Brahms at the Proms with the OAE

15 September 2015Blog

There are some Proms programmes – in some respects, the very best ones – that it's hard to imagine being given anywhere other than in the Royal Albert Hall on a summer evening. It's part of what makes the BBC Proms so special that the Controller has at his disposal the resources, the media profile, the loyal audience and the colossal venue to allow for the inclusion of works which are beyond the reach of other festivals, sometimes as part of ambitious concert programmes which shed new light on both familiar and unfamiliar corners of music history. This year's season featured an all-Brahms evening in which two staples of the repertory – the Academic Festival Overture and the First Symphony – bookended two choral works which are much less often heard in the concert hall: the Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53, and the Triumphlied, Op. 55.

The Alto Rhapsody is an acknowledged and much-loved masterpiece, but one which poses problems for concert programmers because its unusual scoring for orchestra, contralto soloist and male-voice choir makes it difficult to pair with other works in practical terms. The Triumphlied, on the other hand, is now almost completely unknown. Only two recordings are commercially available, and those of us who took to the Albert Hall stage on September 1st (using reprints of the original 1872 vocal score, in the absence of any modern edition) found ourselves in the peculiar position of giving a first Proms performance of a large-scale work by Brahms, well over a century after his death. Once again, practical difficulties presented by the scoring of the Triumphlied go some way towards explaining its neglect: the orchestral forces required are the largest Brahms ever deployed, accompanying virtuosic contrapuntal writing for a massive double choir in eight parts (more than eighty singers on this occasion). But it's surely not just the expense and impracticality of putting on a live performance that accounts for the absence from concert halls of the Triumphlied – or, to give it its full original title, the Triumphlied auf den Sieg der deutschen Waffen, or 'Triumphal Song on the Victory of German Arms.' The 'Victory' in question was Bismarck's victory over the French in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the catalyst for the subsequent unification of the German Empire. In the Triumphlied, dedicated by the composer to Bismarck, Brahms celebrates these events, even deriving the work's opening theme from the anthem of the old Prussian state, 'Heil dir im Siegerkranz.' It's surely this close and explicit association with the cause of German nationalism which has made the Triumphlied so unwelcome in twentieth- and twenty-first-century concert halls, showing us the unacceptable face of a composer whose music room was adorned with busts not just of Beethoven but also of the Iron Chancellor himself. Even if we choose to overlook the occasional context of the work's composition, we can hardly ignore its title or the militaristic cast of the fanfares accompanying Brahms's repeated setting of the words 'Alleluia! Heil und Preis, Ehre und Kraft.' And if we read between the lines, as the musicologist Richard Taruskin has literally done, we find that the verses from Chapter 19 of the Book of Revelations that Brahms sets in the Triumphlied continue with a reference to the bloody suppression of the Whore of Babylon. Brahms does not set this particular Biblical verse, but alludes to it by introducing a garish, unison orchestral theme which precisely matches the rhythm of the omitted text, at just the moment when the choir have finished singing the immediately preceding verse (and in his own autograph score, he pencilled in the missing words over the orchestral parts, as if to indicate that these were the words he liked to sing along under his breath). If Brahms's choice of text for his Triumphal Song seems to equate the coming of the divinely-favoured Kingdom of Heaven with the establishment of the German Empire, then the implied reference to the Whore of Babylon must surely stand for the routed forces of France. Seen in these terms, a performance of Brahms's Triumphlied offers the spectacle of massed ranks of singers joining in celebration of German militarism, with the added attraction of a fleeting moment of jokey schadenfreude at the expense of the French, for those in the know.

It would doubtless be rather literal-minded to suggest that this all that can be heard in the Triumphlied; and it would be an exceptionally sensitive audience member (French or not) who would contrive to take offence at a performance of the work. Perhaps it's worth bearing in mind that, in a more conventional and explicit way, the Academic Festival Overture is woven out of the tunes of irreverent college drinking songs which mock students from the provinces – again, a kind of in-joke for listeners who know the words to the original  songs, but not one which is ever seen as grounds for withdrawing the Overture from the repertoire. And of course singers are very often required to sing words whose meaning or origin we may find uncongenial or even objectionable, although this is very often within the dramatic context of an operatic work, or in a solo performance in which it's possible to convey an ironic distance. Ironic distance is perhaps less of an option when lending one's voice to an 80-voice choir which, after all, can't help but represent a kind of communal voice in which individual identity is disciplined and subordinated. I found myself thinking about this again two weeks later, when Jeremy Corbyn's decision not to participate in the singing of a patriotic song (which, incidentally, shares its tune with the Prussian anthem 'Heil dir im Siegerkranz,' and whose conventionally omitted verses allude to the 'knavish tricks' of Britain's enemies and the need to crush the Scots) was briefly deemed the most significant topic in British politics. Of course, the parallels here are pretty inexact – the singers in the Choir of the Enlightenment had all voluntarily agreed to take on this concert and specifically to sing this piece as a professional engagement, and were not representing anybody or anything other than the ensemble itself – but just as the republican Mr Corbyn clearly felt uncomfortable at the prospect of joining in with a hymn to monarchy, it would be surprising if none of us felt the slightest hint of discomfort or anxiety at giving public expression to this pompous example of Prussian jingoism.

On the other hand, it seems unlikely that any of my colleagues even considered declining to sing in this concert on political grounds, and my overriding feeling was that I was glad to have had the privilege of giving a Brahms first performance of sorts (at least for the Proms), and to add it to my personal backlist of Brahms choral rarities (of which my favourite, incidentally, is the darkly impassioned Gesang der Parzen from 1882). And if there is a way of positioning a problematic work like this with a degree of irony or distance without undermining the commitment of the performance, it's surely by means of intelligent programming. Some years ago I had a rare chance to hear a live performance of Prokofiev's cantata Zdravitsa, or Hail to Stalin, by the Czech Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall – a daring and potentially hugely controversial programming choice (indeed, the concert was interrupted by a heckler in the audience), but one which was justified by the work's place in a concert entitled 'Music under Dictatorship,' which juxtaposed it with Shostakovich's harrowingly satirical Symphony No. 13 'Babi Yar'. (In case you're wondering, this work has also featured at the Proms, in 1944, just five years after its composition, in a programme which allied it with Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and the Overture to Fidelio; it seems that, in this wartime context, heartfelt praise of Stalin was seen as entirely compatible with the hymning of the virtues of universal brotherhood.) Clearly, our Proms programme was nowhere near as directly politically charged as this, but it nevertheless challenged the audience to comprehend the sheer variousness of Brahms's imagination, as something which was stimulated not just by Beethoven and Goethe but also by lowbrow drinking songs, Francophobic jokes and chauvinistic nationalism. Perhaps most challenging of all is the thought that, as Taruskin argues, some of those seemingly purely musical qualities that we enjoy in Brahms, such as his allusion to and emulation of much earlier German music (very much on display in the choral writing of the Triumphlied), formed part of the fashioning of a specifically German nationalist political identity. And of course the programming of the Proms season as a whole left audiences with plenty of scope for comparative listening to different national strains of jingoism – after all, just ten days after our concert, our conductor Marin Alsop was back at the Albert Hall to preside over the Last Night.

Marin Alsop conducts Jamie Barton and the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment in Brahms's Alto Rhapsody. Photo: Chris Christodoulou/BBC
Brahms's music room in Vienna. The bust of Beethoven stands high above the piano stool; Bismarck stands in bas relief (with ribbon) to the left.
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