Rückblick – Music that Borrows from Brahms

Throughout 2019, I performed a solo program of works I commissioned: “Borrowed from Brahms.” Below are my program notes — please check back for updates.

This program evolved out of a love for the music of Johannes Brahms, and consideration of the musical idea of transformations. The impetus for programming was to group together works that “continue a musical lineage” by looking to the musical past for inspiration, all somehow linked to Brahms. All of the contemporary works are pieces I commissioned in recent years.

Rückblick, by Minneapolis-based composer Edie Hill, takes its inspiration from two pieces of Brahms – the Intermezzo Op. 119, No. 1, nicknamed “The Black Pearl” by Clara Schumann, and the 4th movement of the Op. 5 sonata, also an Intermezzo, subtitled “Rückblick,” which translates to “looking back.” In the piece Hill explores the idea of looking forward and backward in time by borrowing from these two “book-end” works from Brahms’s oeuvre. 

“A Look Ahead” begins with two contrasting motives – clangorous, dissonant chords ringing out, followed by fleet chromatic rising lines, suggestive of an urgent impatience or perhaps some foreboding. Hill writes: 

I was so taken with the opening statement of the Sonata no. 3 – the strong opening statement followed by contrasting material is influenced by that [work] …

…  I was thinking more about the present and looking ahead more than I was thinking of a dream-like state [as in later movements]. [The first] movement has more of my harmonic language in it.  I savor the major and minor third!  I never get tired of hearing a major third turn into a minor third.  It’s a sobering look ahead, I think.  A “well, let’s plunge into the truth” sort of feeling with the knowledge that the “truth” will be deeply beautiful and deeply painful – such is life.

The second movement, “Memento: After Clara’s ‘Gray Pearl’ ” is more lyrical in nature; canonic moments pay reverence to Brahms, who frequently composed canons. “Here, Now” uses 4 measures from the center of Brahms’s “Rückblick” and expands upon them.  Hill writes that this movement is “… a moment in time, in real time, before the last movement which is back in floaty time.” The listener will hear that “Here, Now,” is more process-oriented than formally conceived, and focused on exploring mood shifts via subtle harmonic changes. The final movement, “A Backward Glance,” utilizes a triplet motive found throughout the Brahms Op. 5 Sonata, which he borrowed from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. According to Hill, this movement

seems very dream-like to me.  I was thinking about moving in and out of dream-like spaces and kind of turning the “fate” motive that Brahms borrowed from Beethoven on its head.  Mid-movement, things get a bit more firm, but mostly, it’s about being suspended.

To capture this feeling of being suspended, Hill uses markings such as “echoing, folding back on itself,” “distant,” and “otherworldly.” 

Letters is a “co-composed” set of miniatures by Joseph Dangerfield and Luke Dahn, who both attended graduate school at the University of Iowa shortly before I matriculated there. This is an unusual model for a work; yet it draws inspiration from Brahms by hearkening back to correspondence between Brahms and his friend and colleague the violinist Joseph Joachim. In their 20s, Brahms and Joachim wrote back and forth to each other, including musical excerpts and counterpoint exercises for the other to comment on. Likewise, in Letters, Dangerfield wrote the first piece, then sent it to Dahn, who wrote a piece in response, and sent that to Dangerfield. At some point the strict alternation broke down, with Dangerfield composing several in a row. Dahn has stated that he views each movement as mobile, not necessarily needing to occur in the order in which they were composed; for today’s program, I’m maintaining the original order of the works. 

Dangerfield has described contemporary music as being about color and texture – keep this in mind while listening to Letters. “The Mountains are Vast …” begins by utilizing short motives in the bass and tenor registers, both emblematic of Brahms’s music, that are expanded to longer contrapuntal lines with occasional dynamic outbursts. Dahn’s title “leggiero e ben marcato” is derived from a marking in Brahms’s Op. 35 Paganini Variations. “leggiero” evokes this variation and also quotes the late E-flat minor Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 6; the Intermezzo quotations are marked “ghostly, on the brink of audibility,” with tempo ad lib. This miniature is marked by the duality of disintegration and chaos, followed by moments of stasis. “Inter(rupted)mezzo” is a play on words, a musical pun – Brahms wrote many works entitled “Intermezzo.” The opening agitato ff gesture in the bass is interrupted with high pp chords, in a different texture and register; the more contemporary music is interrupted with a quotation of Brahms’s most famous Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118, No. 2. 

Dahn’s “passacaglia” quotes the bass line from Brahms’s Symphony IV, movement IV, a movement in which Brahms borrowed from Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich. A Passacaglia is a work in triple meter, of a serious character, written over a repeated ground bass. Dahn has written a spiky, dissonant 2-part invention – only two notes are ever played at any one time. The left hand repeats the ground bass seven times, with an almost twelve-tone right hand above it. Much of Dahn’s scholarly research focuses on the music of Bach, the pioneer of 2-part inventions; and Brahms himself admired Bach’s music, having famously collected scores of past musical masters to study their works. One of the longest miniatures, “passacaglia” pays both homage to Brahms and Bach. 

