Late Brahms, Ancient Modes
© 2018 Cambridge University Press. History has often viewed Brahms as a Janus-faced composer who turned his gaze backward to contemplate the accumulated riches of music history even as he sought late in his career to exploit new means of musical expression. On the one hand, he habitually collected passages from a long line of composers that breached the traditional prohibition against parallel fifths and octaves; he exchanged ideas with musicologists such as Nottebohm, Mandyczewski and Adler, and read early issues of the Vierteljahrsschrift für Musikwissenschaft; and he indulged from time to time in a distinctive musical historicism. But on the other hand, his music was embraced for showing a way forward for a number of next-generation composers who would contend with twentieth-century modernism, most notably of course Schoenberg, in his essay 'Brahms the Progressive', but also Anton von Webern, whose transitional Passacaglia op. 1 was unthinkable without the precedent of Brahms's op. 90, and whose aphoristic miniatures betrayed the concentrated expression and opening up of register in Brahms's late Klavierstücke. This essay considers one still relatively little-explored facet of Brahms's historical gaze - his use of modes in his later music, and their potential for creating alternative means of musical organization that challenged, and yet were somehow compatible with, tonality. Examples considered include the first movement of the Clarinet Trio op. 114 and slow movement of the String Quintet no. 2 op. 111. Unlike Brahms's earlier compositions that treat modes as signifiers of a style of folk music or simulated folk music, the later instrumental works seem to juxtapose principles of modal organization within the context of tonal compositions. Thus, in the first movement of the Clarinet Trio, eerie passages in fauxbourdon impress as allusions to a distant, archaic musical other, as if Brahms the historian were searching for the distant roots of his musical aesthetic.
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