Scattered thoughts on being a vagrant musician

Posted on November 8th, 2009 by

Scattered thoughts on being a vagrant musician.

  • or how I saw things in 2009, and still do…

18th Century paper-lined double violin case

Aaron and I have just played George Rochberg’s entire violin and piano music in one go at the Arsenale as part of the Venice Biennale. I am absolutely shattered, my hands aching, my brain empty, and the inevitable downer that follows a big concert. There was certainly something a little odd about giving a concert in what was the heart of the ‘Lion of St Mark’s’ naval and trading power. It was from here that the ships left to extract tribute from the Balkan coast, to Lepanto. It seems especially odd that the concerts and art exhibits in this huge area seem to ignore this context.They, like our concert, flown in in a sealed bubble, strain not to touch, or be touched, by the place, by the city itself.

But now I find myself sitting outside by the Hotel Scandinavia, the loudest noise, the soft shuffle of tired feet on the paving stones around me. I have mixed feelings about the concert, between elation at having played tolerably well, to exasperation that something so over-funded, should be so badly adv ertised, could attract so few people. Though, from the publicity, I would have had trouble finding out where the concert was, let alone the programme that we were playing. I decide not to tell this to George. In stead, I revel in the voices echoing from the stone walls aournd me, Italiam, like shards of broken china, and the soft mumble, the hyggelid of a group of Danish tourists in their habitual circle at a nearby table, the sound of home. Mars hangs huge and gold, as if in watch, over the square.

On the plane from Milan to Vence, I meet a judge. She is Dutch, and professor at Leiden, and sits on the bench of the European court. She had noticed, to my emnbarrassment, that I was drawing, and assumed that I was an artist. I hasten to disillusion her of that. We begin to talk, and it rapidly becamse clear that not only was she a brilliant woman, but from a musical family, the daughter of a solo pianist. For 18 months she has been living in Sofia, teaching European law there, in preparation for Bulgaria’s hopeful entry into the EU in 2007. She was determined to come to our concert in the Arsenale next day, and also insisted that we meet for coffee the following day. Over a marvelous espresso in the Piazza San Marco two days later she reveals that she is not optimistic about Bulgaria’s prospects for Eu entry. She is worried that the consequences of failure to make the grade could be disastrous for the country, which, in a fragile state, has invested so much in this hope for the future. This certainly was in my mind as I walked around Tirana a few months later. The chance of talking politics with such a mind was completely irrestible. Talk, naturally enough, turned to the war. The issue of the manifold differences between the European and American positions naturally arose, and it was clear that her understanding of the crisis was far more subltly nuanced than my sledgehammer thinking. She pointed out something about Europe’s relationship with the US, which had somehow escaped me. Of course, the US would fail the first hurdle of EU entry; the issue of the death penalty. She pointed out the the office of the Supreme Court would hardly help in this decision, since this, as any court, does not exist to decide on the morality of the law, nore to set precedent, but on the administration of its latter, and that in that case, it could officiate and code or set of rules.

That morning, I was called to mass by the bells of S. Maria Formosa, but wander to St Mark’s. It is 7 am, and I have irreligious thoughts. The notice hung on the door is very clear on this: Entry only for worshippers at this hour. But I sidle in. In my way, I am a worshipper. The pulpit looks as if has been foisted from a Mimber in Istanbul. I walk on the the miraculous cosmati mosaic in wonder. A uniformed attendant looks at my sketch book with cold suspicion. I dutifully close it and gaze upwards in hopeful reverence at the dull gold glory arching over my head, allowing the riotous music of this insane building to break over me. The guard seems especially impressed that I prayerfully stay for two masses.

There is a wonderful similarity between visiting a new city or a new country and discovering a new piece of music. Both activities involve similar types of anticipation, which you might see as fear or prejudice, of exploration, which you might see as disorientation or confusion, and sometimes, isolated moments of revelation. Like any traveler, the musician constantly shuttles between the states of mere visitor, temporary resident, inhabitant, naturalization and complete alienation. Like some cities or places, there is music, which you can never leave, or, perhaps, which never leaves you. Indeed you might say that some pieces, and some places, begin to ‘work’, to weave their spell in the memory or the anticipation. This is something to do with nomadism. The Kazakhtani Arts Association’s ‘constitution’ puts it very well:

“The central concept of our artists is ‘nomadism’. Which means the eternal movement, traveling in search for the unachievable, new contacts and new creative ideas-the perpetual flow of life where any stop is the beginning of a new path.”[i]

