Brahms’ Fifth?

Shameless concert plug: This Sunday, October 21 at 3 pm, at St. Anne’s Church on Montague Street, Brooklyn Heights, the Brooklyn Symphony performs its first concert of the year.
This orchestra’s programs are almost always interesting, featuring a lot of the kind of works that we “volunteer” musicians don’t get to do very often, and this one’s no exception — the big number on the program is the Brahms Piano Quartet, as orchestrated by Schoenberg.

Well say what you will about Schoenberg, he was a genius at orchestration. Sitting back in the trumpet section, Larry, Marshall and I are constantly amazed by the absolute, well, coolness of the writing. It’s as though he set the original up as a keyhold, and peered through it to the huge orchestral work that was folded up inside.

Schoenberg Self-Portrait

Taking the typical Brahms orchestra and augmenting it (3 trumpets, Eb and bass clarinet, five horns, a battery of percussion including xylophone and bells) he reads sections of the work like a metaphor, and unfurls them into completely inevitable-sounding episodes. The trio, for example, of the third movement turns into a striking brass-band march, turning what was only a suggestion in the original into its full-blown realization.

Besides stretching the Brahms orchestra’s size, he adds colors such as muted trumpets, trombone glissandi, and fluttertonguing that Brahms would have just as soon not known about (I’m guessing).

An Anecdote

Failing in his efforts to get funding for premieres of Schoenberg’s original compositions, Otto Klemperer took pains to ensure that at least Schoenberg’s transcriptions of other composers’ works were publically performed. Klemperer led the Kolisch Quartet on 6 and 7 January 1938 in a performance of the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, which Schoenberg had based on Handel’s Concerto Grosso. He also invited the composer to make an orchestral transcription of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, for inclusion in an upcoming Brahms cycle.

Schoenberg was delighted with the commission, and set to work transcribing “strictly in the style of Brahms.” The work Schoenberg dubbed “Brahms Fifth Symphony” was the result. It premiered under Klemperer’s baton on 8 May 1938 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

The newly-orchestrated Brahms inspired admiration – if also some confusion. “I don’t know why people say that Schoenberg has no melodies,” the orchestra manager confided to Klemperer after the performance. “That was very melodic!”

– – – –

Strictly in the style of Brahms? Well, not really. However, it’s an outstanding piece of work. Also on the program is the Enescu Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1, a brilliantly colorful work that shows off the orchestra’s woodwinds to good effect. Also, and this is from the point of view in the back row, some nice two-trumpet/two-cornet interplay. I don’t know, I bought this cornet a few years ago and this is maybe the second time I’ve been able to use it for the kind of things I originally bought it for.

Also on the program, If you’re wandering through Brooklyn this Sunday afternoon with nothing to do, stop by and see us. And don’t let anyone tell you anything bad about Schoenberg.

Tom McGee has been building web sites since 1995, and blogging here since 2006. Currently a senior developer at Seton Hall University, he's also a freelance web programmer and musician. Contact him if you have the need for a blog, web site, redesign or custom programming!

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