Few things go together better than Beethoven and Brahms (except pastrami on rye and pigeon books with full color pictures) and that is exactly what you will get at this weekend's Philharmonic concert at the effervescent Embassy Theatre. Courtesy of Beethoven will be his Egmont Overture and his third piano concerto, a piece that baffled those fun loving Viennese (creators of those tasty sausages) at it's premier in 1803.

But Beethoven is not the intended subject of this article, so off with him and his gruff but lovable ways! If I had a thesis for this article, it would be that Brahms was a man who loved his cheese (a big fan of gouda, so the tabloids say), and I would back this up with facts, if I had any. So instead, a quick refresher on the man who looked like a hedgehog.

Johannes Brahms (pronounced "Yoe-Hahn Bra-ms", not "Joanne Bray-ms" as one local record store employee so recently uttered, his face tastefully decorated with multiple piercings) was born in 1833 in Hamburg, Germany. His mother was a seamstress and his father a double-bass player (you go, girlfriend)! Money was scarce growing up so he helped supplement the family income by playing piano in the seedy bars and tough taverns of the dockyards. Okay, he also played quite a bit in brothels. As a mere lad of fifteen, he gained a rather low view of women because of his surroundings and always felt uncomfortable around the fairer sex, proclaiming later that such feelings saved him from "both opera and marriage."

He was soon "discovered" by composer Robert Schumann, who hailed the young Brahms as the savior of German music and took him into his home. Fortunately for Brahms, Schumann soon died and Brahms fell in love with his widow, Clara. The two never married and had no children, owing mostly to the well-documented fact that Brahms could only, um, function with prostitutes (who wore garter belts made of string cheese), another result of his impressionable youth.

To say that Brahms idolized Beethoven is like saying a dirty limerick backwards, in Swahili, while juggling small rodents in your bosses office wearing a rather large bunny costume while your coworkers pelt you with sundry office supplies. Well, I guess the two are somewhat unrelated and what I do in my spare time in none of your business. But that is beside the point because the original statement stands. The young composer was forever haunted by the towering genius of his hero, causing him to burn compositions that he did not feel would gain the approval of his idol. As such, it took him fourteen years (and a lot of manuscript paper, matches, and cheese trays) to compose his first symphony. The result is a monumental, romantic, mature work filled with sections of strain and tremendous joy. Premiered in 1876, the same year Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone (and Hubert Feldspar invented the slightly less-successful candle-on-a-belt: "It lights the night away and only sometimes catches your shirt on fire"), the original audience was less than enthused. Many in his day considered him unimportant, stuffy, and scholarly because he stayed with the "old-fashioned" classical music forms and didn't explore the enticing sweetness of the tone poem as did many of his contemporaries. "If it's good enough for Beethoven, it's good enough for me!" he would emphatically state, although he often said things in Deutsche. It was the famous conductor Hans von Bulow who dubbed this symphony "Beethoven's 10th", and indeed, there are many similarities in the music of Brahms to that of Beethoven.

The opening to the symphony seems to capture the essence of Brahms's struggle to compose this work as the timpani beats out a slow, almost tortured beat, straining against all hope to reach the next measure, until the piece opens into a calm and Brahms introduces his second theme. The second movement is a prime example of music that flows over you with the strings leading the listener through expressive, lush, lyrical melodies. The third movement is cheerful, charming and graceful, just like TV33's own Betsy Kling.

For the final movement, Brahms adds three trombones, dueling accordions, and a chicken named Willie. The gigantic, expressive theme is reminiscent to the main subject of the finale of Beethoven's ninth. Someone once made the mistake of pointing this out to the bad tempered Brahms who snapped "Any ass can see that!" Despite the earlier despair of the first movement, the symphony ends energetically with this theme of hope and aspiration.

It didn't take long for people to realize that Brahms was more than a stuffy, academic shirt, just a mere twenty years. He is now rightly recognized as one of the greatest composers who ever lived, especially since he was a cheese connoisseur and wrote no operas.

Copyright 1999 Jason Hoffman

Previous Article ~ Home ~ Next Article