Brahms the Sicilian

Unless I am running for my train, I find it difficult or impossible to pass through Penn Station without getting a Red Sicilian slice at Rosa’s Pizza. It appears to be an unruly sea of roiling tomato sauce barely adhering to a thick chunk of bread, but some cheesy, salty secret lies hidden, baked in the redness. How did the tomato find such luxuriant and wonderful friends, and why are they all in my mouth at the same time? Such touching questions are dismissed in favor of rabid munching.

I would like to think some similar, ineluctable urge caused Schoenberg to abandon tonality. Today we say “it was atonal” glibly: ho-hum. But imagine the excitement of those composers, writing atonally for the first time, as they “felt the air of other planets.” After all that overwhelming beautiful history, the recorded human history of writing centered around a tone or tones… to step off and deliberately write music with no pitch center at all! No wonder they got kind of Messianic; it must have been thrilling. Just like the moment, after pouring off half of the grease, when I lift the lumbering red slice to my slavering mouth. Yes, the doctor will frown after your next cholesterol test, and yes you may be condemned now to writing some of the least loved music ever heard, but what of it? According to that crazy cat Anton Webern:

Only when Schoenberg gave expression to the law were larger forms again possible. Adherence to the row is strict, often burdensome–but it is salvation! The dissolution of tonality wasn’t our fault–and we did not create the new law ourselves; it forced itself overwhelmingly upon us. The commitment is so powerful that one must consider very carefully before finally entering into it… almost as if one took the decision to marry; a difficult moment! Trust your inspiration! There is no alternative.

If Anton hadn’t passed away some time ago, I would seriously have recommended some therapy. Need I enumerate my reasons? 1) Schoenberg (as father figure) giving the law. 2) The law as salvation; am I the only one smelling Kafka here? (“The door was meant only for you, and now I am going to shut it.”) 3) The law “forced itself upon them”: the law as rapist, as seducer? To be oddly and immediately followed by 4) The law as bride, as lifelong romantic committment? Umm, perhaps I prefer the law of Law & Order. But finally, the voice of reason: “Trust your inspiration! There is no alternative.” This, at least, I can agree with.

If indeed the idea of composing without a dominating single tone was a unbelievable thrill, comparable to the arrival of the 40-cent Triple Chocolate Brownie cookie at my local Starbucks (which I now order in satisfying, cute clumps of 4), I had managed to take it for granted, or subjugate it as merely a relic of Music History Survey Class–with all its associations of furtive caresses in library carrels and listening booths–and today, perhaps in karmic retribution for this neglect, I felt completely incapable of convincing a group of Bard students of this thrill, which I glimpsed … But perhaps I was more disquieted at being unable to communicate the power of the fragments of nineteenth-century tonality they left behind… For example, in Schoenberg’s Op. 19, #6, this one climactic phrase:

I have to feel sorry for these beautiful, yearning, enigmatic notes, crafted so that you cannot decide between them, and adding atop this ambiguity the rhythmic befuddlement of quarter note triplets, beginning with a tie and resolving into thin air. A “hairpin,” headed for a central intense point, fading away, and to what end? A romantic gesture stripped naked, purged of its underlying signifying harmonies, and trying to mean so very much in their absence: being forced to do so: trying to assume the burden of all that meaning. All right little notes, we’ve coddled you too long, you’re on your own now!

Parenthetically, I’m not sure how I feel about sentences with two colons in them.

A similar sense of crisis, I think, but from just the other side of the divide, haunts Brahms Op. 119 #1 (a place which makes you “feel sorry” for Brahms?)… a piece with strikingly beautiful opening bars, in which thirds spread out like tentacles from a single note, connoting triads freely, kaleidoscopically. Each bar is a fragment, listening to the consequences of these roving thirds, offering no resolution, looking for some more definitive continuation. (A letter of Brahms indicates how he wished these bars to be performed–indications which are often ignored, oddly.) These harmonies–9th and 11th chords etc.–are so familiar to us now from jazz and the whole mishmosh of 20th-century “extended” musical language, that perhaps we have an unfortunate tendency to hear them as “pretty sounds.” However, I think their power resides in a double meaning, in the play of meanings, a kind of irony: the uneasy coincidence of a discovered sensual beauty with a sense that somehow this is “not right,” a betrayal of principles, of the very things that made his music possible in the first place. Brahms suspects his inner sensualist. This beauty is treacherous. This irony is compounded: Brahms’ life’s work is filled with powerful use of thirds (perhaps more characteristically than any other interval)–as building block of melody and as prime mover in bass; and now this easy movement by thirds erodes the edifice, threatens to take down the tonal structure: Brahms’ own style, subjected to introspection and magnification, threatens to destroy itself.

