Brahms, c. 1866
I was pleasantly surprised by the San Diego Symphony concert on Friday, February 15. Why so? Because it was one of those concerts with four pieces of music none of which could be considered the “main course”. I’m traditionally not a fan of that approach to programming although it has worked in the past. I’m recalling the concerts from May of 2017 with Charles Dutoit.
The four pieces of music on Friday were a suite from Leo Janacek’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen arranged by Charles Mackerras in 2006, Antonin Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, Bela Bartók’s Dance Suite and selections from Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian Dances.
These pieces of music placed us firmly in Central Europe with two Czechs, a Hungarian, and a Hungarian-phile (Brahms). This was a concert which was easy to love. Conducting the proceedings was the rhapsodic Romanian, and frequent guest conductor of the symphony, Cristian Măcelaru. One could almost taste the Gulyásleves.
The Dvorak was played by the peerless Augustin Hadelich. I admit that I listen for a solo violinist to fudge on their intonation. It never happens with Handelich, at least not in my experience. His performance drew him back to the stage several times before he provided a benediction via the Andante from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 2.
After intermission, Maestro Măcelaru encouraged us to resist the urge to dance during the second half of the concert. I thought he was joking but Bartók’s Dance Suite changed my mind. During the performance, I vowed to listen to more Bartók. It’s such great music.
The final pieces of the program were selections from Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. As famous as this music is, it amazes me that Brahms wrote it. Apparently Brahms had been improvising Hungarian dances at parties with his friends since the early 1850s and it was one of his favorite pasttimes.
In 1867 Brahms offered seven Hungarian Dances to a publisher in Budapest—who turned him down. That’s now called a “fat L”. Brahms then sent them to Fritz Simrock who snapped them up. Brahms took a one-time fee for each edition of the Hungarian Dances and Simrock got rich off them “on the backside.”
However, by his mid 30s Brahms would be independently wealthy based on the publications and performances of A German Requiem and his Liebesleider Waltzes for amateur choral societies and his piano music such as the “Cradle Song” and, of course, the Hungarian Dances. Interesting that Brahms took a generation of amateur musicians, literally, from cradle to grave with the “Cradle Song” and German Requiem.
Brahms became that rarest of composers during this period. He prospered so greatly from the publication of his music that he was able to compose what he wanted when he wanted and didn’t need to accept a commission.
The rise of widespread middle-class musicianship coincided with Brahms’s career and to this day he bears the stigma of being bourgie. I, philistine that I tend to be, don’t care. I reveled in the easy listening of the Hungarian Dances and had a ripping time.