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A Musical Axis - Brahms, Mahler, & Sibelius

A Musical Axis - Brahms, Mahler, & Sibelius

Johannes Brahms, 1889

"Artists are the antennae of the race." - Ezra Pound

Dutch violinist Janine Jensen and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra performed a fascinating programme of complementary pieces at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre on Friday night - Johannes Brahms' warm and exquisitely subtle Symphony No. 3 in F major, Richard Wagner's irrepressibly sentimental symphonic poem Siegfried Idyll, and Jean Sibelius' chilling and immensely challenging Violin Concerto in D minor. Each composition exemplifies distinct stages of development in a tangled and convoluted series of skirmishes that came to define subsequent disputes about the nature of post-Romantic orchestral writing well into the following century. They are packed with passages of ominous and baleful foreboding, portentous and solemn sonorities, and exquisitely detailed discords that in many ways presage the more catastrophic conflicts that were yet to come.

The shortest of Brahms' four symphonies, his Third was written in the summer of 1883, nearly six years after his Second, and soon became an outstanding success, with Hans Richter, who conducted the premiere, famously proclaiming it to be his Eroica. Although Richetr's comment was really just a passing pleasantry, it rapidly caught on and engendered serious discussion among contemporary audiences. Perhaps more telling was the reaction of Brahms' friends: Clara Schumann wrote how "one is surrounded from beginning to end by the secret magic of the life of the forest," while the child prodigy Joseph Joachim heard the myth of Hero and Leander in the last movement. Brahms' biographer, Max Kalbeck, suggested a link with the great monument celebrating the German nation being built nearby at Rudesheim and speculated as to a possible origin of the middle movement in Brahms' erstwhile plan to write incidental music for Goethe's Faust. It is, however, Kalbeck's third proposal that has proved the most controversial - that Brahms adopted the musical spelling of a personal motto to give the work a special autobiographical slant.

Be that as it may, Brahms' himself only offered one clue to the origins of the piece - that the first theme was "literally transcribed from the Berchtesgaden yodel." The theme's pitches do indeed replicate those of a Juchezer sung in the Berchtesgaden, but of greater significance is Brahms' appropriation of folk music, turning these simple notes into a sophisticated high-art theme of symphonic scale. Others have pointed to entirely different sources for this motif, including link passages in the slow movement of Schumann's First Symphony and the opening movement of his Third. Although there is no record of Brahms or Clara Schumann ever alluding to them, such Romantic resonances remain indisputably present. Recent critics have also pointed out similarities to Tannhäuser, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, seeing the symphony as a tribute to Wagner, who had died earlier that year. However, at the time of its composition, the very public feud between Brahms and Wagner was still being fought out. Wagner enthusiasts even tried to interfere with the symphony's premiere and the conflict almost resulted in at least one duel. To fully appreciate the passions aroused by these competing factions, with their constantly shifting patterns of turbulent personal loyalties, it is helpful to understand the complex web of contemporary musical allegiances within which both composers were enmeshed.

The key figures on the Weimar (or New German) side were Franz Liszt and Wagner, with the composer and pianist Hans von Bülow supporting the Liszt/Wagner side until his wife (Liszt's daughter Cosima) left him for Wagner; he then switched his allegiance to Brahms. It was Bülow who called Brahms the "Third of the Three Bs" and dubbed his First Symphony "The Tenth," after Beethoven's nine. Haydn scholar Carl Ferdinand Pohl, brought in by Liszt to serve as Weimar's unofficial critic-in-residence, championed Liszt, Berlioz, and Wagner in print and criticized the influential musicologist Eduard Hanslick's claim that music could not be programmatic.

Brahms, Clara Schumann, and Joseph Joachim were core members of a more conservative group of musicians intent on maintaining the artistic legacy of Robert Schumann, Clara's husband, who died in 1856. Although Schumann had been a progressive critic and editor of the periodical Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he founded in 1834, he never became true admirer of Liszt. However, as he maintained exceptionally enthusiastic and artistically fruitful friendships with both the emerging vanguard of radical Romantics and musical conservatives such as Mendelssohn and Gade, Schumann initially remained cordial towards Liszt, praising his piano playing in Neue Zeitschrift and reviewing his Leipzig concerts in 1840 favourably. However, as 'Lisztomania' swept through Europe after 1842, both he and Clara came to believe that Liszt had become self-deluded. After Schumann sold the Neue Zeitschrift to Franz Brendel in 1845, it changed direction, becoming an enthusiastic supporter of Liszt's circle and openly criticizing Mendelssohn and other conservative composers. Though the decisive break between Liszt and the Schumanns did not occur until 1848, the editorial turn taken by Neue Zeitschrift coloured their relations for the rest of their lives. While Liszt remained professionally cordial toward the Schumanns, they became openly hostile towards him.

