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Daily Inspiration — Brahms and Tchaikovsky

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Born in 1833 and 1840, in Hamburg and Votkinsk, both on the 7th of May. The most popular, most beloved of all the great late romantic composers, and yet they couldn't appreciate one another. Brahms was indifferent to Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky actively disliked Brahms's music and argued that it was unappealing. Today, their reputations are both solid.

We think of Brahms as more the formalist, the intellectual. But compared to many 20th Century composers, his music is not at all abstract or difficult to appreciate with our hearts. We think of Tchaikovsky as sentimental, but what a genius! In originality of orchestration he is unsurpassed. His works have deep integrity of structure, an intellectual attribute for which Brahms is known. Even his counterpoint--the most abstract of compositional techniques--is brilliantly original.

(When I was young, I learned a prejudice against Tchaikovsky from musician friends who said his music was shallow. So I've learned to love his music later in life than Brahms.)

Both repressed their sexuality. Brahms was in love with the wife of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann. Tchaikovsky was attracted to men, but secretive and ashamed in the repressive environment of Czar Nicholas.

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The two men met twice in their lives. Brahms was reported to be solicitous, Tchaikovsky a bit more stand-offish. Neither was warm.

"It is impossible in listening to Brahms' music to say that it is weak or unremarkable," Tchaikovsky goes on. "His style is always elevated. Unlike all our contemporary musicians, he never has recourse to purely external effects; he never attempts to astonish us, to strike us by some new and brilliant orchestral combination; nor do we meet in his music with anything trivial or directly imitative. It is all very serious, very distinguished, apparently even original, but in spite of all this, the chief thing is lacking -- beauty! A few years ago, when I frankly expressed my opinion of Brahms to [pianist-conductor] Hans von Bulow, he replied: 'Wait a minute, the time will come when you will enter into the depth and beauty of Brahms. Like you, it was long before I understood him, but gradually, I was blessed by the revelation of his genius. It will be the same with you.' And still I wait; but the revelation tarries. I deeply revere the artistic personality of Brahms. I bow to the actual purity of his musical tendencies, and I admire his firm, proud renunciation of all the tricks that solemnize the Wagner cult, and in a much less degree the worship of Liszt, but I do not care for his music. -- Bradley Bambarger
Here are links to the scherzo 3rd movements of Brahms Symphony #4 and Tchaikovsky Symphony #4. Both movements are palpably joyous. (If you'e interested, you might listen to what comes right after the pizzicato string fade at the end of the Tchaikovsky movement. I won't give away more.)

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Josh Mitteldorf, a senior editor at OpEdNews, blogs on aging at http://JoshMitteldorf.ScienceBlog.com. Read how to stay young at http://AgingAdvice.org.
Educated to be an astrophysicist, he has branched out from there to mathematical (more...)
 

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Guglielmo Tell

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A little correction: Tsar Nicholas II was crowned in 1894, Tchaikovski died (of cholera) in 1893 (Tsar Nicholas I who ruled from 1825 to 1855 was pretty much the same kind of a moron).

Thanks for the rest.

I took my webname from Rossini's opera - one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre and of the whole of Western Art. "The Barber of Seville" is at best a rehearsal in comparison to it, even if a worthy one. It is well known that both Mozart and Rossini cut Beaumarchais' political content to write their funny operas, but in "William Tell" Rossini did the opposite: he incorporated all of the political content of the literature/theater original: Schiller's play. One of Schiller's ideas is that WEALTH IS ENEMY TO FREEDOM. The 13th century Swiss are presented as a sort of aboriginals in the middle of Europe of that time. Gessler's ideology is to impose "the civilized rule" and "civilized values" by the means of terror: the first act of the opera ends with arson of the Swiss village by the occupant's military (read Fallujah, etc.) and arrest of Melchtal - the community leader - who is killed later (he is killed on the scene in one of the recordings). Melchtal's son Arnold is in love with Mathilde - Gessler's relative and a kind of a First Lady. Arnold needs titles in Gessler's Army so to marry her, but she gets so horrified of Gessler's crimes that takes the side of the victims.

