prokofiev and Shostakovitch. I think the same thing applies with these composers. More soul than heart. Even the emotionalism of Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff strikes me as melancholic passions leaking from souls than beating from simple, desperate human hearts.

What was the peculiar stimulus or inspiration that prompted Brahms's outpouring of heart-music, as contrasted with the soul-music of so many others? I think it was his unrequited love. There is an “earthiness”, a wordly quality I discern in his cello and violin sonatas, in his solo piano pieces. It is the song of a heart pleading from visceral depths for what it may not possess. There is blood and fire, water and air in this music – basic organic elements that one can almost taste in these pieces. Amorousness, passion, tears, and dreams.

Even in his string quartets – that many find to be clogged with dense structures – there is, I feel, the opening and closing of heart-valves in emotionally stressed space.

Johannes Brahms's “voice” is distinct, unique in its textured harmonies of plaintive urgency. Others will disagree.

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