Happy 187th Birthday Johannes Brahms! (1833-1897)
Brahms’ music is not only beautiful, often profound, and richly enjoyable. It also saves lives:
The author William Styron is one example. Deep in the pit of depression in 1985, Styron came to the point of carefully planning to kill himself, with a shotgun, in a secluded spot near his home. But when he was driving there, Brahms’** Alto Rhapsody came on the radio.
[**Note to grammar cops: I KNOW it’s supposed to be “Brahms’s”; but that construction both looks and sounds dumb to me, and I choose to ignore it here.]
The melancholy beauty of this brief piece so touched Styron that he turned around, drove home, put away the shotgun, then checked into a hospital. And he survived. His concise memoir of that ordeal, Darkness Visible, is an unforgettable reading experience.
There’s a lot of melancholy in Brahms. But it’s not schmaltzy or overwrought, like much of Tchaikovsky. Restrained and finely wrought.
It comes out for me perhaps most exquisitely in the slow movements of his larger pieces (by all means click and listen):
the Violin Concerto;
and the Double Concerto for Violin & Cello;
and with almost unbearable poignance in the First Symphony.
But perhaps the saddest yet most uplifting piece for me is Section Five of his oratorio A German Requiem, here featuring soprano Barbara Hendricks.
Yet the point of Brahms is not to wallow in sadness; in music, Brahms’ music, the melancholy is the kind that enables one to bear up, if only because of the beauty and skill of expression.
Besides, Brahms is not all sad. The Second Symphony‘s First Movement is for me the essential evocation of the Romantic, by which I mean the upbeat part of a successful romance.
And one of the peaks of his art has to be the final movement of his Fourth Symphony. It’s thrilling simply to listen to, fully living up to the composer’s notation: “Allegro energico e passionate.” But then the piece becomes even more impressive after reading the notes and discovering that it is also a meticulously disciplined passacaglia built around a simple eight-note theme by Bach.
And Brahms had fun, with Hungarian dances and a lullaby (Yes, THAT one) which even inspired this cartoon:
So anyway, today (and this season) would be a good time to Turn On, Tune In, and Drop a load of Brahms into your ears. Today, and just about any other day. Maybe especially these days.
Yes, regular helpings will do you good. Hey –remember William Styron; it might even save your life.