Clara Schumann was the more conservative aesthete in the Schumann marriage and perceived the editorial change in Neue Zeitschrift to be a personal slight to her husband’s legacy. The young Brahms, who had been very close to the Schumanns during Robert’s decline, also took up the cause. Joachim, who was a friend of both Clara and Brahms, joined them in opposition to Liszt and the New German School. Joachim had been professor of violin at the Leipzig Conservatory, where he forged close ties with Mendelssohn and the Schumanns. At the tender age of nineteen he became concertmaster of the Weimar Court Orchestra under Liszt's direction, but his three years in Weimar left him with a poor impression of Liszt's conducting and compositions. His low opinion of Liszt's music and the New German School in general was reinforced by his correspondence with Brahms and Clara.

The crucial point of disagreement between these opposing groups of musicians was between 'traditional' and 'new' musical forms. This distinction was an outgrowth of the debate on the viability of the symphony genre, which had grown in the hands of Beethoven from being considered as mere entertainment to a form that should include larger social, moral, and cultural ideals. Liszt and his circle favoured new styles in writing and forms, programmatic tone poems that blended music with narrative and pictorial ideas.

The 'war' was carried out through compositions, words, and even with public scenes at concerts. Reputations were at stake and partisans sought to embarrass their adversaries with public slights. The Weimar school held an anniversary celebration of the Neue Zeitschrift in Schumann's birthplace and conspicuously neglected to invite members of the opposing party (including Clara Schumann). Musicians on one side saw the dispute as pitting Brahms' effective and economical sonata and classical forms against Liszt's works, which appeared almost formless in comparison. Those on the Lisztian side welcomed musical forms that they felt best fitted the musical content, pitted against works that reused old forms without any feeling for their organic growth. Wagner poked fun at the conservatives in his essay On Conducting, in which he described them as "a musical temperance society" awaiting a Messiah.

Brahms' personal experience with Liszt had been limited to a single visit to Weimar in 1853, when he presented some of his compositions to a group that included Liszt, Peter Cornelius, and Joachim Raff. After Liszt played some of Brahms's work, he performed his own Piano Sonata in B minor. Brahms was impressed neither with Liszt's music, nor with the rest of the New German School - with the curious exception of Wagner. While he did not attempt to dissuade his fellow conservatives from despising Wagner's music, privately he respected it, more than once telling his friends, "I am the best of Wagnerians." Joachim, like Brahms, also respected Wagner's music, but both agreed that Wagner's writings were far more dangerous. A further cause of conflict was that Brahms, a collector of historic music scores and first editions, owned Wagner's handwritten score of the "Venusberg" music from Tannhäuser and the concert ending for the prelude of Tristan and Isolde, given to him by the pianist Carl Tausig in 1864. When Wagner learned what Tausig had done, he was outraged. Brahms finally agreed to give back it back in 1875, in exchange for a deluxe printed score of Das Rheingold.

Somewhat confusingly, the attitudes of the Weimar side were also often inconsistent. At the premiere of Brahms's First Piano Concerto in Leipzig in 1859, there was a reversal of sorts. The concerto, which was his first orchestral piece to be performed publicly, was met with hissing. Conservative critics hated the piece, while those who supported the New German School praised it. By then, Liszt himself was becoming more interested in writing church music and embracing the conservative ideals of the Catholic Church. He retained a fascination with the music of Meyerbeer, a composer despised by both the New German School and by Wagner (whose 1850 essay Jewishness in Music, reprinted and extended in 1868, is an anti-Meyerbeer diatribe). Moreover, Liszt's concept of programme music as exemplified in his symphonic poems was diametrically opposed to Wagner's ideas of musical drama as expressed in his essay The Artwork of the Future. Although hostilities between the two sides gradually subsided, the 'war' created immense friction between what was considered 'classical' and 'modern' music - acidulous and abrasive divisions that have persisted (though somewhat differently defined) to the present day.