Performing nearly all ‘classical’ music involves extreme levels of mechanical control, equivalent, on the violin, to the mind-boggling precision of a Nicholas Hilliard miniature, or the work of a diamond cutter. It is in this extreme refinement, the control of immeasurably small, speculatively tiny increments of minutiae, wherein lies much of the apparently enormous emotional ‘punch’ of classical music. Listeners are expected to perceive and respond to musical signals of such subtlety that can often not be pointed out. One of the composer’s most effective tools is to place both the extreme levels of control essential for the performer, and the subtle levels of scrutiny required of the listeners under extreme pressure, thereby accessing seemingly rarified imaginary landscapes through this combination of refinements. The eventual result of all of this attention to detail is that the performer is not themselves ‘expressing’ the music in the way that it is apparently being projected, but rather fighting their way through a dense underbrush of musical material, hunting for the precise musical shading in their imagination, negotiating problems of technique, memory, ensemble and structure. More often than not the musician is trying to resolve moment-to-moment physiological crises, tiredness, strategizing to control energy distribution like a long distance runner. Sometimes, out of sheer self-protection, the musician is ‘tuning out’. When I was getting ready to play the Beethoven Concerto Op 61 for the first time in my mid-teens, I asked the great violinist Ralph Holmes, my beloved teacher, what he did with himself in the enormous opening ‘tutti’ which begins the concerto, the seemingly endless minutes of orchestral drama before the soloist plays for the first time. Naively, I expected some suggestion of a poetic approach to the problem. I was, to say the least, surprised by his response. ‘I stick my nose in the air and work through bus-timetables.’

A patently absurd musical adventure: Four of us, Aaron Shorr, my long term duo partner, his fellow New Yorker, Dov Scheindlin, viola and my Australian colleague from the Kreutzer Quartet, Neil Heyde, Cello, were attempting to play the Beethoven ‘Eroica’ Symphony Op 55 in a transcription for Piano Quartet. This was most likely made by his friend and collaborator, Franz Clement. Beethoven and Clement were both living at that time in apartments in Schickaneder’s ‘Theater am Wien’, where Clement was leader of the orchestra and musical director. This theatre was where just over a decade earlier, ‘The Magic Flute’ had been premiered, and changing the course of opera for good.I had particular fun practicing the ‘Turkish Music’ variation in the last movement of ‘Eroica’. In this transcription for much reduced forces, it seems even more prescient of the last movement of the ‘Choral’ Symphony. Here we were playing the ‘Rite of Spring’ of its day ‘a quattro’.

“Everyone was enjoying themselves thoroughly when all of a sudden the morose doublebass burst in at the door in the company of a couple of cellos, his cousins. He flung himself on to the conductor’s stool so violently that the pianofort and all the stringed instruments let out an involuntary discordant gasp. ‘No!’ exclaimed th contrabass, ‘The devil take anyone who makes us listen to compositions like that every day! I have just come from the rehearsal of a symphony by one of our newest composers, and thought, as you know, I have a very strong and resilient constitution, I could stand it no longer. For within another five minutes my sound post would have fallen over and my life strings would have snapped. Rather than be forced to jump about like a rabid wild goat, rather than be turned into a violin to execute the non-ideas of the worthy composer, I will become a dance-band fiddle and earn my bread with Müller and Kauer dance pieces.

First Cello (wiping the persperation from his brow): Cher pere is right. I am so fatigued. I cant remember being so provoked since we played the Cherubini operas.

All the instruments: Tell us! Tell us!

Second cello: Something like this can hardly be told, let alone listened to. For according to the principles with which my divine master Romberg, imbud me, the symphony that we have just played is a musical monstrosity, suited neither to the nature of any instrument nor to the execution of an idea, bnot to any other purposed except nnovelty and the desire to appear original. We were made made to climb high like violins…

First Cello: (Interrupting) As if we couldn’t do it just as well as they…

All of a sudden the property man entered the hall and all the instruments separated in dear, for they knew the rough hadn that packed them up and took them to the rehearsals. ‘Wait!’ he shouted, ‘ Are you rebelling again? Just wait! Pretty soon they are going to set out the Eroica symphony by Beethoven, and after that I’d like to see which one of you can move a limb or a key!’

‘Oh,no! Not that!’ begged all the instruments.”

