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Categorizing German composer Johannes Brahms can be difficult. From his position at the end of the Romantic era (the late 19th century), the composer was both rooted in the old world of classical music as well as ahead of his time.
Over two weekends, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will give audiences the opportunity to decide for themselves Brahms’ place in history. The MSO’s Brahms Festival, taking place at the Marcus Center the weekends of April 29 and May 6, will feature Brahms’ entire symphonic repertory: four impressive, significant pieces.
That may not seem like a large number, but it was for Brahms, a notorious perfectionist who frequently destroyed his own works when they did not measure up to his high standards. Brahms was rumored to have destroyed over 20 string quartets before he finally presented his first public example in 1873. Brahms also destroyed several of his early works, including pieces that he had performed earlier in his career. This extreme perfection and dedication to his craft led to a smaller but exceptional legacy.
The works that did survive Brahms’ composition chopping block, including the four symphonies, are now considered standard repertoire — which provides its own unique set of problems. “The challenge with these pieces comes from their notoriety,” explains MSO principal clarinetist Todd Levy. “There is an expectation with pieces like this since many of the audience members know and love these works. They may already have their own interpretive ideas as they listen to the works.”
On April 30 and May 1, music director and conductor Edo de Waart will begin the festival by conducting Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor and Symphony No. 2 in D Major. The first symphony runs roughly 45 minutes in its entirety, and, like many of Brahms’ works underwent several drafts over many years. The earliest sketches of the work date back to 1854, but the finished work did not premiere until 1876, almost eighteen years later. The work is considered universally to be a masterpiece, and frequently harkens back to the works of other great German composers, including Beethoven.
In contrast, Brahms composed his Second Symphony over the summer of 1877, during a visit to the Austrian province of Carinthia. This composition period was far briefer than for its predecessor. Like the First Symphony, the Second reflects the work of Beethoven, this time most similar to the pastoral and lush harmonies of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.
The following weekend, May 6 and 7, will feature Brahms’ other two symphonies, also conducted by de Waart. Symphony No. 3 in F major, composed in 1883, is Brahms’ shortest symphony and is often identified as his most personal, a slight shift away from the more traditional, non-programmatic works he is better known for. It features multiple motifs reminiscent of works by composer Robert Schumann, a close friend of Brahms and husband to the woman Brahms famously pined for: Clara Schumann. Brahms also uses a recurring motif — a rising F, A-flat, F pattern — that is meant to signify Brahms’ half-serious personal motto frei aber froh, or “free but happy.”
Brahms’ final symphony is darker and more complex, a noble work in E minor that premiered in 1885. Its minor key is only the first contrast to its preceding symphony, being more solemn. It concludes, famously, with a passacaglia, a serious-sounding musical form defined by its repeating, stately bass line.
With symphonies needing to cover so many artists in a given season, it’s rare for patrons to have a chance to hear so much work by a single composer in a two-week period, Levy says.
“It’s a great opportunity to hear these symphonies live performed by a great orchestra,” adds Levy. “Though the pieces are standard repertoire, they are not always performed in this short of a time frame.”
The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Brahms Festival will span two weekends: April 30 and May 1, and May 6 and 7. Tickets range from $17 to $107. For concert times and additional information, visit mso.org or call 414-291-7605.