Despite these controversies, Brahms' Third Symphony remains one of his most poetic and evocative works, with vivid characterization and individuation of themes and their transformations. The bold choral chromatic opening gesture heralds and underpins the sweeping arcs of the lyrical and monumental first theme. The untroubled pastoral second subject is athletic and seemingly carefree, with the apparently naive march of the slow movement containing complex phrase lengths and cadence echoes. The archaic quasi-chorale includes enigmatic harmonies at the movement's centre, eventuating into a rich, yearning violin melody evolved from the earlier cadences. The rhythmic play in the tunes of the third movement, in which upbeats become winsomely relocated and beguilingly accented in the trio, ends in a vigorous minor-key finale with its veiled and anxiously mobile first theme. The solemn brass version of the slow movement's chorale finishes with an emphatically defiant exposition that initially fragments the first theme, then glorifies and energizes the chorale. Finally, a transfiguring apotheosis occurs as the first theme slows, turns to major, combines with yet another variant of the chorale, now peaceful and celebratory, and concludes with a meditative, valedictory return to the very beginning of the symphony.

* * *

Richard Wagner, 1871

The complete original title of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll was Triebschen Idyll with Fidi's birdsong and the orange sunrise, as symphonic birthday greeting. Presented to his Cosima by her Richard ('Fidi' being the family's nickname for their son Siegfried). It is thought that the birdsong and the sunrise refer to incidents of personal significance, as the short piece was initially written as a birthday present to his wife Cosima, celebrating the birth of their son in 1869. It was first performed on Christmas morning in 1870 by a small ensemble of the Tomhalle Orchester Zurich on the stairs of their villa at Tribschen. Legend has it that Cosima awoke to hear its opening melody, with Hans Richter himself playing the brief trumpet part of thirteen measures.

Like much of Wagner's non-operatic music, it was a pièce d'occasion, originally conceived as an essentially domestic composition and scored for a small chamber orchestra of flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, and double bass. Due to financial pressures, however, Wagner later expanded the orchestration to thirty-five instruments in order to make it more commercial and sold the score to publisher B. Schott in 1878. It is now commonly played by contemporary orchestras with more than one instrument on each string part and modern performances are much slower than those of earlier years.

It is noteworthy that Wagner derived the material for the Idyll from his recently conceived, but as yet unperformed opera Siegfried (the third of the Ring tetralogy which was premiered in 1876), and in particular from Brünnhilde's Ewig war ich ("Eternal I was") in the final scene. The piece also adapted elements of the German lullaby, Schlaf, Kindlein, Schlaf, played by solo oboe, which Ernest Newman has revealed was connected to the Wagners' older daughter Eva. These and other musical references - the meaning of which remained unknown to the outside world for many years - underline the Idyll's deep levels of personal significance for Wagner and Cosima and may explain her indignation when Wagner expanded the piece for public performance. Its unquestionably seductive charm is essentially a celebration of regeneration and growth, coloured by a profound faith in the purity and future preeminence of the Aryan race.

* * *

Jean Sibelius, 1913

"The building of the German dreadnoughts is a menace to our country. The German nation thirty years ago was a boy; today it is a man; tomorrow it will be a giant. The revival of the Holy Roman empire, if the Pan-Germans have their way, is at hand" - Daily Mirror, 16 August, 1906.

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is arguably as important to early 20th-century music as Ezra Pound was to literary modernism. It is an entirely apt comparison according to Timothy L. Jackson, a professor of music at the University of North Texas, who has claimed that Sibelius was culpably entangled with the Nazi regime, and should join Pound, Céline, and Wagner in that select group of artists who have been cast into anti-Semitic ignominy. Jackson believes that Sibelius' association with National Socialism amounted to active support of Nazism and its propaganda efforts in Scandinavia. The role that European composers like Wagner played in laying the cultural foundations for Nazism has long been a contentious issue, and the dispute over Sibelius has significantly affected both the reception of his music and the way in which the musical legacy of German Romanticism has come to be evaluated. Although the Italian Futurist Balilla Pratella hailed Sibelius as a member of the avant-garde, Arnold Bax more famously described him as "an arresting, formidable-looking fellow, born of dark rock and northern forest." Like Cara Schumann's comment about Brahms' Third Symphony, Bax explicitly elided national topography and the composer's individual physiognomy with a sense of creative alienation. Sibelius' entire oeuvre raises important questions about the received view of twentieth-century musical development as a linear progression from late Romanticism, through modernism, to serialism, forcing us to examine the way in which a sense of national identity can be constructed and reinforced by musical means.