But, as Anton says: “trust your inspiration! there is no alternative.” Brahms is forcing himself into this place, confronting the limits of his own language… accepting the collapse of any language.

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  1. former music student
    Posted April 5, 2006 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    What a leap form WTC! No time for a break. Seems like your attempt to poke a huge Red Sicilian slice into our mouth, so that we choke up and cannot retort? Well, we’ll come back 🙂

  2. mark
    Posted April 6, 2006 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Hey Jeremy-

    In fact, Webern did have some therapy, with Adler.

    Hope to see you soon-

  3. Sylvie
    Posted April 6, 2006 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Just discovered your Blog. My husband and I are musicians, he a double bass player, me a singer trained in opera and a music history buff. I am a pre-concert lecturer — or should I call myself a pre-concert “talker” or “conversationalist” since “pre-concert lectures” have now been replaced with “pre-concert talks” or, worse, “conversations” — for the Chicago Symphony and Ravinia Festival. Hence I have been enjoying the last half hour skimming through some of your blog entries.

    I am particularly interested in your Schumann entries . . . you obviously adore listening to and interpreting his music. (I have enjoyed singing his songs.)

    What are your thoughts & experiences of Kinderszenen? I am preparing a lecture for Ravinia on this piece, and will focus on the listening experience, guiding an exploration into how Schumann recreates moods of childhood without veering into the simplistic. Since I am not a pianist and cannot enter into this piece by way of playing the music myself, I would love to hear your insights (and . . . here’s the carrot . . . or pizza slice, rather . . . will quote you if you wish). People are always eager to hear about a performer’s experience of music they have come to listen to.

    For reasons of spam, I will not post my e-mail. I will check your site from time to time to see if you’ve written anything on this topic. If you end up posting your e-mail, then I’ll write you directly.

    Now for that venti half-decaf soy latte . . . mmmm.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted April 6, 2006 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what 12-tone music would sound like on 18th century period instruments. Or does the absence of a pitch center make the question irrelevant? (Maybe I’ll just get some pizza.)

  5. Bill
    Posted April 6, 2006 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Parenthetically, I’m not sure how I feel about sentences with two colons in them.

    But colons do put me in mind of atonal composition…

  6. Anonymous
    Posted April 8, 2006 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    Wow! Did you know that?

    Condoleezza Rice on Piano

    It is encouraging for all former music students.

  7. former music student
    Posted April 10, 2006 at 3:39 am | Permalink

    Honestly, I cannot recollect if I’ve ever listened to any of Schoenberg’s work. My father had an LP of Hindemith … but I doubt he had a Schoenberg’s. At least I can figure out what it sounds like. It evokes feelings/emotions like when you saw Picasso’s cubism works or Jackson Pollack’s works or new design of a concept car for the first time … odd, confused, clueless, dizzy, inscrutable, what’s the hell? … from the unpredictable development.

    The question is, is it craved for as much the works of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms as do? As far as I know Schoenberg was not coherent to atonality, (oscillated between tonality and atonality in his composing life) whereas Webern was.

    Thank you for sharing your insight about Brahms’s composition. That is awesome. To my shame, I was unaware of the dominance of ‘thirds’ in his works. (I did not take Music History Survey class : )

    BTW, I haven’t yet seen ‘the 40-cent Triple Chocolate Brownie cookie’ at my local Starbucks, not so far away from your territory. I should demand it. I am however getting new asparaguses at 99c per lb. (on sale) at groceries in my area.

  8. chris
    Posted April 10, 2006 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    For some strange reason, both Schoenberg and Kraftwerk still sound too “modern” for most people…

  9. Martin
    Posted April 17, 2006 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Well, I suspect our host may need, if not a psychicatrist, a neutritionist. His metaphorology has taken a disturbing turn to the gasronomic lately.

    Food, in one form or another, an obsession of the traveling musician.

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