Oh, Brahms. I must tell you I’m on the train, and I’m not happy about it. A man with incredible curly-whorly bedhead is sitting right in front of me and at least I hope that my bedhead cannot be that bad, can it? A certain conductor—not a train conductor!—floated into town this last weekend and I fear that I have no judgment in his presence whatsoever. I should flee him like a typhoon. “Meet me at such and such” he says and a maze of cab rides and bad decisions follows. As evidence I present my slack-jawed, red-eyed self, practicing Brahms in the one functioning corner of my mind, while the train clatters on. Nachos were made at 1:30 am, large plates of desperate, lonely nachos, humming with erstwhile microwaves. Twice in one weekend nachos were made (I use the passive voice because it was as if they made themselves): twice eaten, twice slept upon, twice regretted. No, more than twice: this morning, each pang of salty reflux is but an atom of my infinite nacho regret. Oh, Brahms, what can I say about you? How can I get past the paunch, the cigars, the brothels and the hemiolas; how can I step past them to the real you?
Brahms has many virtues; but certainly his greatest contribution to the history of culture is his demonstration that obesity can be musically satisfying. How many times have you been at a master class on Brahms and heard the coacher say to the coachee, “play it fatter, bigger, rounder …”? Bazillions of times. Brahms is the culmination of a giant all-you-can-eat buffet of wholesome harmony. (Wagner the culmination of a giant all-you-can-eat orgy? Ahem.) It is true: you will be playing a phrase of Brahms, and towards the middle you will start to feel the phrase fill up with … yummy goodness. With tasty filling. It is terrible to hear such phrases played without the artist tasting the custard in the middle, even just a little; it becomes Brahms with Nutrasweet. Don’t even get me started on those fat, delicious, dripping chords, yearning to be played with sausage fingers.
I’m letting the imagery run away with me, straight to the deli counter.
Could you imagine a fatter, denser, bigger beginning to a piano concerto than the opening of the first Brahms concerto? (Compare, for instance, to the lucidity and transparency of the opening of the second … the crystalline chords in the piano and the single line in the horn …) It is a marvelous, daring, growling beginning, and perhaps most audacious in its thickness of texture and of thought. Despite all its drama, it is really just a series of incredibly prolonged chords; the tension is partly the result of forcing us to linger on these chords, to “suffer” through them. And what chords!, almost never in root position, almost always in some sort of inversion. A particular favorite of Brahms’ is the V 6/5 …
Really “just” the dominant. But first we are forced to hear the C# in the bass, alone (just the basses, in all their gruff guttural glory), and then the rest of the chord, grating against it. Brahms really wants us to know what the bass is, separately. It would be one big splat of a chord if Brahms didn’t make us face that duality within. Grr! I am a big fan of V 6/5 too; it is like a chord with phlegm in its throat. It rattles, somehow—that dissonant second moved up to the top of the chord, seeming more dissonant than ever, more unresolvable—and all those trills that Brahms gives us at the beginning, all the timpani rolls and hairpins: all of it is rattling against the cage of the given chord, rattling to express its own inversion, to express … its fixity on its instability.
Not the usual defining opening, then. No root position chords. No comforting concord. Though the bass movement is unsurprising and typical (tonic down to dominant), the rest of the texture seems to want to hide this clarity, elude this definition. A strange combination of majesty and difficulty. Brahms says, I’m going to tell you something huge, in fact I’m going to confront you with it, and it’s very thick and dense and fuzzy and fat, and you will have to eat your way through it, bite by complicated bite, until you find out what you’re eating and decide to go on Jenny Craig …
Stop me, please.
The first piano concerto is a young man’s piece. (Brahms wrote fat even when he was thin.) Now—let me burden you with my issues!—as a thirty-something, I occasionally find myself thinking back to my twenty-somethings, with longing and yearning and etc. (Shocking!) Quite often I also find myself in the company of twenty-somethings, pursuing their lives in passionate twenty-something ways, which, if you think about it, is sort of like confronting your past self, and trying to converse with it. Sometimes you are looking at the twenty-somethings and enjoying how beautiful and fresh they are and how their face lights up with enthusiasm about something and you think, yes, that is wonderful, oh how I love that. And you weep invisible tears of lost self. But there are other times, where you are listening to a twenty-something talk, and you say to yourself, did I spout all that meaningless wasteful drivel in great fountains of uninteresting unnecessary conversation thus boring the hell out of my elders and perhaps even my peers?, to which the answer is certainly and sadly yes. Do I really yearn for that idiocy? you ask yourself. (Yes?) This mixture of admiration for and condescension towards youth is not news to anyone, of course.
But my point being. The first movement of the 1st Concerto is one long song. You might offer, as a general rule, that youth speaks at length, while age edits. And here, looking over the vast stretches of this score, you might briefly condescend; you might say to yourself, young man, learn to master your own voice, get it under control! But then, as you keep looking, what could you possibly cut? Because you have to hand it to Brahms, this material is damned good, measure after measure. It seems impossible to write such an enormous structure without boring filler, but I think you could make the case that Brahms skips filler entirely; his spacious design is all substance. The development doesn’t ramble. He couldn’t edit himself, perhaps, because he thought, this is all so good! And this next thing is so good too! And why cut if it’s beautiful? And Joe baby, maybe you’re right, maybe youth is right; don’t cut beauty. Life cuts it soon enough. They are oppressively long sentences and (yet) they have something to say.
Young Brahms is attached to the epic and the heroic and the Nordic. It’s an interesting life story to watch him become more and more intimate, to renounce the massive. But part of what makes this first movement such a success is the brilliant, instinctive planning of epic events: his narrative, programmatic sense (never mind “absolute music”). The opening orchestral tutti is basically a ternary shape: bluster/lyricism/bluster. That is: a dramatic beginning, then a quiet interlude, and then a return to the dramatic. The quiet interlude (the “second theme,” sort of) has a deep, heavy melancholy; the return to the dramatic takes a heroic, almost joyful turn. But something is missing from this vast picture the orchestra paints; as huge as the orchestra attempts to be, as world-embracing, it still can’t capture everything. And when the piano comes in, liltingly, you know, you think: this is precisely what I’ve been missing. It is lucid where everything has been opaque; it is humane where everything has been historic, tragic, or beyond our control.
Actually, when the piano comes in, I cannot help thinking in terms of an epic poem. To me, much of the material of the first movement is fateful by its nature: rolling in circles, unfolding in arches, always karmically coming around. Even the first melody of the piano, circling around its notes …
So: imagine the orchestral tutti as a classical prologue, as the well-known terrible past events which all your Grecian auditors would know as a matter of cultural identity. The piano or the pianist, then, is the poet beginning to tell the (unique, personal) tale which will unfold under the shadow of those past events. Which is a way of rehearing the classical ideal; of rewriting the Beethoven/Mozart double exposition idea of the concerto (a matter of ritual, of precedent) so that it has a newly dramatic meaning (and yet is even more “classical” in the Greek manner). The piano supplies what the orchestra cannot; the piano is the bard surrounded by the world of the orchestra. I can’t think of another concerto where this dramatic juxtaposition is so perfectly evoked, where the piano is such an iconic, poetic individual.
I have one last unrelated thought about Brahms for this post.
I think a lot of the best Brahms moments are like this: you hear a sonority, and you think, wouldn’t it be beautiful if that chord resolved, like so? And in your mind it does, sort of. But if it did resolve in actuality, then it wouldn’t be beautiful anymore, and—if you’ll allow me to wax a bit poetic on my own blog—it is only the impossible dream of a possible resolution that is beautiful.