As Benjamin G Martin reveals in his recent book The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture, the concept of Kultur played a crucial part in the Nazi rise to power. Citing an essay by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process, Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, he demonstrates how its connotations are incomprehensible without reference to specific historical developments. In pre-unification Germany it evoked those qualities that professionals in the small, isolated German middle class claimed in response to the disdain of the nobility who employed them - not only intellectual achievement, but also such simple virtues as authenticity, honesty, and sincerity. During and after WWI, German patriotic propaganda vaunted the superiority of Germany's rooted, organic, spiritual Kultur over the effete, shallow, cosmopolitan, and Jewish-influenced materialism of Western Europe.

Adolf Hitler, the failed painter inebriated with the music of Wagner, invested considerable time and money during the 1930s in an effort to infiltrate European cultural organisations and turn them into instruments of Nazi power - and music was one artistic realm that Germans felt particularly well-qualified to dominate. In 1934 Richard Strauss invited composers from thirteen countries to attend the annual meeting of the German Music Association during which the delegates created a Permanent Council for International Cooperation Among Composers ostensibly to address inconsistencies among different copyright codes, problems with royalty payments, and the right claimed by composers to assure their work was not presented in a "deformed" manner. Sibelius, whose royalty payments had been interrupted during the First World War, remained an enthusiastic member of the Council throughout the WWII.

Jackson lays out his charges against Sibelius in a long essay in a book he co-edited, Sibelius in the Old and New World: Aspects of His Music, Its Interpretation, and Reception. He accumulated a mass of documents, letters, government papers, and newspaper reports from archival sources to challenge the standard view of Sibelius - that he was a passive, apolitical observer of the rise of Nazism. He says Sibelius' early fascination with Finnish mythology and nationalism resonated with the Nazis and, as the Third Reich gained in strength, Sibelius enjoyed its financial arrangements for artists. By the time Goebbels became minister of propaganda In 1933, Sibelius was sixty-seven and experiencing a sharp decline in output. He immediately began to profit from taxation, currency-exchange, and currency-export preferences that Joseph Goebbels approved for artists as a reward for cooperating with the "artist friendly" regime. The Nazis were particularly well inclined toward Sibelius and in 1935 awarded him a Goethe Medal which Hitler endorsed with his personal signature. From at least 1941, he drew a German pension that was worth half the average German annual income and Third Reich officials approved the founding of the German Sibelius Society in 1942.

Jackson argues that Sibelius' enthusiastic acceptance of these accolades was "a political act of considerable importance to Finland, if not Germany, with a huge propaganda significance," but no single event better illustrates Sibelius's empathy with the Nazi ethos than his reneging on a promise to help a young, part-Jewish composer, Günther Raphael. From 1931-36, Raphael implored Sibelius repeatedly, urgently, and obsequiously to help him retain his teaching position in Germany at a time when Jewish artists were being persecuted and dismissed from their posts. Jackson insists that Sibelius could have joined the many prominent artists who asked Goebbels to protect their Jewish colleagues, but chose not to risk alienating his patronage.

At the beginning of the Third Reich, many Finns believed that Germany was not only improving the lot of its citizens, but also emerging as an effective foil to the Bolshevik threat. In 1939 the Soviet Union attacked and managed to annex part of Finland, so in 1941 Finland allied itself with Germany, hoping to stave off both Nazi and Soviet invasion. But in September 1944, it began the seven-month Lapland War against Germany. With these political turnabouts, Sibelius' reputation suffered various reversals: at times he was hailed as a standard-bearer of freedom, at others decried as a Nazi stooge trading on his Aryan birth. Despite privately denouncing the Nazi's "bad social prejudices" in a diary entry from late 1943, he always valued his prestige in Germany, the country that many Finns considered a cultural mecca, and continued to receive payments from Germany throughout the war, even complaining about them not arriving with any consistency.

* * *

Influenced by both Liszt and Wagner, Sibelius's approach to musical composition was largely determined by the controversies and conflicts of the previous century. His coldly compelling and uncanny Violin Concerto depicts a stark Nordic soundscape of dark grandeur, colliding unrepentant virtuosity with complex structural developments that are symphonic in their range and scope. Sibelius’ only concerto also reflects his love of traditional folk melodies, an affection he shared with both Brahms and Wagner.