Carl Maria von Weber[ii]

In the concert, I must confess, that, whilst all the intense physical activity was great fun, and it all seemed to be the most wonderful racket, all of my attention was necessarily focused on controlling the blistering chords and lightening-flash scales that assailed me, vainly trying to suggest the impact of a whole section of violins. I was far from being ‘in the moment’. However, the next day, I woke with the roar of battle in my mind’s ear, desperately sad not to be in the midst of that tumultuous soundscape anymore. I was immediately longing to play the work again, to revive the memory of such an awesome musical form. This returned to me a while later, back in the same concert hall. This time, Aaron and I were joined by the brilliant German cellist, Beate Altenberg, with whom were were performing for the first time. This time, we were playing the Piano Trio transcription of the 7th symphony. Once again Beethoven set loose his Juggernaut and we all felt ourselves overwhelmed by musical powers beyond our control, perhaps beyond our ken. Everyone seemed to feel this, and after the concert there was a sense the that everyone was standing around astonished at Beethoven’s achievement. Be they composers or non-musicians, it was as if this electrified ‘aoptheosis of the Dance’, as Wagner called it, had reminded us all of who we are, rendering the division between audience and listener, between msucial initiate and lay-person moot.

There has been much said and written about the ‘end of classical music’. There is a sense, particularly amongst western professional musicians, that they are witness to the death throes of a medium, for which, strangely, they sometimes seem almost completely unprepared to fight. This impression is compounded by the proliferation of musical ghettoes; the ‘informed practice’ performers cordoning off yet another lucrative area of the repertoire, the ‘hard-line’ new music experts sealing up their particular funding bubbles, walling up their own prisons. Most sadly of all, many serious artists are encouraged by neurotic, collapsing, over-extended recording companies to try for ‘popular’ acclaim by attempting the annexation of areas of the pop world, under the delusion that a makeover, amplification and a backing tape will turn them into an instant Madonna. This is not going to be the answer to their problems, and is insulting to the serious investment of time and ideas that most serious pop and rock artists have invested in their lively art. The press compounds the sense of crisis, of ever-more-desperate rearguard actions. Financial pressure from newspaper proprietors to write about popular culture, somehow perceived as the only mass international cultural movement, has exacerbated an editorial narrowness of view of what makes acceptable or desirable copy concerning the performing arts.

But I just don’t see it. All of the neuroses and worries that I have mentioned above are focused on the business, rather than the nature of music. If for a moment, you forget money, forget the media, forget monolithic recording companies, arts administrators, funding bodies, grants, agents, managers, percentages, royalty payments, schedules etc. then what you are left with, the Art itself, reveals a surprising picture.

The truth is that it is well nigh impossible to go anywhere on the planet where classical music is not created, played and celebrated. All over the world, children study it, for the sheer fun of playing, and particularly the joy of playing together. They are encouraged by millions of parents and teachers, who see music as an indispensable learning tool, and a wonderful social educator. There are hundreds of thousands of students studying composition all over the world, not because they are ever at all likely to make money as composers, but because it is something that they want to do while they have a chance. There are millions of amateur musicians across the world, indulging joyfully in this powerful global language. I have never forgotten hearing Sir Michael Tippett’s excitement that a string quartet of postal workers was studying his profound and difficult string quartets. This diverse language is no respecter of colour, nationality or even of time. However for this to be recognized, western musicians need to recognize that their technical and musical authority has long gone.

I recently found myself drinking an awkward cup of tea with a brilliant flute player from Paris. We started to discuss what we had both seen on hour travels. I mistakenly thought that she would have been excited by the experience of teaching and collaborating with students and young players in the former Soviet Republics. She was recently returned from Tbilisi, Georgia. I was very eager to hear her musical impression. I expected that she might have been inspired at having worked with musicians from a different but related classical tradition, who had kept the flame burning through times of warfare and hardship, in this city that Tchaikovsky loved, the furthest east that he ever went. He had loved the beauty of the city, the landscape, and particularly, working in the Music Academy there. But to my complete consternation,”they don’t know anything and they are so arrogant. Don’t they realize that there is a right way to play a long note? They know nothing about the French school.” With that, the conversation fell into disarray, leaving me worrying about my own ‘long notes’, rather than take up cudgels at this prejudice against a different approach. This is unfortunately very common within western European musicians; it borders on racism, a suspicion of variety of musical languages or means, the very variety of modes of address that was celebrated by Quintillian and the Rhetoricians. This particular prejudice, although an extreme example, unfortunately encapsulates the attitude to the modern western European music establishment, busily trying to ‘ring-fence’ a post-imperial, and jaundiced perception of a non existent cultural superiority. This perception is non-inclusive, and allowing for only limited ways of playing, one strand of ‘important’ composers, and worst of all ‘important’ cities giving themselves appalling acronym, such as ‘cultural capitals’, which by frightening extension, suggests ‘important’ races, ‘important’ countries. This is language that Goebbels and Rosenberg would approve of.

