Finding Their Way: Schumann, Brahms, and Schoenberg

“In every era there presides a secret alliance of kindred spirits. Ye who belong together, close your ranks ever more tightly, that the Truth of Art may shine more clearly, diffusing joy and blessings over all things.”

Robert Schumann for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 1853 

There comes a time in the life of every artist when the path that must be taken is recognized—seen dimly, or presented boldly—in the work of a kindred spirit. Our third program of the thirty-fifth anniversary season highlights music and other actions that resulted from perceived kinships.

This season also marks both the conclusion and continuation of two cycles we have over three years. The Brahms Violin and Piano Sonatas, played one each over the last three years in Sanders Theatre, will reach their conclusion with the performance of the Scherzo from the F.A.E. Sonata on our new Arlington Street Church Series on Saturday morning at 11:30. The performance of Schumann’s Piano Trio in F major, Op. 80 (1847) on Sunday evening at Sanders Theatre, will take us into the second annual playing of one of his three piano trios in the fall.

Schumann’s statement above, from a magazine essay entitled Neue Bahnen (New Paths), was written the same year he recognized genius and heaped praise on the young Brahms, introducing him to a wider audience and to his own private insecurities:

“The public praise that you have deigned to bestow upon me will have so greatly increased the expectations of the musical world regarding my work that I do not know how I shall manage to do even approximate justice to it.”    (Johannes Brahms)

Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25 (1861), a clear favorite with our audiences and others, is said (by the great violinist Joseph Joachim) to have been started and played in private as early as 1857, but required further gestation before its final version that we all know and love. It was not, however, well received by many of Brahms’s most trusted musical advisers who considered its themes insignificant!

For Arnold Schoenberg, the path toward composition with twelve equal tones (atonality, serialism) is paved right through this piano quartet and its companion in A major that concluded our concert last May. Schoenberg chose to arrange it for orchestra—a time-honored way of studying a ‘curiosity’ by copying it out in detail by hand.

Coming late in his career after abandoning tonality for atonality and serialism around 1920-1923, Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte for reciter and piano quintet, Op. 41 (1942), Schoenberg’s setting of Lord Byron’s poem of the same title, gives him the opportunity for a new path, bending his technique back towards allowing hints of tonality within atonal works. After a little more than fifteen minutes of serialism, the Ode ends triumphantly in E-flat major!

(Left) The Coronation of Napoleon, by Jacques-Louis David. (Right) Napoleon abdicated in Fontainebleau, 4 April 1814, by Paul Delaroche

The work was written during the height of WW2, when larger than life personalities inspired their populations to think first of their own national interest. The message of Byron (to Napoleon) and Schoenberg (to others) was that of the Way of Art: speaking Truth to Power.

Reflect. Enjoy.


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