It’s a tough gig being a composer nowadays. Just imagine, a piece you’ve written for string quartet is programmed in a concert at a festival, in this case the Texas-based Mimir Chamber Music Festival in its Melbourne iteration at Melba Hall. That’s brilliant, you think. I hope they enjoy it. What else is on the program? Ah, good you asked: just a Beethoven string quartet (Op.18, No.2) to start, and later on, a Brahms piano quartet (Op.26), a couple of standards by two of the greatest composers of chamber music, you know, ever. Your piece will be played between them, ok?
It’s quite a predicament, and its perfect analogy is eluding me, hidden somewhere in the cobwebbed tunnels of my fuzzy morning brain. Perhaps it’s like writing a short story for an anthology only to be sandwiched between Hemingway and Kafka, or cooking the entrée course between an appetiser by Escoffier and a main course by Marco Pierre White. Hmm no, not quite right, but I’m sure you get it. In this concert, this fool’s errand was given to Mason Bates, an American composer I had never heard of, although I am very content to swap the bliss of my ignorance for the pleasure of having heard some of his music.
Curt Thompson, festival founder/organiser/performer, in his pre-concert welcome, highlighted Bates’ embrace of electronic music and his moonlighting as a DJ. A twittering of titillation ruffled through some of the audience at this revelation, taking me by surprise and leaving me searching for the scandal. Isn’t such genre-straddling fairly commonplace nowadays? Perhaps it was a generational divide, and I’d stepped into an existential blind spot for the next two hours. Luckily, the youths I heard whistling in appreciation at the end of the concert assured me I was not alone (ok ok, maybe not youths, but there were definitely young adults there, promise. Subtle, wasn’t it, including myself with them?).
Nevertheless, this electro influence clearly pulsates throughout his piece From Amber Frozen. Like the illuminated pads of a drum loop machine, each neon light containing a rhythmic element waiting to be triggered, a single groove coalesced out of the individual plucks and plectrum-picks, body taps and stomped-roach crunches that had been spread amongst the four players. At other times, someone – I suspect cellist Brant Taylor – sounded exactly like a gamelan gong. An unhinged trill section reminded me of Janácek’s Kreutzer Sonata and I heard Johanna from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in a melodic passage given to the first violin.
Were those moments overt enough to constitute deliberate references? Probably not. The arousing of those aural memories reveals more about what’s in my head than the composer’s intentions, but it does highlight a curious aspect about music: that although playing or listening to a live concert is very Zen and entirely bound to the present, so often this in-the-moment experience moves us by unpicking our past, revealing our badly-sewn stuffed toys of personal history, with loose threads, dodgy repairs and stray bits of stuffing sticking out like sad fairy floss.
Such is life for us all; no one is in pristine condition. For Brahms though, his stuffed toy of the soul must’ve been something torn of ear, dog-chewed, dropped in ash and stained by wine, with a solitary eye-button hanging forlornly like a bride’s hair in the rain. Or so I imagine, given that he also found himself sandwiched between two of history’s towering musicians – Robert and Clara Schumann – and in possession of a deep and abiding love for both of them. Pretty awkward.
In 1855, Robert was in a sanatorium, self-committed after a failed attempt to drown his insanity in a river. Depending on whom you ask, his madness was either caused by syphilis or mercury poisoning, or an intracranial mass, or bipolar disorder, or maybe schizophrenia (evidently, diagnostic revisionism is fairly inconclusive. His diagnosis back then was ‘psychotic melancholia’. Well, we’ve all been there).
At the same time, Brahms was writing to Clara:
I can do nothing but think of you… What have you done to me? Can’t you remove the spell you have cast over me?
It all seems to have been a fantastic mess, a debacle of emotions befitting three of Romanticism’s most romantic romantics, all sweaty-palmed passion, tantalising inappropriateness and disappointing conclusions. Robert died, Brahms moved away and Clara put her mind to burning lots of manuscript. Love triangles, eh?
Whether any of this history is present in the Piano Quartet op.26 in A major is for scholars to say, but it was begun in 1857, a year after Robert’s death, and is known to have been Clara’s favourite of Brahms’ three piano quartets. It is a lyrical work, and sunny, yes, but more of a mid-Spring sun than a Summer blaze; an epic which gently enfolds you – you, a lost duckling astray in a concert hall, of all places – in its warm hands and keeps you safe throughout its long but captivating duration.
The piece itself was in safe hands amongst these players. So often, Brahms suffers in concert because of musicians over-playing the cliché that his music is somehow architectural; his dense writing and complex structures used as a justification for constantly thick, heavy playing. It can be exhausting to listen to, like someone pouring syrupy mud into your ears. My relief in this concert was instant, as pianist Kristian Chong – a standout, for his ability and willingness to always let the others…um…stand out – delicately uncorked the subtle urgency of the opening theme, before Taylor took a swill and joined in.
The playing was uniformly exceptional, but I was especially slack-jawed following the fiendishly exposed unison theme of the Scherzo. The pristine intonation of violinist Stephen Rose, violist Joan DerHovsepian and Taylor allowed the timbre of a new instrument to emerge – surely Brahms’ reason for writing such a cruel passage, short of outright sadism.
Perhaps he wrote it to release some frustration, the suffering of others putting his own in some relief. Perhaps he wanted others to attract condolence instead of himself, for it is still common today to hear someone say ‘oh, poor Brahms’, with that smug pity we all hold for the unrequited, even if we’ve been there ourselves. Or perhaps it’s merely a simple melody he decided to give to the three string instruments all at once. Call me unromantic, but I think that’s it.
Because despite any ménages à Schumann you may find yourself in (if so, quick, get out!), sometimes – like Bates’ presence on this program, or forming a band of Musketeers, or Amigos, or Stooges, or even Tenors – and even if you’re in the middle of a genius sandwich, à trois is better than a pair. Come to think of it, especially if you’re in the middle of a genius sandwich. What better company to keep?