7. The New Yorker: Grieving With Brahms
Whenever I think of Brahms, or whenever I listen to him, it is because of mourning. The first time I started looking into the composer’s life I was doing research on Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift (in English, “A German Requiem, to Words of the Holy Scriptures”) which begins with “blessed are they that mourn / for they shall be comforted.” I don’t listen to Brahms that often, but when I do it is either that requiem or Sonatas Op. 120 for clarinet and piano Trio Op. 114 for clarinet, cello and piano, sometimes his works of piano.
Brahms, as Alex Ross writes, “is the great poet of the ambiguous, in-between, nameless emotions: ambient unease, pervasive wistfulness, bemused resignation, contained rage, ironic merriment, smiling through tears, the almost pleasurable fatigue of deep depression.” For Ross, Brahms is where he found refuge after the passing of his mother in February.
In many ways Brahms is deeply nostalgic and forces reflection. “Nicole Grimes, in her finely perceptive book ‘Brahms’s Elegies’” contextualizes the composer using “the concept of reflective nostalgia, as defined by the late literary scholar Svetlana Boym. Unlike restorative nostalgia, which envisions a return to home, reflective nostalgia ‘delays the homecoming—wistfully, ironically, desperately,’ in Boym’s words. ‘Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity.’ Restorative nostalgia tends toward the reactionary; reflective nostalgia can be fully modern.”
When listening to music, particularly classical, I always remember something Shulamit Ran said about her work at a lecture I attended in high school: she tries to compose music to be the activity itself. Music so captivating that it pulls your attention away from anything else to focus on what she has written.