Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?

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lennygoran
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Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?

Post by lennygoran » Fri Oct 19, 2018 7:29 am

Have to admit this article has no meaning for me-maybe others will get moreout of it-if you can get to the article there are examples you can look at and listen to. Len

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
Oct. 19, 2018

A century separates the clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms, but at the emotional heart of each sits a slow movement of rapt, bucolic calm. In both, the strings play with mutes, creating a sound like a summer-morning haze, over which the clarinet drifts in unhurried legato lines. Brahms wrote his in 1891, after he had heard the Mozart quintet performed and grown infatuated with the clarinet’s sound.

Listen closely to Brahms’s Adagio, and you may notice a destabilizing irregularity that is built into the rhythmic texture and lends it buoyancy and unease. Though the sound of the strings in the opening is misty, it is swirling with syncopations, overlapping cross-rhythms and hemiolas, rhythmic devices that dissolve a listener’s grounding sense of a first beat to the bar.

You don’t have to be musically literate to know the bumpy feel of a cross-rhythm. Two-against-three can be a parent strolling hand in hand with a skipping child. Triplets on top of eighth notes are like a slow canter next to a trot: The two horses might move at the same speed, but you wouldn’t want them pulling a carriage together.

Polyrhythms run through Brahms’s music like an obsessive-compulsive streak. In a bucolic moment such as the one in the Clarinet Quintet, which the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performs on Nov. 15, they seem to subtly mirror the organic irregularity of nature.

There are three beats in a bar and the clarinet places a quarter-note in each. Simple enough. The first violin plays the same theme but with a one-and-a-half beat delay, so that there is no discernible strong first beat. The other three strings underpin this with alternating triplets and eighth notes — or, rather, triplets tied over to eighth notes so that here in the texture, too, the pulse becomes imperceptible. The effect is amorphous and a bit wobbly, like entering a space with no vertical lines.

Or take a symphony like the Fourth, in which Brahms wields cross-rhythms for dramatic effect. Listen to the moment in the Passacaglia when the winds (save for the bassoons) first fall away leaving the violins to lay down a noble but urgent melody (at 35:53).

When the violins elaborate on this melody in eighth notes, the upper winds add agitated ornamentations, some in triplets, some in eighth notes. The orchestra seems to strain in different directions; things sound on the verge of falling apart.

And in a showpiece like the “Paganini Variations,” which the pianist Garrick Ohlsson performs on Oct. 27 at the 92nd Street Y as part of his two-season traversal of the complete Brahms works for solo piano, rhythmic intricacies create virtuosic dazzle.

“There is a tremendous mechanism in Brahms’s brain that’s going on all the time and that is almost freakish, a bit like in Bach,” Mr. Ohlsson said, seated at a piano inside a green room at the Y on a recent afternoon. “It’s this and it’s that, and together it forms a synergy which is greater than its parts.”

Brahms is a staple of the concert hall, his music dependably grand. Even in his lifetime, he was pegged a traditionalist because his forms — the sonata, the symphony — are those familiar from Mozart and Haydn. But zoom in on his use of rhythm, and a different picture emerges. If his harmonies had been as conflict-seeking as his rhythms, he might be considered the most dissonant composer of the Romantic era.

The conductor Manfred Honeck, who will conduct the Fourth Symphony in Stockholm on Oct. 24 and 25, said in a phone interview that when the music’s inner complexity is brought out and “served up a little bit,” Brahms “comes across as almost modern. There was nothing ‘gemütlich,’ nothing cozy about him.”

Brahms didn’t invent the practice of superimposing duplets and triplets in music: Beethoven explored it, especially in his late works. Chopin designed an étude to teach pianists how to become metrically ambidextrous. The rhythms in Schumann are sometimes wildly unstable.

But for Brahms, subdividing a measure of time into different units and layering different patterns on top of one another seemed to be almost a compulsion — as well as a compositional device and an engine of expression. The number six held a special fascination for him because it could be rendered as two groups of three or three groups of two, or sliced asymmetrically into four plus two.

It’s tempting to look for clues to this obsession in Brahms’s biography. One telling detail is his lifelong attachment to his collection of tin soldiers, which numbered more than a thousand by the time of his death. As an adult, he often showed it to visitors and at least once asked to have it sent to him while he was away from home. Some biographers have seen this as a regressive streak or a sign of Brahms’s military bent. (He did have a bust of Bismarck next to one of Beethoven in his room.) But to play with toy soldiers is also to organize and arrange, to divide and regroup.

On a visceral level, cross-rhythms may have filtered into Brahms’s music while he was walking. We know that he did much of his composing while in motion and liked to recite poetry out loud while strolling. The duple meter laid down by his feet would have knocked against the rhythm of whatever melody or text was running through his mind.

Even Brahms’s dances don’t stick to a single groove. The choreographer Mark Morris, who presented his “Love Song Waltzes,” set to Brahms, at this summer’s Mostly Mozart Festival, said in a phone interview that polyrhythms are “what makes me thrilled about music. I’ve always done that in my own work, whether it’s in the music or not: I do duplets on top of triples.”

