Saturday, September 26, 2015 12:34 PM
Finally, I’ve reached the point where I’m willing to share my progress on the Brahms Opus 117. Here are some details about this special trio of piano intermezzi I’ve pieced together (mostly from Wikipedia.org):
(first published in 1892)
The book is originally Claire’s (she’ll still play a bit now and then—still better than me—oh, well) so you can see I had the benefit of practice notes left in her margins by the great piano teacher and performer, Muriel Brooks, who taught Claire for years—and even gave me the only ten lessons I ever had. Old Ms. Brooks is notable for the host of young Westchester piano students she helped shepherd towards musical enlightenment—most of us not so cooperative, as you may imagine. Some of Claire’s fingering is also marked in pencil which made things much easier for me.
- in Eb major – Andante moderato
“Schlaf sanft mein Kind, schlaf sanft und schön!
Mich dauert’s sehr, dich weinen sehn.”
—(Schottisch. Aus Herders Volksliedern)
[Schlaf sanft mein Kind, schlaf sanft und schön!
Mich dauert’s sehr, dich weinen sehn.]
[(Sleep softly, my child, sleep softly and well!
It breaks my heart to see you weep.)]
This first intermezzo, so like a lullaby, has such sonorous harmonies, such profound base lines, and so soaring and angelic a recapitulation in the finale that I find it almost too exciting to play. While this is considered a fairly simple piece to perform, as you can hear—even a single wrong note can mar the entire work.
- in Bb minor – Andante non troppo e con molto espressione
This second piece, my favorite, demands the most of what I lack—an alacrity with the keyboard—though I’ve tried many times, I can never give it the lilting simplicity it requires. This is as close as I can get, so far.
- in C# minor – Andante con moto
This last, longest, and most difficult of the three is something of a voyage—there are changes of mood, of key, and of texture—it begins with a troll-like dirge but the middle section is the most gymnastic and fragile keyboard sheet-music I’ve ever seen.
I first heard this work on an LP included in a Time-Life boxed set entitled “The Romantic Era” back in the early 1970s. Something about these three intermezzi has led me to listen to this piece again and again—I am haunted by its beauty. In some sense, each of the three is a variation on an old Scotch lullaby. In some papers there is also a tantalizing utterance of Brahms about “cradle songs of my sorrows”, which has often been associated with the set. I always found these pieces too dramatic to be lullabies, with the exception of the first, which does share tones of the famous Brahms’ Lullaby—but who am I to argue with music historians?
And now, a note in defense of my posting these to the public:
Music belongs to us all. Sure, there are those who excel at performance or composition—and I’m the last person who’d ever disrespect their tremendous talent and skill—but again, music is for everybody. As Judy Garland once sang, “If you feel like singing, sing. (If you can’t sing good, sing soft).” And my version of ‘singing soft’ is to post my piano-playing recordings on YouTube, where other people can listen to them, ignore them, or even complain about them—and I don’t disagree with the complainers. I’m not a gifted musician—I never will be—but I’m in love with music, with the piano, with the music of the great composers.
And aren’t we all on different levels of ability or skill in just about every endeavor? Isn’t there always someone better, or smarter, or quicker? Even if that isn’t always true, it is true for all of us except one—and that one only in one area of expertise. But we don’t sit about, waiting for only the best to do the things we are not ‘best’ at—we all do what we can, as best we can, at whatever moves us.
Classical music seems exotic to us—so we think of virtuosi as almost sacred (which in some ways they are) and exempt ourselves from attempting what they have already done, better than we ever could. I say no—I say music is for everyone. Listen to the greats—but let yourself sing as well—or play an instrument, or write a song—you have every right—in some ways, you even have a responsibility to have creativity and self-expression be a part of your life.
When we absent ourselves from the arts we atrophy the most aspirational aspects of our personalities—we are less than we can be, when we eschew the arts—just as we are ignorant when we eschew the sciences, for lack of being ‘geniuses’. In practicing piano, I have always heeded an early piece of advice: Always work on the parts that are the most difficult for you. And I’ve broadened this to include my whole life—for those of us with slender talents, it is just as important, perhaps more so, to make an effort towards creativity; for those of us with trouble learning, it is just as important to read something new, to learn, however slowly, new things. I don’t see adulthood as an end-point, but as a higher level of development towards a better self, an advanced stage of the learning and growing that we sometimes assume is the role of schoolchildren—and ends with childhood.
Plus, I like to share my stuff with my friends and relations who love me and support my meager efforts—just because I made them. And YouTube is free. So there it is—the great Brahms Project—but understand that I hope to post a much better performance next year, or the year after that.
Years ago, I often named my improvs ‘post-Bach’, ‘post-Haydn’, etc.—because I felt that the composers whom I had just sight-read had inspired me somewhat in the improv immediately afterward. But that naming convention led to too many duplicate titles, so I began making up names instead, for mnemonic purposes. Today, however, I return to this convention, in honor of Brahms.