On October 11, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic will be playing pieces by Beethoven and Brahms, two names familiar to nearly everyone even if classical music is not your cup o' java. But what makes these two composers so "great" and why does the analogy of The Beatles versus Oasis fit so disturbingly well? At the time Beethoven was born (1770, in case you were wondering), painters, musicians, and composers were thought of very differently than today. They were considered to be no different than carpenters, blacksmiths and bricklayers. Need a wall? Call a bricklayer. Need original music for an upcoming dance? Call a composer. Beethoven changed all this. It was Beethoven's view that those who created the arts were a cut above the rest of society. This, of course, led to disagreements with nobility, who thought they were the ones who were a cut above the rest of society. It didn't help his social integration that Beethoven was prone to spit when he felt the urge, would insult aristocrats at important functions and would refuse to play for an audience if he was not in the mood.
Regardless of his antisocial behavior and personality faults (moody, bad-tempered, arrogant and brooding - the mold from which the stereotypical "artist" was cast), it was his music for which he is remembered. He used the traditional musical forms of the symphony, the sonata, and the concerto but he breathed into these aging forms a new power and intensity previously unheard. Though tame by today's standards, he used what was then considered harsh sounding chords and jarring rhythms to invigorate his music. It was Jimi Hendrix at a folk music festival.
By the time he wrote his seventh symphony, he was nearly deaf. During the composition of these later pieces, it was quite common for him to hammer so hard on his piano in an attempt to hear the note that he broke the strings! Like nearly all of his works, this piece is abstract music in that it doesn’t try to depict images or stories with the music. Don't try to find Scheherazade-type stories here! This is music for the sake of music!
Beethoven's seventh symphony is characterized by intense melodies and high energy. The piece opens with a gentle, pastoral call but quickly picks up pace as the strings introduce a second, more insistent melody which is further developed until the entire orchestra is playing this single, invigorating theme. The second movement is perhaps the best known and favorite of this piece. For many years, audiences would demand that this movement be repeated again and again! The movement starts off soft and low with a sad, weeping theme that is driven along by a pulsing, insistent rhythm, gradually gaining volume and intensity. The third movement playfully tosses a two-note motif around the orchestra like a pack of sibling playing "keep away" with the youngest, allowing the percussionists to play after having sat out nearly the entire previous movement. Like race horses out of the starting block, the final movement wastes no time in developing a fast, energetic pace, twisting and spinning the melody on a wild roller coaster ride of sound. More on Beethoven!
But what about Brahms and that reference to The Beatles? Although Brahms was born sixty-three years after Beethoven (1833, for those of you who didn't do the math), the two shared a great many similarities. Neither man was ever married. As men after my own heart, neither wrote operas (well, Beethoven wrote one but he hated it and compared writing the opera to going through child birth). Both used traditional musical forms and wrote abstract music. Both were moody and brooding. Beethoven had a secretary named Brahms and Brahms had a secretary named... well, maybe not that.
Brahms, who liked to dine at a pub called "The Red Hedgehog", started his musical career by playing piano in seedy bars and taverns at a tender age of thirteen (1846, for those of you still not doing the math). Listening to the works of Beethoven and Brahms, it is easy to see how Beethoven was a major influence upon Brahms. However, Brahms was so intimidated by the legend and perfection of Beethoven's music that he worked on his first symphony twenty years before he decided he had something worthy of the spirit of Beethoven. So critical of his own work, Brahms would often burn entire pieces the he felt didn't pass muster, and for Brahms, muster was a lofty goal to pass!
One piece that escaped the flame is the piece known as the "Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor", completed just before the onset of the American Civil War in 1859. The form of a Concerto is the 19th century equivalent of a guitar solo, allowing the soloist, in this case a pianist, to strut their stuff and get a little wild. Engulfed in personal turmoil as a close friend had attempted to commit suicide, Brahms incorporated his feelings into this piece, opening with a dark, stormy mood until the soloist enters with a new, expressive and flowing theme, calming the piece considerably. This respite is only temporary as the rest of the orchestra resurrects the original, turbulent melody. The piece continues on to the traditionally calmer second movement, allowing more fancy fingerwork from the pianist before launching into the third movement, opening with a frantic theme hammered out by the pianist before it is taken up by the orchestra, closing out the piece in a passionate, rousing and brooding tone. Read more on Mr. Brahms
Copyright 1997 Jason Hoffman