Brahms the vandal?

Let me start by saying that I am probably the only Chicagoan who likes the 2003 addition to Soldier Field.

This week conductor Kent Nagano programmed Brahms’s A German Requiem with interludes by Wolfgang Rhim, a contemporary composer. Few were happy about it, some even offended.

For example, Sounds & Fury author A.C. Douglas:

“By the time of the death of Beethoven (1827), just about every piece of music written by composers everywhere that wasn’t written as incidental music for something else constituted, or aspired to constitute, a single, unified, organic whole no matter how many movements the work comprised.”

“And such is Brahms’s seven-movement German Requiem, the bulk of which was composed in 1866, the work completed in 1868. To interject any other music, no matter how seemingly appropriate, between those seven organically unified movements can be considered as nothing other than a philistine act of willful vandalism, as I’ve already remarked, no matter how well intentioned.”

“Or is this just another instance of the pervasive, imbecile and equalitarian postmodern lunacy which, on one hand, attempts to make classical music more understandable to the ignorant masses, and especially to the ignorant young, by presenting the great masterpieces of the past in such a way as to make them more “accessible,” “relevant,” and “entertaining” no matter the violence done to those masterpieces in the process; and on the other, attempts to give voice to the largely creatively impotent present by altering those great masterpieces through the agency of imposing on them a “relevant” contemporary commentary or twist?”

Then I read this in the program notes:

“In fact, at that Bremen premiere, Brahms himself inserted selections by J.S. Bach, Giuseppe Tartini, and Robert Schumann between the fourth and fifth movements.”

Does that make Brahms a vandal? Today, as I quietly sat in on an interview with WFMT’s Andrew Patner and Maestro Nagano, the conductor explained that Brahms himself added these insertions to explain the work to his audience, as A German Requiem, just like Beethoven’s Ninth, wasn’t warmly received and so radically new that Brahms felt the need to explain.

And I don’t want to give away too much of the interview, but Maestro Nagano had an interesting thing or two to say about tradition and its definition as well. (Andrew’s show is on Monday night’s at 10 p.m. on Chicago’s WFMT 98.7) Personally, I don’t get people’s obsession with tradition. In my opinion, just like nationalism, tradition is based on myths, imaginings and inventions. Just ask Eric Hobsbawm.

I am not a music critic nor scholar. In fact, I am a newbie. I did not have a strong feeling for or against the Rhim interludes. I do, however, have strong feelings about artistic audacity and courage, even where it might not be well-received. And, even if I might not like it.

6 thoughts on “Brahms the vandal?”

  1. Don’t believe everything you read in program notes, especially when they’re there to justify an outrage.

    At the time of the Bremen premiere of the _Requiem, the 5th movement hadn’t yet been written, and so short pieces by Bach, Schumann, and Handel were performed at the concert to fill out the program, and to reinforce the nature of the _Requiem_.

    In any case, what was permitted Brahms at that concert of his own work is NOT permitted anyone else; most especially not Mr. Nagano some 140 years after the fact.


  2. Oops. Words missing in my, “…and to reinforce the nature of the _Requiem_.”

    That should have read, “…and to reinforce the religious nature of the _Requiem_ (the church authorities were disturbed that there was no mention of Christ in the _Requiem_).”


  3. The Rihm pieces were also used to reinforce the nature (not necessarily the religious nature) of the requiem and as a reflection on the composition. I personally do not see much difference between Brahms’s decision and Maestro Nagano’s decision, except for the circumstances under which it happened and 140 years in history.

    And if it is an outrage to challenge tradition, then so be it, freely admitting that challenging tradition has given us both aesthetically pleasing and unpleasing works of art. Some love the glass pyramids at the Louvre, others despise it; some love the Rihm interludes, others don’t.

    Again, I am probably the only Chicagoan who likes the 2003 addition to Soldier Field. That’s me and maybe Herbert Muschamp of The New York Times:

    “If so many bright people think a building is bad, it must really be bad, right? Not in this case. Extreme sports stadium: that’s what we get with Wood & Zapata’s dynamic remodeling of an existing stadium in downtown Chicago. Clients need to be less fearful of provoking criticism. It is inherently aggressive to move things forward. Those with the courage to do so should not be surprised if they become targets of others’ aggression in return.”

    And to illustrate it with another example: last night I went to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago to see Oedipus Complex, which, I can briefly explain, is Sophocles Oedipus Rex with interludes by Freud (taken from his The Interpretation of Dreams). It worked extremely well and doesn’t dilute Sophocles’ original tragedy; on the contrary, it adds moments of thought-provoking reflection. Now does that concept sound familiar?

  4. “I personally do not see much difference between Brahms’s decision and Maestro Nagano’s decision….”

    The difference is that Brahms did what he did to appease the Church authorities who were hosting the premiere of the work; Nagano did it on an imbecile postmodern whim (a tautology, I know).


  5. The funny thing is, now you made me believe Maestro Nagano actually had a better reason to include the interludes. But obviously, some (including me) like it, others (including you) don’t.

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