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The One That Got Away

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/27/2004 -  
Richard Wagner: Prelude to Act I of Tristan und Isolde
Hans Werner Henze: Symphony # 10
Johannes Brahms: Symphony # 2

Philadelphia Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, wake up! We are performing the music of
Tristan und Isolde and you are playing like married men!”

Willem Mengelberg, from a
rehearsal at the Concertgebouw

It is difficult at the beginning of the twenty-first century to understand the intensity of emotion that governed the participants in the Brahms-Wagner feud of the 1870's and 1880's. This great schism in music had far reaching effects throughout the intellectual world and every serious music lover had an opinion. Today Brahms and Wagner are universally loved and respected, but in the second half of the nineteenth century it was necessary for a Central European to be on one side or the other, since the rift was a question of basic philosophical principles and artistic sympathies. The combatants were vicious, particularly the critics, and the feud was so significant that it is instructive to think about the essential differences between the two giants who so totally dominated the world of music at the time. Basic contrasts included:

1. Brahms sought inspiration from the music of the past, particularly the Baroque and Classical periods; Wagner was determined to write "the music of the future".
2. Essentially, Brahms wrote absolute music; Wagner, who grew up a man of the theater, composed only opera.
3. Although melodically inventive, Brahms always composed within the accepted rules of traditional harmony; Wagner was extremely adventurous harmonically, basing the entire opera Tristan und Isolde on the resolution of the outlawed tritone (four notes in three steps) and using dissonance frequently.
4. Brahms was a master of older forms, composing many complex fugues and exhibiting great skill in the passacaglia and variations arenas; Wagner rejected old forms and determined instead to create his own structural methods.
5. Brahms was content with a standard orchestra; Wagner composed for vast forces with huge brass sections and even had a new family of instruments, the Wagner tubas, named after him. There are six separate parts for harp in Goetterdaemmerung.
6. Brahms was a great pianist, often performing not only his own works, but the music of Schumann and others; Wagner did not play an instrument well but did write extensively, including a biography of Beethoven and his own autobiography.
7. Brahms didn't complete his first symphony until he was 43; Wagner composed a full-length opera by the age of 20.
8. Brahms was a confirmed bachelor and the emotions in his music have a certain detachment; Wagner had two marriages, one stormy and one idiosyncratic, and at least one passionate affair. The emotions in his operas are disarmingly personal and intense.
9. Brahms was a professor at the University of Vienna and a great mentor to Antonin Dvorak; Wagner was aloof, accepting the dedication of Anton Bruckner's Symphony #3 but never encouraging any further contact with the great Austrian composer.
10. Brahms chose to live most of his life in the foreign city of Vienna; except for a brief flirtation with the idea of emigrating to America and years of political exile in Switzerland, Wagner never considered living anywhere but his beloved Germany.
11. Brahms had no political agenda; Wagner wished to create a "pure" German art (ironically, considering his reputation as a futurist, looking to medieval models as his inspiration) and expressed his anti-Semitism in his music.
12. Brahms was renowned for his successful management of his finances; Wagner was always in need of funds despite an international reputation.
13. Brahms lived out his final days happily, composing sublime valedictory pieces filled with contented reflection; Wagner died frustrated after living a hermit's life in silks and velvet during his last years.

The two musical aesthetics were so diametrically opposed that a musician's very career depended on which camp they supported. In a life filled with controversy and years after both composers had died, one of the most radical works written by the firebrand Arnold Schoenberg was his essay Brahms the Progressive. The Vienna Philharmonic actually fired Brahms as its music director because he programmed too much early music, and the critics, particularly the Brahms champion Hanslick, aimed their fusillades at their opponents with such deadly accuracy that many promising compositions never saw the light of day in their composer's lifetime. Even outside the Germanic world, influential critics like Pyotr Tchaikovsky and George Bernard Shaw reviled the music of Brahms. To their credit, the two composers never participated in the battle, Wagner secretly admiring the works of Brahms and Brahms an avid collector of Wagnerian scores who was visibly shaken at a rehearsal when told of the death of the Meister. A concert such as that of the Philadelphia Orchestra last evening at Carnegie Hall would have been unthinkable for contemporary audiences (even such fence-straddlers as Hans Richter knew better than to perform both of these lions on the same program). The Brahms Symphony # 2 is a prime example of the glorification of the pastoral tradition, while the prelude to Tristan represents the ultimate work of urbanity and futurism. A coupling such as this one would have made the delicate ears of the golden age positively clog with confusion!

Sir Simon Rattle is currently involved in a controversial coupling of his own, bringing his rugged aesthetic to the opulent Berlin Philharmonic and is, depending on which spin doctor is endorsed by one’s HMO, either retooling the storied ensemble for the new century or willfully tearing down the sound so painstakingly created by Claudio Abbado. But no such controversy exists in Philadelphia: insiders tell this reviewer that the players simply love Rattle and are still disappointed that he chose the Germans instead.

The concert opened with a pristine vision of the Wagnerian future. Concentrating on the cleanliness of the line, Rattle eschewed the more overtly romantic approach (note the absence of the Liebestod) in order to emphasize the revolutionary nature of the harmonic writing. The players responded brilliantly, producing a synthesis that could just have easily been fashioned in 1957 rather than a century before. In his dotage, Hans Werner Henze finds himself embroiled in the dilemma of past and future: how to sound contemporary when one’s inclinations are nostalgic. The resulting Tenth Symphony is structured not too differently from any four movement, sonata form example of Haydn, except that the idiom is that of Henze’s teacher Arnold Schoenberg (once referred to, along with Alban Berg, as one of “the old masters” by Webern). Harking back to his mentor’s Begleitungsmusik, this once celebrated radical now approaches his stormings of the battlements as vivid recollections (cf. also the third movement of Mahler’s 9th), less outwardly passionate but perhaps more meaningful (it is amusing to think of the former red flag waving zealot now fat and happy). Sir Simon premiered this piece back in the day (2002) and is obviously deeply committed to it. He is, in fact, one of our most eloquent advocates for the music of today.

If one lives long enough, one sees everything. As if in a concave mirror, my companion and I had the rare experience of watching hundreds of Carnegie patrons remain for the rather long Henze and then depart for their homes at the interval (sometime, somewhere, there was a hall, perhaps fictional, that once posted a sign which read: Exit in Case of Brahms, but I can’t quite recall it at this moment). Those who remained were treated to a good performance of the Second Symphony, but I would not classify it as a superb one, which, considering the combination of leader and orchestra, should have been forthcoming. Perhaps in keeping with his approach to the Wagner, Rattle kept the big gesture to a minimum and never seemed to infuse his phrasings with the proper romantic balance and slight rubato necessary for optimum Brahmsian communication. He was, however, on top of his dynamics game, impressing often with interior crescendi and attention-riveting soft passages that added significant tinges of excitement. Although some of the beauty was subsumed and some of the ensemble play ragged, overall this was an athletic effort, in the signature and somewhat grainy style of this important individual. The very fact that he is an individual is rather significant: so many current leaders are simply boilerplate jetsetters and, as a result, so many of the world’s otherwise fine orchestras are beginning to sound like they were fashioned not by maestros but rather by cookie cutters.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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