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A contemporary composer considers the musical legacy of Johannes Brahms

Saturday will mark the 183rd birthday of the celebrated German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms. A complicated and utterly self-guarded man, Brahms liked to claim that his music didn’t flow from his heart, but the soulful and passionate nature of his compositions tells another tale. For more on what makes Brahms’ music so beautiful and enduring, Jeffrey Brown talks to composer Rob Kapilow.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

      Finally tonight, pianist and composer Rob Kapilow returns, this time to discuss 19th century German pianist and composer Johannes Brahms, who would have celebrated a birthday tomorrow.  First, here is noted pianist Emanuel Ax playing “Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2.”  At the signature theater in Arlington, Virginia, Rob Kapilow talked with Jeffrey Brown about what makes Brahms’ music so beautiful and endearing.

    (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

      Rob Kapilow, welcome back.

  • ROB KAPILOW:

      Thanks so much for having me.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

      Johannes Brahms, a man and his music, right?  You picked one of his famous piano pieces.

  • ROB KAPILOW:

      I did.  But you know, the thing is, to get at the heart of Brahms’ music is difficult because to get at the heart of who Brahms was as a person is difficult.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

     Brahms the man.

  • KAPILOW:

      Brahms the man.  I mean, according to all contemporary accounts, he was sarcastic, prickly, abrupt, utterly self-guarded, almost impossible to get to know.  And the same thing is actually true of this piece.  This is the second piece in a set of six pieces, but the first piece is, like Brahms himself, dense, filled with swirling energy, complicated, dark, and he has to sort of wrestle it into submission to actually end the piece like this — and then one long chord.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

     That’s the end of part one.

  • ROB KAPILOW:

      End of part one.  But in a way it’s also the beginning of part two, because that last chord is actually the first chord of our song.  But it’s not just a shared chord, it’s as if somehow Brahms had to work through the complexity, turbulence and struggle of this first piece, in order to sing from the heart in the second.

    There’s this fantastic quote that he himself acknowledges.  He says, “Have I not often told you how seldom I succeed in getting my thoughts out of my heart and onto paper.  It is exactly the same with my composing.  It simply won’t flow from my heart.”

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

     This is to Clara Schumann.

  • ROB KAPILOW:

      This is to Clara Schumann, the closest person in his life, but though he may have felt that the music wouldn’t flow from his heart, when you hear the first phrase of this second piece, nothing could sound more straight from the heart than this exquisite music.

    (PLAYING PIANO)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

     So what’s going on there?

  • ROB KAPILOW:

      The thing that’s so amazing is, when you just hear it, it sounds like simple, spontaneous melody, straight from the heart.  But —

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

      The passion, the emotion.

  • ROB KAPILOW:

      All there.  Even his most lyrical melodies tend to be almost mathematically constructed out of these tiny, microscopic, developable ideas.  This one is based on two tiny, anti-romantic ideas.  What I’ll call “1, 2, up” — it’s important for you to learn these technical vocabulary– “1, 2, up” and then same two notes, last one changed, “1, 2, leap.”

    So, just “1, 2, up” and then “1, 2, leap.”  Now, you won’t know it until the last incredible measure of this song, but “1, 2, up” really wants to resolve to “1, 2, down.”  But the first time he puts that note up an octave, so instead of “1, 2, down” and resolution, we get yearning.

    There’s this leap in the right hand that really exaggerates it, “1, 2, up,” all Brahms’ yearning is in that one thing.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

     Maybe to Clara, right?

  • ROB KAPILOW:

      The desire for intimate communication, wanting to say more, but then all filtered through this supremely accomplished, almost mathematically precise technique.

    I mean, take the climax of this piece.  It sounds utterly heartfelt.  Everything he always wanted to say to Clara right here.  Then he marks, “singing, singing.” but though it sounds straight from the heart, it’s constructed with mathematical precision.  So we come back to “1 2 up” at the very end of the piece, down here in the middle now.  “1, 2 up.” every other time it’s gone “1 2 leap,” but it wants to go “1 2 down.” and we get both at the same time in one rolled chord.

    We get “1, 2,” first we get down, and then we get leap.  And you have heart and mind perfectly combined, emotion and technique.  We resolve and we yearn at the same time.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

      Johannes Brahms, through Rob Kapilow.  Thank you.

  • ROB KAPILOW:

      Thank you.

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