- Brahms among Friends: Listening, Performance, and the Rhetoric of Allusionby Paul Berry
Paul Berry’s book puts forward two enticing propositions relating to works by Johannes Brahms. Firstly, that certain of Brahms’s compositions were directed towards individuals within his social circle, carrying meanings they were uniquely situated to perceive, and secondly, that through musicological inquiry we might excavate these meanings today and imaginatively reconstruct the ways in which Brahms’s intended audience experienced his music. Such propositions highlight the importance of Brahms’s private social sphere to his compositional activity, something that has largely been overshadowed by the public reception of his music. Berry’s ambitious project is to guide his readers towards historically informed understandings of selected lieder, piano and chamber works, compositions that span the duration of Brahms’s creative life. To do this he engages an array of primary sources, offers analyses of musical pieces and poetry, and reflects on the physical and aural experiences of playing and hearing Brahms’s music.
Part I centers on three short works: two lullabies written in the 1860s, and the lied Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenzedating from 1877. The composition of each of these pieces was triggered by events in the lives of couples close to Brahms. In the cases of the Geistliches Wiegenliedop. 91, no. 2, and the Wiegenliedop. 49, no. 4, this was the birth of children in the families of Amalie and Joseph Joachim and Bertha and Arthur Faber. Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenzeop. 71, no. 1, served as a gift for Clara and Julius Stockhausen on the occasion of the baptism of their third son. Berry examines each work and provides an engaging description of the friendship that occasioned it. The goal of these separate case studies is to deliver interpretative accounts of the individual pieces, showing how poetic texts, borrowed musical materials, and even the required performing forces might have been affectively charged for the works’ recipients.
In Part II Berry surveys a wider range of Brahms’s music, but focuses on a single friendship, that which Brahms shared with the composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg and his wife Elisabeth. Herzogenberg paid homage to his more famous contemporary in his op. 23 piano variations: the work uses an early song by Brahms as its theme and invites comparison with Brahms’s variations of the same opus number. Interestingly, Berry suggests that Brahms also occasionally wrote pieces alluding to Herzogenberg’s works. In the finale of the String Quintet op. 88 he finds a reference to material from one of Herzogenberg’s string trios, while the variation movement within Brahms’s op. 87 piano trio takes up the same theme that Herzogenberg had used some years earlier. Brahms’s allusions, however, [End Page 556]come across as deliberate demonstrations of his more sophisticated compositional technique, and it is perhaps unsurprising that the Brahms–Herzogenberg relationship was put under strain through these musical exchanges. We see here how musical works served as agents of reconciliation and rupture within one of Brahms’s most important friendships.
Part III sheds new light on Brahms’s much-studied relationship with Clara Schumann by considering her reception of a cluster of musical works written in the 1870s. Berry offers detailed interpretations of Brahms’s songs Meine Liebe ist grünand Alte Liebe, published respectively in the collections opp. 63 and 72. He argues that both works would have had heighted significance for Clara because of allusions Brahms makes in them to music by himself and her husband Robert—allusions that only she was likely to appreciate. The final chapter of Part III presents a hermeneutic account of the op. 78 violin sonata. Brahms sent an extract of this composition to Clara while she nursed her son Felix, who was dying from tuberculosis; the final movement of the work was completed following Felix’s death in February 1879. Berry...