Looking for the shape of Brahms


Brahms the architect.

One of the keys to understanding Brahms could be through architecture, his use of shapes and sizes and manipulation of them. He was always stretching motives and phrases, making them overlap or out of sync, hiding the bar-line and bringing it in sight again. Irregular phrase lengths, hemiolas, moving the strong beats with slurs; all this conflicting information in order to blur the horizon - and then reveal it again.

What this playing with blocks of material means is that one should not fall in love only with just one voice and its details, everything is always part of a larger picture. While detail is important it gets its real meaning in relation to larger structures. The best way to appreciate the genius of Brahms is to allow for the discovery of the listener and not explain when he is clearly wanting to confuse us. It is sometimes tempting to underline what is about to happen or point at what just happened, but that undermines his efforts. He is always very clever in the way he brings us back to reality after going to great lengths to hide it.

Brahms the jeweller.

Brahms was a fanatic of old music, a collector of manuscripts, a meticulous editor and proofreader of his own music and the music of others. When reading his manuscripts or urtext scores, it is good to think that he really did think carefully about how to notate the details. He knew the instruments and their particularities. Whether he sometimes puts slurs that are surprisingly long, no slurs when you would expect some or different ones on a return of the same material, it is at least worth considering that he may have been trying to tell us something very special about the music.

As an example, in the first movement of the op. 38 Cello Sonata, the opening has no slurs for the cello - or very short ones. Piano, espressivo, legato is the performance indication, which would make one expect longer slurs. The piano provides a very simple chordal accompaniment, articulated with quarter notes with dots under slurs. This creates a very special acoustic background on which the simplest and most straightforward cello line actually will appear espressivo and legato. The second theme appears first with a five-quarter-note slur, then with doubled note values and the slur over two bars, at the end of the movement he doubles the already doubled note values and still keeps the slur, over four bars. Having to be economical with the bow brings out the fact of stretching the material. This is just a little example of passages where respecting what Brahms wrote is important even if it is by far not the most comfortable solution for the cellist.

He seems to use slurs to deliberately play with our perception. Specially if one accepts that he probably used slurs in the classical way - like Haydn or Beethoven; beginning of a slur being always stressed even if it is on a weak part of the measure. This way he keeps giving conflicting information about where the bar line might be until he decides to re-establish order.

Brahms, the sculptor.

Clara Schumann and other musicians who played with Brahms have written that he was extremely free playing his own music. We can't know exactly what this meant in relation to todays way of playing. I suspect that he would have been free in ways that have nothing to do with the kind of liberties people take today. The other deduction from these comments is that Clara was a more straightforward player. Even her straightforward playing was probably very different from today's. I can't believe that Brahms would have done anything to obscure the structure of his pieces. Today we hear a lot of rubato towards slowing down, or underlining the obvious, announcing upcoming surprises. The flexibility works best when it comes from the structure and understanding of the expressions and not from the fear of not being interesting. There is evidence that crescendo-diminuendo hairpins also affected the tempo. This may seem surprising, but if one looks at how Brahms used hairpins and when the words cresc. or dim. it is clear that he made a difference and it shows that his rubato may well have been very local and wouldn't have affected the structure.

There are many pieces of Brahms especially in chamber music where it is likely that he was thinking of unity between movements and arranged the tempos so that all movements can have the same pulse without ever feeling so. This would seem to be the case for example in the Clarinet Quintet, Clarinet trio, String Quintet Op. 111 or the Violin Sonata op.78. It is impossible to prove this theory, but at least if one admits it as a possibility, one hears the pieces in a new way. I don't claim that all his pieces work this way, but it is worth looking for the ones that might.

Brahms almost never put down a metronome mark - I know of two pieces where he did: the 2nd Piano Concerto and one movement of the C major Trio - but in some cases he tells for example that a half note equals a quarter note, like in the last movement of the Piano Quintet going from the introduction to the main movement. Observing even this simple instruction seems to be difficult to most ensembles, the reason being that the slow part feels a little fast and the fast part a little slow. But he was clear to ask for this as an exception, so he must be wanting to tell us to do something we might not otherwise do. Interestingly, in the scherzo of the second String Sextet, the tempo changes several times and he never gives the equivalence going into the new tempo, but he does give it coming back to the main tempo. Is this him giving both the riddle and its solution?

A piece in which there is a special quite mysterious relation of tempos is the Violin sonata op. 78. All the movements have an unusual number of tempo changes and he circulates themes and motives between the movements. It seems obvious that the dotted upbeats in the first and last mouvements want to be the same speed. The main theme of the Adagio comes back in the last movement and seems to want to remind of the same tempo. From these two things one could deduce that the half note in the first movement equals the quarter not in the last. The slow movement would then be twice as slow as the last movement and the Piú andante maybe close to the tempo of the first movement. The first movement has an unusual amount of tempo changes: 3x calando, 2x rit, 2x con anima, 2x sostenuto and the most difficult one is a poco a poco piú sostenuto (ms. 105) which brings the whole middle section to a slower tempo cancelled by a poco a poco Tempo I (ms.156). This slower middle section is the hardest one to bring off and therefore mostly ignored, in fact mostly done faster.

It is clear that my tempo theories are just that - theories. Even if Brahms would have approved of them he covered his tracks so carefully that there is plenty of room for other theories. And it is clear that since he didn't give the metronome indications he didn't want these relations to be academic, maybe they are only ideas in the head of performers. I suspect that he had noticed that Beethoven was already experimenting with this sort of tempo relation, for example in the last two Piano Trios. Rehearsing any of these pieces one often has interminable discussions about tempos which always feel a little too this or a little too that. If one finds the connection between the movements, they will relate to each other and much of the uncertainty disappears.

Brahms the painter

The use of colors is also special with Brahms. He uses very few expressive indications. The two that come up most often - and often together - are dolce and espressivo. I have heard a lot of speculation about what they could mean. The most convincing argument seems to be that they are about colors. Two opposing colors that are different from what the general mood of the piece is. On a string instrument I feel dolce works most often with a sul tasto sound associated with a lots of bow whereas espressivo seems to be to opposite, associated with slow bow. Here Brahms's use of short or long slurs adds to his use of colors.

Brahms the emotional

For all the structural work and meticulousness, performing Brahms can never be a cold mental exercise. He is building shapes and structures with our emotions as his material. One hears many overly emotional performances of his works which fail to be moving and some seemingly academic ones that leave one shattered. The truth is for each of us to find and will probably be different every time.

© Anssi Karttunen 2016

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Reading inside his music