The possible balance to this is the discovery of the pluralistic, inclusive, approach to music; it is fantastically exciting that there have been so many different manifestations of what was, formerly, a purely western European musical language. It has been a very long since European musicians were able to claim this language or languages as exclusively theirs. It no longer is; this seems a threat to some of today’s comfortable professionals, drifting through the departure lounges of Berlin, Paris, London, Vienna…

In the late 1970’s, I discovered contemporary music. This was courtesy of the record store in Woodford Broadway, where I grew up, on the outskirts of East London. I must confess that I do not have any love for the place where I was a child. I suppose that it was safe, and being on the Central Line, I could easily escape for days in the great free museums of London, church hunting in the ‘square mile’ and concerts in the center of town. But us was the discovery of the record store that gave me the first hint of my escape.

In 1976, a recording of the great American violinist Isaac Stern appeared on CBS. I think that I possibly first heard it in 1978, when I was eleven. Like any kid with a record, I scrutinized every part of the sleeve before I got home; I was particularly impressed by the demonic image of Stern, in action, on the reverse. The photograph was in grainy black-and-white, and Stern was pictured in almost complete silhouette. Truthfully, I had never seen anything like it; he appeared to be in the throes of a heart attack. I was bewildered at seeing one of my heroes thus, used to seeing them depicted well groomed and retouched, not thus, apparently in extremis. It had never even occurred to me that any music could take a performer to such a place.

I noticed that the recording was of a concerto by some one called George Rochberg, and was mildly intrigued that there appeared to be some of the composer’s manuscript projected as a backdrop to the three figures pictured on the sleeve-Andre Previn, who I only knew from the ‘Morecambe and Wise’ ‘Grieg Piano Concerto incident’, Stern, and a handsome figure to the left, lean as a rake, presumably the composer.

I have never forgotten the moment of first putting this record on to the turntable. From the first outburst from Stern’s fiddle, the ‘ great barbaric yawp’ which begins the concerto, I was transfixed, and terrified. It suddenly dawned on me that I had absolutely no idea what went on in the world of music, the world beyond my school, beyond the suburbs in which I was growing up. A year earlier, admittedly, a rather silly music master had played us a recording of the LaSalle Quartet playing what I now know to have been Pendere?ki’s 1st quartet, taught us how to spell ‘avant-garde’, and generally encouraged us to laugh at ‘modern’ music. Frankly, the Pendere?ki quartet had left me cold anyway. It still does. Until I heard the Rochberg Concerto, I never realized that the violin could be so aggressive, sexual, rhapsodic, pleading, bullying, warlike, sentimental, or so damn frightening.

This was my introduction to the new music of my time, my first clue that there was a real world out there. For the first time, it dawned on me that music might be about me…now.

A few years later I found myself talking to the violinist Jagdish Mistry after a Menuhin concert at the Festival Hall. He has since become a star in Germany as the Konzertmeister of the ‘Ensemble Modern’ Frankfurt, like me another one of the many English-trained players clogging up the German music world. I am a particular fan of his recordings of George Antheil Violin Sonatas. Jagdish was a bit older than me, and I was a very eager fifteen year old, very keen to impress, to say the right thing. We were chatting about new music, and naturally enough, or so I thought, I mentioned my love of Rochberg’s music, particularly the concerto. He shot back with ‘Romantic slush.’ and a look of disdain.To be honest, from that moment, to my lasting shame, the piece faded from my life, until serendipitous circumstances brought it back to me.

When I was very young, I imagined what it might be like to meet a composer. It seemed to me as if they should be distant, very forbidding prophet figures, like the old testament patriarchs who scared me at church on Sundays, or perhaps the vision of the poet which I had encountered when I was forced to learn coleridge by rote when I first went to my independent boys school.

“Beware, beware, his shining eyes, his waving hair.”[iii]

I come from what might loosely be described as a ‘low church’ Anglican background. God was not to be imagined or visualized. Jesus was still a very white Aryan Victorian figure, resplendent in white and yellow, altogether too cuddly and comforting for a young boy like me. Moses, Elijah, Brahms and Beethoven were the nearest thing to God that I could imagine.

