Baritone and Orchestra
Commissioned by Vincent Meyer, on behalf of the Philharmonia Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnanyi on the occasion of Alfred Brendel's 70th Birthday
2(=picc).2.2.2(=cbsn).cbsn - 4230 - timp - perc(1): tgl/high anvil/baking trays - strings
Brahms is a setting of Alfred Brendel’s poem Brahms II (published in his collection of poetry, One Finger Too Many) in which the malodorous ghost of Brahms stalks a house and plays the piano late at night. It was composed in 2001 for the Philharmonia Orchestra in celebration of Brendel’s 70th birthday. Adès found his inspiration for this ‘anti-homage’ to Brahms, as he describes his piece, in two quotes about the composer. The first is from Tchaikovsky’s diaries: ‘I played through the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard. His music is made up of fragments of some indefinable something welded together’. The next comes from Jan Swafford’s biography of Brahms: ‘The middle classes loved the beauty and warmth of his music, not the logic. Surely Brahms understood that’. Adès explains his approach to the composition of Brahms: ‘I wondered what would happen if I wrote a piece just about the logic of Brahms’ music and not about the beauty and warmth.’
Brahms is a playful, but serious, investigation of the limits of Brahms’ musical material. Adès takes Brahms’ melodic and harmonic tics – such as sequences based on descending thirds, and densely contrapuntal textures – to ‘logical’ extremes. As a result of this process, there are allusions to many Brahms pieces. The opening notes for piccolo, clarinet and violins, outline the same series of thirds that appears at the start of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony: B-G-E-C. But where the pitches are the basis of a long-breathed argument in the symphony, they are mechanical, even sinister, in Adès’ reworking, as the music descends via this obsessive chain of intervals from the highest orchestral register to the low rumbles of contrabassoon and double basses. The effect is to ironise the portentousness of Brahms’ compositional techniques. Adès has spoken of his sense that ‘Brahms is unable to allow his ideas and material to breathe within his structures: as if he deliberately disables his instinct’.
Yet the tone of Adès’ piece is never narrowly sarcastic. Instead, the limitations of the logic of Brahms’ material are used to expressive effect. The words ‘Brahms ist gekommen’ (‘Brahms has arrived’), the fourth line of the poem, precipitate a loud orchestral interjection: a vivid re-orchestration of a chord from the First Piano Concerto. The climax of the piece is an especially colourful parody of the percussion writing in the scherzo of the Fourth Symphony, in which Adès replaces Brahms’ original triangles with baking trays and an anvil. And after this outburst, when Brahms gets up from the abused, unfortunate piano, he disappears in a fug of his own musical material. Repeating ‘Brahms’ over and over again, Adès composes another sequence, based on more thirds, and sevenths, before Brahms’ ghost at last dissolves, surrounded by spectral flickers of his own music. The ultimate irony of Brahms is that in revealing what Adès sees as the ‘disability’ of Brahms’ musical language, the piece becomes a compelling dramatic miniature in its own right, at once irreverent and profound.
© Tom Service