from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

An important musical birthday 

I am sick today. I have been outside only to pick up the morning paper. I did not get to Meeting for worship, expressing regrets because of the severity of my sinusitis. But since midnight, when awake I have been surrounded by birthday music.

I always enjoy May 7th, because it is the shared celebration of two of the major composer. Johannes Brahms was born this day in 1833, Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky exactly 7 years later. As a person for whom music has been the most consistent part of his life, I can think of no worthier topic about which to write on this day than the work of these two men. I played piano, cello and sang, and have dealt with both composers in all three fashions, as well as enjoying much of their music that I have not played.

I am married to a woman who trained as a ballet dancer. Even had I not listened to much of his music before knowing her, it would have inevitably become part of my life as we shared both listening to records and attending ballet performances. But I knew his work from an early age from the vast record collection my father had accumulated, including some fantastic recordings from Leningrad of the last three symphonies. As for Brahms, for years my favorites symphony was his C minor, the work that has often been called Beethoven’s 10th, for its grandeur, its soaring themes, its magnificent architecture.

When I think of Brahms, I realize how many pieces of his music have become firmly entrenched in my consciousness. I first heard his Requiem (in which my wife will shortly again sing) performed at National Music Camp in the 1950’s. I know all four symphonies, have often listened with score in hand, and learned the details of the third from a one piano transcription which made it accessible. His piano music and his chamber music have always represented a challenge, and I cannot say that I mastered them the way I learned so much of the corpus of Beethoven or of Bach. There are magnificent small pieces, to be sure. But the works that stick in my mind are the two concerti for piano. And I of course add, besides the symphonies, the piano quintet, the violin concerto, and of course the double concerto, about which as soon as I type out its name the sounds of the slow movement flow through my memory.

Perhaps one reason I so love Brahms is that in many ways he is more of a classicist than are the other late romantic composers. His works are so carefully crafted, the phrases often with the exquisiteness of a Mozart, but with as much emotional power as anything ever written by someone else. His craft with form clearly comes up in the final movement of the Fourth symphony, about which it does not matter if you call it a passacaglia or a chaconne - he uses the repetitive ground of eight notes for an incredible construction fusing technical wizardry with sweeping expressions that sometimes are confined within the repetition of the eight notes and sometimes cross into the next repetition.

Brahms -- the slow movement of the underappreciated first Piano Concerto, which was not successful because it lacked a flashy cadenza in any movement. I have an old recording by a British pianist who went by the sole name of Solomon which takes that slow movement and converts it into something that will turn your heart inside out. But it is not with heartbreak, it is with something that approaches transcendence. I hear that also in the slow movement of the 2nd piano concerto, only there it is the incredible duo between the piano and the solo cello, and I find myself torn that I could not play both parts at once.

There is more, of course. There are many songs, wonderful choral works like the Nanie, incredible chamber works like the Clarinet Quintet, surely one of the most sublime things ever written for that instrument.

I love Brahms, but I also adore Tchaikovsky. At one point I could play the Piano Concerto #1, which is too often dismissed as bombastic because of the massive chordal nature of the first movement, while ignoring some of the subtlety of its construction, the interplay of brilliant quick flashes, almost as if bird darted across a scene too quickly to be identified, merely recognize by its fleeting presence. Many people do not realize that this is but the first of three works for piano and orchestra, all of quality even if not of frequency of performance. The violin concerto is of course a standard, but the work for cello - the Variations on a Rococo Theme - is not performed as often, although I was fortunate years ago to hear American Nathan Rosen - then principal cellist with the Pittsburgh Symphony - perform it with his orchestra in Ambler Penna shortly after he had won the Tchaikovsky Competition (the winning of which spurred the career of American pianist Van Cliburn).

Tchaikovsky is also often very lyrical. That is apparent in the violin concerto, one of the great works of that genre, and it is clearly apparent in the ballet music, so expressive, so familiar. He also wrote several wonderful operas that unfortunately - because most opera singers do not do Russian - do not receive the frequency of performance to which their musical quality should entitle them. Nest known is “Pique Dame”, The Queen of Spades, but also of great quality of Eugene Onegin and Undine.

There are so many works that are part of the standard repertoire. There are others which should be. Of course, the architecture of the 6th symphony, the Pathetique, ending with the heartrending final slow movement, is probably the best known of the six numbered symphonies (he wrote an unnumbered Manfred symphony which comes between his 4th and 5th in opus numbering. But smaller works like the Serenade for Strings, or his fourth suite for Orchestra commonly known as the Mozartiana, are absolute gems. And I can remember than when I had my first serious crush in junior high school - which was not reciprocated - I would play over and over his Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.

There are many pieces for solo piano, and many chamber works as well. Least known of his output are probably the works he did for the Orthodox Church, including a complete setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. There are also secular songs, settings of folk songs, and incredible wealth of work.

I began by writing of my physical illness. But that has mattered little as I have spent the day with the birthday boys, switching between radio, cd, and phonograph. As I finish this I listen to a superb performance of the Brahms Requiem, which I will again revisit in several hours as I take my wife through the music in preparation for her singing a performance with the choir at the Library of Congress.

I teach social studies, and I am passionate about what I do. But I am by background, by training, by lifelong dedication a musician. To have the riches of these two great composers on a single day is a special blessing. Take some time and listen to the gifts they have given us.


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
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