Simon Rattle conducts Brahms, Debussy and Haas

22 Feb 2014

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Johannes Brahms
    Symphony No. 3 in F major, op. 90 (41 min.)

  • Georg Friedrich Haas
    dark dreams (première) (24 min.)

  • Claude Debussy
    La Mer, trois esquisses symphoniques for orchestra (29 min.)

  • free

    Georg Friedrich Haas in conversation with Götz Teutsch (17 min.)

The absence of tone painting touches in the orchestral triptych La Mer irritated his contemporaries. However, Claude Debussy was not at all interested in depicting the sea in sound: “La Mer”, Paul Dukas wrote, “is the face of the anonymous elements, the inhuman meteors. It’s no longer a dialogue between nature and humanity as in Liszt; there is only dialogue between wind and water, a dialogue of the ocean that excludes anything anthropomorphic, any relationship to a subject.”

Sir Simon Rattle places Debussy’s multi-coloured orchestral work next to Johannes Brahms’s Third Symphony in this concert. Though it is well-known that Brahms excluded natural subjects in his symphonic writing, in the case of his Third Symphony, written in the pastoral key of F major, Clara Schumann associated the “mysterious magic of life in the forest”, the “resplendence of the awakened day” and the “trickling of streamlets, the playing of beetles and mosquitoes” when she heard the piece.

The central work of the programme, nonetheless, is the world premiere of a new piece, dark dreams, which Georg Friedrich Haas composed in New York in 2013 and, like so much of what he writes, contains microtonal elements – intervals smaller than the semitone of the normal system. According to Haas, the working title does not incidentally refer to concrete (bad) dreams, but is “a kind of guide to the direction in which I suggest it is listened to”. For him, it is important that the listener “surrender to the maelstrom of sounds and emotions, and that these sounds and emotions communicate directly without the need for long explanations.”


Orchestral works by Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy and Georg Friedrich Haas

East of the Rhine: Johannes Brahms

When Richard Wagner died, Germania still awaited her finishing touches. Just over half a year later, in September 1883, the 12 m (40 ft) high grande dame displayed herself in full splendour, her superb tresses waving mightily over the Rhine near Rüdesheim. The Niederwald Monument was inaugurated by Wilhelm I to commemorate the founding of the German Empire after the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71. Among the spectators at that ceremony was Johannes Brahms. The enthusiastic Bismarck supporter hurried to Rüdesheim from his summer residence in nearby Wiesbaden, bringing along the nearly completed Symphony No. 3 in F major, op. 90.

Brahms had committed the work to paper in Wiesbaden within the space of only four months – lightning speed for this composer whose First Symphony finally emerged only after a decade of artistic struggle. But the ice was broken. The Second appeared only one year after the First, along with the Violin Concerto, the Second Piano Concerto and finally, again in close succession, Symphonies 3 and 4. The same fate befell each of these works: to be held up against Beethoven by Brahms’s contemporaries. And so his F major Symphony had to put up with the dubious label of a new “Eroica”. Leaving aside the banal parallel of similarly representing its creator’s third effort in the symphonic genre, what may be heroic about Brahms’s work remains an open question.

There is surely an emotional component to the thrusting F – A flat – F motto on the winds and the sweeping main theme on strings, yet the first movement’s overriding impression is one of agitation and vacillation. Sudden minor incursions darken the F major harmonies; metrical ambiguities and syncopated accompanimental figures do the rest. The clarinet’s pastoral subsidiary theme – not in F major (the key of Beethoven’s “Pastoral”), but in A major – hardly alters the situation. The theme is thus connected with the basic tonality by the distinctive 3rd relationship typifying the symphony as a whole.

The compelling unity of this music on all levels is especially apparent in the finale, which begins with unison murmuring in F minor and moves to A flat major before returning to F minor – another way of varying the first movement’s motto. Also unlike Beethoven (and thoroughly un-heroic), Brahms lets his Third Symphony die away, with tremolo violins presenting the motto one more time, pianissimo, in the final bars – a poignant ending that Richard Wagnercould not have improved upon. What does this music possibly have to do with the Rüdesheim Germania, with which it was associated by Max Kalbeck, Brahms’s friend and biographer? Kalbeck stirred up further confusion by claiming that some of the work goes back to an abandoned project: incidental music for Goethe’s Faust. As for Brahms? He remained silent, as always, intent on leaving behind no traces.

