Love in the Time of the Elegy
Orchestral Works by Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms
“In a storm of pleasure”: Richard Strauss’s Don Juan
1003 in Spain alone – nobody can match him. This is a Herculean achievement, virtually unsurpassable. Don Giovanni aficionados will know the context, subtext and metatext. And nobody will dispute that his erotic vitality has made this figure, immortalized by Mozart, one of the strongest subjects of projection in literary history, a tale retold countless times. Among the most poetic descriptions of Don Juan was penned by the German author Nikolaus Lenau: “I want to traverse that magic, immeasurably wide circle of beautiful women’s charms in a storm of pleasure, dying of a kiss from the last one’s mouth. Oh, my friend, I want to fly through every place where beauty blossoms, kneeling before each in conquest, if only for an instant.” The message is clear: sensuality and defiance of death triumph over the principle of rationality. The world is controlled by emotion, not reason. How could such a programme be transmuted into music, into what the Viennese theorist Eduard Hanslick famously called “tonally moving forms”?
Presumably just as Richard Strauss composed it. In every bar of his Don Juan, based on three excerpts from Lenau’s poem, we are assailed by the passion of (male) dominance. But Strauss does not resort to an image-by-image reproduction of his eponymous hero’s sensual raptures. Instead, carefully avoiding pure description, he formulates dynamic themes whose malleability ensures that the music never descends into dazzling superficiality. This risk is also circumvented by Strauss’s structural solution: a full-blown sonata form with two themes. The first, in triumphant E major, is presented with glamour and brilliance before mutating over several episodes: fiery, but controlled; sensuous, though not sultry; vital, yet poised. Contrasting with it is the second main idea, introduced on bass instruments, pressing forward impetuously and culminating in the hero’s first amorous experience – and, of course, not his last. On his way through the world of Eros, Don Juan meets three musically distinct female “figures”, one of which, depicted as a sorrowful cantilena on violas and cellos, is especially touching. Imposing itself between them, quite late in the work but “very energetically” on the horns, is a second Don Juan theme. It is understandable that the hero turns to reflection at this point in the tone poem. His erotic drive has apparently been too wild and lurid. What follows now is the gradual dying away of sensual pleasure in gloomy minor mode.
No “happy ending”: Johannes Brahms’s Fourth Symphony
Music history has frequently made matters too easy for itself by referring to Brahms as the composer who took half an eternity coming out from Beethoven’s shadow before he could achieve freedom in his later works. That this thesis still contains a grain of truth was manifested in Brahms’s agonizingly long struggle to produce his First Symphony in C minor. Yet, at the same time, he was never seeking simply to become Beethoven’s successor. “I am so tempted to envy my prolific colleagues who write with such ease and speed,” he confided to Hans von Bülow in 1884. “I’m prepared to assume that they are writing not to get into the encyclopaedia but from the same need, for the same reasons that I do – the best of reasons. How often will someone like that cheerfully write his fine, which really means: I’m finished with what I had in mind. How long can I carry the slightest finished trifle around with me before reluctantly admitting that it is finished.”
When Brahms wrote those lines, he was working on his Fourth Symphony. Though composed in two phases during the summer months of 1884 and 1885, it is a seamlessly integrated work in which Brahms’s goal of creating unity out of diversity is almost perfectly realized. Even in the tiniest details one notices intimate relationships, instigated in all four movements in order to conflate and, finally, unify them in a process of microscopically interleaving melodic motifs. The harmonic construction similarly reveals Brahms’s ingenious economy. Tonally, he has organized the entire work around the 3rd relationship E-C. Juxtaposed with this corset-like harmonic conception is the symphony’s complicated internal architecture. The opening movement is already criss-crossed by a network of developing variation. Its compact formal casing encloses an enormous complex of interrelated ideas. That is also true of the lyrical second movement and the rhythmically swaggering Allegro giocoso. In the finale, Brahms approaches the summit of symphonic architecture. Formally, the movement is laid out as a passacaglia of increasing urgency, based on J. S. Bach’s cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich BWV 150. As often in Brahms, the elegiac main theme of the first movement passes by once again, though only as an anaemic reminiscence for the good old days of the elegy, which itself was a lament for loss. In this last and most wistful of Brahms’s four symphonies, as in Schubert’s winter journey, there are frozen tears on the window.
Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major
In 1928 Ravel, who was also an outstanding pianist, made a tour of North America, giving some 30 concerts there in the course of four months. This success encouraged him to plan a piano concerto for a second North American tour. The tour never materialized, but the following year he conceived two concertos: one in G major for himself to play – though it was ultimately premiered by the French-music champion Marguerite Long – and one in D major for the left hand alone, commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I. Intervening before their composition was Ravel’s first visit to Spain, the country that played such an important role in his music. Also in 1929 his native town of Ciboure, in the French Basque country, honoured him by renaming a street “Quai Maurice Ravel”, and in 1930 the nearby seaside resort of Biarritz mounted a Ravel festival. By 1931 the scores of both concertos were complete.
Passages in the G major work recall Igor Stravinsky and George Gershwin, and the work has hints of Basque and Spanish music; yet it is also highly classical and at times almost resembles chamber music. In the first movement’s exposition alone, five themes are presented: “Basque” and “Spanish” ones as well as three “jazz” themes. Bitonality gives a special edge to the opening, which is launched by a whip-crack noise, and this impression is reinforced by ostinato passages in the piano part. The cadenza is preceded by solo appearances from the harp and then woodwind playing harp-like runs.
As in Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto K. 491, the second movement is dominated by two “soloists”: the pianist and the woodwind. Long stretches of this Adagio assai are more like a solo movement for piano with instrumental accompaniment. Commentators are divided over its classical model: the composer himself identified it as Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, while some writers have been reminded by, for example, the beginning of Fauré’s Ballade for piano and orchestra. The extended opening theme, simple and intimate, is partly taken up again in a dialogue between cor anglais (English horn) and piano, and is heard once more in the movement’s quasi-cadenza, now played by muted strings.
The finale is a fast, boisterously witty Presto in rondo form. Opening with drums and a brief fanfare, the exposition presents three themes: the first like a shrill whistle, the second syncopated, the third marchlike. The development section contains elaborate figuration for the bassoons and strings. In the foreshortened recapitulation, the opening themes alternate rapidly in ever-changing orchestration. The movement ends as furiously as it began.