Whose Brahms?

Recently, I came across an essay entitled Whose Brahms Is It Anyway? Puzzling: I assumed Brahms, that most organic of composers, had been purchased by Monsanto long ago.

This essay has an alarming thesis: that the Brahms B-flat Concerto has been getting longer. The author (Walter Frisch) does not rely upon anecdotal evidence; he supplies a carefully researched graph which would seem to place the issue beyond a doubt:

What could this graph mean? I phoned up a reliable cross-section of experts: arts administrators, conductors, concert-hall caterers, etc. Conferring with them, I came up with the following rough calculations.

For each 5 minutes of length added to Brahms, Op. 83, you can expect:

— intermission restroom lines will grow by 8-10%;
— coughing between movements will grow by 25%;
— coughing during most beautiful part of slow movement explodes by a staggering 43%;
— hairlines of male audience members will recede by .0000003%, but if you figure in compound interest, this could really add up;

Surely there are other effects we cannot yet envision. And we have to assume, in the absence of contrary evidence, that these problems are ongoing. The following graph shows the slowing of the concerto to date, as documented by Frisch and his crack team of CD collectors around the world, followed by a projection into the future:


As you can see, the model suggests that a recording of Brahms Op. 83 made in 2072 would last 3 hours and 25 minutes! In minutes adjusted for inflation, that is 142% longer than the most tedious performance of the Goldberg Variations to date.

Here is a sample passage from Brahms Op. 83 as it might be recorded in 2043, as rendered by a hired stunt artist:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Astounding. As you can hear, this could cause untold suffering; our children’s children would bear the brunt … I needed no more convincing. I immediately convened a conference in Copenhagen, but reconsidered; Amsterdam might be more Andante-friendly. I applied for government grants to pay for my accommodations and expenses. Obviously, also, some lobbyists would be required to argue for the interests of faster Brahms in Congress.

Just as I was tucking into my room service at the Four Seasons Amsterdam, I received a rather disturbing phone call. Apparently someone hacked into the email server at the Music Department of Columbia University, and forwarded thousands of emails to the Marlboro Music Festival, which historically has had an interest in slowing the pace of Brahms. With their vast financial resources, they hired a team of interns and unearthed the following:

FROM: Walter Frisch <xxxxxx@columbia.edu>
TO: Richard Taruskin <xxx@berkeley.edu>
SUBJECT: Brahms Op. 83

I think I’ve just completed Robert’s (Mann) trick of adding in the real tempos to each series for the last 20 years (from 1981 onward) and from 1961 for Maazel’s to hide the decline.


FROM: Lawrence Kramer <xxx@fordham.edu>
TO: Walter Frisch <xxxxxx@columbia.edu>

I do now wish I’d never sent them the data after Hepokoski’s FOIA request. Uncertainty in turntable calibrations adjusted, corrections made and I think it’s solid. But there is a relatively small number of people who don’t or won’t ‘get it’ … Meanwhile, who let Taruskin rewrite the whole History of Western Music? I mean, at least it wasn’t Susan McClary.

Between the backbiting and the tempo uncertainties … well, before long there was a full-blown media storm, a battle between slowing deniers and alarmists. Sarah Palin addressed this BrahmsGate (for so it was now called) in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post:

The BrahmsGate emails reveal what the American public has long suspected, that the slowing of Brahms Op. 83 is not nearly as certain as some elite musicologists have banded together to suggest. If those musicologists think they can attack our way of life by making our Andantes flow more freely, they have no idea the world of hurt they’re in for.

Even if Brahms is slowing, who’s to say it’s caused by human activities?

Call me crazy, but I’m old enough to remember that in the 70s, various musicologists were warning us that Brahms Op. 83 was actually getting faster. It’s possible that Brahms Op. 83 is slowing because of cyclical, natural variations in tempo. For instance, variations in sunspot activity …

In the final analysis, there are so many better ways to deal with this slowing trend, aside from the drastic, unreasonable solution of playing the piece faster.

I was still sure that Brahms was slowing–after all, there was the graph!–but began to have second thoughts as to the cause. Although the presence of a thoughtful, nuanced expert like Sarah Palin seemed to discourage further inquiry, perhaps I could humbly contribute something to the scientific literature. To create an objective, controlled experiment I decided to deal with an unrelated work: Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. This would free me from any emotional baggage or bias as relating to Brahms Op. 83, and yet would speak to the reliability of durational data, from which a series of conferences might more reasonably address the question of what length really is, how it might be measured, and eventually set a groundwork for understanding how long Brahms Op. 83 should be.

The premise of my experiment was to measure my perceived desired tempo (PDT) for the opening of Beethoven First Piano Concerto at various times of day, and under the influence of certain key circumstances.

first attempt: quarter = 144 (midday, 3 hours after coffee, just before lunch)

We could call this a “baseline” tempo. Addicted to this data gathering (this science stuff is fun!) I began sampling my own PDT’s wildly:

before coffee: quarter = 138
after coffee: quarter = 160
before sex or equivalent* quarter = 154
after sex or equivalent* quarter = 126
after one beer quarter = 148
after two beers quarter = 122-164
after three beers (unmeasurable data)
after watching an episode of Real Housewives of Orange County quarter = 232
after shopping at Fairway quarter = 187
(* for instance, a really good muffin)

A graph of this data proved elusive, and inconclusive; there are just too many factors at play!

