School of Music

Performing Brahms in the Twenty-first Century

About the Symposium

Performing practices for nineteenth-century repertory changed radically during the course of the twentieth century. The period that separates us from Brahms’s lifetime saw a gradual stripping down of classical music performance to those elements of sound that can be explicitly notated, as discrepancies with the score came increasingly to be frowned upon as unwarranted violations of the composer’s intentions. Over time the stylistic revolution of the early twentieth century generated a kind of cultural amnesia, obliterating the awareness, forcibly expressed by Brahms’s close colleague Joseph Joachim, that reading between the lines of the score was essential in order to convey the composer’s conception to the listener. The new orthodoxy was based on a presumption that the score indicates most, if not all, that a composer expected to hear, and that obvious departures from it (with the exception of adding vibrato) were signs of a performer’s egoism and bad taste. Written evidence and sound recordings of musicians trained in the middle decades of the nineteenth century (including those of important composers), however, reveal a much more flexible approach to the notation.

In the case of Brahms and his circle, frequent and noticeable changes to tempo and rhythm were seen as integral to musical expression, character and structural clarity. In singing, string playing, and even in wind playing, portamento was prominent as a means of heightening expression and enhancing legato. Vibrato had a similarly ornamental function and could appear and disappear very suddenly in response to an expressive musical gesture. In piano playing, separation between melody and bass (dislocation) and arpeggiation were employed to highlight dynamics, texture, and rhythmic inflection. Significantly too, some of Brahms’s markings appear to have elicited a range of interrelated musical responses in his colleagues’ performances, suggesting that these familiar symbols carried messages which have since been lost. These issues will be at the heart of the new critical, performance oriented edition of all Brahms’s duo sonatas, opp. 38, 78, 99, 100, 108,  and 120 (in all three versions), edited by Clive Brown, Neal Peres Da Costa, and Kate Haynes, to be published by Bärenreiter in 2015.

The Symposium seeks to bring together scholars, students, and professional musicians interested in historical performance, providing a forum in which they can exchange ideas and experiment with them in practice. In this way, scholars can help professional performers to engage practically with the latest research, while performers can help to refine, or even redefine the scholar’s research questions.

© Copyright Leeds 2017