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Symphony Listening Diary—Brahms 1

In many ways there’s no need to intellectualise this one too much. This was the old ‘don’t deny yourself this stuff’ endorsement of high art manifest. Opening a symphony like that with absolute peak drama and tumultuousness like that is, for lack of a better term, some cool shit. I thought I was dramatic.

My questions are pretty much the same as they were for Schumann. How do you sustain interest over that long of a period? I’m aware that Brahms spent a very, very long time (around two decades I believe, which I’m going to claim without checking in a hopeful demonstration of the depth of my music-history knowledge) working up to this symphony, so that’s the answer, really. You get the ability by working very hard for a very long time. Skill and technique are how.

It's just absolute mastery to be able to sustain high energy for as long as the first movement does. That’s an entirely separate skill to anything else musical; rage, anger, fire are all very easy emotions to summon, but they are, as the master would tell you shortly before the training montage part of your movie, difficult to master. You don’t convey rage through rage. You don't convey anger just by being angry. Playing the piano louder and more forcefully doesn’t really mean pushing the keys harder. There has to be an antecedent force, and the more you develop the ability to summon that the greater your ability to handle rage without it tearing your artwork into an incomprehensible mess. Do not look directly at it.

I guess the magic rage-handling glove here is the form. How does it not get boring? It would get boring if you just shout for a while. This movement is thirteen minutes long. Only decades of study make it possible, yet it happens without you even noticing. The passages of dissonance are in exactly the right place, they are of the exact right duration. You are rewarded with the drama and energy for no longer than is appropriate. Everything is in perfect harmony and perfectly balanced. The rules that make it possible to compose a two-bar phrase are the same that make it possible to compose a thirteen-minute movement: tension and release, dissonance and consonance, force and opposing force.

All I want in life is to be able to say that wrote something that made people feel the way that move to C major at the end of the first movement does. And also that chord at around 12 minutes in the fourth movement. This is exactly why I have faith in my music—where do you go if you want that from the stuff you’re listening to? Metal, of course (maybe you’re familiar with this by-now well-known study that reckons that classical and metal fans are of similar dispositions), but people still turn their noses up at you for that. You can always go back and listen to the classical canon, but why should drama like this be the reserve of these long-dead people? Maybe because it’s really hard to do. But I don’t know; songs are part of the classical canon, handsome melodies and texture and dances and tonality and the orchestra are part of the classical canon, yet these are found in or have been assimilated into other musics just fine.

I suppose I'm straw-manning. Hans Zimmer does awe and sublimity just fine (you know that bit in Interstellar). But extrapolating from my experiences of solo piano music, it does seem to me that the drive is towards music that makes people say ‘that was nice’ (incidentally it was trying to answer almost this exact question that led me to the subject of my undergraduate dissertation, which similarly led to a wild diversion).

Rambling, to be sure. I did find that this one wasn’t quite as challenging to listen to as other symphonies. Then, why should it be? I’m very guilty of holding Beethoven up as the archetype against which all other symphonies must be measured, and I'm not sure how good an idea that is. But symphonies aren’t really a phenomenon that arises naturally in nature, so maybe trying not to Beethoven-ify them is simply misunderstanding history. This is a symphony that is very, very aware of Beethoven, after all (I got the Ode to Joy reference in the fourth movement without need of a text book), by a composer who was himself very aware of Beethoven.

But ‘linear’ is the word that came to mind. A little too linear. It didn’t give me the feeling I get with Beethoven of having absolutely no idea what is going on. I’ve listened to the Eroica more than I have any other symphony and I still get lost during the first movement. Maybe this is where teleology becomes a trap? Too much end-weightedness and the capacity for surprise and unpredictability starts to become compromised. But now I'm intellectualising it as I said I wouldn’t. Just enjoy the 45 minutes of Brahms, questions like these come later, when you’re poring over the score.

Maybe it’s nigh on heresy to have listened to Brahms and apparently met it with a shrug? That’s not the case. I have questions, and questions are good. This symphony has challenged me such that that I’m not sure what I think about anything anymore. That' exactly why I started doing this, and it means that I'm growing. I did sense that the very final melody of the piece was related to the preceding material in a way that I didn’t quite catch, so another listen is definitely needed to appreciate all the long-range connections.

A final thought I had while listening: in my own compositions, I approach modulations with a degree of caution. A change of key can be a bit too stark and suggestive in a way that is limiting. Unless you want the abruptness for whatever compositional purpose, it can feel a bit like you saying to the listener hey, see what I just did there? Why then, I was thinking, am I still not able to follow everything that is happening in orchestral music? It’s embarrassing at this point that I'm not able to say ah okay it’s moved up a major second there. I’ve heard key changes over and over and over again at the piano, after all, so I don't understand why my ear can't just pick them out without me even needing to think about it by now.

The defence, I think, could well be contained within the accusation. I’ve heard them at the piano, and it hit me while listening that modulations are more stark when they happen on a single instrument. It stands out far more to the ear when the key changes but the timbre remains the same. My assumption is that the vastly greater colour palette of the orchestra means that it’s a no-brainer to pair a modulation with a change in timbre or instrumentation (why wouldn’t you, in what I imagine is the majority of cases? It’s very likely that you’ve moved into a different section of the piece if you’ve changed key. Unless it happens over the course of a single phrase, which happens very often, but I can definitely hear those, and they’re usually of the chromatic rise or descent variety anyway, which is naturally easier to detect and deliberately so anyway. I don’t know, questions just lead to more questions. It's definitely time to wrap this up). I'm guessing that, if I picked up a composition textbook, I would find this lesson taught very early on as a golden rule of orchestral composition, but it's always more rewarding to come to these realisations on your own.

But man, that first movement.

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