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Unfashionable Music – Brahms

December 3, 2010

There was a time when people spoke of the truly great classical composers as the three B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.  Recently Mozart has tended to take the place of Brahms on that short list.  Perhaps that’s fair.  For all of its merits Brahms’ music sometimes falls a little short of the lofty reaches the other three hit.

But something else is at work here.  As unfashionable as all of classical music is today, Brahms’ is particularly so.  His music exudes an earnestness, a seriousness which makes it incomprehensible to listeners steeped in the irony of contemporary culture. Johannes couldn’t have understood the concept of snark if his life depended on it.

Brahms’ seriousness never bothers me (I’m guilty of a penchant for seriousness myself.) What does sometimes grate is the strident quality of some of his passages.  Perhaps I hear in that blaring brass and marcato fortissimo strings marching music for the German armies that twice devastated Europe.  Except that Brahms died in 1897, before all that.

The unfashionable quality of Brahms  came clear to me ten years ago when I was stunned to hear the slow movement of his 3rd symphony playing behind a car commercial, with the usual voice-over in unintended irony,  “Announcing the all new…”

I thought – advertisers must be really getting desperate for new ideas. That piece in that context sounded far more exotic than the oddest strains of “World” music – chanting Tibetan Monks, Chinese violins or Vuvuzella –all of which sit comfortably behind commercials. I love that piece of Brahms, but it was hanging in the wrong hood – our modern world.

So why bother with that old fart? Brahms isn’t going to get you any cred. Mention you’ve been listening to him and your friends are likely to say either, “Who?” or “Ewwwww.”

However if you remove Brahms from our world – say to the safety of your iPod, where no one can laugh at  you – you’ll find that his music gives you an experience no other music does.  You’ll feel new things. And think new things.

The feeling part is easy. The flip side of Brahms’ Germanic stridency is his lyricism, an echo of his love of his nations folk melodies. It’s unparalleled anywhere else in music.

Brahms was the king of a certain poignant melodic line.  If you want to experience one, check out the following points in this two part video conducted by Von Karajan (a guy who knew a thing or two about conducting Brahms.) PART ONE:  AT 2:35, 4:40 PART 2: 2:30

(Sorry! No imbed allowed.  Open these in another window and you can follow my notes):

The intellectual value of Brahms’ music takes more work to appreciate, but it’s well worth the effort. That value is tied up in the concept of Development.  Development is hard to describe and harder to experience, for it is almost a vanished art. Be it Pop, Classical or Jazz, it is rarely even touched on in the music of the last one hundred years.

Beethoven invented development.  The later Romantic composers tried to emulate him. The only one who got close was Brahms.  So what is development?  It is the process by which the composer varies and transforms multiple musical themes over time, interweaving them.

Using Development the composer creates a dramatic musical story. Not a story in which the notes symbolize human life dramas – that’s called program music.  But a story where the characters are musical themes. They converse with each other, argue their differences.

As they encounter conflict their moods shift from light to dark and back. They grow and like characters in a novel become better than they were at the beginning.

To facilitate this musical story-telling Brahms and Beethoven constructed elaborate architectural structures, beautiful in their own right even aside from the sweet melodies and deep feelings that they housed.


If you just want to skim the melodic cream off this piece, you can skip what follows.  I offer it as a primer in Brahms’ use of Development, focusing on three of the many themes.

I’ve warned of  “Strident” sections.  Though if you bother to get to know this piece well enough you can enjoy how those harsh moments fit into the architecture, and how they set off the lyrical gems by contrast.

Brahms constructed this movement of many themes. I focus on only three: what I’ll call “Intro I”, “Intro II”  and “Lyrical.”

:10 Intro I in the low strings, in a major key. These three notes aren’t really a melody, but a “Motif.” They appear in so many guises throughout that you can play a game of “finding Waldo” if you wish.

:12 Intro II in the horns also in the major.

:26 Intro I low strings, varied into a minor key Intro II follows, also varied into a minor key.

1:13 Intro I in the winds over a new background- ponderous horns -which alter its meaning.

1:27 – Intro I slowed to half speed, prolonging the sense of anticipation for what follows:

1:31 A lyrical melody in the violins. It’s actually a red herring –not as lyrical as what is coming.

1:56 – a derivation of Intro I. Here’s an example of what I mean by strident.

