Brahms the Architect
One of the keys to understanding the music of Johannes Brahms is through his use of shapes and sizes and the manipulation of them in building his architectural forms. He was always stretching motives and phrases, making them overlap, go in and out of sync, hiding the bar-line and bringing it in sight again. Irregular phrase lengths, hemiolas, working with conflicting slurs in order to make us unsure where the strong beat is – he had many tools to confuse us.
What this playing with blocks of material means for us performers is that one should not fall in love with only one line and its details, everything is always part of a larger picture and while detail is important it always relates to larger structures. I feel the best way to appreciate the genius of Brahms is to allow for the discovery of the listeners and not explain him when he clearly wants to confuse us. It is sometimes tempting to underline what is about to happen or point at what just happened, but that undermines his efforts. He is always very clever in the way he brings us back to reality after going to great lengths to confuse us.
Brahms the Jeweler
Brahms was a fanatic of old music, a collector of manuscripts, a meticulous editor and proof-reader of his own music and the music of others. When reading his manuscripts or urtext scores, it is good to be aware that he really did think about the notation of the details. He knew the instruments and their particularities. Whether he sometimes puts a slur that is surprisingly long or no slur when you would expect one it is at least worth thinking that he may have been trying to tell us something very specific about the music.
As an example, in the first movement of the op. 38 sonata in the cello part, the opening has no slurs or very short ones for a long time. He gives the performance indication Piano, espressivo, legato which would make one expect slurs (many editions add them). Underneath he gives the piano a very simple accompaniment in steady chords, articulated as quarter notes with dots under slurs which create a very special acoustic background. On top of this the simplest and most straightforward cello line will appear espressivo and legato even with separate bows. Another theme later appears first with a five quarter-note slur (ms.83), then with doubled note values and the slur for over two bars (ms. 103). At the end of the movement he doubles
the already doubled note values and still keeps the slur, for over four bars (ms. 256). This is just a little example in passages where I think it is essential to respect what Brahms wrote even if it is not the most comfortable solution for the cellist.
There is another particularity in his use of slurs. He seems to deliberately confuse us with them, especially if one accepts that he probably used them in an old-fashioned way. Like in Haydn and Beethoven, beginning of a slur would always be stressed, even if it is on a weak part of the measure. He keeps giving conflicting information about where the strong beat might be until he decides to re-establish order.
Brahms – Strict but Free
We can read in comments of Clara Schumann and others who played with Brahms that as a performer he was so free that it was not always easy to play with him. Naturally we have no evidence to listen to, but I suspect that the would have been free in ways that have nothing to do with the kind of liberties people take today. The other interesting deduction from this comment is that maybe Clara was a more straightforward player, but her straightforward playing was probably also very different from today’s. I can’t believe that Brahms would have done anything to obscure the structure of his pieces. Today we hear a lot of rubato towards slowing down, or underlining the obvious, announcing surprises. The flexibility works best when it comes from the structure and understanding of the expressions and not from the fear of not being interesting.
An important aspect of flexibility in Brahms can be understood in his use of hairpin dynamics as opposed to crescendi and diminuendi written in words. If you look at his scores closely you see that he uses the two things differently – sometimes separately, sometimes together. If one just reads the hairpins as getting louder or softer it would be strange that he writes the same information twice. It appears, however, that when Brahms wrote cresc. or dim. he meant the music to simple change dynamic. The hairpin was an expression which would have an effect on the tempo. In fact, it was a way of writing out a rubato. That explains why he sometimes uses the two at the same time. This practice used to be well known in Brahms’s time and he felt no need to explain it. It has later been forgotten, composers as well as performers started confusing the two markings.
Unity in Form
There are many works of Brahms, especially in chamber music where it seems clear that he was thinking of unity between movements and arranged the tempos so that all movements
can have the same tempo without ever feeling so. This would seem true for example in the Clarinet Quintet, the Clarinet trio and String Quintet Op. 111. I don’t think he invented this himself, it seems that Beethoven already was experimenting with this at least in his two last piano trios. It is impossible for me to prove this theory but I feel that if one at least admits this as a possibility, one hears the pieces in a new way. I don’t claim that all his pieces work this way but it is worth looking for the ones that might.
Brahms, as we know, almost never put down a metronome mark – I know of two pieces when he did – but in some cases he tells for example that a half note equals a quarter note, like in the last movement of the Piano Quintet, going from the introduction to the main section. Observing that tempo relation in the Piano Quintet seems to be difficult to most ensembles, the reason being that the slow part feels a little fast and the fast part a little slower than what is comfortable. But he was very clear in his indications: Poco sostenuto, alla breve and finally the tempo relation, so he have wanted to point out something we might not otherwise do. In the Scherzo of the second String Sextet the tempo changes several times and he never gives the equivalence going into the new tempo, but he gives it coming back to the main tempo, in a way offering both the riddle and its solution.
A piece in which there are fascinating relations of tempos is the Violin Sonata op. 78. All the movements have an unusual number of tempo changes and he circulates themes and motives between the movements. It seems obvious that the dotted upbeat motive in the first and last movements want to be at the same speed. The main theme of the Adagio comes back in the last movement and seems to want to remind of the same tempo. From these two things one could deduct that the half note in the first movement equals the quarter note in the last. The slow movement would then be twice as slow as the last movement and the Piú andante maybe close to the tempo of the first movement. The first movement has an unusual amount of tempo changes: 3x calando, 2x rit, 2x con anima, 2x sostenuto and the most difficult one is a poco a poco piú sostenuto (ms. 105) which brings the whole middle section to a slower tempo cancelled by a poco a poco Tempo I (ms.156). This slower middle section is the hardest one to bring off and therefore mostly ignored, in fact mostly done faster.
It is clear that my tempo theories are just that – theories. Even if Brahms might have approved of them he covered his tracks so carefully that there is enough room for other theories. And it is clear that since he didn’t give the metronome indications he didn’t want these relations to be academic, maybe they are only ideas in the head of performers. Rehearsing any of these pieces one often has interminable discussions about tempos which always feel a little too this or a little too that. If one finds the connection between the movements, they will relate to each other and much of the uncertainty disappears.
Brahms the Painter
The use of colours is also special with Brahms even if he uses very few expressive indications. The two that come up most often – and often together – are dolce and espressivo. I have heard a lot of speculation about what they could mean. The theory that convinces me most is that they are about colours. Two opposing colours which are different from what the general mood of the piece is. On a string instrument I feel dolce works most often with a sul tasto sound associated with a lots of bow whereas espressivo seems to be to opposite, associated with slow bow. Here Brahms’s use of short or long slurs joins his use of colours.
Brahms – Academic but Emotional
For all the structural work and meticulousness, performing Brahms should never be a cold mental exercise. He is building shapes and structures with our emotions as his material. One hears many overly emotional performances of his works which fail to be moving and some seemingly academic ones that leave one shattered. The truth is for each of us to find from the clues that Brahms himself gives us.