Rossini's work is SO huge and SO difficult that there ain't a single recording good enough - all stay at the level of "acceptable" tops. In all of them something comes out OK or somebody does OK, but everything else is a flop. If Rossini can be accused of anything is of not thinking of real human capabilities to perform it. Back in those days there was a tenor named Rubini who perhaps could do the 27 high Cs of the role of Arnold while endorsing the performance with a heavy psychological transformation throughout of the character ("William Tell" is an opera that is "belcanto" and "spinto" at the same time - no, I'm not crazy), but it was not Rubini who performed Arnold at 1829 Paris premiere (maybe he did the premiere of a bit shorter Italian version later). Back to recordings era, perhaps the only performer with all that it takes to perform the beastial role of Arnold was Luciano Pavarotti. He did it once and it is the only opera of Rossini's he ever recorded, but the recording is a complete disaster which I blame the director Riccardo Chailly for. Not even Mirella Freni is the same. Montserrat Caballe does OK in Lamberto Gardelli's recording, Mady Mesple is HUGE in the role of Jemmy, William's son, but Nikolai Gedda at least had the honesty to admit later that Arnold was the worst mistake of his career (it was). Listening to today's stars, I thought that Juan Diego Florez better stays away from the role of Arnold (no one like Florez does the 9 Cs of Tonio's aria from Donizetti's "La Fille de Regiment") because he could break his beatiful voice upon it, but he did it and he survived it. Florez graduated as one of the greatest opera stars in History, although the recording as a whole stays at the same OK level.

Arnold - a synthesis of 2 characters from Schiller's play - turns the opera into a Work of Art and not into a political pamphlet. Arnold is one of those secondary characters that almost steals the leading role. William's strongest scene is precisely the scene of the arrow - the way Rossini worked it. It's not just the shot and "Victory!" - that comes later. First, there is William's aria showing him being torn apart from inside by Gessler's "joke". A grim-sounding orchestra accompanies him in the aria and a cello (almost) solo sounds like cutting your soul. But Arnold holds the whole opera - 4-hours-long (the complete Paris version).

If in "The Barber of Seville" Rossini displayed his natural talent, in "William Tell" he incorporated his Paris experience, the sense of the moment (the 1830 French Revolution was the final ooverthrow of pre-1789 nobility) and studies of the work of other masters, clearly Bach and Haendel (which can be heard in "Moses in Egypt" which, BTW, is one of the first operas upon the Bible - composing works of opera, "a vulgar genre", upon stories from Bible was forbidden before by the Catholic Church). For his last opera Rossini took up all this mass so to turn PEOPLE into a character. If Rossini's earlier French operas show the print of Italian opera-seria with characters lacking will and depending upon magic so to get things done in the story, all that is gone in "WT" (in Italy opera-seria reached its ultimate top with Bellini's "Norma" - another character who takes the will into her own hands). In "WT" it's not God the one that determines people's fate, it's the people itself. So, musically, Rossini turns away from Glory to God and replaces it with folklore (a capella chorus in the 3rd act). Although "WT" is as brilliant as an opera-buffa, it is not one. It's not a barber fixing marriages, it's a people deciding things by itself down here on Earth.

If "Norma", doubtessly a masterpiece too, is a culmination of a long previous period, "WT" turned out to be a visionary piece. People was established as an opera character and folklore was incorporated into the genre without any shadow of vulgarity. Both things turned out to be crucial for Wagner and for Russian opera (and I even hear a parallel or a continuation between chorus in "WT" imitating the sound of echo in the mountains and Enya). Moreover, the initial sequence of "Ivan Soussanin", Glinka's first opera (I'll never accept the title of "A Life for the Tsar" imposed by Nicholas I and reproduced by Yeltsin's neoliberals; it is proven beyond any doubt that Glinka's intended title was the name of the real-life character) reproduces the initial sequence of "William Tell": chorus of glory to the nature-fisherman's song who is so happy about his simple life-William's entrance saying (singing) that he can't be happy when the Homeland mourns the freedom it lost. "Ivan Soussanin": chorus of glory to the nature-Antonida's arioso, she dreams of her fiancee-Ivan entering saying (singing) that it's not the time to thnk of weddings; for the same reason (one thing I know for sure right now is that Glinka was in Italy around the time of the premiere of Italian version of "WT").

