Debussy and Brahms: criticism and perseverance

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Photo courtesy of JP Elfelt

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) performed “Debussy and Brahms Trios” on Feb. 18. The Debussy trio played “Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp” and the Brahms trio played “Trio in B major, op. 8, for Violin, Cello and Piano.”

Both Brahms and Debussy faced harsh criticism for their style of music, but their perseverance allowed them to create music that has generated a continuing influence in the music world. 

One of the most important musicians of the 20th century, Claude-Achille Debussy, was born in 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. In 1870, his pregnant mother led her family to Cannes, France, to escape the Franco-Prussian War. It was here that his aunt graciously funded his first piano lessons. 

Debussy then attracted the attention of Marie Mauté de Fleurville, who claimed to be a student of Chopin, and in 1872 he entered the Paris Conservatoire where he studied music for 10 years. 

In the summers from 1880 to 1882, Debussy accompanied Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy Russian patroness of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, giving her children piano lessons and performing for her friends. 

In fact, von Meck sent Debussy’s “Danse bohémienne” to Tchaikovsky for evaluation. Tchaikovsky wrote back: “It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity.”

Several years later, he sent four pieces to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, but they were criticized for being “bizarre, incomprehensible and unperformable” and for “courting the unusual.” Their critiques, however, did not thwart his intention to try to “do something different” than other composers had ever accomplished before. 

In the following letter, Debussy exhibits the impervious wonder that guided his artistic vision, thankfully resisting harsh criticism. 

“When I gaze at a sunset sky and spend hours contemplating its marvellous ever-changing beauty, an extraordinary emotion overwhelms me … and my hands unconsciously assume an attitude of adoration,” Debussy wrote.

Of course, none of the above information would be a prerequisite for enjoying the marvelous interplay between the flute, viola and harp at the DSO concert. 

Yet, there is a sense in which knowing the story of the artist can increase the appreciation for their work. More importantly, it can propel one into a deeper experience of wonder that they were able to create something beautiful despite all of life’s adversities. 

The violinist for the Brahms Trio informed the crowd that Brahms composed the “Trio in B major, op. 8, for Violin, Cello and Piano” as a means to cope with his friend’s attempted suicide and admittance into a mental asylum.

She mentioned that the first two movements represent their initial meeting and friendship while the third and fourth movements turn darker and more somber, intended to portray the horror and difficulty he encountered after learning about his close friend’s attempted suicide.  

Anybody could have listened to the performance without knowing this aspect of the song and would have loved it. Yet, by presenting his motivation, the song’s meaning greatly shifts and offers the listener an interpretative frame to better understand the movements. 

For the listener, the song is no longer comprised of just complex scales, instruments and melodies, but it offers the listener a difficult question: how do the third and fourth movements communicate something of Brahms’ sorrow? 

Johannes Brahms was born in 1833 in Hamburg, Germany, and began playing the piano, violin and cello as a young man. His teacher, Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel, complained that he “could be such a good player, but he will not stop his never-ending composing.” 

From 1845 to 1848, Brahms’ teacher was the pianist Eduard Marxsen who personally knew Beethoven and Schubert and adored Mozart and Haydn’s works; Marxsen encouraged Brahms to master their styles. 

Although we often think that world-renowned composers were well received during their entire careers, that is often not the case. 

While performing his First Piano Concerto in Hamburg in 1859, the audience abhorred it so much that Brahms had to be physically restrained from exiting the stage. 

Richard Wagner even accused Brahms of plagiarizing Beethoven’s style for his First Symphony. 

The crowd’s and Wagner’s revulsion for his work did not, however, dismantle Brahms’ passion for music. 

In fact, during his final public appearance, while Hans Richter was performing his Symphony No. 4, the audience gave an ovation after each of the four movements. 

Brahms’ works influenced dozens of composers, and his music is loved by many throughout the world. 

We can all be grateful that these men persevered through their respective adversities to create their brilliant music.

1 COMMENT

  1. What a thoughtful and well researched article. I am so happy to see the News turn its attention to chamber music and music criticism. All students should venture out into the classical concert landscape and explore what DFW has to offer. Kudos to John Paul Elfelt for drawing attention to our classical musical heritage. Herr Dr. Eidt

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