My first professor, Beatrix Marr lived in a medieval cottage groined into the side of a wooded valley not far from Axminster, in South Devon. Over an upright piano in her sitting room, opposite the fireplace, which only burnt sweet-smelling apple wood from the orchard behind the house, hung Willy von Beckrath’s famous drawing of Brahms at the piano. Eugenie Schumann wrote:

“We would often sit talking at the breakfast table for a long time, but Marie reminded him sometimes, ‘Herr Brahms, you really must practise now, or you will not play properly at the concert.’ Then he always s got up obediently, went into the music room with his beloved cigar, and presently we heard the vigourous attack of his two fifth fingers, one at each extreme end of the keyboard,and arpeggios in counter movement through enless modulations followed. Interesting as this playing was, there was always something of a fight or animosity about it. I do not believe that Brahms looked upon the piano as a dear trusted friend, as my mother did, but considered it a necessary evil with which one must put up with as best one could.”[iv]

I used to gaze long and hard at this picture, both on the visits that we made en famille to the cottage, and on the real adventures, when I would be sent here for a study vacation. This was the first time that anybody tried to inculcate within me the seriousness, the absolute missionary zeal necessary to be a true musician. In the context of these visits, this image of Brahms stayed with me as my ideal. The composer is pictured sitting at the piano in profile, his feet close together on the pedals, his Mosaic beard hanging down over his protruding belly. Leaning back from the piano, a cigar clamped between his teeth, he appeared to me to be playing a heavily articulated chord , perhaps the opening notes of the first sonata which he wrote for Joseph Joachim, the G Major Op 78, sometimes named for the song which it incorporates, ‘Regenleied’. But the most wonderful thing is the expression on his face. His eyes are closed, this overweight, prematurely ageing, tweedy, silver beard, and he looks like an angel. Every time I remember this print, it brings to mind Robert Schumann’s ecstatic note after meeting him for the first time;

“I think that if I were younger I could make some polymetres about the young eagle who has so suddenly and unexpectedly flown down from the Alps to Düsseldorf. Or one might compare him to a splendid stream which, like Niagara, is at its finest when precipitating itself from the heights as a roaring waterfall, met on the shore by the fluttering of butterflies and nightingales’voices…The young eagle seems to be content in the lowlands; he has found an old guardian who is accuatomed to watch such young flights, and who knows how to calm the wild wingflapping without detriment to the soaring power.” To Joseph Joachim, the great Hungarian violinist who had introduced them, he simply penned: “This is he that should come.”[v]

Never having seen the Niagara Falls was no impediment to Schumann’s purple prose.

It seemed to me that this should benchmark of all composers, that they should have the nature of angelic prophets. The next time that I recognized this quality, was the first time that Olivier Messiaen walked into the Duke’s Hall of the Royal Academy of Music, for a rehearsal of his ‘Canyons aux Étoiles’ which I, a very nervous and overexcited 18 year old, was leading. Nothing had been announced, but the instant that this modest old man walked into the room, his brightly coloured scarf trailing on the floor behind him, every student caught their breath, sat up a little straighter, and worried if they would come up to scratch. The composer Melanie Daiken, who was responsible for bring the Messiaens to the Academy, wrote: ‘Arrival of the Messiaens….they slipped past….and into the audience, but somehow, everyone knew.’ [1]It was like meeting a living saint; somehow increased by the great pragmatism of Messiaen’s approach, his quiet French, and the furor of his music. This seemed to be a confirmation of my childish imaginings of composers, and this has not subsequently been betrayed. My excitement at getting close to the works and minds of such visionaries, be they young or old, is greater today than it has ever been, as more and more I find myself ‘seeing’ the world through their ears and eyes.