Judging by the F major Symphony’s two inner movements, however, it doesn’t seem altogether implausible that this work could have served as a kind of “Prelude in the Theatre”. The musicologist Christian Martin Schmidt points out the intermezzo character of the two relatively short movements, and when one hears the nostalgic cello theme of the Poco allegretto after the gentle C major Andante, persistent attempts to interpret this symphony will come as no surprise. The French composer Georges Auric, a member of “Les Six”, recognized the third movement’s tear-jerking potential and – at once cheeky and inspired – used it as the basis for his score to Goodbye Again, the 1961 film based on Aimez-vous Brahms?, Françoise Sagan’s popular novel.

West of the Rhine: Claude Debussy

Unlike Brahms, Claude Debussy did not come from a tradition shaped by the symphony, yet he too ultimately had to struggle with model of Beethoven. In Brahms’s case this entailed overcoming Beethoven, whereas Debussy a generation later succeeded by rejecting him. Brahms proceeded from the symphony’s four-movement formal model, whereas Debussy repositioned his symphonic ambitions in three-part orchestral works with poetic titles: Trois Nocturnes, La Mer and Images. To ensure that his nature-related titles were not misinterpreted as paying homage to Beethoven, Debussy, in an essay, stated his opinion that “watching a sunrise was more valuable than listening to the Pastoral Symphony”.

In La Mer, however, he was focusing less on the real sea than on the internalized one for which he harboured “a true passion” and “countless reminiscences” throughout his life and was now seeking musical equivalents of its various manifestations. In a sense, Debussy’s work overturns a central musical metaphor of French literature: in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal,it is music that engulfs the poet “like a sea”; in La Mer,the music itself becomes the sea, even if Debussy, in composing it, filtered out anything that reeked too much of salt water. The movement titles in the final version became rather refined: “From Dawn to Midday on the Sea”, “Play of the Waves” and “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea”. The music’s splendid sonorities are rather far removed from these titles and can still overwhelm listeners today – thanks not only to the clear cyclical connection between the movements, up to the final apotheosis, but also to the orchestration, subtly differentiated down to the finest detail but not shrinking from an exorbitant demand for 16 cellos.

Both sides of the Atlantic: Georg Friedrich Haas

Another example of Klangfarbenmusik – sound-colour music – with poetic titles is the work of composer Georg Friedrich Haas, born in Graz in 1953. Haas is preoccupied with night and darkness, fully aware that “der öde Tag” – “the dreary day” (Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Act II) – gets a lot drearier when one considers the political and social realities. The chamber opera after Friedrich Hölderlin Nacht (Night), premiered in Bregenz in 1996, is one of his most striking works, as is the ensemble piece in vain, which Sir Simon Rattle and scholars of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Orchestra Academy premiered during the past season – at night and, as instructed by the composer, in the darkened main auditorium of the Philharmonie. There were even times, requested by Sir Simon, when the emergency-exit lighting was dimmed.

Now, reading music on a dark stage is clearly problematic. Aside from the fact that parts of in vain have to be performed from memory, Haas entrusts less to the notes (though they are all precisely written out) than to the sounds: the musicians are expected to listen to one another precisely and attune themselves to each other with their intonation. This is also true in the new work, dark dreams, which Haas composed in New York in 2013 and, like so much of what he writes, contains microtonal elements – intervals smaller than the semitone of the normal system. But familiar intervals also play an important role in dark dreams: emerging from a vibrating surface of quarter-tone trills, first in the wind, then in the whole orchestra, is an unrelenting contrary pendular move – implemented in every imaginable variant – between the 3rd-related notes F sharp and A sharp; later, proceeding from the double basses, also taking in the descending 5th G – C. This motion prepares for a melodic stream that eventually engulfs all the instruments before dying away in solo passages on low wind. Contrabassoonists and tubists, not otherwise amply provided with solos in the orchestral literature, will certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Haas. Incidentally, according to Haas the working title does not refer to concrete (bad) dreams, but is “a kind of guide to the direction in which I suggest it is listened to”. For him, it is important that the listener “surrender to the maelstrom of sounds and emotions, and that these sounds and emotions communicate directly without the need for long explanations”.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

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