Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto Number 2

In my previous entry, I ended up talking about how rich cultural life was at the turn of the 20th century and how poor ours seemed by comparison. Of course, writers for thousands of years have decried the decadence of their own era and pined for the “Golden Age.” Presumably, that was some time in the remote past when everyone was a philosopher, ate ambrosia, and created great works of art.

We need only think of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Florentines in Renaissance Italy, the French in the age of enlightenment, and in our own era, the fin de siecle.  But a look at a few of the musicians whose lives overlapped in the last decade of the 19th Century and the first of the 20th–Puccini, Faure, Mahler, Verdi, Toscanini, Milhaud, Tchaikowsky, Brahms, Grieg, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky–does point to a golden age.

Often, I suspect the people who bemoan the sad state of the arts in their time are more often than not critics, not creators, of the arts. There’s a poem by E.A. Robinson called “Miniver Cheevy” that sums up these souls. Here are a few stanzas from it:

Miniver Cheevy Child of Scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Minver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediaeval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

The fact of the matter is that great works of art and philosophy that survives and from which we think we know the past was created by an educated minority. Right now over five of the Earth’s six billion people live in abject poverty and have pathetically short life spans. Think of how much higher the mortality rates must have been just a hundred years ago. Would any of us who yearn for those great minds of yesteryear swap places with anyone back then?

Woody Allen recently explored this idea again, in Midnight In Paris, in which the main character, at the ringing of a bell at midnight, is transported back to the 20s, where he meets Hemingway, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel, and Picasso.  He falls in love with one of Picasso’s models and together they travel back in time to the the previous generation of Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, Gaugin and Offenbach.  She longs for that golden age and cannot see the greatness of the artists around her, just as the Woody Allen character longs for the times of the Lost Generation.

Our problem today, methinks, is glut. We’re supersaturated with information. With radio, television, high literacy rates, and now the Internet. We suffer from so much information that we find it hard to separate the gold from the dross.

I am heartened though, when I look everywhere and see people in their everyday lives trying to create works of art and beauty. A friend of mine from grade school, Jayne Holsinger, has been living in New York since 1978, where she’s supported herself as a waitress and graphic designer and is now exhibiting her paintings in galleries. Another friend from high school, Doug Gottberg, has been composing and playing music with his group, Kino, in Paris since the early 1980s.  A while back, at my 25th high school reunion, I met an old friend named Ralph Scutchfield, who’s played bluegrass banjo since he was a boy and was then learning how to play the violin in a Suzuki class with his daughter. The hamstrung intellectuals will tell you that the arts are in bad shape, but not if you’re willing to go out and do them yourself.

What does this have to do with Brahm’s Piano Concerto Number Two? For a number of years, I went through my own Minver Cheevy phase. My drug, as I’ve said before, was music. Shy and lacking in self-confidence, I would sit in my room for hours listening to great works of music, letting my emotions flow out, feeling sorry for myself, feeling victimized. Brahm’s music was particularly affecting, and this concerto became one of my favorite pieces during that time period.

Unlike other concertos it has four movements, and it really is a breathtakingly grand work. When I think of it, it seems almost like a symphony with piano, so skillfully is the piano integrated with the orchestra. One critic of the time even labeled it as a “symphony with a piano obligato,” but the piano is used so expressively that comment seems like a cheap shot. Make no mistakes about it, Brahms was an incredible genius and a master of the instrument. He chose to express his genius through heart-rendingly beautiful melodies, which often brought tears to my eyes.

A high school friend–Paul M***–once told me a story that illustrates the composer’s gifts. Once Brahms went into a beer hall and was asked to play a tune on the piano. While warming up, he discovered the instrument to be excruciatingly out of tune. Brahms played a few scales and memorized which notes were off. He then transposed the notes of his piece correctly as he played it so that no one could hear that the piano was bad.

I particularly love the first movement, which starts with horns playing the Romantic melody.  The piano then picks the theme up in an almost angelic manner. The second movement, an allegro, is the extra movement, and is full of passion. The third reminds me a bit of Brahm’s violin concerto and often served to set me off self-wallowing sadness. Fortunately, Brahms finishes the work with a lively and upbeat Rondo, which never failed to lift me out of my doldrums.

So do I still grouse about the philistinism around me? Do I still feel like Miniver Cheevy? You tell me. What helped, I think, was taking violin lessons with my own daughter, when she started  around her ninth year. Sure, anyone can complain about the work of others. But it is immensely humbling–and liberating–to try some creative endeavor. Should more people do so, we’d all see that truly, we create our own “Golden Age.”


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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