Encores & Curtain Calls: Resurrection & passion
“Straight-away the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God, and not only do I see distinct themes in my mind’s eye, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies and orchestration.”
— Johannes Brahms
The musical scene in Brattleboro, Vt., just keeps pouring it on. I write this barely two hours after having returned from a superb performance of Morten Lauridsen’s luminous “Lux Aeterna” and British composer Bob Chilcott’s “Requiem” by the Brattleboro Concert Choir under the dynamic direction of Susan Dedell.
The Lauridsen in particular is music of intricate construction and ever-metamorphosing subtlety, with a fair share of challenging and gorgeous harmonic terrain to negotiate. It was clear, both during the performance and afterward, in both the glowing faces of the choir members as well as the standing ovation of the audience, that they had aced it.
Both singers and instrumentalists beautifully midwifed the music; I felt sure — as I told Ms. Dedell afterward — that Lauridsen would have been well pleased and that she deserved to go to sleep in the knowledge of complete artistic accomplishment.
Just ahead, also in Brattleboro, under the auspices of the Brattleboro Music Center Chamber Music Series, on Friday, Jan. 18, at the Centre Congregational Church, 193 Main St., the Rubens Quartet will perform Beethoven’s Opus 132, and, in conjunction with special guests Dimitri Murrath and Judith Serkin, Brahms’ Sextet in G Major, Op. 36.
In a YouTube video, just prior to a performance by the Blair String Quartet of the Beethoven, second violinist Cornelia Heard stands and shares the extra-musical scenario that led directly to the work’s composition:
“Opus 132 of Beethoven has many distinguishing characteristics, but none more so than the third movement, the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ (Holy Prayer). Beethoven wrote this in 1825 and he had just had a serious illness — actually a combination of illnesses, and he thought that he wouldn’t live through it. And he did recover, and he was grateful, and he wrote this piece after that ... And at the top of the third movement, he writes: ‘Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Deity, from a Convalescent, in the Lydian Mode’; and in this movement he alternates slower sections with faster sections, there’s a slow, a fast, a slow, a fast and a slow — a five-part movement. Above the first Andante — the faster section — he writes ‘with new energy, feeling new strength.’ So in one sense, it is program music in that in the opening slow section he uses a beautiful theme, a chorale. Before the last section he writes, ‘with the greatest intimate feeling.’”
Robert Kapilow, likewise, in a pre-performance address in the Stanford School of Medicine Medcast lecture series, goes so far as to comment that, “We tend to think of illness and disease first and foremost as a problem — as something to be cured. But illness can also be a source of creativity, and in the case of Beethoven, the actual passage from illness to health absolutely became the source of one of the most extraordinary compositions in musical history, the third movement of string quartet, opus 132 ... While he was working on the piece he became seriously ill, with liver disease, bowel inflammation and other abdominal complications.”
Bach’s healing inspired the composer to re-structure the traditional four-movement string quartet structure into a five-movement form, with a central “hymn of thanksgiving” forming the central arc of the third movement.
Kapilow goes on to say, “I believe this piece is written from that kind of unique place that you can get to when you’ve just recovered from a serious, death-defying illness, that kind of place where, suddenly, for the first time, the basic facts of existence seem almost miraculous —– breathing without pain, walking with ease, feeling well. But this piece is also written from a place where the memory of the illness is still there, and the contrast between the illness and the wellness that is now felt seems almost staggering. No one had ever written music like this before.”
While, in this writer’s view, all music, however hallowed its game plan, must ultimately stand on its own sonic feet and a great program in no way ensures a great piece of music (there are many failures). Sometimes, the two wind up dovetailing very sweetly together, so that, indeed, we have a lofty game plan giving birth to a transcendent piece of music; such, in the view of many, is Beethoven’s Opus 132.
Interestingly, Brahms’ Sextet in G Major was first performed in Boston on Oct. 11, 1866. It is scored for two violins, two violas and two cellos and is in four movements.
The addition of a second viola and a second cello levels the lopsided playing field of the traditional string quartet, with its two violins, one viola and one cello. What this effectively does is expand the power of the mid-range and low-end, so that they no longer act merely as supports and buttresses for the tune-spinning violins, but come to have an independent life of their own.
Brahms was nothing if not a lover of lush textures. Indeed, even without knowing a thing about reading music, if one idly opens almost any page of a Brahms score — whether for piano or orchestra — what becomes quickly apparent to the eye — and this is true even if one turns the music upside down — is just how “wall-to-wall” Brahms’ scores are. If there was an empty space he would inevitably find a way to fill it, and fill it with luscious sound. The added viola and cello suited his aesthetic perfectly, creating, in their own way, a lush little string orchestra.
According to musical detectives, the first movement conceals, in bars 162 to 168, coded in the notes a-g-a-d-h-e, a reference to the first name of Agathe von Siebold, with whom the composer was infatuated at the time.
I only hope the privileged lady had the quick wits to decode Brahms’ musical love letter in time to blow him a silent kiss as her name hit the air.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at