Allusion as Narrative Premise in Brahms's Instrumental Music

Allusion as Narrative Premise in Brahms's Instrumental Music

by Jacquelyn E. C. Sholes


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Who inspired Johannes Brahms in his art of writing music? In this book, Jacquelyn E. C. Sholes provides a fresh look at the ways in which Brahms employed musical references to works of earlier composers in his own instrumental music. By analyzing newly identified allusions alongside previously known musical references in works such as the B-Major Piano Trio, the D-Major Serenade, the First Piano Concerto, and the Fourth Symphony, among others, Sholes demonstrates how a historical reference in one movement of a work seems to resonate meaningfully, musically, and dramatically with material in other movements in ways not previously recognized. She highlights Brahms's ability to weave such references into broad, movement-spanning narratives, arguing that these narratives served as expressive outlets for his complicated, sometimes conflicted, attitudes toward the material to which he alludes. Ultimately, Brahms's music reveals both the inspiration and the burden that established masters such as Domenico Scarlatti, J. S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, and especially Beethoven represented for him as he struggled to emerge with his own artistic voice and to define and secure his unique position in music history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253033147
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/24/2018
Series: Musical Meaning and Interpretation
Pages: 274
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jacquelyn E. C. Sholes serves on the faculty of the Department of Musicology and Ethnomusicology at Boston University.

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The Notion of Allusion as Narrative Premise in Brahms's Instrumental Music

Johannes Brahms was possessed of an especially strong historicist sense — and lived at a time when, ironically, this made him rather modern. Up to the first half of the nineteenth century, music had a relatively short shelf life. Generally, composers wrote works for specific occasions, to fill specific practical needs, and once those needs had been met, the music had served its purpose and was put aside to make room for the new. Brahms's profound preoccupation with the music of his predecessors must be understood not only against the backdrop of the inspiring and intimidating precedent set by Beethoven, but also within the broader context of the increasing awareness of and rise of interest in preserving music history that took place during Brahms's lifetime. The latter was a phenomenon that caused Brahms great anxiety as he became one of the first of the "great composers" to self-consciously attempt to carve out a unique and lasting artistic voice for the ages. Austro-German intellectual society played a leading role in establishing the field of modern musicology in the nineteenth century, with such fundamental contributions as the pioneering historical writings of Forkel, Kiesewetter, and Ambros; biographies of Bach, Mozart, Handel, and Haydn by Otto Jahn, Philipp Spitta, Friedrich Chrysander, and C. F. Pohl, respectively; and the work of such influential figures as Beethoven scholar Gustav Nottebohm, theorist Hugo Riemann, and Adolf Bernhard Marx with his theory of sonata form. This was the milieu that produced a thriving culture of music criticism, for which the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, founded by Robert Schumann, was among the most influential vehicles, as well as the first serious scholarly music journal, the Vierteljahrschrift für Musikwissenschaft (1885), edited by Guido Adler, along with Chrysander and Spitta. The same environment also produced such fundamental resources for music research as lexicons, bibliographies, indexes, and thematic catalogs (e.g., Ludwig von Köchel's 1862 catalog of the works of Mozart), as well as government-sponsored Denkmäler editions and the first critical or "collected-works" editions (Gesamtausgaben) for several major composers, including Bach, Handel, Palestrina, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. German and Austrian universities began formally to recognize the field as a full-fledged academic pursuit by creating university faculty positions in music, beginning at Bonn in 1826; the first full professorships were awarded in Austria, at the University of Vienna in 1870, to the critic Eduard Hanslick, a great supporter of Brahms, and in Germany to Gustav Jacobsthal at Strasbourg in 1897.3 All of this activity naturally corresponds to the laying of foundations for the development of a canon of "great works" of Western music — a canon which, in large part by consequence, prominently features the works of German and Austrian composers.

Brahms has been considered by many to be a conservative artist, particularly in comparison with the more formally and harmonically adventurous composers of the New German School, such as Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz (Joseph Kerman, for instance, characterized Brahms as a composer "out of joint with his times") — and yet, Brahms's historical awareness as a composer actually was thus a rather modern trait. In recent decades, there has been a growing realization of the ways in which Brahms's historical self-awareness links him and his music to composers and music of the modern and postmodern eras. Peter Burkholder, for example, has suggested that in fact "Brahms is the single most important influence on twentieth-century classical music — not in the way it sounds, but in how we think about it, how composers think about it, how music behaves, why it is written, and how composers measure their success." Kenneth Hull elaborates: "modernism in music has not to do primarily with the development of new musical techniques but with aspects of the composer's preoccupation with his relationship to music of the past. In this respect, Brahms may be considered the first musical modernist." Furthermore, Kevin Korsyn suggests that, "what appears modern — or rather postmodern — in Brahms is his recruitment of a plurality of modern languages. By mobilizing a number of historically differentiated discourses, Brahms becomes 'both the historian and the agent of his own language.' Thus, he knew the very modern anxiety ... of having to choose an orientation among languages."

