Thursday, August 9, 2007

Reading Brahms's 2nd

Finally, it is time to wrap up the First Assignment in how to read a good symphony. The last piece from our original bakers' dozen is also the first of the group of which I own a full orchestral score. (For the others, I simply listened with, at most, a 2-hand or 4-hand piano reduction to read along.) So let me take this opportunity to plug the Dover Miniature Scores, available on Amazon. These are slim paperback books that fit comfortably in the hand, while giving you a good view of everything going on in the orchestral score. Quite a number of good symphonies are available in this series. I have found that, with a reasonable amount of note-reading ability, the combination of listening to the piece and reading it in score can lead to many satisfying discoveries.

Also, I think I have already plugged Peter Schickele's "Unbegun Symphony" somewhere in this blog. This piece is a humorous pastiche of so many different pieces, classical and otherwise, that it could almost be used to measure a person's knowledge of music. The more often it makes you laugh, the more music you know. Of course, I use the word "almost" advisedly. There are some people who have no sense of humor about music. I pity them.

Unfortunately, they have me over one point. I had heard the Schickele spoof symphony before I ever listened to Brahms's 2nd. And Schickele's Unbegun Symphony begins with the opening passage of the Brahms 2nd Symphony, wittily combined with "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay." For years afterward, I was unable to hear this passage from Brahms without snickering at the possibility of "Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay" breaking out, instead of the sweet violin theme Brahms introduces in bar 44. I'm better now, but this does say something about the foolishness of learning a joke before you know why it's funny.

All right, enough true confessions. Let's talk turkey.

Brahms's Second Symphony in D major looks pretty impressive in the open score. It is written for what is now really an average-sized orchestra. Don't let the number of staves make you nervous. You're not actually expected to notice every single note. There are lots of rests, doublings, and stretches of filler-notes (middle voices in the harmony, etc.), so even when there's something going on on every staff, your eye will usually find one, two, or maybe three things at a time to line up with stuff that your ear picks up.

The staves in my miniature score are labeled in German, the way Brahms originally wrote them. From top to bottom, the staves are laid out in the customary order, with the woodwinds on top, followed by French horns, brass instruments, and timpani, all braced together; and below them, enclosed by a separate brace, the strings. Don't be impertinent about the fourth staff (2 Fagotte). This is not a reference to a same-sex couple, but to a pair of bassoons. You'll notice that each staff, string parts excepted, is shared by two instruments; and some of the instruments appear to be playing in a different key from everybody else - long story short, when a "Clarinet in A" plays a written C, you hear an A. There's a similar story to do with the horns (in D and E), and the trumpets (in D); everything these instruments play has to be transposed into another key. Which just adds another reason to admire the people who read and write such scores professionally. They really have to keep track of a lot of things at once.

Another thing eagle-eyed score-readers may notice is that there are more clef signs than just the friendly old Treble Clef and Bass Clef known to all piano students. The staves labeled "2 Posaunen" (Trombones 1 & 2) and "Bratsche" (Viola) have a different clef sign entirely. This is the so-called "Movable C Clef." Shaped like a highly stylized letter K, this clef can move up or down the staff. Wherever the angle of the K intersects a line, that line is "middle C." This is very handy for parts that have notes stretching a good ways in both directions from middle C; it saves constantly having to switch between the Treble and Bass Clef, or having to read "ledger-line" notes way above or below the staff. Is that cool or what?

Of course, that's just one more thing - in addition to the sheer number of staves, the wide-spread notes, and the transposing instruments - preventing average people like the guy across the hall, or even slightly above-average people like you, from sitting down at the piano and playing Brahms's 2nd Symphony out of the open score. This is why they also make piano-reductions of them. The ones for two hands are either fiendishly difficult or simplified out of any semblance to the original work; the ones for four hands, however, require...well, four hands. Each two-page spread has a left-hand page for the "Secondo" player (who owns the bottom of the keyboard) and a right-hand page for the "Primo" player (who owns the top), so they can share a book and a piano bench and, hopefully, not elbow each other to death while trying to play their respective parts.

One last thing to point out, for anyone daring enough to be following along in a miniature score: notice the 1st and 2nd Violin parts, and Viola, in bar 2, right after the repeat sign. Each part has one note followed by two quarter-rests, with a notation saying "2. Mal." This means "the second time." So, these notes are properly part of the "first ending" at the end of the Exposition, where it goes back to the beginning of the movement. Ignore them for now.