Wagner had also picked up the work of all the masters before him, but then also the German folklore. He polished the leitmotiv techhnique (which no composer can survive without in Hollywood today) and which made it to Russia via Wagner's Russian friend: first musical critic, then the composer A.N.Serov. Serov was buried by the Soviet bureaucracy after the WWII which cast his 3 operas - "Judith" (upon the Bible), "Rogneda" and "The Enemy Force" or "The Power of the Fiend" is the English Internet title - out of the theaters, recording studios and thus prevented him from being known in the West (before Holofernes from "Judith" and Yeryomka from "The Power of the Fiend" were among Chaliapin's roles). A SPECTACULAR audio recording of "Judith" was finally made in 1991 (although about one hour of the original score was cut off), and the leitmotivs there can be heard there crystal-clear. The leitmotivs were picked up by Moussourgsky for his dramas involving people as character.

What Tchaikovski took mostly from "The Power of the Fiend" was the relation between the social environment and psychological world of the characters. It became the basic plot of most of his operas: social vices contaminating characters. In "Opritchnik" it's the Power, in "Eugene Oneguin" it's the Arrogance, in "The Saurceress" it's the Prejudice and the Fanaticism, in "The Maid of Orleans" ("Joan of Arc") it's the Fear (to the Extraordinary), in "Mazeppa" it's the War, in "Queen of Spades" it's the Vice (gambling in this case). And although Tchaikovski had a negative opinion about Wagner as well, Tchaikovski was a master of contrast, knew both Russian folklore and Western counterpoint, and same as Verdi in "Otello", in "Queen of Spades" Tchaikovski had to cave in to Wagnermania and wrote his opera as one single continued drama - with leitmotives more polished (another superb unknown Russian opera worth listening to - there is a recording, although again with 10-15 minutes from beginning of the 3rd act missing for undisclosed reasons - is Taneiev's "Oresteia").

Johannes Brahms did not write operas. He wrote a "German Requiem", but it was difficult to be Wagner's contemporary. Wagner and Schumann also had a clash about latter's only opera "Genoveva" which is considered today a flop, but of which surprisingly there is plenty of recordings (at least 10 since the late 40s - I've got one of Kurt Masur's of 1976). If anybody knows better about Brahms' (non-exsisting) relationship with the opera, it would be interesting to read a comment.

Submitted on Thursday, May 10, 2018 at 2:31:39 AM

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Guglielmo Tell

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Going back for a moment to the political content of "WT", I would add that this is another reason why no recording is good enough. You see, the opera world has a policy on its own: and that is precisely to stay away from politics. But today, with DVDs with subtitles on a dozen of languages, is not possible anymore. Whatever there is of politics in the libreto, it shows up in the text. But it has never been possible in the case of "WT": had Placido Domingo -- being the director of Washington DC Opera House -- mounted up "WT" in 2002-2003, that would have cost him the retirement at least. It's just too obvious. So, either the producers/directors (pretend that they) don't get it, either they get scared of it and twist it into something "romantic" (like Antonio Pappano did). They key has always been to keep it away from the large audience so it wouldn't get any "wrong ideas" - and they succeeded in it so far throughout the post-WWII period. But there are History lessons: "WT" is one of the key pieces of the so-called French Grand Opera which surged in 1820s as artistic response to the last whip of the pre-1789 reaction. It combined the French opera tradition -- long works with obligatory ballet scenes -- with drama topics taken from History or legends more recent than the Ancient mythology. The most notorious works of the French Grand Opera are "WT" (1829), Auber's "Fenella or the Mute From Portici" (1828), Meyerbeer's "Les Huguenots" (1835) and Halevy's "La Juive" (1836; all but "WT" with libretos by Eugene Scribe). Well, the premiere of "The Mute From Portici" in Brussels in 1830 led to uprising which finished up with the independence of Belgium.

So, today they hopelessly are trying to cling on to mythology ("freedom" in neoliberal interpretation).

Submitted on Friday, May 11, 2018 at 12:19:11 AM

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