Melanie Daiken is without doubt one of the most original and fearless musical voice that I have ever encountered. Curiously her music has proved easy prey for marginalization, to the point that she is now practically unknown to the average concert goer, even to a new music junkie. Like many young students, I first encountered here inspired approach through her analytical work on other composers’s scores. I am lucky enough own a number of the scores that she has annotated in her own inimitable fashion.. Her inscriptions float like tropical birds and foliage, a stream of consciousness ticker-tape, the clericues of her exquisite hand arching from one part of the score to another. She is one of the rare composers whose musical script is consonant with her handwriting, resulting in wonderfully expressive manuscripts, but occasionally causing problems. In the late 1980′ s she was was working on a giant set of variations for strings and piano which I commissioned for a festival in the north of England. The weeks of preparation for this work wer filled with expquisite conversation, during which she filled many notebooks with ideas; melodies, colours, timbres. She planned to use the extra material that ‘spilt’ out from these notebooks to write me a series of solo violin works based the on Balkan folk music which had provided a vital plank of the larger work. However, to her displeasure, when she came to do this, the notebooks proved to be illegible, and all that had been set down, was lost.

Actually, I was quite wrong about the piece that Brahms is playing in Beckerath’s painting. The artist wrote that he painted “the artist at a moment, when, completely oblivious of his surroundings, he is absorbed in his art.” If I had looked carefully, I would have seen that the composer’s strong hands were crossed. Beckerath depicted him playing the opening of the passionate G minor Rhapsody Op 79, composed during the same summer sojourn on the Worthesee when he had composed the ‘Regenlied’ sonata.[vi]

In 1996, a Brahms treasure appeared for sale at Sotheby’s in London. This was the manuscript of his two late sonatas for piano with clarinet, perhaps the two greatest sonatas written for that instrument, the jewels of the late flowering of his late chamber music. These pieces were written for and dedicated to the clarinettist and violinist Richard Mühlfeld:

“Hrn. Richard Mühlfeld Dem Meister seines schönes Instrumentes, in freundlich dankbarer Erinnerung! J. Brahms, Ischl im Sommer ’95.”[vii]

The manuscript had remained in the possession of the Mühlfeld family ever since. It is perhaps the most single important Brahms relic ever to appear at auction.

The German composer Jörg Widmann, himself a world class clarinettist, was staying with me at the time. We had played Brahms’ contemporaneous Clarinet Quintet, Op 115, together many times, and these two sonatas had been part of our conversations since the first time that we met in Italy in 1989. I think that, in some strange way, we both identified strongly with Joseph Joachim and Richard Mühlfeld, who had premiered the quintet together in Berlin in 1891.

Although it was immediately apparent to Sotheby’s that we were certainly not credible bidders for the manuscript, they kindly allowed us one hour alone with Brahms’ score, on a number of strict conditions. These only served to heighten my excitement at meeting this music, as it were, face to face. We were not allowed to take notes, or to take photographs-it was very obvious that the auction house was powerfully aware of the power and value of this artefact. The reason for this became apparent as soon as we ‘met’ the manuscript.

There was never a more efficient self-censor than Johannes Brahms. He seems to have been constantly making bonfires of his sketches, juvenilia, letters, indeed destroying everything that might fuel controversy about his interpretation or compositional integrity; perhaps more importantly immolating any documents that might reveal hairline cracks in the adamantine flawlessness of his carefully modeled, self-made image, before or after his death. Curiously, he seems to have been most worried that subsequent generations would discover how little preparatory sketching he did before going to work on the actual manuscript of a new piece. He seems to have felt that he would not come off particularly well if his meager sketchings were ever to be compared to Beethoven’s monumental researches prior to composition. Thus, Brahms his own literary executor, press agent, and ‘Ministry of Truth’, all rolled into one, and he was burning personal papers right up till the end of his life.

From the viewpoint of an inquisitive performer, the result of all of this is infuriating. Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert’s manuscripts are proof of the process of their compositions, showing where they changed their minds, rewrote passages in collaboration with colleagues, be they performers or other composers, or left reminders that they needed to pay their creditors or were disturbed by unwelcome visitors. Elgar tended to draw fantastic animals when he was bored, or to write encouraging or disparaging notes to himself on his pages. These scores are clear manifestations of the ‘Act of Composing’, providing fuel for subsequent speculations of generations of scholars and performers. By contrast, most of Brahms’s surviving manuscripts are ‘Rheinschriften’, fair copies, made as exemplars of a notion of ‘pure’ composition that Brahms became ever keener to create abd protect as he grew older.

This was all that Jörg and I were expecting to see, but that did not dim our fervour as we arrived at the offices of the auction house off New Bond Street. But this was not what we found at all.

