Brahms: Musical Conservative?

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Belle
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Brahms: Musical Conservative?

Post by Belle » Thu Feb 16, 2017 7:53 pm

Having read Swafford's tome on Brahms and also some writings on the composer by Schoenberg, I'm forming the view that Brahms was far less the conservative than generally understood. His milieu had, of course, Wagner and Liszt - whom we generally agree were the musical progressives. But let's not underestimate Brahms in terms of progressivism. Structurally he appeared very conservative but if you stare inside the cage of those notes you'll find quite daring ideas. Here is but one tiny example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJXwlHTzKsE

I think it's actually the voice leading which makes it seem far more consonant than it actually is when you study the score, in particular. For me, there's not such a great leap between the latter and this work:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYaWND9n9h0

IcedNote
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Re: Brahms: Musical Conservative?

Post by IcedNote » Thu Feb 16, 2017 10:21 pm

Two things:

1) I think you're hitting upon something that I really admire in Brahms -- you can be listening and everything seems status quo and totally ordinary, but when you look at the score you realize he's doing some serious harmonic sleight-of-hand (often even at a higher structural level).

2) His rhythmic ingenuity is absolutely masterful.

-G
Professional composer in a past life. Now just a humble hobbyist.

Belle
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Re: Brahms: Musical Conservative?

Post by Belle » Thu Feb 16, 2017 11:47 pm

Absolutely agree. I keep asking myself what creates the impression of more or less consonant music and as I suggested, it's the voice leading. The melody flows tonally in at least one of the sections, but not all of the time. In the examples I provided the Capriccio in D (first piece) and the subsequent Intermezzo in E Minor and Intermezzo in E Major create more of a sense of the innovator in Brahms.

The great conductor Carlos Kleiber always said Brahms had trouble with bar lines; that he fought the tyranny of the bar line, particularly in his symphonic works (which Kleiber knew better than most) and his other orchestral works. Though this comment remains enigmatic for me, I think I can detect some evidence of that in this collection of piano works in my first link. All I can deduce is that there's an influence on rhythm apparent but, as you've said yourself, Brahms was a master when it came to rhythm.

What do you think of Kleiber's comments about bar lines and the particular problems these posed for Brahms? (Perhaps you are not so familiar with the scores of the orchestral works? I'm not.) Can we suggest that Brahms rhythmic mastery was, inter alia, a consequence of manipulation of bar lines?

John F
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Re: Brahms: Musical Conservative?

Post by John F » Fri Feb 17, 2017 2:37 am

Schoenberg would agree with you about Brahms. He wrote a famous 1947 essay titled "Brahms the Progressive" which I expect you've read and which asserted that Brahms was an innovator in the realm of musical language. But many don't find this convincing. Schoenberg wanted very much to connect himself with the great tradition of western music going back to Mozart and Bach, but to many his argument seems forced. Brahms was certainly an original, but in harmony, form, and the other elements of music, I don't hear that degree of innovation.

Charles Rosen's essay 'Brahms the Subversive" discusses some of Brahms's techniques which, if not new (and therefore arguably progressive), he took further than any composer before him - dislocation between melody and bass, "weak" cadences (less decisive than V-I). He also cites another writer's view of Brahms's "wandering" tonality in passages like the opening of the rhapsody op. 79 no. 2, though Rosen disagrees:



But it only lasts a few bars at a time and mostly the piece sounds like G minor, which Brahms says it's in.

I'd agree that especially in his late works, Brahms prefers to avoid the obvious in his harmonic writing. He was, after all, the most learned and sophisticated composer of his century. But in Belle's example, I have no trouble hearing what key it's in. In Schoenberg's atonal music like op. 11, and the 12-tone music, I never have a sense of key, which was Schoenberg's intention - that's what "atonal" means.

For genuinely progressive music from that period, as regards harmony, it's conventional and correct to cite late Wagner, and then there's the music of Liszt's later years:



Composed in 1881, the year of Brahms's 2nd piano concerto and a year before "Parsifal," "Nuages gris" was indeed music of the future.
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maestrob
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Re: Brahms: Musical Conservative?

