Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Tchaikovsky on Brahms: A Pedestal without a Statue?

Pedestal of Johannes Brahms, without its statue, at the 2018 Ojai Music Festival
Photo credit: Rick Ginell


Brahms relic at the 2018 Ojai Music Festival


There's this weird connection between the 2018 Ojai Music Festival that concluded on the same Sunday (June 10) that, down the freeway at Disney Hall, the Los Angeles Master Chorale performed the Brahms Requiem. In my review of the latter, I noted that two composers associated in previous Ojai festivals, David Lang and Caroline Shaw, were featured as preludes to the Brahms. Turns out, in what seems a cheeky if coincidental tit for tat, Brahms made his own cameo appearance at Ojai -- not with his music but as kind of spectral presence.

Pictured above is an eerie artifact encountered by music critic Rick Ginell at Ojai. It's the pedestal of a broken-off statue of Brahms, a prop employed by the Festival as if to say, "What is past is fractured memory; our musical forefathers are buried and forgotten." Brahms had been deconstructed at Ojai, along with others in the Austro-German classical music pantheon. 

Herein lies a story. Composer Peter Tchaikovsky did not highly regard the compositions of Johannes Brahms, finding them cold and uninspired. There's an urban legend in music circles that the Russian composer characterized Brahms's music as "a pedestal without a statue." That could explain the depiction at Ojai, especially with Moldavian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, born in what was then the Soviet Union, as this year's Music Director.

Not content with a hand-me-down stories, however colorful, I searched on line to verify what Tchaikovsky had actually said. Turns out, in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck in 1880, Tchaikovsky did write something similar (relevant quote in red):

"Brahms's [Violin] Concerto appealed to me just as little as everything else he has written. He is of course a great musician and even a master, but [in his works] there is more mastery than inspiration. Lots of preparations as it were for something, lots of hints that something is going to appear very soon and enchant you, but nothing does come out of it all, except for boredom. His music is not warmed by genuine feeling; it has no poetry; what it has instead is enormous pretension to depth. However, in this depth there is nothing — it's just empty space. For example, let us take the opening of the concerto. It is beautiful as the introduction to something; it is like a splendid pedestal for a column, but the actual column is missing, and, instead, what comes immediately after one pedestal is simply another pedestal. I don't know whether I'm adequately expressing my thoughts, or rather the feeling which Brahms's music instils in me. What I'm trying to get at is that he never actually says anything, and if he does, then he fails to say it completely. His music consists of skilfully pasted-together fragments of something. The overall design lacks distinctiveness, colour, and life. However, I think that quite apart from all these specific criticisms I should above all say that Brahms, as a musical personality, is simply antipathetic to me — I can't stand him. No matter how much he tries, I always remain cold and hostile. This is a purely instinctive reaction."

In another letter, Tchaikovsky wrote: "I've met an incredibly large number of people here. Amongst these Brahms and Grieg stand out in particular. Brahms is a pot-bellied boozer, together with whom I got myself pretty drunk yesterday at Brodsky's house. Grieg is an uncommonly nice man of my age."

Click the link to find a comprehensive summary of what is known about the several encounters between Tchaikovsky and Brahms, and as an added bonus, their having been joined on several occasions by the Norwegian Edvard Grieg, who was admired by both Brahms and Tchaikovsky. (By the way, Tchaikovsky spoke fluent German, as did Grieg.)

The touching thing about Tchaikovsky and Brahms is that, over a period of time in the 1880's, getting to know each other over several bottles of wine, they actually became merry drinking buddies, despite never becoming admirers of each other's music. By the end of the next decade, both were in their graves.

It would have been fun to eavesdrop on the conversations between Grieg, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky.

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