The beautifully bound folio of 44 pages, was embossed with ‘”Manuscripte won Brahms”, Ischl 1894’, in large fading gold leaf on the tooled red leather cover. Upon opening, it yielded up an extraordinary treasure. Instead of the elegant, copybook musical handwriting of the Brahms manuscripts that I knew, such as the Op 79 piano ‘Rhapsodies’, or the clean manuscript of the Violin Concerto Op77, with Joseph Joachim’s emendations in shockingly bold red ink, we discovered a working text. This score was heavily ‘over-written’, with countless scratchings and crossings-out. There were extensive revisions, deleted sections, alterations and corrections to both the parts. Many passages were rewritten on separate pages and free staves, indicated with cues, including some written on slips of manuscript paper pasted in the margins, as well remarks to the music copyist. Themes were jumbled up with their possible alternatives, and messy indications of possible transpositions left ghosts over the ink text.. It was one of the most chaotic scores that I had ever seen, resembling the chaos of Charles Ives’ four ‘polystylistic Violin Sonatas (1906-1912). These masterpieces were begun around a decade after Brahms penned his Clarinet Sonatas Op 120.

It was a big surprise to me, on first seeing this Brahms score, that Ives would be the first composer who leapt to mind. I expect to see Ives’ mess, his collaging, ‘cut and paste’ techniques; it’s germane to any understanding of his music. ‘Herr Doktor Brahms” carefully preened musical image and by extension, our understanding of his working methods runs completely counter to them muddled revelation of these scores.n The score of the two sonatas revealed many ‘proto-Ives-ean’ techniques at work. It seemed that sections of the music had been physically cut from one part of the score and pasted over others, that drastic elisions had been made without any attempt to rationalize the linear anomalies that ensued. Brahms was attacking his own constructional integrity in order to maximize the dramatic effect of the music, working, if you like, like a great film editor, turning a rambling epic into a concise, powerful three-act drama.

As any composer and performer will, Jörg and I began to speculate that much of the apparently Spartan, succinct quality of this work had much more to do with Brahms’ liberality with the scissors, rather than an extreme, classical, controlling sensibility, as we had presumed previously. I was breathless at being able to glimpse into this world that Brahms had laboured his whole life to keep from us, the sheer effort of composition. It was like lifting the skin from a flawless marble classical sculpture and revealing a whirring hive of complex irrational activities, cogs, wheels, regulators, transistors, processors rubber bands and string, just below the untrammeled surface, or Toto pulling back the curtain and revealing the ‘Great and powerful Oz’ to be a stuttering old man fiddling with wheels and dials.

Jörg and I laboured over the manuscript, each agreeing to commit certain salient revelations to memory. As soon as we got home, grabbing a printed modern score, we whooped over it, over excited at the illicit view that we had been granted of the composer’s most private thoughts, his actual process of composing, and his Werkstatt. He would have been furious with us. There’s no question about that.

In 1887 Brahms was in Leipzig, where a decade previously, he had been offered Bach’s old job at the Thomas Kirche. Under considerable pressure from Clara Schumann, he had refused. Now he was here to rehearse his dramatic C minor Piano Trio, Op 87, with the cellist Julius Klengel and the violinist Adolph Brodsky. This was very cosmopolitan company. Brodsky had premiered Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto after Leopold Auer had refused to perform it. He had led the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and taught in the United Kingdom. Later on, in 1927, he would even play the Elgar Concerto in a tribute to the composer. At a tea party organized by Mrs Brodsky, Brahms was introduced to Tchaikovsky, and Edvard Grieg. Grieg was most likely brought along to keep the peace between the two massive egos. Famously, he could be prevailed upon to do conjuring tricks, which he produced from a little carrying case that he brought with him, if social situations became too strained. He and his wife made an enchanting couple, far from the arrogance and grumpiness, respectively, or Tchaikovsky and Brahms. Upon Tchaikovsky’s arrival, Brahms started trying to provoke him. His natural insecurity often manifested itself as nastiness. ‘Do I not disturb you?’ he sneered to the Russian. ‘Surely you don’t like this music at all?’…[viii]

The one thing that is always exciting and satisfying about performing is the sense of ‘going there’; seeking out, discovery, exploration, blind alleys, tremendous vistas opening up, and tiny steps forward and back. This it seems to me is the joy of exploring music.

As a violinist, I love on other people’s terms and inhabit their imaginations, rather than my own less than inspiring one. It often becomes difficult to disentangle the discovery of composers’ works, from my vision of the places in which I play them, the countries and people that I visit bringing these, my musical family, and my voice. The never-ending counterpoint between these journeys is what spurs me out of bed in the morning.

(Copyright P Sheppard Skaerved 2009)