2:09 –  The same derivation, only turned gentle.

2:36 What we call in pop music “the payoff.” The Lyrical theme finally makes its warm, yet bittersweet appearance, dressed in an elegance only Brahms could weave – with the violas in harmony above the 2nd violins.  Sweet as this melody is, in the next bars it toys with the uncertainty of the diminished, then at:

3:11 goes full into the minor with plaintive flutes on top. It wanders through more moods, then builds to:

3:38  A heroic, strident theme.

3:53  a derivation of Intro I

4:40 Lyrical with  flute obbligato, rendering it more tender.

4:54 The flute takes the lead on Lyrical, lending it a  pastoral touch.

5:16  – a sense of growing mystery –the piece is traveling, but where to?

5:28 The reveal of where it’s been going –on a long way home, back to Intro I. Except that home is now a different place than at the beginning, burdened by what? History – all that’s happened in the last five weighty minutes. Hints of the lyrical, but they quickly disappear in:

5:50 yet another dramatic build. What this time?

6”04 A fugue.  Which quickly builds again to:

6:35 Intro I in the horns in a rapid imitative fanfare (like a round), then another fanfare as the strings play their own variation on Intro I. If the fugue was baroque this is rococo.

7:11 Intro II dressed very heavy in trombones, and again at



:27 – the heaviest version of Intro II, in full brass. Now an announcement of something grand, interspersed with hints of Intro I. It suddenly quiets, and reveals a surprise – not something grand, but…

1:05 Intro II, gentle like the first time, only transfigured to the lyrical by a sweeping violin obbligato.

2:22 – the horns make another announcement.

2:30  It’s Lyrical, sadder than before .

3:34- The strident, heroic theme  returns, then another dramatic build to:

4:37  Lyrical –flute in a major key, happy and pastoral.

5:03   Things feel like they’re winding down, signaling the end.

5:19  Intro I dramatic, continuing to point to an ending.

5:36  – now mysterious – is this really the end?

6:05  No, it’s  quietly heroic.

6:27 Wrong again, it’s this elegiac reworking of Intro II.

It’s all been a trick. The real ending comes at

7:12- He lightens up!  Now the old man is not going to get himself a slot on Comedy Central any time soon. But he did consider this humorous, his way of admitting he didn’t take himself and his very serious music too seriously.

It’s like a 15 minute novel.  One you can read 100 times.  And that’s just one movement from one of hundreds of his works.


From → Classical Music

  1. I’ve listened to a nunber of Brahms’ works before, chiefly the symphonies and his Hungarian dances, both in the two-piano form and in the orchestral version. I’ll likely look for more; your dissection of the movement was fascinating.

    Yes, indeed, to the German duality, the stridency and romanticism, each a side of that particular ethnic/national coin. During my student days criss-crossing Europe, I spent a lot of time riding trains in Germany and making my way through dark cities there, and the flip-flopping between the insistence on order and the indulging of the lost young American damn near drove me crazy.

    You’re also right about development being lost, or nearly so. It’s hard to do, as I’m sure you know well, especially in anything at all brief. Three things from the pop world came to mind as I listened to old Johannes’ work: Jim Webb’s “MacArthur Park,” Chicago’s nearly side-long “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” and the Side Two Medley on the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” During the AR Medley, the return of the “You Never Give Me Your Money ” theme, first on trumpets and then in vocals, during “Carry That Weight” is to me a stroke of genius that ties the fifteen-minute exercise together.

    Finally, your comments on motifs made me think of a movie soundtrack: Bill Conti’s score for the original “Rocky”in 1976. There are three or four recurring motifs in the score, and they show up in differing environments and dynamics. I’ve often thought that Conti’s work for “Rocky” is one of the best scores I’ve ever listened to. (And that’s coming from someone who’s listened to scores of scores since he was a kid.)

    Good, good post. Lots of mental nourishment here.

    • Much food in your comment, too! Except for Abbey Road, of course, I don’t know the stuff you mention. Film scores at one time tended to be based on theme and variations – it’s what inspired me to do the same with library music. (The “Theme Suites” on my website – hit Browse and choose that term and you can hear them.)

      Oddly, the rock things that best echoed development for me were some of the Dead’s early improv’s – Anthem of the Sun and Live/Dead in particular.

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