And now it became clear to me, that tempo is more dangerous than an illusion, it is a kind of myth promulgated by all sorts of fascist types in order to destroy the natural and beautiful cycles of PDT that are native to the human freedom instinct. The next time a conductor asks me “why are you moving so much faster here?,” referring to some passage X of a concerto, I will simply say “natural variability of sunspots,” and when the conductor says “that’s ridiculous,” I will say “you can’t prove to me it’s NOT sunspots.” I’m sure this will go over very well.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted December 18, 2009 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    And just what, pray tell, was in those brownies that came with your room service at the Four Seasons Amsterdam (as if Amsterdam did not provide the ultimate clue)?

  2. Posted December 18, 2009 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I can’t stop laughing!

  3. Nathan
    Posted December 18, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Jeremy, you have to send this to Walter. He will love it!

  4. Benson
    Posted December 19, 2009 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    An absolutely brilliant post, although I feel you are too quick to emphasize the effects of sunspot activity when the current decline of the dollar is more than sufficient to account for the decline of the quarter.

  5. Posted December 20, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I think Mr. Denk that you may need to go further back in time to the so-called Classical period to affirm that this is not just a cycle effective Romantic or near-Romantic composers.
    Very funny post indeed.

  6. Posted December 20, 2009 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    You seem to have developed a case of teh funnies.

  7. Daria
    Posted December 22, 2009 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your blog’s Palin-bashing in all its various tropes. This one still has me gasping for air (gotta wonder about those brownies, fer sher), but I have to say I hate you a lot for “Trill, Baby, Trill.” You actually ruined the piece for me. And it was one of my faves.

  8. Genevieve Jones
    Posted December 25, 2009 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    The universe is expanding, you know. It stands to reason that would affect the Brahms B-flat.

    By the way, Brahms is dead (see the LA Times, 11/1/96).

  9. Posted December 28, 2009 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Very funny but gee, I thought you would come to the obvious conclusion and finally present proof that the Globe IS warming after all, since it is heat that inflates!

  10. Posted December 31, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    This is great, the concept could certainly be applied to any composer. I would have to say a comparative study would show Bach get faster!

    I think another huge trend is music becoming more and more legato. It really wasn’t until the early 19th century that legato keyboard playing became the dominant style. Today we practise scales legato all day and so the transfer to repertoire is inevitable.

    Anyhow, I’m rambling, fascinating post, thanks!

  11. leizl
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    I’m so glad you have now the time to blog. We miss your funny blog alerts and I always enjoy reading it as much as it’s also informative. You’re a great professor.

    By the way, I read from the news you’ll be performing live w/ Joshua Bell this coming 21st. At last, the Denk fans will be able to watch your collaboration on PBS.

    Please play the Franck sonata…..

  12. Nate BH
    Posted January 9, 2010 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    Maybe you play faster in certain passages because of the natural variability of funspots. I hope that just blew your mind.

  13. Jim Van Sant
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    I have a not entirely hair-brained theory about *long* Brahms myself: It is a conspiracy concocted by the English composer Thomas Ades and the League of Young Conductors, chaired by Alan Gilbert, new wunderkind of the NY Philharmonic. “Huh?” You are saying. I don’t blame you, but in a way I am serious. A whole lot of younger (under 50) conductors and professional musicians have taken against Brahms — Ades being the one (alas for him!), who has spoken out the most about this international disaffection. He has published on it, he has actually written a piece of music, even a song, against Brahms, intended to indicate by scornful imitation or mocking just what he does not like, and he has incited noted singers to speak against the 19thC German master. Singers! Of all musicians.
    All this made me wicked man when I read in his BBC Magazine essay on the topic, Ades stating: “Hearing Brahms is like going into a room full of stale cigar smoke.” Then he went on that Brahms “has no identifyable” and further wrote that “Brahms can never quite ‘get there,’ never conclude anything.” Grrrrrrr. How does that make you feel? Well, it made me furious, and I published a letter in reply to Thomas in the BBC Mag (after they made me tone it down just a bit), and I have been somewhat upset with the whole matter ever since. Ades is a true maverick, but Alan Gilbert is not — he is an elegant and enormously talented and sophisticated musician, so when he quietly admitted to me that he thought Brahms was “pretty uninteresting,” I was further jolted. Now, and let me beg your patience Mr Denk, I can see how the Slowing of Brahms could be a conspiracy simply to ruin his music, to render it unlistenable — the acts of a dire cabal of misguided musical people who in answer to “Aimez-vous Brahms?” reply, “No, he’s too slow for me.”
    Jim/Santa Fe

  14. Jim Van Sant
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    So sorry: typo correction time — “made me wicked mad” not man, in above, and also
    “has no identifyable VOICE” also above, I left out voice.
    I type too fast. Sorry. I am working on it.

