‘Aimez-vous Brahms?’ (2)

https://i2.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02069/C269NA_2069508c.jpgSo, what was it — the piece that I desperately wanted to hear ‘live’ and Susan Bradshaw didn’t…? What work is it that some people love and some people hate, and which manages both to be and not to be ‘Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet’…? If you read yesterday’s posting, you may have been wondering…

Well, it’s not any great conundrum, to be honest. When I went back to my seat in the Royal Albert Hall, the work the BBC Symphony Orchestra played was Brahms’s Piano Quartet in the version for large orchestra — including small Eb clarinet, big bass clarinet and even bigger double-bassoon — that Arnold Schoenberg produced in 1937. The Proms Archive entry therefore ought to look like this (pardon my font):


https://i2.wp.com/www.konservatorium-wien.ac.at/uploads/tx_userkons/brahms_schoenberg_web.jpgOver the years, I’ve come across a fair number of people who had no idea that the man they know as ‘the father of atonality and serialism’ ever orchestrated a Brahms chamber work, or would ever have wanted to; but the truth is that Schoenberg was a tremendous admirer of Brahms — and spent a great deal of time carefully analysing the older composer’s melodic construction, rhythmic complexity, and rich and sophisticated harmony. (Have a look, for example, at the essay ‘Brahms the Progressive‘, originally a 1933 radio talk.)

from Structural Functions of Harmony

Harmonic analysis of Brahms from Structural Functions of Harmony

Schoenberg’s devotion to Brahms, in fact, was pretty well life-long. As a youngster, he was into Brahms before he was into Wagner. (As he recalled in 1948: “I had been a ‘Brahmsianwhen I met Zemlinsky. His love embraced both Brahms and Wagner and soon thereafter I became an equally confirmed addict...”). And his last theoretical work — the textbook Structural Functions of Harmony, completed in 1948, just three years before he died — contains more than a dozen examples drawn from Brahms.

And even though we know that the Brahms orchestration was made at the instigation of Otto Klemperer (who conducted the first performance in Los Angeles the following year), we have a letter from Schoenberg which tells us a little about his personal interest in the project:

1.  I like the piece.
2.  It is seldom played.
3.  It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.

(His third point is what I had in mind yesterday when I mentioned things being made clear ‘in more ways than one’! You can read the entire letter here.)

If you’re curious about Schoenberg’s biography — and why wouldn’t you be? — you’ll be interested in the ‘timeline’ of his life and works at this period. By the end of 1936 he’d been in the USA for three years; he’d recently been made a professor at UCLA; and he’d not only written the 12-tone Fourth String Quartet but also finally finished the 12-tone Violin Concerto.


Ronald, Arnold, Nuria, c.1940

In 1937, however, composition seems to have taken a back seat. We know that in January he began a ‘Phantasia’ for piano duet that was abandoned after 25 bars; and in January and February he worked on a Symphony — each of whose four movements was also abandoned after a few dozen bars. The Brahms orchestration, though, was begun in May and completed in September — which means that Schoenberg worked on it as the household coped with a new arrival: 26 May 1937 saw the birth of Ronald Rudolf, his fourth child.

Interestingly enough, having spent four months orchestrating a work in a Brahmsian G minor, Schoenberg’s compositional thoughts turned towards more traditional minor-key tonality for a time — as in 1938 he wrote the Kol Nidre (which has a G minor key signature all the way through!), and in 1939 completed the long-unfinished Second Chamber Symphony (which has an Eb minor key signature at both ends).

All of which, I think, should prevent us viewing the Brahms orchestration as something lightweight or trivial. Far from being a bit of hack-work, it was in fact a piece of passionate advocacy on the part of a dedicated Brahmsian who knew the music from inside and was at that time at the height of his powers.

So let’s hear a little of what he did. Here’s a coded clip presenting the opening of the original Brahms piece — a nice chunk of the first movement’s Exposition (if you want to see what the first page of music looks like, I’ve put that below the panel):


All right, now here’s what Schoenberg did with it:

There are three things I’d like to point out, now everyone’s heard that. First, Brahms’s opening piano solo — three parallel lines of music, high, middle and low, all in the same tone colour — is transferred by Schoenberg to his three different clarinets. One one level, then, he provides a ‘monochrome’ sound that is analogous to Brahms’s — but, on another, the use of three different sizes of clarinet goes beyond anything in Brahms’s conservative, rather backward-looking sound-world: it’s as if Schoenberg is locating this piece in different sonic territory right from the start.

