Thursday, May 22, 2008

This Magic Moment (one in a series)

Brahms, A German Requiem, first movement, nine measures after B

This one snuck up on me during last night's San Francisco Symphony concert, I suppose because I hadn't listened to or thought much about the German Requiem in a few years. My autonomic nervous system knew what was coming, though. About ten seconds before this passage, I suddenly got a little Pavlovian telegram from deep inside that said, "Something you love is about to happen"; a few seconds later I remembered what it was, and sat upright in gleeful anticipation.

On one level, the effect here is fairly standard word-painting. The psalm text shifts from Tränen to Freuden, and Brahms dutifully injects a note of joy into the music; Schütz, the presiding spirit throughout so much of the German Requiem, would have understood and approved.

But what I find particularly moving about this passage is the method Brahms uses to convey a sense of exaltation: He quickens the rhythmic pulse of the music, without changing the tempo or the meter at all. This is a characteristically Brahmsian trick (I'm pretty sure he does something similar in the Second Piano Concerto, although I can't put my finger on it at the moment), adapted from the Renaissance polyphonists he knew and loved so well. And it's a contrast to Wagner, say, who when he wants a change in tempo simply indicates a change in tempo.

What Brahms does here, it seems to me, carries rich metaphorical weight: It's a musical image of locating joy in the mundane. The surrounding structures remain constant, but within the constraints they establish, there's room for the sublime. And the effect is only heightened by its being so temporary — within a few measures the feeling of exaltation has passed, and we're back to the steady, thrumming quarter-note pulse of the opening. But during those few short moments, we had a little glimpse of heaven. Nothing changed, and everything changed.


At 5/24/2008 2:04 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

There are lots of places in the Requiem. where I smile in anticipation, or tear up in anticipation. Movement 6 in particular is a problem, from "der Zeit der letzen Posaune" through to the fugue. Well, it's a problem because I'm singing it tonight with Chora Nova - and two pianos - and I'm an alto and need to retain some poise for the fugue, which we lead off.

He uses similar compositional techniques elsewhere in the Requiem, though I think not anywhere where the text is so telling. All that learned counterpoint includes strettos, augmentation of a theme, etc., etc.

At 8/25/2008 9:15 PM, Blogger Jack Curtis Dubowsky said...

"Word-painting" is such a common technique it is often more trite than clever or unexpected. Sometimes it's highly conventional and expected (as when key words and verbs are embellish or inflected.) (And check the conventions of baroque music especially.) Yet still, word-painting is so easily understood by the audience, so effective, and as you describe, so enjoyable and rewarding, it's what often makes a text-setting sparkle.


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