The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This Saturday and Sunday, the Token Creek Festival explores how an unrequited love for Clara Schumann helped make Brahms and his music autumnal | August 22, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

Johannes Brahms (below) remains the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use. This is due to his fastidiously high standards, and to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players.

His music is universally admired for its combination of sheer craft and deep emotional impact, ranging from the most muted private conversation to the most passionate and revealing passages he ever composed.

But putting aside his own personal temperament as well as his melancholy melodies, his bittersweet harmonies, and his masterful use of strings and woodwinds, what gives Brahms’ music that quality of sadness that so many listeners and critics describe as “autumnal”?

No discussion of Brahms can take place without engaging with the most important person in his life — Clara Schumann (below, in a  Getty photo), who was born Clara Wieck and became a virtuoso pianist and a composer whose 200th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year.

Brahms was deeply in love with Clara. But unfortunately she was married to Robert Schumann (below right with Clara), one of Brahms’ closest friends and most loyal promoters. Even after a mentally ill Robert Schumann died of suicide at 46, Clara remained loyal to his memory. For the rest of her long life, she performed, edited and promoted his music and rejected Brahms as a lover or second husband.

Almost overnight, Clara’s rejection seemed to cause Brahms to turn from a handsome young man (below top) to the more familiar figure of an overweight, cigar-smoking, bearded and prematurely old curmudgeon (below bottom).

Clara Schumann’s hidden presence is involved with all of the pieces on the Token Creek Festival program, which will be performed at 4 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 24 and 25, in the festival’s refurbished barn (below) at 4037 Highway 19 in DeForest.

The program includes the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, illustrated with a performance of Brahms’ “Regenlied” (the “Rain Song” that precedes it and introduces the theme of the sonata); the Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano in E minor; and the Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor, a piece that retains its distinctive charge of unresolvable emotion. (You can hear that unresolved emotion in the beautiful slow movement of the Piano Quartet No. 3 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performers are violinist Rose Mary Harbison, co-artistic director of the Token Creek Festival; violist Lila Brown; cellist Rhonda Rider; pianist Janice Weber; and Edgewood College mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson.

THE REST OF THE FEST

Upcoming programs include “Words & Music,” a belated 80th birthday tribute to artistic co-director John Harbison, on Wednesday night, Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m. The intimate program will include readings by poet Lloyd Schwartz, the premiere of new Harbison songs, plus works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Arnold Schoenberg.

The festival closes with “The Piano” program on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, both at 4 p.m. The festival welcomes back pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing together and as soloists.

Their program explores the question of the composer-performer, here composers who were also formidable pianists:  Mozart, Maurice Ravel and Franz Liszt. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, arranged by the composer for chamber ensemble, and excerpts of John Harbison’s Sonata No. 2, written for Levin, complete the program.

For tickets ($32) and more information, go to www.tokencreekfestival.org or call (608) 241-2525.


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6 Comments »

  1. “Johannes Brahms (below) remains the only composer whose complete catalogue (sic) of chamber music is still in constant use.”

    Here’s another reason why this is a meaningless (and unattributed to anyone; without a source) statement. Brahms wrote very little chamber music especially when compared to Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart. By my count, Brahms wrote 23 chamber works; Beethoven wrote upwards of 90 such pieces; Mozart at Wikipedia has 18 pages of chamber music (!); Schubert wrote hundreds of pieces that can be called “chamber music” (over 20 string quartets alone).

    Comment by fflambeau — August 23, 2019 @ 9:11 pm

  2. “You offer interesting facts about popularity. But you are mixing apples and oranges. The question was not about the most popular work or composer, but about the percentage of works composed by a certain composer that remain in the active repertoire.”

    Face it, you offer nada (nothing). NOTHING to support the ridiculous assertion (without any attribution) you made and you’ve had plenty of time to do so. My facts are not only about popularity but really dispute that ridiculous (and unfounded) assertion because not all of Brahms’s chamber works are popular or played that often! If you have zero pieces in the top 10 of classical chamber music, odds are that your music isn’t all as popular as thought in many circles (and that means, it isn’t being played while other composers are being played).

    Comment by fflambeau — August 23, 2019 @ 8:17 pm

  3. “Johannes Brahms (below) remains the only composer whose complete catalogue (sic) of chamber music is still in constant use.”

    Says who? And if so, what does that really signify? I suggest it is a meaningless statement.

    Meanwhile, here are some verifiable facts. In a major study of the top 100 chamber music pieces, Brahms has zero pieces in the top 10. Meanwhile, Schubert has five.

    In the top 25, Brahms has two pieces, Schubert has seven, Beethoven two; Mozart two; Mendelssohn two; DVOŘÁK has two; SHOSTAKOVICH has two.

    https://www.abcmusic.com.au/discography/classic-100-chamber-music

    In another ranking of the greatest 100 chamber music works:

    Brahms has 2 pieces in the top 10; meanwhile, Beethoven has 3 (including the top spot); Mozart has 2; Schubert has 3;

    In the same studies top 25, Brahms has only 3 pieces, Beethoven has 5; Mozart has 4; and Schubert has an amazing 5 (including the number 2, 5 and 6 spots). Brahms’s top ranked piece (his piano quintet in F) is ranked only ranked 4th best, behind works by Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart.

    In fact in the top 100, Brahms has 6 pieces; Schubert has 9; Beethoven has 11; Mozart has 13; Dvořák has 4; my old pal Haydn has 9; Ravel and Shostakovitch have 3 each.

    Source: https://digitaldreamdoor.com/pages/best-classic-chamber.html

    Given the above, I’d say the King of Chamber music is Schubert followed by Mozart and Beethoven. Brahms maybe is in 4th or 5th place, at best.

    Comment by fflambeau — August 23, 2019 @ 2:45 am

    • Meanwhile, based on a listener poll, this study found Dvořák in first place, followed closely by Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart. Brahms’s top piece (and only selection) was in 12th place!

      Personally, I think Mendelssohn’s Octet is the best piece of chamber music.

      https://www.classicalmpr.org/story/2016/11/20/the-top-20-chamber-pieces

      Comment by fflambeau — August 23, 2019 @ 3:02 am

      • You offer interesting facts about popularity. But you are mixing apples and oranges. The question was not about the most popular work or composer, but about the percentage of works composed by a certain composer that remain in the active repertoire.

        Comment by welltemperedear — August 23, 2019 @ 7:36 am

  4. Jake, first of all thank you for highlighting this weekend’s TCF concerts. Second, I hope you would be able to come hear the music. And/or the next weekend when Bob Levin and YaFei will be sharing their incredible pianistic selves with us.

    Harriet Statz

    On Thu, Aug 22, 2019 at 12:02 AM The Well-Tempered Ear wrote:

    > welltemperedear posted: “IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD > THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) > ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential > audience members to an event. And you might even attract new rea” >

    Comment by hjtstatz — August 22, 2019 @ 6:44 pm


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