I respect few composers as much as I respect Brahms, whose Piano Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 1 the PSO under Herbert Blomstedt performs Thursday through Saturday, April 7 – 9.
The reason I respect Brahms so much is that he wrote absolute music—music that is just music. There is no program behind Brahms’ first symphony. Nothing verbal lies behind this imposing, abstract work—there are no witty program notes from Brahms; there is no text or literary inspiration as in Strauss’ Don Quixote; no nickname like “Eroica”; no drug-induced hallucinations behind it as with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique; no unrequited love that drove Janáček in his later years.
Brahms’ music has no story behind, nor does it have an iconic figure behind it. Brahms’ music stands alone, apart from the man. Where Beethoven and Wagner have a strong, singular personality that left an indelible stamp on their music, this is not the case with Brahms. We don’t know a whole lot about Brahms, and there’s certainly no Brahms equivalent of Amadeus or Immortal Beloved. We all have a mental image of the stern bust of Beethoven—think, what does Brahms look like? There’s little music that seems like it has no composer, music that doesn’t have an emotional headcase or manic depressive behind it. You don’t need Brahms to appreciate his music or influence what you think about it. That’s not to say that Beethoven and Mozart don’t work without the composers, but it’s hard to forget everything we know about them and it’s tempting to start grafting Beethoven’s personal problems onto his music.
What Brahms does that I respect so much is use purely musical means to construct a world with its own logic and rules that give rise, undeniably, to great meaning. For the listener, turning what Brahms does with sound into something verbal is extremely rewarding, more so than picturing a walk through the mountains as in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony.
Film is the same way—my favorite films are the ones that tell a story visually and ask us to turn a visual cue into something verbal. I wasn’t as impressed with The King’s Speech because it told the story mainly through the dialogue and the fact that the story started out as a play rather than a screenplay is telling. In 127 Hours, another Best Picture nominee this past Oscars season, though, we are shown Aaron Ralston’s refrigerator filled with nothing but soda and sports drinks and turn those visuals into, ‘Okay, here’s an adrenaline junky who’s probably self-assured to the point of recklessness.’ All that from his refrigerator.
I fear that contemporary classical music is increasingly programmatic in a misguided bid to get audiences to like it, as if an audience can’t perceive logic or, in musical terms, form and motives. So, instead of dissecting a musical argument, we’ve got works like Rainbow Body and blue cathedral that plant images and ideas in our heads—and tell us what to think, what conclusion to draw—before the orchestra has even set foot on stage. Programmatic music is fine, but after a while I have to ask our composers, ‘Are you such an empty vessel that you must look completely outward for expression? Are you so vapid that you need someone else’s ideas—maybe a philosopher or great writer’s ideas; an erupting volcano or pleasant rainfall; an artist’s bizarre statues; a culture’s mythical traditions to write a piece of music?’
Brahms certainly didn’t, and his music, especially the first symphony, is a monument to absolute music. It is a titanic work and is one of the most powerful in the canon, even if we don’t have a good idea what it’s “about.”