Post by maestrob » Fri Feb 17, 2017 2:59 pm

If you have a score handy, check out the first movement of Brahms's Third Symphony, which run an eighth note AHEAD of the bar line.......difficult for the conductor to stay centered on the bar, while the pulse is slightly ahead. Fascinating idea!

Belle
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Re: Brahms: Musical Conservative?

Post by Belle » Fri Feb 17, 2017 3:16 pm

maestrob wrote:If you have a score handy, check out the first movement of Brahms's Third Symphony, which run an eighth note AHEAD of the bar line.......difficult for the conductor to stay centered on the bar, while the pulse is slightly ahead. Fascinating idea!
Thanks for that; I'll certainly check it out while I'm at the Conservatorium library in the next week.

Regarding JohnF's comments (and the links seem to be missing): it is precisely my point that Brahms sounds as though it is in a certain key but, IMO, that's only because of his voice leading. If you read music and look at the score the actual harmonies often suggest otherwise. Put colloquially, Brahms seems to be having an each way bet. It was never meant to be 'atonal' - nor was the music of Liszt or Wagner. That came afterwards and seemed to be a natural progression towards that particular aesthetic. But, even then, it could still often be perceived to the listener as 'romantic' in its world view.

I provided the Schoenberg example to show that while music could be more dissonant than consonant, more atonal than tonal, it still sometimes had that lush romanticism which created a different kind of impression - not just raw atonality. In short, music can be more than one thing at a time. IMO, this applies to Brahms and renders him more of a progressive than we give him credit for.

Rosen is one writer on music; there are many others and, for whatever reason, if Schoenberg regards Brahms as a musical progressive (as recently as mid 20th century) then I can take that as read. I certainly wouldn't interpret the words of a huge musical intellect as "forced".

John F
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Re: Brahms: Musical Conservative?

Post by John F » Fri Feb 17, 2017 4:03 pm

Belle wrote:It was never meant to be 'atonal' - nor was the music of Liszt or Wagner.
Some late Liszt is indeed meant to be atonal. One piano piece is actually titled "Bagatelle sans tonalité." But of course neither Brahms or Wagner had that intention.

Strange, the links showed when I embedded them in my message but they're invisible now. Here are the full links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tp-DeAZmKOA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYKl41e_hoU

I wrote, "to many his argument seems forced." What counts is not the prestige of the writer but the validity of the argument. I cited Rosen not because I believe he's always right, nobody is always right, but because he is always interesting - and definitely smarter than me. :)
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Belle
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Re: Brahms: Musical Conservative?

Post by Belle » Fri Feb 17, 2017 9:48 pm

I forgot about that Bagatelle by Liszt, but overall his other music wasn't atonal. He experimented with tonality, yes, but I'm saying much the same thing about Brahms - though this 'experimental' aspect was hidden behind tonal voice-leading - and he approached this in a very different way. If you read the scores you can see it right there. In just the same way Brahms challenged the bar line, though you really couldn't hear this in performance. It doesn't make him a revolutionary or really progressive, but he was most certainly not the conservative people believe/d him to be. That's my argument.

I've read the Schoenberg essay on "Brahms the Progressive" and agree with it. In his biography of the composer, Jan Swafford develops basically that idea right the way through.

Those links you've provided show what an astonishing composer Brahms was and we can see and hear how he experimented in this piano music. His earlier pieces for piano are more reminiscent of Schumann but, even then, there is the highly original voice of Brahms revealing itself from quite a young age.

John F
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Re: Brahms: Musical Conservative?

Post by John F » Sat Feb 18, 2017 2:49 am

Only the first of my links was to music by Brahms, The second was to another atonal piece by Liszt, "Nuages gris." I never suggested that "overall" Liszt's music is atonal, but several late pieces clearly are, and it's because of them that I say Liszt was the obviously, truly progressive 19th century composer regarding harmony and (a)tonality. Are you denying that? You seem to be. If Brahms too was progressive in some respects, what major composer wasn't? I'm not saying you're wrong about Brahms, or that Schoenberg was, only (again!) that the view remains somewhat controversial, though perhaps less so than when Schoenberg first advanced it.