Historicism in Brahms's Music

A strong historicist tendency in Brahms's work has been noted consistently by critics and scholars from Brahms's time to the present. Brahms's interest in music of the past, a fascination encompassing repertories from folksong to sacred music to secular "art" music and spanning from the medieval Minnesänger to the nineteenth century, is reflected in a wide variety of ways to be explored in detail throughout this volume. At a time when the field of musicology was just getting "off the ground," Brahms's historicist sense appears not only in his own music — through his use of passé or "archaic" genres and forms (e.g., the serenade and the chaconne) and style elements (e.g., modality) and through his employment of motivic allusions to or employment of structural models from composers — but also in his personal music library; in his activities as editor, compiler, and arranger of historical repertories; and in his other musicological pursuits. Brahms also played an active role in the process of canon solidification not only as a composer, but also as a musicologist engaged in editorial work on music of C. P. E. Bach, Couperin, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, and others. Brahms's other musicological activities include, for example, his exchange of counterpoint exercises with Joseph Joachim, his collection of historical examples of parallel octaves and fifths (see chap. 3), and his examination of the Beethoven manuscripts made available to him by Gustav Nottebohm (see chap. 5).

Scholars such as Christopher Reynolds and Kenneth Hull, respectively, have dubbed Brahms "one of the most adroit fashioners of allusions," and "a master of allusion." Apparent allusions in many individual works of Brahms were identified in print and by Brahms's friends even during the composer's own lifetime, with at least one instance dating from as early as 1858. Not surprisingly, Brahms draws with special frequency on the works of his greatest hero, Beethoven, and it is clear that at least sometimes, as with the evocation of the "Ode to Joy" in the finale of his First Symphony, he expected his audience to recognize the references. Hull points out that, among Brahms's instrumental works, "there is scarcely an opus for which at least one quotation or allusion has not been cited somewhere in the literature"; that Brahms's friend and early biographer Max Kalbeck "alone suggests at least one instance of thematic resemblance for each of about half of the instrumental works"; and that, in several cases, multiple sources of allusion have been cited for a single work. In short, as generations of critics and scholars have demonstrated, "Brahms's knowledge of the music of the past was extensive, and his use of that knowledge in his own compositional activity ... more pervasive, varied, and self-conscious than that of any previous composer."

And yet despite the long-standing recognition of the role of allusion in Brahms's music on a localized level and a similarly well-established awareness of motivic connections that Brahms draws between different movements of individual instrumental works, scholars have not explored thoroughly the way in which these two phenomena interact. I will suggest ways in which Brahms's strong historicist concerns, his fascination with music of the past — which, his writings and biography would suggest, represented some combination of tendencies toward reverential homage and a "Bloomian" "anxiety of influence" — played an important and hitherto largely unappreciated role in his handling of broad formal structures and his weaving of musical narratives in multimovement instrumental works. Furthermore, I will demonstrate how these works consequently may be interpreted as the composer's responses (conscious or not) to his historical orientations towards the sources on which he draws.

Historical Reference and Intermovement Narrative in the Mature Works of the 1860s–70s

This book will examine several early works, those of the 1850s, a period during which Brahms's struggles to establish and articulate himself and his own historical position were especially pressing — and, from which correspondingly, there is a particularly high density of examples of allusory narratives that appear to have a historicist significance. In his later work, I argue for the expression of similar concerns, now with regard not only to Brahms's position relative to his predecessors, but perhaps also his standing relative to contemporary trends and the significance those trends might hold for the future of music. What, then, of the works that come in between, the mature multimovement instrumental works of the 1860s and 1870s?

Brahms's historical self-image is certainly no less pertinent an issue in the 1860s and 1870s (which saw Brahms's monumental efforts at gestating a first symphony in the wake of Beethoven), but several of the most relevant examples from this central era, including some of Brahms's most iconic works, have been the subject of rigorous analytical scrutiny that has brought to light a good understanding of the relationships they embody, individually, between historical reference and intermovement narrative. What is not so well recognized and appreciated is the extent to which these instances represent a broader trend that is exemplified also by music of the earlier and later periods, about which much remains to be said. My intention in this book is to illuminate this broader perspective by demonstrating how these more familiar instances function within a larger context that is also represented by a number of examples that have not been fully appreciated. As a basis for filling out this broader perspective in subsequent chapters, I provide here a brief overview of a handful of the most relevant examples from this middle period, beginning with the most familiar: the First Symphony.

Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, op. 68 (1862–76)

The First Symphony provides some of the most famous examples of historical reference in Brahms's music. The work's allusions to the symphonic repertory of Beethoven are intimately bound up with Brahms's many years of struggle to produce a symphonic debut worthy of its Beethovenian precedents — a work that exhibited the expressive power and monumentality of a Beethoven symphony while both expressing Brahms's own voice and demonstrating the continued viability of the symphony as a genre of "absolute" music, something that had been emphatically challenged in the prose and musical writings of the New German School.

The First Symphony makes reference to Beethoven's symphonic legacy in a number of important ways. It is a work of massive proportions, particularly in its substantial outer movements, both of which feature extended, heavily orchestrated slow introductions of an extreme expressive intensity conveyed through the handling of dissonance, chromaticism, texture, and other elements. As a C-minor work that concludes in the parallel major, the Symphony invites comparison with Beethoven's Fifth (and to a lesser extent with the Ninth, which traces a minor-to-parallel-major trajectory in D). Like Beethoven, Brahms delays the entrance of the trombones until the arrival of C major in the final movement. In Brahms's finale, they come to the fore (mm. 47ff.) in a passage that introduces the finale's hymn-like primary expository theme in C major (beginning at m. 61) — as mentioned above, an obvious and admitted nod to the "Ode to Joy" from the parallel movement in Beethoven's Ninth. This represents a breakthrough moment in Brahms's Symphony. On a structural level, it marks the establishment of the tonic major, which appeared temporarily at the conclusion of the first movement, and which has now reemerged with difficulty from the finale's dissonant, chromatic, ponderous introduction of roughly five minutes in length. (In contrast, Beethoven's finale arrives immediately victorious in the tonic major, the culmination of a tension-filled transitional passage leading from his C-minor scherzo). In terms of personal and historical significance, this initiates the conclusion of a piece that Brahms struggled for many years to write, and it is Brahms's answer to one of the thorniest problems he needed to solve in taking up the symphonic genre after Beethoven: what to do with the finale. This point in the work represents a personal victory for Brahms that equates with the modal victory of major over minor: it is the close of his first successful, hard-won symphonic work, one that he and the critical public were ultimately to deem a worthy successor to the symphonies of Beethoven ("the Tenth," as Bülow was to call it), and in doing so without resorting to the use of vocalists, text, or explicit extramusical content in the final movement (or elsewhere), he asserts and demonstrates not only both artistic debt to and independence from Beethoven, but also the continued viability of symphonic writing that need not resort to explicit extramusical or poetic content.

Another clear reference to the Fifth Symphony is Brahms's use of the rhythm and repeated notes of the so-called "Fate Motive" that pervades the Fifth's opening. Like Beethoven, Brahms invokes the motive in multiple movements; with Brahms, it in fact appears in all four. As in Beethoven's Symphony, the rhythm is most prominent in the first movement, appearing with particular intensity in the development section, where it is most audible in the horn, trumpet, and timpani [e.g., ex. 1.1a (note the use of the same rhythm in the melody in the strings) and 1.1b]. The relentlessness of this insistent rhythm, which tends to appear in association with dissonance, the minor mode, and a loud dynamic level, contributes to a sense of tension and restlessness. The rhythm returns as a quiet undercurrent in overlapping statements in the horn and timpani in the coda (mm. 495ff.; ex. 1.1c), as if to caution that an underlying uneasiness remains and will need to be addressed, for the movement's C-major close in fact brings only a temporary, fundamentally incomplete resolution of modal and other tensions.

Hints of the motive return in the inner movements, again as if to remind us that, despite the brighter tonalities we find here, we have not heard the last of C minor and its associated elements of disturbance. In the second movement, in E major, the rhythm can be heard in some of the melodic material (e.g., at mm. 9–11 and 90–95), but the repeated-note version appears almost immediately, recalling the first movement's close, in a single, subdued statement in the horns (ex. 1.2).


Excerpted from "Allusion as Narrative Premise in Brahms's Instrumental Music"
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Copyright © 2018 Jacquelyn E. C. Sholes.
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Table of Contents

List of Musical Instrument Abbreviations
1. The Notion of Allusion as Narrative Premise in Brahms's Instrumental Music
2. Lovelorn Lamentation, or Histrionic Historicism?: Re-Examining Allusion and Extramusical Meaning in the B-Major Piano Trio, op. 8
3. Musical Memory and the D-Major Serenade, op. 11
4. An Historical Model, an Emerging Soloist, a Young Composer in Turmoil: The Piano Concerto in D Minor, op. 15
5. A Later Example: Tragic Antiquarianism in Brahms's Fourth Symphony
Selected Bibliography

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