Movement I opens with a dialogue between the horns and woodwinds, each phrase of which is preceded by a three-note "pick-up" in the lower strings (e.g. "do-ti-do" in bar 1). This establishes a peaceful atmosphere, but also - very sneakily - introduces the thematic building-blocks on which much of the movement is built. Brahms toys with these ideas for a little bit, in a sort of introductory way. You don't even hear violins until bar 17, and the piece doesn't seem to really get moving until a full-blown theme emerges in bar 44. At first gently, then with increasing energy, Brahms plays with this theme, breaks it apart, and keeps you off-balance with sudden changes of rhythm, loudness, and texture. At bar 82 a "singing" theme comes forth, with the cellos carrying the melody in a duet with the violas.

After this theme is fully stated, the woodwinds and violins take it over and build up to the first passage of sustained intensity in the movement so far. Throughout this passage Brahms develops a four-note figure, then goes back to the cello theme for the gentle end of the exposition. The development shows Brahms messing around with the opening motifs, weaving daisy-chains of one bit and inventing a grisly fugato from another, complete with a brass stretto that sounds like either a violent collision or a violent separation. The fury builds - still based on fragments of the movement's opening - until the theme from bar 44 comes back and momentarily restores some peace. Then comes another scary explosion, based on the opening horn phrase, but the bar 44 theme again settles things down for what seems to be a varied recap of the movement's opening. The main difference seems to be the addition of a quiet, restless motion in the background. All the themes are where they belong, only closer to the home key of D. But the movement has only made it as far back as A major (the dominant) by the end of the recap. This leaves the coda to bring us the rest of the way home, while many of the movement's themes step forward for a parting bow.

Movement II, a very slow movement in B major, opens darkly, with two melodies moving simultaneously but in opposite directions: a falling phrase in the cellos, a rising one in the bassoons. This contrary-motion phrase comes back many times during this movement, like a rondo refrain, unifying its wide range of moods and ideas. After this first statement, the cellos continue with a stately theme that also comes back (as does a horn theme introduced in bar 17), rather like secondary themes of a sonata. And of course, any material that returns is bound to appear in altered garb, sometimes in the manner of development, sometimes variation. In short, the movement is what it is, and no other is quite like it. When you reach the end of it, you feel you have followed Brahms on an eventful journey of heart and mind, and the themes are landmarks you will remember.

Movement III, roughly in ABABA form, begins as a lilting, dancelike Allegretto in G major, scored mostly for winds. Then the strings suddenly sweep the piece off in a furious rush, a contrasting section in which I always thought I heard something like the lilting tune flipped upside down (though Brahms never quite does this). The transition back to the opening material is much more gradual and graceful, but the strings break off a piece of the theme to create an ostinato passage of almost tragic seriousness. The rapid episode comes back again, only in a triple metre this time, a twist that leads to some memorable rhythmic surprises. Finally the opening subject comes back for a full orchestral treatment that brings the movement to a touching close.

Movement IV is a brilliant sonata with themes that turn out, in the end, to fit perfectly into jubilant closing fanfares. It opens with the strings in unison, sotto voce, introducing a theme that contains a rhythmic hiccup and a harmonic kink. The same theme group includes another melody, introduced by the woodwinds in bar 13, that will become important later on. Very quickly the piece revs up to an almost hysterical pitch of joy, quieting down only for a lithe transition to the slower, somewhat chorale-like second subject. This leads to another passage of (mostly) jubilant intensity, and an equally brilliant codetta based on motives from the first theme. The development commences without a repeat of the first part. Brahms plays with the material from the first group, rhythmically transforming the first theme in a passage of increasing tranquility. Then he launches into the recap at full speed.

Brahms alters the transition to the second group (omitting the transition material from the exposition section). The codetta veers off into unexpected harmonic territory, opening the door to a long coda in which the themes come back for a bit more development. The first theme gets some of the same tranquility-treatment it got at the end of the development, but this time instead of growing tranquil it grows bigger and louder and more ecstatic. Just when Brahms seems to have lost his grip and let the piece run wild, the chorale-like second theme comes back - for once, not slowly, but in the form of a boisterous brass fanfare, followed by 9 bars of colossal closing chords with nary a hint of ritard.

IMAGES: Peter Schickele; a Dover Miniature Score; Johannes Brahms; a violoncello; clarinets and bassoons; a trumpet and violin. EDIT: Here is a video of Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic performing the finale of Brahms's Second:

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