The Brahms biography I have is by Malcolm MacDonald, not Jan Swafford, so I can't comment on what Swafford says. But Michael Musgrave's essay "Schoenberg's Brahms," in "Brahms Studies: Analytical and Historical Perspectives," devotes 14 pages to that topic, not just "Brahms the Progressive," and he sorts out Schoenberg's valid analytical points from some others: "Such is Schoenberg's belief in the organic logic of Brahms's music that he simply has to find an explanation for [a particular minute detail], even if it means making a statement which seems forced, or even unclear." If you can get hold of this article, I'm sure you will find it interesting and worth reading.

My own view: Schoenberg was determined to see himself as in the line of the great tradition of western classical music, and as its inevitable next step. He said so again and again. He sought in Brahms's music elements which relate to his own "progressive" compositional practice, and because they did, he considered them progressive. This argument may have served Schoenberg's theoretical and historical purpose, but I think it gives a distorted view not only of Brahms's music but of musical "progress" as it played out in the 20th century. The other dominant modern composer, Stravinsky, was completely untouched by anything Brahms wrote. Undoubtedly Brahms's music was original in a number of ways, as any great composer's is, and I think you've put your finger on at least one of them. But are they really "progressive," and what does that actually mean? On this it seems we disagree.
John Francis

Belle
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Re: Brahms: Musical Conservative?

Post by Belle » Sat Feb 18, 2017 6:30 am

I didn't listen to your Liszt link, only Brahms as he is my focus.

Not all great composers are musical progressives. I would not regard Mozart that way or Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Mendelssohn or Dvorak, for example. I still believe that Brahms was more so than generally believed.

I wrote more on this and it disappeared. My keyboard is broken.

Belle
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Re: Brahms: Musical Conservative?

Post by Belle » Tue Apr 04, 2017 4:41 pm

This article has just come to my attention and may be of interest to this discussion:

http://johnborstlap.com/brahms-the-progressive/

John F
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Re: Brahms: Musical Conservative?

Post by John F » Tue Apr 04, 2017 8:35 pm

Thinking further about this, it seems as though everybody means something different by "progressive" regarding classical music, with special definitions either stated or implied. And the concept of progress itself has come under suspicion, not just in music but generally. Just because B follows A doesn't mean that B is more advanced than A, let alone that it's an improvement. In classical music, consider for example today's minimalist composers.

Did Mozart progress beyond Bach, or Wagner beyond Mozart? It may have felt so in their time, when music-lovers were keen to hear the newest thing while older music was felt to be out of date. Even when revived, it had to be updated, as when Mozart reorchestrated and in places recomposed Handel; historically informed performance would have seemed absurd if anybody thought about it, which nobody did. But by Schoenberg's time, and certainly by ours, old music is at least on a par with new music - indeed, music-lovers rate new music lower, and Schoenberg's music among the lowest.

Borstlap's convoluted argument recognizes this and shares my view that Brahms's music is not progressive, in any commonly understood sense of the word, but some of the most conservative ever written - consciously and deliberately so. Borstlap's attempt at the end to find some way in which Brahms can be considered progressive really won't do. But there's much else in the piece that's well worth thinking about, and I'm glad you found it.
John Francis

Belle
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Re: Brahms: Musical Conservative?

Post by Belle » Wed Apr 05, 2017 5:07 am

For me, a musical progressive is a composer who pushes the boundaries of form, tonality and harmony into new realms and possibilities. He may not necessarily advance the music in all of these but the sense that a new direction has been opened up is part of that musical progression. I agree with Schoenberg and Swafford that Brahms did this.

In his argument, Borstlap describes how Brahms crafted his music but his argument becomes circular and sometimes contradictory and doesn't fully come to terms with the meaning of "progressive" in a musical sense. And any number of the criteria he mentions could be applied to many composers!!

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