Mr. Morris pointed out that a song like “Vögelein durchrauscht die Luft,” from one waltz collection, manages to be both in two and in three, even though it is billed as a waltz. But he also said that a certain rhythmic kink is built into a waltz when it is played idiomatically.

“If you’re doing the Viennese thing where you’re anticipating the second beat,” he said, “it actually sounds like two over three.”

Perhaps the most ingenious aspect of Brahms’s rhythmic puzzles is that it they are so well hidden. The musicologist and conductor Leon Botstein said that Brahms was acutely aware that he lived in a time in which modernizing forces threatened a rupture with the past. “He wanted to show that the classical procedure he found in Mozart or Haydn could fit a modern world, a more ambiguous world,” Mr. Botstein said in a phone interview.

He added that Brahms’s music, with its rhythmic micro-conflicts and crosscurrents, “has a kind of architectural complexity that is very accessible to the ear. But buried in it is a magical strategy of making the emotions intense.” And because time isn’t cut up evenly, Mr. Botstein said, “it is in a funny way more realistic, because musical time becomes organic, less artificial sounding.”

That strategy of making emotions intense by juxtaposing opposites was inherently Romantic. The pianist and physicist Peter Pesic, whose fascinating book “Polyphonic Minds: Music of the Hemispheres” traces the role musical polyphony has played in man’s understanding of the mind, made that point in an interview. He said that 19th-century composers like Brahms were keen to exploit the expressive possibility of polyrhythms because they felt these represented something of the “intrinsic dividedness of the soul itself.”

Like the protagonist of Goethe’s seminal “Faust,” “they believed that we have two souls in our breast,” Mr. Pesic said. “That thought was dear to the Romantics because it seemed to give a new depth to the feelings and emotions: They were not a single thing but a clash between different things.”

Science, too, was then shifting to an understanding of the brain as not a single entity but as an organ comprising many subcenters. Pathologists examined the role of the brain’s two hemispheres in patients with mental illness; phrenologists tried to map mental faculties onto different areas.

“The idea that we contain multitudes — like Walt Whitman — was becoming a physiological realization,” Mr. Pesic said.

As a pianist who has performed a complete Brahms cycle, Mr. Pesic said he had noted the relish with which the composer broke out polyrhythms whenever he could. The device popped up as technical challenges, as in the “Paganini Variations,” and as an agent of drama.

“But often what he seems to want is that the mind should somehow interweave the competing rhythms so it reaches a higher place of stability,” Mr. Pesic said. “Not just as dramatic conflict, but as something that allows the listener to come to a higher state of calm.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/19/arts ... orris.html

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Re: Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?

Post by jbuck919 » Fri Oct 19, 2018 10:13 am

Brahms is unquestionably the fourth greatest composer after Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven (listing chronologically). All of those composers exhibited what this idiotic writer calls "fhythmic instability." We just had a very good post about Mozart that might touch on that topic. No matter what our late member Ralph Stein seriously thought, one does not compose like Dittersdorf and make serious music. BTW, there is a third excellent clarinet quintet from a surprising source, who, Len, also happened to compose at least one great opera.


There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?

Post by John F » Fri Oct 19, 2018 11:38 am

I think it's just the tunes. :D Wollheim probably didn't provide the headline, and as for the article itself, it's pretentious in a way that annoys me, as with much else she writes for the Times.
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Re: Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?

Post by Lance » Fri Oct 19, 2018 1:50 pm

It is an interesting article as far as it goes ... maybe too far! It is all those things the writer alludes to that makes Brahms' music so memorable and loved. Brahms was a genius who probably took much away from Schumann, who I would also place into the top five composers, but some may disagree. Brahms' Fourth Symphony is, for me, one of his greatest works for orchestra. Fonseca-Wollheim is obviously well trained in dissecting the music and rather "wallows in her eruditeness," to be kind. Where are the writers of the caliber of Harold C. Schonberg or Virgil Thomson these days, or Harris Goldsmith, who wrote some of the finest reviews of piano performance? One could always learn from these people.
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Re: Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?

Post by jbuck919 » Fri Oct 19, 2018 4:19 pm

Lance wrote:
Fri Oct 19, 2018 1:50 pm
It is an interesting article as far as it goes ... maybe too far! It is all those things the writer alludes to that makes Brahms' music so memorable and loved. Brahms was a genius who probably took much away from Schumann, who I would also place into the top five composers, but some may disagree. Brahms' Fourth Symphony is, for me, one of his greatest works for orchestra. Fonseca-Wollheim is obviously well trained in dissecting the music and rather "wallows in her eruditeness," to be kind. Where are the writers of the caliber of Harold C. Schonberg or Virgil Thomson these days, or Harris Goldsmith, who wrote some of the finest reviews of piano performance? One could always learn from these people.
Jan Swafford, in his biography which has recently been referred to here, reports that at the end of his life, already very sick, Brahms attended one final performance of the fourth, which brought the house down. I mean in the sense of all the men throwing their hats into the air. It is hard to believe now that he was ever controversial, aside from the Wagnerites, but for some reason he was, and he was only redeemed in the latter days. Although I know and appreciate music that has been written since him, in the back of my mind I often think that he died in 1897, and music died with him. I wonder how many people here know that his last work was a set of chorale preludes for organ worthy of Bach. I have played them all.


