Martin Buzacott, presenter of ABC Classic FM’s Mornings, finds that creative renewal is the theme of this first ACO concert of the year…
With his First Piano Concerto finally nearing completion, in 1858 the 25-year-old Johannes Brahms visited the home of his friend Julius Grimm in the German university town of Göttingen, where Grimm was Director of Music. That night, Grimm introduced Brahms to 23-year-old Agathe von Siebold, a stunning, highly intelligent and intensely musical soprano who was the daughter of one of the university’s professors.
With his voice only having broken the year before and still ten years away from having to shave, the notoriously late-developing Brahms was smitten, as was Agathe. After a whirlwind summer romance they became engaged, much to the delight of Grimm and his wife, who referred to the four of them as a lucky ‘four-leaf clover’.
But soon the sordid truth about Brahms began to emerge. Agathe, it turned out, wasn’t his only love, and certainly not his greatest. As he later explained, ‘I am in love with music. I think of nothing else, or only of other things when they make music more beautiful for me.’
That was composer-speak for ‘You’re ditched.’
"Scratch below the surface here and everything old is new again..."
Breaking off the engagement, Brahms made Agathe return their many love-letters and she later married a Gottingen doctor just like her father, while Brahms eventually poured out his unfulfilled love for her in his Second String Sextet, whose first movement contains a theme based on the letters of Agathe’s name, translated into musical notes.
After being chastised by alternative soul-mate Clara Schumann for his shoddy treatment of Agathe, Brahms never got himself in so deep with a woman again, and instead saved his mature adoration for his musical heroes, like Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, going back to Bach and the other musical masters of the Lutheran Reformation. At a time when music’s most ambitious maximalists were creating their self-described ‘music of the future’, Brahms invited their contempt by cherishing the music of the past, finding his own identity in the revival and renewal of an ongoing cultural tradition.
And it’s that creative renewal inspired by a distant past that figures so prominently in all four works in this first ACO concert for 2018.
Scratch below the surface here and everything old is new again, not just with Brahms and his first true chamber music masterpiece, but also with contemporary American composer Missy Mazzoli, whose double bass concerto written especially for Maxime Bibeau was conceived within the sound world of the Renaissance and the Baroque.
Conscious that Maxime’s double bass from 1581 had been cossetted away in a monastery for centuries and then finally emerging with all that musical history contained within it, Missy listened to music from all those intervening eras as she worked on Dark with Excessive Bright. With these ancient musical masterpieces as a constant backdrop, and the poetry of Milton’s Paradise Lost supplying the title, Maxime then joined her in modern-day Brooklyn to ‘keep the old feeling of Max’s bass alive’. And so just as with Brahms, this world premiere from a composer at the peak of her powers surges into the future through harnessing the momentum of the past.
Tchaikovsky did a similar thing in his immortal Serenade for Strings. Famously its first movement channels Tchaikovsky’s beloved Mozart, explicitly so, with Tchaikovsky never making any secret of his love for the clarity and lyricism of the Classical era, and his desire to emulate it. And yet, for all that homage being paid to past masters, nothing could be more powerful, nor more distinctive than that surging opening theme of the Serenade for Strings, drama-charged, intense, and almost weeping with raw emotion. It was one of Tchaikovsky’s personal favourites among his own works, so much more so than its more superficially ‘innovative’ chronological neighbour, the 1812 Overture, that he loathed. For Tchaikovsky, the Serenade was the source of pride, because it stood more closely aligned with the music of the past than most of his other works.
And the same theme of the past in the present appears too in Anna Clyne’s much-acclaimed Prince of Clouds, a modern meditation on musical lineage where the British-born, American-based composer contemplates the way in which musical knowledge passes down from generation to generation, like a family tree, from mentor to student, from student onto the next generation and beyond.
But this isn’t some reactive, nostalgic reflection on a distant idyllic and imaginary past as proponents of the future might once have characterised it as being. On the contrary, for Anna Clyne this celebration of inter-generational influence is made possible by the rise of new technology, where boundaries between different genres of music and different historical periods have been broken down, allowing contemporary musicians to unleash their creative imaginations as never before, with collaborations and cross-pollination across artforms from all genres and periods of time.
Brahms would have loved it, because now, the world of the web, the hyperlink and apps-for-everything let you reimagine the past in the present, offering a window on an ancient world seen from a thrilling, risk-taking, multi-voiced modernity.
And it was that excitement at the potential for centuries of profound cultural transmission to shape the creative practice of the present and the future that made Brahms choose music over love, and having done so, leaving us all more than a century on in his musical debt, inspired by his example as a musician who knew that the way forward was to look back.
Dr Martin Buzacott is the presenter of Mornings on ABC Classic FM, and also the Brisbane music and theatre critic for The Australian.
Tognetti Tchaikovsky Brahms tours nationally from 1-16 February with stops in Adelaide Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney and Wollongong.