BY PETER RUTENBERG
Ah, Vienna! The rich heritage of baroque and classical architecture. The elegant Ring Street encircling the old town with St. Stephen’s at the center. The coffee! Johannes Brahms was quite serious about his: no good day started without it, followed by a brisk walk in the woods. After just such a walk with friends, the story goes, they stopped in at a café for more coffee. Much to Brahms’ dismay, the prized liquor had been cut with chicory — a common practice of economy. He asked the serving maid if there might be any chicory in stock, and, feigning disbelief at her assent, pressed her to show him. She promptly produced two bags. “Is that all?” he inquired. When she replied that it was, he held them aside and ordered up a fresh batch of strong black coffee.
If Brahms liked his coffee black, he preferred his waltzes mit Schlagsahne... whipped cream, that is, in the great Viennese tradition! The frothy treasures found among his two sets of Liebeslieder Walzer stand fresh and beguiling as when they first appeared in the mid-1860s. The Hamburg-born Brahms found himself quite welcome in Vienna at his first post as director of Singakademie, returning again and again until finally taking up residence the following decade. The grief over his mother’s passing having been allayed in writing the German Requiem, his spirit was now lithe and free to explore more earthly delights. There was no better way to demonstrate his pleasure than by doffing his musical hat to Johann Strauss, the reigning ‘waltz king’, and embracing the gentle lilt of the popular local dances — the waltz and the Ländler.
The Opus 52 Liebeslieder Walzer consist of 18 charming numbers, while the second or New Lovesongs, Opus 65, consist of 15 equally arresting, but slightly more muscular pieces. All the texts are taken from poems by Daumer, except the finale which is by Goethe. Its loftier mood is mirrored by grander musical gestures and is in the form of a chaconne with a fugal interlude. Both sets are scored for vocal quartet and piano duet, and, owing to their popularity, continued to appear in other arrangements at the behest of the publisher. Brahms’ biographer Karl Geiringer adds: “These delicately stylized Viennese waltzes are definitely Austrian in their charm and their lovable and frolicsome merriment. Brahms had a special place for them in his heart. When the score was printed, the composer, who never uttered a word of praise for his own works, unbent sufficiently to write to his publisher, Simrock: ‘I must confess that it was the first time I smiled at the sight of a printed work—of mine! I will risk being called an ass if our Liebeslieder don’t give pleasure to a few people.’” He needn’t have worried!
With the ‘scandalous’ success of The Rite of Spring just behind him and World War I just ahead, Igor Stravinsky embarked on new terrain, both literally and figuratively. The family moved from St. Petersburg to the relative safety of Switzerland, whose neutrality permitted the occasional travel abroad so essential to the composer’s ongoing work with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Creatively, the composer left the 19th century behind and embarked on the search for new ways to express music in the theatrical domain. Biographer Eric Walter White sets the scene: “The true and logical successor to The Rite of Spring in Stravinsky’s output is... The Wedding. The first idea of this work occurred to him while he was engaged on The Rite, but it was not until 1914 that he was able to think about it seriously, not until 1917 that the music was essentially complete, and not until 1923 that it received its definitive instrumental form. The Wedding is thus the central work of this entire period... [It] is, in the widest but truest sense, symphonic. Melodically it is unified by a close cellular kinship between the various themes...; rhythmically it is perhaps the most closely knit of all Stravinsky’s works... Every new tempo is proportionally geared to its predecessor, and so ultimately to a basic pulse that can be felt... through the entire work.”
Musicologist Eric Saltzman puts it another way, asserting that The Wedding employs “a simple yet effective melodic technique which juxtaposes brief melodic motives with ornamental figures and insistent choral chants, all set in cyclical patterns of repetition turning around one or two insistent pitches. The ritualistic quality of this writing, much enhanced by the remarkable piano-and-percussion orchestration, is further emphasized by... static layers of sound patterns.” Stravinsky’s later works rely on these precepts to a great degree, thus, the significance of their development in The Wedding cannot be underestimated. After some experimentation with varying instrumentations, the composer set aside the colors available in the orchestral palette, polarizing the scheme to ‘black and white’ with his revolutionary combination of four pianos and percussion.
The story of The Wedding (also known as Les Noces in French and Svadebka in Russian) derives from traditional Russian folklore. The vocal soloists portray the bride, groom, and other key individuals, and the chorus portrays the peasant townsfolk in a sequence of four scenes depicting the celebration, culminating in the tolling of bells that accompany the concluding tableau. So forceful is the score and so bold its imagery that the work is captivating in both the pantomime (or “choreographic”) staging as well as the concert version. Stravinsky’s The Wedding received its premiere at the Gaité Lyrique in Paris in June 1923.