In his early 20s, Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann, and Brahms subsequently loved Clara Schumann with great intensity. They never consummated this love, for a variety of complicated reasons, but they did maintain a lifelong passionate friendship. for Clara is more reflective and introspective. In the second half of the piece you’ll hear bell tones with quick grace notes, leaping up 6ths – a similar gesture to the G minor Händel Variation, a piece that was composed for and given to Clara as a birthday present. “Conjurings” begins with two short motives, a punctuated figure in the bass, followed by ringing treble tones. These motives continue, with each treble motive added to and expanded until the climax of fff bass chords alternates with a quieter treble response, fading away to pppp. “ps:” is a true post-script; a brief nine-measure tag, with sharply accented chords in irregular jagged rhythms, underscored by a sustained bass note. “Brahms Bricolage” borrows from the slow third movement of Brahms’s second piano concerto; it is ethereal, resonant, atmospheric. 

The most recently composed piece on the program is Minnesotan Jocelyn Hagen’s Variations on a Theme by Brahms, which was completed in the summer of 2019 and is receiving its premiere on September 19, 2019. Of the work, Hagen, writes:

Variations on a Theme by Brahms is, at its heart, a piece driven by transformation, and more specifically, the stages of grief. Brahms is known for his achingly bittersweet and romantic melodies, and this theme from the third movement of his third symphony exemplifies this perfectly. 

The melody begins with a restatement of the theme with little variation, representing the first stage of grief: denial. The melody reinvents itself in a lighter way, signaling avoidance, but this quickly turns into anger and frustration, the second stage of grief. In variation seven, the anger fades, and the music transitions into the third stage of grief: bargaining. In this search for meaning, the melody is split in two, barely recognizable. After this, the melody is played backwards in a new key and different time signature again. It is trying to change the grief in any way possible to escape the fourth stage of grief: depression. This new melody is then harmonized in thirds, signaling companionship. Grieving together with a loved one can help the healing process immensely, and this variation is that discovery. Finally, the original melody returns, but this time in a major key. This is the beginning of acceptance, the last stage of grief. The music slowly transforms closer and closer to its original form, but at the end is stated in the parallel major of the opening theme, in the key of C major.

The first piece I commissioned by Marc Chan was “Playing Brahms,” the two-movement work that appears later in tonight’s program. Each movement is based on a different Brahms waltz from Op. 39. I loved it so much that I commissioned another work, which was originally to be a 10-15 minute piece based on another Brahms waltz. Imagine my surprise when I received a book of 73 pages with 16 rags, one based on each of the Op. 39 waltzes! The entirety of Dr. Brahms’s Book of Rags (A Miscellany of Hemiola Hijinks and Other Syncopated Musings) will eventually take about 35-40 minutes to perform. 

The composer program notes state:

As Rudi Blesh writes: “[Ragtime] bloomed in the lurid nights of those inner cities of the [1890’s], the infamous red-light districts of brothels, saloons, casinos and wine rooms.” Brahms’s life was indelibly marked by his traumatic experiences as a teenager playing piano in the dancehalls, bars, cafes, and whorehouses of the Hamburg waterfront. Brahms’s life tells a story of necessity and survival. So too the story of ragtime: Ragtime flourished in bawdy houses because the creators of ragtime were mostly black, with a few disowned whites, and this was the only place they could find work. Necessity, survival and transformation.

Interestingly enough, in The Unknown Brahms by Robert Haven Schauffler, a story is recounted in which Brahms heard someone play ragtime on a banjo; in typical Brahms fashion, which could be rather snarky, he is quoted as saying “I thought I would use, not the stupid tunes, but the interesting rhythms of this Ragtime” (p. 176).

The rags featured on this program evoke the music of Scott Joplin. Chan says, “it may be useful to refer to Joplin’s ‘School of Ragtime,’ and of all of his many rags, to listen to ‘Stoptime Rag,’ stoptime being a temporal innovation of Joplin’s.”  No. 4 in E minor draws inspiration from stoptime as well as the rags of William Bolcom, complete with rhythmic snaps. No. 9 in D minor moves wistfully through subtly shifting harmonies. No. 14 in G-sharp minor is a boisterous romp – think Wild West saloon meets Star Wars Cantina band; the pianist plays emphatic arm clusters in the bass while striving to be heard over the din of the barroom, and the ending shifts into a rowdy burlesque number. In contrast, no. 15 in A-flat major charmingly resets the most famous Brahms waltz. 

Chan, originally from Singapore and currently based in Connecticut, writes:

My work has been, for the longest time now, a conversation with the past, exploring … that middle ground between transcription and the “original” work. What excites me about the process is that at its best, a transcription is a record of how one composer listens to the work of another; also, we haven’t quite developed a vocabulary for describing musical borrowings: Berio would call it a “Rendering,” but I’ve also seen “reconfigured text,” “epistemic dialogue,” and my favorite – “stolentelling,” an almost Romantic idea of stolen-story telling, the way rubato is supposed to be a kind of “stolen” time (not petty theft I hope, but “stolen” in a mythical, Promethean sense).

The two-movement Playing Brahms is based on two waltzes from Op. 39 – numbers 6 and 3. The first movement “functions as a prelude of sorts [to …] the emotional center; … the idea was to find ways of expressing a waltz going against its 3/4 grain … hence a left-handed one and a waltz in 4.” The first movement is very much like an etude, or like an etude spun out of control. The melody from Op. 39 No. 6 pops out of the rapid chromatic texture in both right and left hands, in high and low registers. The second movement evokes a feeling of nostalgia; musically this is accomplished by silently depressing bass notes before beginning and capturing them with the middle, sostenuto pedal – this creates a lingering, hazy resonance throughout.