Part of the Listen to This Audio Guide
Brahms in 1853, at the age of twenty.
Widely played, not quite universally loved, charged with hidden passions, Johannes Brahms stands as a symbol of how much we lose when we turn composers into marble statues. There are museums dedicated to him in Hamburg, his birthplace; in Mürzzuschlag, Austria, where he wrote the Fourth Symphony; in Pörtschach, where he wrote the Second; and in Gmunden, another favorite holiday spot. The Brahms Institut in Lübeck has the most extensive online archive, including pictures, letters, concert programs, and first and early editions of Brahms's entire published output. A major presentation of digitized manuscripts is planned for the fall of 2010. Yet few latter-day composers are trickier or more elusive when it comes to the question of musical meaning. I chose to end this book with Brahms because I have always responded to his work with an intensity that I have never fully understood. When I listen to music purely for pleasure, with no assignments pending, I often turn to this master of the double-edged chord.
The beginning of the Second Symphony, with its rumble of "black wings" in the trombones:
Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra; Telarc 80522.
The beginning of the vocal quartet "Why Is Light Given to One Who Is in Misery?":
Marcus Creed conducting the RIAS Chamber Chorus; Harmonia Mundi 501591.
Wilhelm Furtwängler conducts the entire first movement of the Second, in a remarkable 1945 performance (the "springtime" motif enters at 4:26 of the second part):
The house where Brahms was born, in the Gängeviertel, which, by the time this photograph was taken, had become a slum:
From the Andante of the First Piano Sonata:
Sviatoslav Richter, piano; Philips 438477 (out of print).
Schubert's "Der Leiermann," for comparison:
The opening of the First Piano Concerto, with its intimations of Robert Schumann's plunge into the icy waters of the Rhine:
Clifford Curzon, piano, with Georg Szell conducting the London Symphony; Decca 417641.
A demonstration of the opening chord at the piano:
Here's a youthful account of the entire first movement, with Kirill Gerstein at the piano and Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. After the initial colossal D, you can hear the successive notes of the "lamento" motif at 0:47 (C-sharp), 1:09 (C-natural), 1:13 (B-natural), 1:16 (B-flat, briefly), and 1:17 (A).
The opening movements of A German Requiem, "Blessed Are They That Mourn" and "All Flesh Is As Grass," with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and Swedish Radio Chorus at the Vienna Musikverein (on DVD):
Klemperer conducts the opening of the First Symphony:
Brahms in Gypsy mode — the finale of the Piano Quartet in G Minor:
Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet, Mischa Maisky, and Martha Argerich; DG 463 700-2.
Falstaff counts off the chimes of midnight in Verdi's Falstaff, a paragon of late style:
Tito Gobbi, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra; EMI 67162.
The seemingly humdrum opening of the Fourth Symphony, followed by the "abyss" at the beginning of the recapitulation:
Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra; Telarc 80465.
The chaconne chorus "Meine Tage in den Leiden," from Bach's Cantata No. 150, with a bass line that helped to inspire the finale of Brahms's Fourth:
John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists; Soli Deo Gloria 131.
The great Carlos Kleiber leads the entire final movement: