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
6 Comments

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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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Classical music: When the proverbial Fat Lady sings, is it rude and sexist to call her “fat”? The opera world continues to weigh in on critics who attacked a female mezzo for being too overweight.

June 8, 2014
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Perhaps you already know the simple facts of the controversy:

A number of critics lambasted a relatively unknown Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught (below top) when she recently sang the role of the young, handsome and androgynous Octavian (below bottom on the left) in Richard Strauss’ extraordinarily popular and moving operaDer Rosenkavalier.”

tara erraught

tara erraught (left) as octavian

All agreed that she sang gorgeously. But being overweight, she was also criticized for short-changing the believability of the theatrical side of the opera. One critic who lauded her singing also described her as a “chubby bundle of puppy fat.”

True, The Ear can recall when superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti (below) was criticized for being way too heavy — indeed, obese and not just overweight — and lumberingly awkward to play certain romantic leads with any creditability. But, oh, that voice!

Luciano Pavarotti

But these new critical remarks seem to cross those boundaries and veer off into gratuitous meanness and rudeness that had more than a smack of sexism and bias about them. Unless you are a top female diva, maybe women do indeed remain second-rate citizens of the opera world.

PX*2527755

Anyway, here are links to three stories that provide good summaries of the conflict and the kerfuffle.

Be sure to read the many reader and listener comments that greeted them. They give you a feeling for the state of the art when it comes to the public’s changing standards of physical fitness for playing the dramatic or theatrical sides of opera roles.

The first is the story that NPR aired on its excellent classical music blogDeceptive Cadence”:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/05/20/314007632/in-2014-the-classical-world-still-cant-stop-fat-shaming-women

Then other voices in other media weighed in.

Here are responses from The New York Times chief critic Anthony Tommasini (below top) and his colleague Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim (below bottom):

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/23/arts/music/new-york-times-critics-respond-to-glyndebourne-fat-reviews.html?_r=0

tommasini-190

Corinna da Fonseco-Wollheim

And here is another piece done by NPR that provides a kind of post-mortem following the two weeks of scandal and reactions:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/06/03/318454668/what-weeks-of-debate-have-shown-us-about-women-in-classical-music

Plus in all fairness, you should also listen to the intelligence, charm and vivacious energy — to say nothing of her lovely voice in singing Rossini — that Tara Erraught projects in a Lincoln Center “spotlight” profile you will at the bottom in a YouTube video.

What do you think of the criticism of her size and weight?

Have TV and films made us more literal in what we expect in the way of realistic portrayals of characters in the theatrical side of opera versus the musical side?

If you find the critical remarks about physical weight inappropriate, how and why do you think so? Do you find them sexist or genuinely biased?

And am I the only person who thinks Tara Erraught — who I am sure felt hurt by the deeply personal nature of the criticism —  might well have the last laugh from all the publicity that has brought her to the world’s attention?

The Ear wants to hear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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