Beethoven and Brahms

October 14, 2007, 12:00 AM
Grant Gershon, Conductor
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Meeresstille und gluckliche Fahrt Ludwig van Beethoven
Ein Deutsches Requiem Op. 45 Johannes Brahms
Elissa Johnston , Soprano
Stephen Powell , Baritone

Back With a Blessed Vengeance:  Beethoven and Brahms

By Victoria Looseleaf
“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.”
 So wrote Ludwig van Beethoven in a letter to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, circa 1810.  At that time the German composer, who was born in Bonn in 1770 (his grandfather was a bass singer and Kapellmeister; his father a tenor who gave him his first music lessons and saw him as another Mozart), had already established himself in the sonic firmament with a myriad of impressive compositions.  Among them were three piano concertos, two symphonies, the String Quartets Opus 29 and 31 and several choral pieces, including the 1807 Mass in C major.  Beethoven, who read and studied GoetheÂÂÂÂÂ’s works as a youth, had also produced his first Goethe setting around 1790 followed by 18 more texts, notably the incidental music to the poetÂÂÂÂÂ’s “Egmont” in 1809.  Curiously, the two great minds – Goethe is to German letters what Beethoven is to German music – met only once, in the summer of 1812 when both were taking the waters at the Bohemian baths of Teplitz (today Teplice in the Czech Republic).  Of their rendezvous, Goethe wrote to his wife, Christiane:  Â“I have never met such solemn an artist, so energetic and so profound.  I can only imagine how amazing he behaves with those around him.”
Although Goethe, who insisted that a poem – by him or anyone else – was not “complete” until it had been sung, occupies a privileged position in the titanÂÂÂÂÂ’s vocal oeuvre, the relationship ruptured after the spa sojourn.  But that did not deter the musical genius from turning to GoetheÂÂÂÂÂ’s words yet again:  Making use of two of his poems in an impressionistic setting, Beethoven, with deafness already descending and a scant 12 years from death, composed “Meeresstille und gluckliche Fahrt (A Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage)” in 1815.  First performed in Vienna, the seven-minute, two-part minor masterpiece is a dramatic study in contrasts:  Beginning with a long, quiet reverence, one conjuring a tranquil seascape - elegiac and sublime – the cantata seems to make time stand still within its hushed tones.  But, as a sailor understands that only winds can carry him aloft, so too, do the first swirls of change commence with low sonic rumblings – a breeze whips up, the rousing conclusion quickens – think swelling sails –and jubilation resounds.
The chain of musical command continues with Johannes Brahms.  Born six years after the death of Beethoven, in 1833, Brahms was profoundly influenced by his fellow Teuton, and while Brahms may have had a longer and less turbulent life (he died in 1897), he was not above acknowledging LudwigÂÂÂÂÂ’s sway.  Comparing himself to Beethoven in 1870 he said, “Composing a symphony is no laughing matter.  You have no idea how it feels to hear a giantÂÂÂÂÂ’s footsteps behind you.”  But Brahms, who showed early pianistic prowess in his hometown, Hamburg, and was compelled by family poverty to earn a living playing in dockside inns, had only been able to concentrate on composition fulltime beginning in 1853.  A bachelor who carried a torch for Clara Schumann (and whose exact nature of their relationship continues to cause much interest and speculation), Brahms created a bounty of great works, paying meticulous scrupulous attention to every tiny detail.  Â“It is not hard to compose,” he once opined, “but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table.”
No such notes were left behind in Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), the magnum opus that was likely precipitated by the deaths of Robert Schumann in 1856 and BrahmsÂÂÂÂÂ’ mother in February 1865.  In any event, between 1857 and 1859 Brahms sketched out several themes and had chosen and arranged a series of Biblical texts for a cantata in four movements (later expanded to seven) which would provide the requiemÂÂÂÂÂ’s foundation.  While various movements were performed over the years, the first fully performed account was in 1869 in Leipzig.  An instant classic, the requiem was heard an astonishing 20 times in Germany within that first year.  Determined to create a universal text other than that of the Roman Catholic liturgy and opting for quotations from the Old and New Testaments as well as from the Apocrypha, Brahms addresses us – the living – who remain to suffer, to mourn.  It is in this way that he weaves exquisite passages concerned with comfort, faith, consolation, joy, heavenly bliss, victory over death and finally – eternal peace.  This affirmation, this transformation of despair into victory, makes the requiem, one that Brahms would have preferred calling  Â“A Human Requiem,” so utterly incomparable.  Opening with a hardcore solemnity that lacks violins, piccolo, clarinets and tympani, the first movement instead emphasizes darker string colors - violas and cellos - with the first three notes of the chorus introducing a recurring musical cell. Writing for harp (atypical for Brahms), notably in the first and last movements, the instrumentÂÂÂÂÂ’s entrance at, ‘That they sow in tears,ÂÂÂÂÂ’ is the promise of harvested joy.  The second movement begins slowly, its ominous drums beating triplets in an odd mix of death march/somber dance.  Soon the violins are heard, their high register proclaiming an indelible presence, the death knell cresting, a unison chorus blooming, rhythmically free on the words, ‘ransomed in the Lord.ÂÂÂÂÂ’  A quiet magical close oozes tranquility before the baritone solo opens the third movement, dialoguing with the chorus, beseeching, ‘And now, Lord, what wait I for?ÂÂÂÂÂ’.  Pulsating triplets recall BeethovenÂÂÂÂÂ’s Ninth Symphony as the chorus and orchestra respond fugally, their faith a metaphor in the sustained low D extending over 36 magnificent bars.  Movements IV and V offer a tender respite, the latter featuring a soprano singing of maternal comfort – at times alternating with the chorus; at others, soaring above it.  The sixth movement launches the chorus in march-like mode, crooning, ‘Here on earth have we no continuing place,ÂÂÂÂÂ’ a baritone solo soon poring forth with a portent of the Last Judgment.  Free of any melodrama, Brahms, engaging splendid harmonic energies, attains high intensity throughout, the text a phalanx of death-related utterances:  Â‘Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is they sting?ÂÂÂÂÂ’  The movement concludes with the booming C major, Handel-inspired double fugue, voices lifted on, ‘Worthy art thou to be praised.ÂÂÂÂÂ’  Careening towards a lengthy finale, echoing the opening melodic motifs, the chorus again holds aural focus.  The consoling accomplished, gone now is the somber orchestra of the start:  The blessing is now for the dead who have gone to their rest.  The glorious climax of the sopranos on high A (recalled from the beginning) again remind us of the mystery of faith, that sacred place where death is triumphed over by the immortality of righteous spirit.  Heading heavenward, too, are the arpeggiated harps, entering on their lowest note as the murmuring chorus hits its highest, resonating with the word, ‘seligÂÂÂÂÂ’ – blessed.
And so are we:  blessed, sanctified, truly gifted with this astonishing work that expresses mankindÂÂÂÂÂ’s universal longings in a way that only music can.   
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, La Opinion and Performances Magazine.  In addition, she is the Program Annotator for the Geffen Playhouse as well as the producer-host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, “The Looseleaf Report.”  This is her fourth season with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

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