Saturday, November 20, 2004

Wow. Last week I ate some rice while listening to Brahms....

I'm seeing a bit of mention around Blogistan yesterday and today (here, for example) about the fact that incoming Secretary of State Condolleeza Rice is, among other things, a very skilled pianist -- so skilled, in fact, that she accompanied Yo Yo Ma in public. I make no secret that I'm not a big admirer of Ms. Rice's skills in the political arena (I saw a Jon Stewart quote about this to the effect that "There's nothing Rice can't do -- except make peace with other nations!"), but a love of classical music still bridges some kind of gap.

What interests me currently is that accomplishment on a musical instrument is now seen as being a sufficiently rare thing as to merit big-time mention in a newsmaker profile article. That saddens me; it kind of adds to a "mystique" about musical ability that frankly wouldn't be so mystical if we still bothered to make sure our up-and-coming generations knew something about music.

I'm unsurprised to hear that Ms. Rice prefers the music of Brahms to that of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.

I love Brahms because Brahms is actually structured. And he's passionate without being sentimental. I don't like sentimental music, so I tend not to like Liszt, and I don't actually much care for the Russian romantics Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, where it's all on the sleeve. With Brahms it's restrained, and there's a sense of tension that never resolves.

My own preferences go precisely the opposite direction, as I've previously established -- although Tchaikovsky isn't one of my towering favorites, I've noted before that Rachmaninov is the composer closest to Berlioz in my personal composer pantheon -- and pretty much for the reason that Ms. Rice leans away from those composers. I tend to really grok the music that puts it all on the sleeve. Music, to me, is emotion distilled to its ultimate essence, and I'll take an emotionally compelling but structurally-flawed work (like the Symphonie fantastique) over a perfectly-structured but emotionally stunted work just about every time.

But I don't want to go too far in this, because structure in music doesn't have to rule out emotion in music. It's not a case where you can have one but not both. I mean, look at Beethoven's Seventh Symphony: the structure in that thing is as close to flawless as I can see, and it's also got emotion in spades. And you know what? Brahms has emotion in spades, too.

I confess to not knowing much at all about Brahms's chamber music, but I do know his four Symphonies very well. (Well, three of them, at any rate. I've never been able to muster much enthusiasm for the Third.) The First Symphony, so long belittled by the unfortunate moniker "Beethoven's Tenth", opens with precisely the tension to which Ms. Rice alludes: two melodic lines, one ascending chromatically and the other descending chromatically, pulling at each other over a series of throbbing timpani beats. When I think "tension in music", those opening bars of the Brahms First are what I think of.

But, contrary to Ms. Rice's statement, the tension does resolve, in the wonderful fourth movement. The hushed and mysterious opening, that haunting chorale theme sounded by the low brass, the melody that first shows up as a soaring horn call as if Kepler's crystal spheres have just opened up -- and then the main theme that many cite as being ripped from the "Ode to Joy" tune of Beethoven's Ninth. Tension, yes; but also resolution -- right down to the very end, when a passage of rhythmic pulsation builds to a huge statement of that formerly-haunting chorale theme.

No, I have to disagree with Ms. Rice: in Brahms, the tension does resolve, and in Brahms you'll find as much emotion as you'll find in Rachmaninov. You just have to look for it a bit harder.

(BTW, I'm assuming that I have to wait until she receives offical Senate confirmation to refer to her as "Secretary Rice", correct?

Also BTW, in my grab-bag post the other day I mentioned former Buffalo Philharmonic music director Semyon Bychkov. Apropos of the current post, Maestro Bychkov's last two concert programs as music director in Buffalo featured all four of Brahms's symphonies -- two of them one week, the other two the next. I can't remember which symphonies were performed which night, but those concerts were absolutely thrilling. Believe me, you haven't lived unless you've heard an orchestra with a really good brass section perform the endings of the Brahms First or Second Symphonies -- and if you've heard both, then you've not only lived, but lived well.)

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