What is it about Brahms?

Some thoughts about Brahms from OCWC’s Artistic Director, Eliza Rubenstein

What makes his music so rich, so personal, so profound? What gives it such power to engage our minds and pull at our souls? Why is it so impossible to imagine being a choral musician in a world that didn’t have Brahms in it?

I can give you some answers in the language of music history and theory: Brahms stood with one foot in his own Romantic era and another in the past, filling up the formal structures of bygone centuries with the passion and drama of his own time. He wrote music with extraordinarily active, vivid inner voices, giving his works the sense that something’s always brewing from the inside out. (Ask our altos about this. The fate of an alto on this earth is all too often to sing the same note over and over, but not in Brahms. Never in Brahms.)

Or we could talk about his personal life—his complicated relationship with Robert and (especially) Clara Schumann. “I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you,” he said to her in one letter, and much of his music is filled with the same complex, not-quite-fulfilled longing as their correspondence.

But to understand the appeal of Brahms, you really have to experience his music—to live inside its harmonies and rhythms, to feel its rising and falling tides, to let its powers and charms work on you. Here are a few specific things to listen for in this program

  • Brahms was deeply attuned to poetry and text. Listen to the way the moods shift with the words in the two psalm settings, moving through comfort, despair, hope, and (in the end) joy. Listen to a sample of Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz.
  • The Goethe text of the Alto Rhapsody invited Brahms to write one of his most affectingly angst-ridden works of all. The poem speaks of a lost soul, a loner longing to escape his pain, and the music was written as a wedding gift for Julie Schumann, the daughter of Robert and Clara. Could Brahms have been secretly in love with Julie himself? Could he be the work’s wanderer in the wilderness? Listen to a sample of Alto Rhapsody.
  • At the other end of the emotional spectrum are the Zigeunerlieder, a set of “gypsy songs” that Brahms wrote for fun and labeled as “excessively joyful.” These eleven short songs, all in 2/4 meter, traipse happily (and never too seriously) through topics of lust, betrayal, sadness, and devotion. Note the piano part, which is uncommonly intricate, intensely emotional, and far more than a mere “accompaniment”; we’re fortunate to have a collaborator like Janelle Kim, who can do it justice! Listen to a sample of Zigeunerlieder.

Personally, I’m thrilled to be revisiting this wonderful music with Joseph Huszti and the guys of Men in Blaque. Many of us sang Schaffe in mir on our UCI tour of the United Kingdom in 1997, and several of the singers on our upcoming concert performed the Zigeunerlieder on my master’s recital that same year! In the end, Brahms’ genius lies in his ability to connect our souls through the ineffable power of music, and that’s what OCWC is proud to do through this collaboration, too. We can’t wait to see you there!

Still need tickets or want to bring a friend?  Visit our Upcoming Performances page for tickets and additional concert information.