Saturday, February 16, 2013

Who would win in a symphonic fight...

...Robert Schumann or Johannes Brahms?


Brahms is lauded as a great symphonist. Schumann not so much. Brahms is seen as following in the tradition of Beethoven, adhering to the classical forms of development expressively re-imagined and broadened by the deaf genius. Schumann's piano creations are appreciated more than his symphonies. Some commentators pshaw Schumann for a perceived thinness of symphonic texture and a lack of sustained ideas.

They each wrote four symphonies, so we can have four matches. The best three out of four wins. In case of a tie, the question will be unsettled. The criteria are: musical depth, expressive imagination, deft scoring.

I'm here to referee and judge the orchestral duel.

The Vegas odds favor Brahms. Will the underdog have a prayer of a chance? This is going to be fun. I have buttered popcorn.


Brahms took a long-ass time getting around to his first symphony. He was oppressed by the giant shadow of Beethoven. And it shows. This first symphony is a trial of endurance for this listener. It's lacking in musical élan, imaginative flair, and inspired instrumentation. It's as if the composer is more focused on constructing formulaic phrases and blocks of motifs than in bringing forth a living, breathing thing from his soul. It's as if he's trying to impress the ghost of Beethoven.

Schumann's "Spring" symphony is a gust of musical fresh air. Gust upon gust. The phrases and motifs unique, unexpected. This work pulses with ideas, one growing organically from another. The sense of written coherency and soulful vision is pronounced. This thing is alive. Rather than being thin on orchestration, it is lithe and not oppressively dense.

Point to Schumann.


Brahms recovers nicely with his 2nd symphony. Beethoven has been shaken off, and Brahms himself emerges. A sense of the pastoral is effectively conveyed via musical materials here. There is warmth, and the confidence of a personal vision burgeons. Things flow instead of being forced into shape. The finale especially is rich and engaging.

Schumann's first two movements are mostly noodling around, with sections of statement dully morphing into others; all lacking an overarching sense of thematic vision. The third movement though -- Adagio Expressivo -- is captivating. The finale seems more busywork, going through the paces toward conclusion.

Point to Brahms.


Brahms's score is mostly delightful and effective. But the second movement -- Andante -- is a missed occasion for injecting the composer's characteristic melancholy. Instead, it's a diffuse amalgam of unremarkable gestures. I do like this symphony.

Schumann's "Rhenish" symphony is scored with aplomb, the sections balanced yet surprising, textures just right. The melodic inventions and transformations are masterfully conceived and realized. In the fourth movement, an evocation of the old and poetic Rhine flows past our ears. Or at least how this composer felt about its various liquid moods. The finale is full of swirling spirits and rustic light.

Point to Schumann.


Brahms is in complete control of his expressive materials here, and he brings the quality of his soul to light through them. The first movement is a wonderful thing to hear. A poetic and spiritual intelligence pervades the second movement. The third is uplifting and dynamic, with an undercurrent of peasant-village frisson in the woodwind intervals. In the final movement, Brahms gives us a riveting passacaglia, dramatic and fluid and moving through various moods of a lost-to-us era.    

Schumann's first movement is an astonishing thing to hear. It transfixes with vivid orchestration, exuberant demeanor, and artistic depth, bringing an aspect of the Romantic ethos to aural presence. The second movement is a beautiful dappled mood. A surging, churning musical spirit in the penultimate movement transitions to graceful fairy waltzing, then back again, until the closing measures come strangely, pensively, wonderfully. The last movement seems a failure of aesthetic imagination. It doesn't seem to sustain or build upon the previous movements; rather, it seems a kind of uninspired and conventional treading of water to the end.

Almost too close to call, but...

Point to Brahms.

*    *    *

Depending on the work, both composers meet the criteria of excellence in the art of symphony.

It's a tie!


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