Part of Macao Orchestra’s Concert Season 2016-17, “Chamber Voyage – Loving Words from Brahms” offered a rare glimpse into Johannes Brahms’s well-guarded, hence little-know, world of intimate tenderness. Interpreted by six members of Macao Orchestra’s strings section, String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18 filled the nostalgically cosy interior of Dom Pedro V Theatre with warmth – affectionate and infectious in equal measures.
Notwithstanding his glorious beard rivalled by perhaps only Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was no revolutionary; far from it, both in life and music. Born into a Lutheran family in Hamburg, the young Johannes Brahms would often spend time in Schleswig-Holstein, wherein the Brahms family originated. The subject-matter of the eponymous Schleswig-Holstein Question, the Duchy of Schleswig and Duchy of Holstein had for decades been sitting precariously within the overlapping spheres of influence of the Kingdom of Denmark and the German Confederation. Despite his family origins from the far-flung corner of tapered German influence, Johannes Brahms was rarely, if ever, questioned about his Germanness. On the contrary, he may yet be the epitome of German – in the broadest sense of the word, including Austrian – classical music traditions.
His father Johann Jakob Brahms (1806-1872), himself a moderately successful musician, was the one who sowed the seeds of his son’s musical Germanness. Whilst still a child, Johannes Brahms studied piano under German pianist Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel (1813-1865), then under the tutelage of his teacher, German pianist and composer Eduard Marxsen (1806–1887). Himself a personal acquaintance of Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828) and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), disciple of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), and admirer of Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) and Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783), Eduard Marxsen would instil, indeed ensure, in Johannes Brahms an orthodox continuation of German classical music traditions. Of all composers, Ludwig van Beethoven was in all probability the one Johannes Brahms venerated the most. In eternal rest, both were buried in the musicians’ corner of Wiener Zentralfriedhof (Vienna Central Cemetery).
“I believe in Bach, the Father; Beethoven, the Son; and Brahms, the Holy Ghost of music.”
Hans Guido Freiherr von Bülow on Johannes Brahms
Trained in and adept at both piano and violin, arguably the two most important instruments throughout his career, Johannes Brahms in his early days wrote a number of works for piano, chamber music and choir, which did not go unnoticed by Clara Schumann (1819-1896), the virtuoso pianist and composer wife of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), who in turn exalted the young Johannes Brahms. A leitmotif in his life, one which concerns his personality traits, was hence triggered. Already an extreme perfectionist – a condition, not self-congratulation – Johannes Brahms became ever more self-critical, to the point that he repeatedly revised his own compositions, even destroyed his early works, left others unpublished, and took 21 years – from 1855 to 1876 – to complete his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, hailed by the German virtuoso pianist, composer and conductor Hans Guido Freiherr von Bülow (1830-1894) as “Ludwig van Beethoven’s Tenth”.
The other leitmotif apparent in Johannes Brahms’s life was his absolute devotion to family and friends. Although widely known amongst contemporaries for being brusque, Johannes Brahms pledged unwavering loyalty to members of his inner circle. Following Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide and confinement to a mental sanatorium in 1854, he continued to support his benefactress Clara Schumann. Subsequent to his mother’s death in 1865, he began composing the monumental Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45. Family members and close friends were oftentimes both the cause and inspiration of his major compositions.
One of Johannes Brahms’s only two “music love letters”, String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18 was composed in 1860, merely one year after his engagement to an Agathe von Siebold – his “last love”, in his own words – was broken off, plunging him into agony. As Macao Orchestra’s six-
strong ensemble permeated the intramurals of Dom Pedro V Theatre with lyrical melodies movement after movement, one could not help thinking that the recipient of this moving piece would have been Agathe von Siebold. Ranging from cordially emotional to tragically poignant, the sextet drew to a vigorous close with renewed confidence, reminiscent of a budding, 27-year-old composer finding his feet again, maturing in the arduous journey of adulthood. Johannes Brahms would remain a lifelong bachelor, leading a simple – almost Spartan – life, despite the small fortune he amassed. Whether his supposed emotional sternness was the result of the aforementioned trauma, musicologists can only second-guess.
String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18 was as explicit as it could possibly be for a composer renowned for his steadfast position on absolute music, who never wrote a single opera, the quintessence of programme music advocated by disciples of Neudeutsche Schule (New German School), notably Richard Wagner (1813-1883); or symphonic poem, propagated by Franz Liszt (1811-1886), the leading figure of the said movement. Both Leipzig-
based traditionalist conservatives and Weimar-based radical progressives claimed Ludwig van Beethoven as their very own champion – in the same way as both classical liberalism and Marxism claimed to be the brainchild of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) – yet locked horns over various fundamental issues.
For the radical progressives, Ludwig van Beethoven ushered in a brand new era in music history, wherein sky was the limit for, inter alia, chromatic harmony and orchestration. For the traditionalist conservatives, St. Ludwig van Beethoven the Great shall remain the insurmountable apogee of music. With intricate structure, authentic counterpoints, enriched harmony, motivic saturation and occasionally rhythmic asymmetry, Johannes Brahms’s compositional style is admired for maintaining a classical sense of form and order. In this regard, String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18 was a genuinely personal and intensely emotional piece composed by a young Johannes Brahms, at a time when the politics and strife of music had yet to come into play.
A comforting and engaging weekend evening concert, suitable for the initiated and newcomers alike, as musicians demonstrated tacit understanding between one another. The performance could have been rendered yet more persuasive, if only the acoustics at the historic Dom Pedro V Theatre were not so dry. A specialised venue, one similar to London’s Wigmore Hall, would have been ideal. Meanwhile, a much needed purpose-
built concert hall is what will propel Macao Orchestra, as well as the general classical music scene in Macao, to the next level.
Dom Pedro V theatre
Constructed in 1860 and named after Pedro V, King of Portugal, the neoclassical Dom Pedro V Theatre is the first European-style theatre in China, and one of the first in Asia. It has been an integral part of the designated site of the Historic Centre of Macao enlisted on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2005.