Although his Violin Concerto has been characterized as having "broad and depressing" melodies and Donald Tovey memorably described its final movement as a "Polonaise for polar bears," it departs from the lighter, rhythmic accompaniments of many previous concertos, by placing the solo violin and all sections of the orchestra on an equal footing. Scored for solo violin, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings, it is structured in three movements: Allegro moderato in D minor, mostly in 2/2, but with some sections in 6/4 and 4/4 time; Adagio di molto in B-flat major and in 4/4 time; and Allegro, ma non tanto in D major and in 3/4 time. The first movement opens with a gently pulsating cushion of pianissimo strings. The soloist then enters with a characteristic IV-V-I phrase, in D minor G-A-D. The violin announces the theme and is briefly echoed by clarinet, then continues into developmental material, with more low woodwind and timpani accompaniment in several runs. Cadenza-like arpeggios, double-stops, and more runs are accompanied by additional woodwind restatements of the theme. At this point, the strings enter for the first time, brazenly announcing a second theme, and developmental material leads to a cadenza, which then opens into the recapitulation. The Allegro molto vivace coda ends with vivid restatements of previous themes.

The second movement is intensely lyrical, with a short introduction by clarinets and oboes leading into a singing solo part on the G string over pizzicato strings. Dissonant accompaniments by the brass dominate the first part of the song-like movement. The middle section has the solo violin playing ascending broken octaves, with the flute as the main voice of the accompaniment, playing descending notes simultaneously. The movement ends with the strings restating the main theme on top of the solo violin.

The third movement is one of the greatest ever written for the violin and remains notorious for its formidable technical difficulty. The opening four bars of rhythmic percussion, with the lower strings repeatedly playing eighth and sixteenth-note figures, suggest a distinctly martial quality, evocative of a battlefield. Then the violin boldly enters with the first theme on the G string. This first section offers a brilliant display of violin gymnastics with up-bow staccato double-stops and a run with rapid string-crossing, then octaves, that leads into the first tutti. The second theme is taken up by the orchestra and is almost a waltz, then the violin takes up the same theme in variations, with more arpeggios and double-stops. Another short section concluding with a run of octaves makes a bridge into a recapitulation of the first theme, before clarinet and low brass introduce the final section. A passage of harmonics in the violin precedes a sardonic transition of chords and slurred double-stops, until a series of broken octaves leads to an incredibly heroic few lines of fresh double-stops and soaring octaves. A brief orchestral tutti appears before the violin leads things to the finish with a D major scale up, returning down in flatted super-tonic (then repeated). A flourish of ascending slur-separate sixteenth-notes, punctuated by a resolute D from the violin and full orchestra, concludes the concerto.

When Sibelius conceived his Violin Concerto, the classical values and certainties of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were already under siege and the winds of a real war were beginning to pick up across the Balkans. It is impossible to listen to its menacing and minatory brilliance without hearing echoes of both Brahms' and Wagner's peculiarly Teutonic brand of Romanticism. It not only suggests a sense of brooding neurotic anxiety, but also provides a foreboding omen of the imminent political, cultural, and military conflicts that were to engulf all of Europe over the next fifty years. As the approaching storm clouds gathered over the gloomy Baltic forests, it is not impossible to picture Sibelius licking his pinky finger, poking it into the impending cross-currents of death and destruction, and receiving an oracular premonition of the coming loss of faith in the redemptive power of human progress. All the traditions of the ancien régime (including the aristocratic belief in rational argument and fair play) were about to be blown to smithereens in the vicious and inhumane trench warfare of the Somme and Passchendaele.

It is equally easy to envisage JS Bach, the classical ancestor of them all, turning in his grave - if he ever had one. Originally thought to have been buried in Old St. John's Cemetery in Leipzig, his remains went unmarked for over a hundred years. They were supposedly located and moved to a vault in St. John's Church in 1894 (the same year in which Germany's gross domestic product first overtook that of Great Britain). Ironically, St. John's was destroyed by Allied bombing during WWII, so his remains were re-interred in the Church of St. Thomas in 1950. Subsequent forensic research, however, has since called into question whether they are actually the bones of Bach at all - Nox est perpetua una dormienda (Catullus).


See also: NZSO Review: Jansen just perfect by Max Rashbrooke.

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