Botstein Focus on a Masterwork, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Focus on a Masterwork: Brahms’s Fourth Symphony performed on April 30, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

This concert brings to the contemporary audience a reminiscence of a time in the history of music when the piano was the primary means of musical communication. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the spread of the piano was extraordinary. In part through the use of novel techniques of manufacture, sturdy pianos that could hold pitch were produced in a variety of sizes at a cost to the consumer that made the piano a nearly ubiquitous domestic object. It was the piano that fueled the enormous growth of the audience during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. It can be argued that the piano was used to some extent the way that radios and gramophones would be used later. It is not surprising, therefore, that the decline in piano sales coincided with the explosion of other means of musical reproduction, particularly the radio and the record player. An intermediary instrument was the player piano.

In the late nineteenth century, all varieties of music, from dance-hall music to opera and popular songs, became known through versions for piano. The piano could be taught (by means of fingering or playing by numbers) without the user having a sophisticated ear. Simplified as well as complex versions of the entire range of musical entertainment became available to households, making the piano the center for domestic entertainment. In this sense, musical literacy in the late nineteenth century was centered on the piano, its technological development–the increasing range, brightness, and power–paralleled the expansion of orchestral range and color during the late nineteenth century. Johannes Brahms, for example, was one of the first composers of international stature whose essential musical education was rooted in the piano. His predecessors, from Bach to Mendelssohn, had training and experience playing stringed instruments. Franz Schubert had been a boy soprano and was steeped in the choral tradition. But Brahms’s early development was essentially pianistic, and for the greater part of his career he felt insecure about matters of orchestration. In his early work he deferred to the advice of his close friend Joseph Joachim, the great violin virtuoso. But it was not Brahms’s predilection for the piano or his habit of thinking about orchestral sound in pianistic terms that led him to make piano versions of his orchestral music. In the 1870s and 1880s in Vienna the relative rarity of live orchestral performances made the performance of orchestral music on the piano an essential part of musical life. Most of the symphonic literature was known to the audience through versions for two hands, four hands, and two pianos. Brahms’s first presentation of the Fourth Symphony in this two-piano version was to a group of his close friends, whose judgment of the merits of the symphony was based on the piano version rather than on the orchestral realization. It therefore comes as no surprise that the symphonies by Brahms’s rival Bruckner were heard in concert form at the Bösendorfer Hall in Vienna also in two-piano versions. In short, piano versions of orchestral music in the late nineteenth century were created not merely for domestic use but also for semi-public, if not public, presentation–for listeners as well as for players.

The idea that the piano was a universal medium of musical communication appealed to the anti-romanticism of early twentieth century modernist rebels. Musicians of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton von Webern’s generation grew up in an atmosphere of lush, richly orchestrated concert and operatic music. In this new generation a suspicion developed that color and effect could mask the absence of essential musical content. Therefore, when The Society for Private Performances was created after World War I in Vienna by Alban Berg and other Schoenberg adherents, one of the stipulations was the performance of orchestral works and even chamber works on the piano so that connoisseurs and the public could confront the musical content, stripped of any distracting decoration and ornamentation. This conceit – this separation of coloration and decoration from structure – was crucial to the modernist credo of Arnold Schoenberg. Even though the Opus 16 orchestral version makes considerable, if not explicit, use of the notion of musical color, the need for a piano version was deemed essential since the greatness of the music did not lie in its outward effect but rather in the argument it made in unadorned musical terms. Webern’s version, therefore, not only fulfilled an aspiration to give Schoenberg’s novel work a greater distribution than it could possibly achieve through orchestral performance, but it also proved that the work had an essential merit as an essay on pitch and rhythmic invention. This two-piano version is consistent with Schoenberg’s own musical culture. He relished playing four-hand and two-piano versions of Mahler symphonies. He was from the era in which the knowledge of music history and the canon of musical greatness were based on learning music on the piano and not through either attending live performances or listening to recorded performances.

This concert, therefore, brings back the public and private worlds of music making of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It also offers the audience an opportunity to think about the quality of musical imagination at the end of the nineteenth century; about how listeners could imagine orchestral sound without ever having heard it, much the way we hear voices when we read dialogue in a novel or picture landscapes as a result of an author’s use of language. The piano was like the text of a book that permitted the reader to spin a web of sound in her or his mind. This concert also is a test of the modernist proposition: that there are things to be learned from piano versions of the symphonic repertory, and that one can gain understanding of a piece through listening to and studying it in its piano version. These two masterpieces as works for piano are merely two in a great tradition, from Liszt to Zemlinsky, of piano versions of music made by great composers of their own work and of the work of others.