There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?

Post by Lance » Fri Oct 19, 2018 10:55 pm

John, what a poignant statement (in bold below)! I can understand exactly what you are feeling. As for the Brahms organ chorale preludes, if memory serves, I still have an RCA LP with Virgil Fox performing these. There are other recordings as well. In the same breath, I would ask you what you think of the organ music (there's lots of it!) by Franz Liszt?

jbuck wrote:
[jbuck919 post_id=490777 time=1539983967 user_id=373]
Although I know and appreciate music that has been written since him, in the back of my mind I often think that he died in 1897, and music died with him. I wonder how many people here know that his last work was a set of chorale preludes for organ worthy of Bach. I have played them all.

[/quote]
Lance G. Hill
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______________________________________________________

When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]

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lennygoran
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Re: Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?

Post by lennygoran » Fri Oct 19, 2018 11:54 pm

jbuck919 wrote:
Fri Oct 19, 2018 10:13 am
BTW, there is a third excellent clarinet quintet from a surprising source, who, Len, also happened to compose at least one great opera.

John have seen and enjoyed freischutz but never euryanthe. Len

Euryanthe is a German "grand, heroic, romantic" opera by Carl Maria von Weber, first performed at the Theater am Kärntnertor, Vienna on 25 October 1823.[1] Though acknowledged as one of Weber's most important operas, the work is rarely staged because of the weak libretto by Helmina von Chézy (who, incidentally, was also the author of the failed play Rosamunde, for which Franz Schubert wrote music). Euryanthe is based on the 13th-century romance "L'Histoire du très-noble et chevalereux prince Gérard, comte de Nevers et la très-virtueuse et très chaste princesse Euriant de Savoye, sa mye."

Only the overture, an outstanding example of the early German Romantic style (heralding Richard Wagner), is regularly played today. Like Schubert's lesser-known Alfonso und Estrella, of the same time and place (Vienna, 1822), Euryanthe parts with the German Singspiel tradition, adopting a musical approach without the interruption of spoken dialogue characteristic of earlier German language operas such as Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, Beethoven's Fidelio, and Weber's own Der Freischütz.[2]

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Re: Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Oct 20, 2018 2:18 am

lennygoran wrote:
Fri Oct 19, 2018 11:54 pm
jbuck919 wrote:
Fri Oct 19, 2018 10:13 am
BTW, there is a third excellent clarinet quintet from a surprising source, who, Len, also happened to compose at least one great opera.

John have seen and enjoyed freischutz but never euryanthe. Len

Euryanthe is a German "grand, heroic, romantic" opera by Carl Maria von Weber, first performed at the Theater am Kärntnertor, Vienna on 25 October 1823.[1] Though acknowledged as one of Weber's most important operas, the work is rarely staged because of the weak libretto by Helmina von Chézy (who, incidentally, was also the author of the failed play Rosamunde, for which Franz Schubert wrote music). Euryanthe is based on the 13th-century romance "L'Histoire du très-noble et chevalereux prince Gérard, comte de Nevers et la très-virtueuse et très chaste princesse Euriant de Savoye, sa mye."

Only the overture, an outstanding example of the early German Romantic style (heralding Richard Wagner), is regularly played today. Like Schubert's lesser-known Alfonso und Estrella, of the same time and place (Vienna, 1822), Euryanthe parts with the German Singspiel tradition, adopting a musical approach without the interruption of spoken dialogue characteristic of earlier German language operas such as Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, Beethoven's Fidelio, and Weber's own Der Freischütz.[2]
What you may not know is that Weber was remotely related to Mozart. It is complicated, but you can look it up.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

lennygoran
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Re: Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?

Post by lennygoran » Sat Oct 20, 2018 7:26 am

John will do that-I wasn't aware they were related at all. Len

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Re: Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?

Post by John F » Sat Oct 20, 2018 7:33 am

Well, Mozart's wife Constanze's maiden name was Weber...
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Re: Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Oct 20, 2018 8:09 am

Lance wrote:
Fri Oct 19, 2018 10:55 pm
John, what a poignant statement (in bold below)! I can understand exactly what you are feeling. As for the Brahms organ chorale preludes, if memory serves, I still have an RCA LP with Virgil Fox performing these. There are other recordings as well. In the same breath, I would ask you what you think of the organ music (there's lots of it!) by Franz Liszt?

jbuck wrote:
[jbuck919 post_id=490777 time=1539983967 user_id=373]
Although I know and appreciate music that has been written since him, in the back of my mind I often think that he died in 1897, and music died with him. I wonder how many people here know that his last work was a set of chorale preludes for organ worthy of Bach. I have played them all.
[/quote]

I don't care for the Liszt organ works. In fact, I recently posted on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, which is still a popular concert piece. As with the piano works, players love it mainly for the sheer virtuosity, though Reger is more difficult and also more interesting.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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