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The orchestra performs Brahms' "Piano Quartet No. 1," orchestrated by Schoenberg.
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By Marc Geelhoed

In the standard view of music history, Johannes Brahms was the great conservative, holding on to the Beethovenian tradition at the end of the 19th century, and Arnold Schoenberg was the 20th century's revolutionary. Like many standard views, it's not entirely correct, and it is decidedly not how Schoenberg saw Brahms. Both thought they were upholding the great German musical tradition that they traced back to J. S. Bach through Beethoven to the present. Schoenberg felt that Brahms influenced his style even more than Richard Wagner had. Schoenberg's love of Brahms can be seen and heard in the performance of his transcription of Brahms' "Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor" in the program. Where else but near the Acropolis to celebrate composers with such a grasp of history, as well as a storied orchestra?

One of the most knowledgeable musicians in history, Brahms knew thousands of works and had an overarching view of musical developments that allowed him to build confidently on previous composers' accomplishments. Especially in his "Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor," Brahms aimed to bring the concerto form of Beethoven and Mozart back into currency. In the middle of the 19th century, Franz Liszt created a new method of concerto writing by slightly varying the themes throughout the work (the cyclical form), instead of the dialogue that is the hallmark of the sonata-allegro form, which Beethoven and Mozart used.

Such an undertaking required a big statement, and Brahms certainly delivered one. Always a fastidious worker given to self-doubt, he worked on the concerto over a period of six years, from 1853 to 1859. He started it in the aftermath of the suicide of Robert Schumann, whom Brahms regarded as a hero, and added an especially personal touch in describing the second movement to Clara Schumann as "a gentle portrait of you." The concerto began as a sonata for two pianos, but then Brahms decided to expand it to the dimensions of a symphony.

As in many of his orchestral works, Brahms sought the advice of the violinist, composer, and conductor Joseph Joachim on working out the orchestration. In the case of the "First Piano Concerto," both men were thinking of "restoring Beethovenian dignity" to the concerto form, as Brahms scholar Malcolm MacDonald wrote. In their view, the architectural strength of the concerto had been debased by Liszt and his followers with their experiments. Such a clear view of the present's needs through the lens of the past undoubtedly appealed to Schoenberg, who always had musical development foremost in his mind.

Schoenberg's development of the serial system, in which a tone cannot be repeated until the other eleven in the chromatic scale have also been played, gave rise to many followers. There were his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and then the post-World War II generation that included Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. What most concerned Schoenberg, however, was that other composers understood his own predecessors -- Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach -- and how he reached his conclusions. Schoenberg saw Brahms as a late exponent of the German tradition and not just a popular melodist.

Top banner photos: Sir Simon Rattle, the Parthenon atop the Acropolis, and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Trombonists of the Berlin Philharmonic

The Berlin Philharmonic's next Europakonzert, in 2005, is set for Budapest, Hungary.

Sir Simon Rattle leads the Berlin

Sir Simon Rattle, the Berlin's chief conductor, began his tenure with the orchestra in 2002.

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