Monday, March 6, 2017

a thrilling thing

A lot of folks would say that the music of Johannes Brahms is conservative, unadventurous, even formally claustrophobic. During his time, the musical radicals Liszt and Wagner were ascendant and excited the public. But I think the denser, plaintive textures of Brahms are more artistically intrepid and exhilarating than the chromaticism of Liszt and the hyperventilation of Wagner.

Brahms's adherence to certain formal constraints or models didn't prevent him from filling those composition spaces with stunning moments of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic invention. When I say "invention" I mean something unique to Brahms: the coming-to-presence of unusually elevated spiritual substances. Brahms wasn't religious, so when I say "spiritual," I mean something more like "intensively artistic."

Even today -- Brahms. Artistic culture has sadly deteriorated, become facile, hectoring, and ironized nearly to death. And what passes nowadays for a musically thrilling creation, in whatever genre, faints into mediocrity and irrelevancy when set beside Brahms's "String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51 No. 2."

Here, Brahms goes deep, goes into abstract tissues of subtlest emotion and austerest beauty. What could be more thrilling than that?


  1. Somehow I don't find this austere at all, but rather, it weaves a rich and layered nimbus round me as I listen. I agree that the structural constraints do not lessen the enjoyment of this music. The quartet is like a closely-knit dance troupe, each answers the movement of the other. I find it to be relaxing and stimulating at the same time, an interesting combination.

    1. To me, Brahms is an emotional composer -- such complex states of garden-flower melancholy!

      I suppose the later gist of my post has to do with my crusty insubordination toward what passes in present musical culture as stuff to actually listen to and be all excited about. Its massy appeal is unnerving, the quality a long ways from the sophisticated mindblowingness of the 19th century.