Secondly, look at the rest of the orchestra: Brahms does sometimes use a double-bassoon; but there’s no purely orchestral work by him that calls for three oboes or three trumpets — or requires four timpani that have to be rapidly re-tuned so as to play six different pitches inside six bars! Schoenberg, in other words, isn’t concerned with making the piece sound ‘as if Brahms had orchestrated it himself’. As, indeed, everyone can surely hear when, thirdly, the transition section approaches and the entire orchestra goes wild…

Let’s follow those clips by a couple that come from the corresponding segment of the movement’s Recapitulation. Here’s the Brahms original:

And, once again, here’s what Schoenberg did with it:

Just a couple of points here, if you’ll allow me. First, as you’ll have heard, Brahms doesn’t recapitulate his Exposition at all mechanically: some ideas he leaves out altogether (the opening ten bars, for example!), while developments of other ideas get put in. Most interestingly from our present perspective is what happens at the very start of the clip. Reprising the idea originally presented at bar 11. Brahms brings it back in the same instrumental colour as before: the principal part is still played by the piano, with the strings adding accompanying gestures. When Schoenberg reaches this point, however, he swaps around the colours he used: originally, he transferred Brahms’s piano part to the woodwind — but now he has it played by the strings, with the woodwind accompanying. In other words, Schoenberg ensures that there’s an element of variation, development, surprise even at this point of recapitulation. That’s Schoenberg!

And, of course, the climax is intensified too. In fact, it’s probably become pretty clear why some people simply can’t handle this orchestration: anyone who’d prefer to be hearing fake Brahms rather than genuine, unrestrained Schoenberg will be chewing their knuckles when they get to this section’s melodic and motivic brass parts, its pounding percussion, its glockenspiel… As for me, however, I think it’s terrific

Let’s jump to the third movement — and the quirky little march (in 3/4 time!) that Brahms allows to emerge in the middle…

By now, you can probably guess just how much fun Schoenberg is going to have with it!

Well, I think my job here is almost done; but I can’t possibly finish without presenting a few clips of the famous ‘Gypsy rondo’ finale and its endless succession of three-bar phrases. Here’s Brahms:

How on earth is Schoenberg going to carry over all that virtuosic activity to the orchestra? This is how:

I was about to say that nothing in this finale’s wild and whirling orchestration resembles anything that Brahms would have done (Xylophone! Trombone glissandi! Three piccolos!); but then I remembered that, actually, it wouldn’t be true. For there is in fact one little part that is exactly what Brahms did do. It’s not far from the end — so let me start by presenting a clip of the movement’s final stages as Brahms left them:

If you noticed how Brahm had his pianist stop playing for a couple of passages — leaving the music to just the three string players — you’ll be struck by what Schoenberg does at one of those points: he cuts his large orchestra down to just three solo string players — with the result that, for a moment, we are able to hear an echo of the original chamber work sounding through all the cutting-edge orchestral technique of more than 75 years later. It’s a rather touching gesture of love and respect, I think. See if you can spot it:

That could quite appropriately be my last clip — but, actually, it isn’t. I couldn’t finish without letting you see the very ending all over again in this performance by an Australian youth orchestra. I admit that it’s not in the best recorded sound; but then, I’m including it mostly because of what you can see in it. Make sure you watch very carefully: I’d hate you to miss what happened!


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2 thoughts on “‘Aimez-vous Brahms?’ (2)

  1. But it is not quite ‘exactly’ what Brahms did — the three soloists are, in the first instance, a clarinet and two bassoons, before transferring to the string trio cited. But if anything, that strengthens the point that Schoenberg is both ‘respecting’ Brahms, yet ensuring that his transcription makes use of the rich variety of colours available from a large orchestra.

    By the way, I must say that it is a relief to read (in your previous post) that, selon Mme Bradshaw, even Boulez himself was not always on top of his own material in /Boulez on Music Today/; that said, for all its convolution, it is an incredibly sophisticated, and I find some of Boulez’s insights incredibly powerful and useful — I refer in particular to his distinction between ‘smooth’ and ‘striated’ space (although some of his detailed definitions and observations strike me as a little suspect — I would question whether a machine really produce a pitch with *absolute* accuracy, or is it just accurate to the extent that we cannot measure the margin of error?), and to his constructive criticism of Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic grammar (and yes, I am aware of his more invective essay ‘Schoenberg is Dead’).


  2. I always found the Schoenberg orchestration of this breautiful Brahms piece unsatisfactory, because Sch used a much too big sound and vulgarized it with too many percussion effects. He poured his own orchestration style over Brahms’ music and the resulting mix is, to my taste, incompatible with the character of the music. We know that Brahms’ orchestra is the classical one, somewhat extended, but not the big string section type and certainly not ‘hyped’ with percussion effects and unnatural brass lines (Brahms handled the brass with the older instrumental style in mind).


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