  15. Posted January 19, 2010 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Hey where’s your latest blog?? Having Denk withdraws over here! 🙂 🙂 Lookin’ forward to seeing you in February 🙂

  16. Posted January 22, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I started giggling early in the piece and was laughing out loud by the end. However, I do think you may have overlooked a possible connection between global warming and the slowing of the Brahms.

    As water levels rise, the water table worldwide will come closer to the surface, releasing greater amounts of humidity into the atmosphere. Higher humidity generally makes people a bit sluggish and move more slowly. As pianists slow down with humidity fatigue, the concerto may become even more distended than even your proposed model suggests. By 2060, it could even gain a new soubriquet: Brahms’ Water Music.

    The husband (who wonders at all the hilarity) and I look forward to hearing you with Joshua in Portsmouth next month!

  17. brent
    Posted January 24, 2010 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    Jeremy, why don’t you consider using Twitter between your *increasingly infrequent(!!)* blog posts. Think of it as a haiku-type thing, condensing your wonderful insights into an essence ‘a la Jeremy’.

  18. Becca
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    I’m with brent.

  19. leizl
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    Yes, Jeremy pls. tweet even if it’s only a small line. We can’t wait for another blog posts.

  20. Colin
    Posted January 28, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    If a similar trend can be shown to be the case with regards to Brahms’ symphonies, then I would guess that Gardiner is on a one-man crusade to reverse it.

  21. John Shaft
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    Jeremy, a lot of people are begging you to post another blog entry, but someone has to take the hard line. That’s why I’m here. The internet can be a scary place, I know, but wake up and smell the Javascript. These days, you stop typing for one minute, you go under. It’s ctrl+alt+delete, and there ain’t no file recovery feature. Not in this virtual life. You gotta keep fighting, gotta keep pushing, gotta keep typing if you want to stay in the game. My momma always told me, “Boy, you got a job to do, you don’t rest until it’s done.” And you may have another, real job, but this is your not-real job, and it has been since the minute you pressed that first “publish” icon. So go to Starbucks, get yourself a mocha-chino and a gigantic expensive rice crispy treat, whatever you need to get yourself through the next post. I not here to judge you on that. I’m here to make sure that the good people who come to this site have a reason to lift their heads in the morning, kiss their children, and go back down to the mines, the sewers, and the pits filled with burning garbage. They need you, Jer. Hell, we all do. So get up off that piano bench and do what you do best–besides the other thing that you also do best and get paid for.

    –A friend

  22. Posted January 31, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    hi jeremy,…your name came up today, so I am merely saying hellooooo!!!!

  23. Tom in Wisconsin
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the excerpt of the opening piano figure as it would likely be in 2043. Actually, it is probably fairly close to the tempo Claudio Arrau used in about 1981. Of course after that period, his tempos slowed. I think that had his Lisbon performance of this work in 1990 not been interrupted by his death, we’d be hearing the last bars of the last movement about …. now.

  24. naferius
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    it seems that your blog has reached a high level of prominence in the interwebs. you even have your very own typosquatter!
    …if you didn’t know that already.

  25. Andy Goldstein
    Posted February 17, 2010 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    My wife and I loved your performance with Joshua Bell at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on Monday (Ft. Lauderdale, FL), February 16, 2010. Thank you so much!

  26. Milena Schaller
    Posted March 1, 2010 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    I was at your concert with Joshua Bell on Saturday in Davis at the Mondavi Center, and it was incredible! I truly enjoyed everything, especially the Kreisler and Ravel — I don’t know if you know what I mean, but you have a gorgeous “upward” sound. Some pianists come down on the notes, but you lift them out of the keys. And the interaction between you and Joshua Bell in the Ravel was marvelous: I could almost see the sound passing between you — Thank you so much for a magnificent concert!

    (And I think this Brahms post is the funniest thing I’ve read in months!)

  27. Posted March 2, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed this very much — I’ll be back to read more!

  28. Anonymous
    Posted March 3, 2010 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    I miss your writing! Come back soon?

  29. Michele Archer
    Posted March 12, 2010 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm…all we need now is the turgid poetry of Al Gore and too much vodka.

  30. Henry
    Posted March 14, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Well, thanks very much! I will never sleep again now knowing all of this. I mean lets face it, eventually the Brahms 2 will just last forever.

  31. Pierre
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Well … John Cage was aware of this kind of problem, and tried to fix all that, definitely, with his famous 4’33″… but as you know, relativistic considerations will always prohibit a really perfect precision (not to mention Sarah Palin, Einstein’s great-granddaughter by the way).

    (In fact, with a little practice, I can play it under 4′, and I’m immodestly confident that this could even be improved)(I’ll send the graph some day).

  32. constance hasapopoul
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    Good God, you look like your father (on cover of J.D. plays Ives)
    I assume you are a character like him?
    Constance formerly of Lost Cruces now of San Francisco

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>