Santa Barbara Music Club

Music of Brahms

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Saturday, February 23, 2019
3:00 pm - 4:00 pm

Faulkner Gallery

This afternoon, pianist Constantine Finehouse, clarinetist Joanne Kim, violinist Han Soo Kim, and cellist Sang Yhee present “Johannes Brahms in Retrospect.” This program features bookend works of the composer’s life: two from his early twenties – Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8, and Sonatensatz for violin and piano; the third Brahms wrote at at 58 years old, the Clarinet Trio in A Minor, Op. 114.  The concert is co-sponsored by the Santa Barbara Public Library.  Admission is free.

By all accounts, performers and scholars of Western music consider Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) a towering figure of the Romantic era. Curiously, reception has given him the reputation of being the torch bearer of tradition. To some he is the number-one contender for heir to the Beethoven symphony. To others, he links the First Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven with the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Perhap most popularly, Brahms became the poster child for so-called “absolute music” during the 1860s, which ideologically pitted him against the representational or “program music” composers the New German School – Liszt, and, of course, Wagner. While these stories reflect some truth about the history of Western music and of Brahms, they tend to explain him through other composers or as a piece in the “evolution” of music. But his music is far more complex, multifaceted, and dynamic than these tired tropes may have us believe. This afternoon’s concert focuses on chamber music, one of the most significant contributions of Brahms. Today’s selection allows us to examine the beginning and end of his compositional life. The program includes two early works, the Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8, and Sonatensatz for violin and piano, which Brahms composed in his early twenties. The final work is the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, which Brahms wrote at at 58 years of age.

The Sonatensatz, although a short and youthful work, tells some important stories about the life and development of Brahms. This piece marks his meeting and the beginning of his life-long friendship with the Schumanns. Indeed, his relationship to Robert and Clara has become one of the most well-known, collaborative, and fruitful relationships documented in Western music. Moreover, the Sonatensatz also put Brahms on the musical map, as it were, as Robert Schumann wrote accolades about it and him in the music periodical “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik” (“New Journal for Music”). Finally, the piece also marks the beginning of an even closer collaborative relationship between Brahms and the violinist Joseph Joachim. All these relationships and professional advancements developed in the spring of 1853, when Brahms was a mere 20 years of age. The piece’s so-called title literally translates to ‘sonata sentence,’ as it functions as one movement of a co-composed violin and piano sonata. Brahms, Schumann, and the young composer-conductor Albert Dietrich each wrote movements to what is known as the “F.A.E. Sonata” dedicated to Joachim. The abbreviation F.A.E. stands for Joachim’s motto: Frei aber einsam (free but lonely). Brahms supplied the scherzo, the fast, dance-like movement, which Han Soo Kim and Constantine Finehouse perform this afternoon. At an early age, Brahms found himself part of an important musical community, one that shaped him and that he helped shape as he matured. And the Sonatensatz documents its beginning.

Later that year, Brahms wrote Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8. It is difficult to determine with certitude to which genre Brahms contributed most or to which genre he figures most importantly. Yet he wrote some of his most memorable works for chamber ensembles; the B-major trio stands as one of the earliest and most beautiful examples. The piece, however, shows us two sides of Brahms. He wrote it in 1853, which imbues the piece with youthful adventure, anxiety, and tension – most appropriately demonstrated in the primary theme of the first movement. Brahms also revised the work substantially in 1889, which gives the piece retrospect and tightening of his motivic work. He at first was ambivalent towards revising the work, since Op. 8 represented the last of his compositions informed by Liszt’s conception of thematic transformation. Indeed, Op. 8 demands careful listening as main themes transform subtly throughout; however, the way in which they transformed bore stamp more of Liszt than of Brahms. So the 1889 revisions put more of a mature “Brahms” into a younger “Brahms” piece, a practice in thematic transformation on his own terms. Luckily for us, Brahms preserved both versions, a rarity considering how critical he was of his work and how often consigned manuscripts to the fire. Han Soo Kim, Sang Yhee, and Constantine Finehouse perform the revised version this afternoon.

The 1889 revisions of Op. 8 place it far closer in proximity to the latest work of today’s program, the Clarinet Trio in A Minor, Op. 114, which combines the sumptuous timbres of piano, cello, and clarinet, performed respectively by Constantine Finehouse, Sang Yhee, and Joanne Kim. Brahms began composing for the clarinet as a solo instrument in 1891, shortly after his fifty-eighth birthday and in his twilight years. In fact, by 1891, Brahms had not composed anything in well over a year. Yet when he heard the esteemed clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld perform, his creativity exploded with a series of works featuring the instrument. The most celebrated among these are the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 115, and the two sonatas for clarinet and piano Op. 120. Yet the Op. 114 trio began the flurry of works. Scholars often cite Op. 114 as among the “coldest” and “austere” Brahms wrote, as lush melodic passages become less important than harmonic progression and contrapuntal devices like the canon. Scholars also suggest Brahms simply did not care about pleasing the public with this collection of late works, which gives this afternoon’s program quite a historical and personal spectrum. From the collaborative and social Sonatensatz to the working out of compositional influences in Op. 8, we come towards the end of Brahms’s life in Op. 114, where “lateness” seems to equate with interiority, reflection, and a personal statement unaffected by the lure of professional or historical elevation. In any case, we have the fortune of experiencing in vignette the musical life of Brahms as one figure within an ever-changing, ever-growing musical landscape during the Romantic period.