November 15, 2020
Brahms: Love & Longing
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19th-Century German Romanticism and the American counterpart.
“..it would be difficult to imagine it sounding more ‘right’ than on Gonzalez’s viola…”
— Bruce Hodges, The Strad Magazine
Sonata in F Minor, op. 120, no. 1
Die stille Lotosblume (The Silent Lotus Flower), op. 13, no. 6
Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen
Concert Waltz “Bethena”
Sonata in E-flat Major, op. 120, no. 2
“warn-hearted playing and mellow tone”
— the Strad Magazine
Love and longing were principal themes in the art, poetry, and music of 19th-century Germany, the period known as the Romantic Era. Johannes Brahms embodied those themes in his work. He also seemed to live them, with a series of broken-off engagements and obsessions with unavailable objects of affection. In 1890, at the height of his fame and in a period of dark depression, Brahms declared his retirement from composing. The next year he met Richard Mühlfeld, clarinetist of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, who would become his dear friend, collaborator, and muse. Mühlfeld inspired Brahms out of his retirement to write four masterpieces of chamber music as well as some of his greatest works for piano. Brahms dedicated his last two sonatas, op. 120, to this clarinetist whom he referred to as his prima donna, nightingale of the orchestra, and Fraülein Klarinette. Originally for clarinet and premiered by Mühlfeld with Brahms at the piano, these two sonatas were later adapted for viola by the composer.
One of the distinguished guests at the private premier of Brahms’s op. 120 was Clara Schumann, lifelong friend and champion of the younger composer’s work. Since Schumann made piano transcriptions of her husband Robert’s songs it seemed appropriate for us to make a viola transcription of one of Clara’s songs for this program. “Die stille Lotosblume”, a setting of a poem by Emanuel Geibel, is a perfect example of German Romanticism. In it a swan sings hopelessly to a beautiful lotus blossom in the moonlight. The song ends fittingly with an unresolved chord.
Clara Schumann’s songs are part of a wonderful art song repertory which developed in Germany in the 19th century. Meanwhile in the United States an equally wonderful repertory of so-called spirituals was developed by enslaved African Americans. Brahms’s friend Antonin Dvorak spoke passionately about the value of these spirituals as a basis for a distinctly American school of art music. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” was first published in an 1867 collection entitled “Slave Songs of the United States.” Our arrangement of this powerful song was made by Lawrence Benjamin Brown for performances with the great Paul Robeson. Both Brown and Robeson were descendants of enslaved Africans, as was Scott Joplin, arguably the first great American composer. Joplin began publishing songs in 1895, just one year after the premier of our Brahms sonatas. He also composed two operas in addition to the concert waltz on tonight’s program and of course the ragtime music for which he is most famous.