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Allusion as Narrative Premise in Brahms's Instrumental Music.

Allusion as Narrative Premise in Brahms's Instrumental Music. By Jacquelyn E. C. Sholes. (Musical Meaning and Interpretation.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018. [xvi, 256 p. ISBN 9780253033147 (hardcover), $85; ISBN 9780253033154 (paperback), $38; ISBN 9780253033161 (e-book), $36.99.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

This is an insightful and musical book that pursues at least three related goals: Jacquelyn Sholes provides a much-needed review of thirty or more years of scholarship on Johannes Brahms and musical allusion (the perception that he takes motives and other musical ideas from other composers in order to imbue his works with poetic meaning); she identifies some new and unexpected allusions; and most ambitiously and consequentially, she explores the relationship between some of the musical ideas that Brahms is understood to have appropriated and the links to those ideas that he then composed into other movements.

In the introduction and in chapter 1, Sholes expounds upon the notion of Brahms as a historically aware composer intent on being part of a tradition that includes Robert Schumann, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johann Sebastian Bach, but also many others, including Domenico Scarlatti and several lesser-known composers. As she puts it, "Brahms was possessed of an especially strong historical sense--and lived at a time when, ironically, this made him rather modern" (p. 11). She introduces as well the idea of inter-movement musical links, mostly associated with the motives that she and others have identified as derived from earlier works. These links, she argues, allow Brahms to create inter-movement narratives. This is one of the more original ideas of the book, one that leads to the conclusion that Brahms must have begun composing with specific allusions in mind. In cases where an important borrowed or derived theme is placed in the finale, Brahms is then shown to work toward that idea in preceding movements (as in the First Piano Concerto and the First Symphony); in other works, an important allusive idea is placed in the first movement and thus generates ripples through the movements which follow (as in the op. I Piano Sonata and the op. 11 Serenade). The works discussed in chapter 1 include the First Symphony, the Horn Trio in E-flat Major, the String Quartet in B-flat Major, and the early piano sonatas opp. 1 and 5.

Subsequent chapters focus on individual works, most of them early: the op. 8 Piano Trio; the D-Major Serenade for Orchestra, op. 11; and the First Piano Concerto, op. 15; and then lastly, the Fourth Symphony. Happily, she does not dwell on Harold Bloom's once influential book The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973). Bloom's theories work well for Brahms as he struggled to compose the First Piano Concerto and the First Symphony. The difficulty of composing a symphony in the wake of Beethoven's Ninth was indeed daunting, and for Brahms almost crippling. For this work, Bloom's theories, which relate the struggles of one "great" composer attempting to overcome the achievements of a great predecessor, are helpful. Many of Brahms's allusions, however, are not to intimidating predecessors, but to (then) relatively unknown composers like Scarlatti, or to friends like Joseph Joachim or Clara Schumann, or to folk song.

In chapters 2 and 5 Sholes introduces new allusions into works that have been much discussed by other musicologists precisely for their perceived allusions: the op. 8 Piano Trio and the Fourth Symphony. In the case of the piano trio, she discusses the previously recognized allusions to Beethoven and Franz Schubert but then adds into the mix an allusion to Scarlatti that no one had noticed; because Clara Schumann performed Scarlatti regularly for many years, the presence of this allusion adds to the likelihood that this work is in some sense about her. I admire Sholes's reticence to insist on the Tightness of any single interpretation. In the Fourth Symphony finale, she begins by examining likely allusions that other scholars have noticed: to Bach's cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150 (long ago identified but seldom explored), and also to Schumann's lied "Susser Freund, du blickest" from Frauenliebe und lieben. She then adds a new one into the mix, a clear reference to Richard Wagner's "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Tannhauser. I am particularly impressed with her ability to relate the text of Wagner's chorus to that of Bach's cantata and the way she shows how the two texts communicate a common message. Absent a composer's admission that he intended an allusion (a rare occurrence), this is as close to confirmation of a musical allusion as it is possible to achieve. This discussion is one of the highlights of the book.

But I think there is one more connection to make here: the allusion to Schumann's "Susser Freund, du blickest" is one that Sholes reports on and then dismisses. Yet Wagner's text also appears to answer it directly: where the wife in Schumann's lied had sung "Susser Freund, du blickest / Mich verwundert an, / Kannst es nicht begreifen, / Wie ich weinen kann" (You look at me with wonder, and can't understand my tears of happiness). Wagner's words then come as a reply, indicating that he can look and that he (too) is happy: "Begluckt dar nun dich, o Heimat, Ich schauen" (Happily, now may I now look on you, O homeland [my translations]). Moreover, since that homeland is the afterlife, Wagner's text would potentially also support a connection to the Frauenliebe postlude in Variation 14 of the finale, portraying death, albeit now as something positive.

Sholes's discussion of the First Piano Concerto in chapter 4 is very impressive. This is a pivotal work in Brahms's oeuvre, one in which his compositional struggles--first as a symphony, subsequently as a concerto--are better documented than usual. Sholes does not overstate the struggle when she describes it as combat or as a battle: "Brahms indeed appears to engage in 'dialectical combat' with Beethoven in this work," especially "in the finale, where the work's protagonist wages his ultimate battle for autonomy. For it is precisely Brahms's employment of a Beethovenian model for the finale that sets up the framework, the backdrop, against which such a dialectical battle may take place" (p. 171). Although his model for the finale was the finale of Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 3 in C Minor (as Charles Rosen long ago described), looming behind the conception of the whole was the Ninth Symphony, another work that moves from D minor to D major.

Sholes's major contribution in this book is to show how Brahms's allusive themes are not exterior musical events dropped into a foreign context (they and the texts they reference are not "extramusical") but rather ideas that are carefully prepared or responded to in other movements. In the case of the First Piano Concerto, the opening theme of the Finale has been compared by me and others to the finale theme of Schumann's Kreisleriana, op. 16, with obvious biographical implications, since Brahms had an alter ego he nicknamed Kreisler. I find Sholes's interpretation of the signal call in the first movement of the concerto and its connection to the first theme of the finale particularly strong. The repeated rising fourth (A-D) of the signal call is stretched out over a rising eleventh in the finale, which begins and ends with the rising fourth (A-D). Her conclusion that the finale "represents a victory and a resolution not only for the soloist, but for the composer himself" (p. 166) comes near the end of a long and sensitive analysis that weaves music and biography in surprising and unexpected ways.

This is a wonderfully musical book with many valuable insights (and many generously long music examples). It will be useful to Brahms scholars, of course, but also to those who study music from roughly 1780 to the early twentieth century. Allusions are found in music of all periods, but in these decades the importance of recognizing and accessing the unsung text is crucial for understanding what it is that composers were attempting to communicate. It is no less important for understanding how composers composed. Sholes manages to demonstrate that allusions are not just isolated moments of reference, but ideas at the very heart of the works that grow up around them.


University of California, Davis
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Author:Reynolds, Christopher
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2019
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