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  • Allusion as Narrative Premise in Brahms's Instrumental Music by Jacquelyn E. C. Sholes
  • Christopher Reynolds
Allusion as Narrative Premise in Brahms's Instrumental Music. By Jacquelyn E. C. Sholes. (Musical Meaning and Interpretation.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018. [xvi, 256 p. ISBN 9780253033147 (hardcover), $85; ISBN 9780253033154 (paperback), $38; ISBN 9780253033161 (e-book), $36.99.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

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This is an insightful and musical book that pursues at least three related goals: Jacquelyn Sholes provides a much-needed review of thirty or more years of scholarship on Johannes Brahms and musical allusion (the perception that he takes motives and other musical ideas from other composers in order to imbue his works with poetic meaning); she identifies some new and unexpected allusions; and most ambitiously and consequentially, she explores the relationship between some of the musical ideas that Brahms is understood to have appropriated and the links to those ideas that he then composed into other movements.

In the introduction and in chapter 1, Sholes expounds upon the notion of Brahms as a historically aware composer intent on being part of a tradition that includes Robert Schumann, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johann Sebastian Bach, but also many others, including Domenico Scarlatti and several lesser-known composers. As she puts it, "Brahms was possessed of an especially strong historical sense—and lived at a time when, ironically, this made him rather modern" (p. 11). She introduces as well the idea of intermovement musical links, mostly associated with the motives that she and others have identified as derived from earlier works. These links, she argues, allow Brahms to create intermovement narratives. This is one of the more original ideas of the book, one that leads to the conclusion that Brahms must have begun composing with specific allusions in mind. In cases where an important borrowed or derived theme is placed in the finale, Brahms is then shown to work toward that idea in preceding movements (as in the First Piano Concerto and the First Symphony); in other works, an important allusive idea is placed in the first movement and thus generates ripples through the movements which follow (as in the op. 1 Piano Sonata and the op. 11 Serenade). The works discussed in chapter 1 include the First Symphony, the Horn Trio in E-flat Major, the String Quartet in B-flat Major, and the early piano sonatas opp. 1 and 5.

Subsequent chapters focus on individual works, most of them early: the op. 8 Piano Trio; the D-Major Serenade for Orchestra, op. 11; and the First Piano Concerto, op. 15; and then lastly, the Fourth Symphony. Happily, she does not dwell on Harold Bloom's once influential book The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973). Bloom's theories work well for Brahms as he struggled to compose the First Piano Concerto and the First Symphony. The difficulty of composing a symphony in the wake of Beethoven's Ninth was indeed daunting, and for Brahms almost crippling. For this work, Bloom's theories, which relate the struggles of one "great" composer attempting to overcome the achievements of a great predecessor, are helpful. Many of Brahms's allusions, however, are not to intimidating predecessors, but to (then) relatively unknown composers like Scarlatti, or to friends like Joseph Joachim or Clara Schumann, or to folk song.

In chapters 2 and 5 Sholes introduces new allusions into works that have been much discussed by other musicologists precisely for their perceived allusions: the op. 8 Piano Trio and the Fourth Symphony. In the case of the piano trio, she discusses the previously recognized allusions to Beethoven and Franz Schubert but then adds into the mix an allusion to Scarlatti that no one had noticed; because Clara Schumann performed Scarlatti regularly for many years, the presence of this allusion adds to the likelihood that this work is in some sense about her. I admire Sholes's reticence to insist on the rightness of any single interpretation. In the Fourth Symphony finale, she begins by examining likely allusions that other scholars have noticed: to Bach's cantata [End Page 652] Nach dir, Herr, verlanget...