By Michael Caruso
Lyric Fest will present “Johannes Brahms: Biography in Music” Friday, Jan. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave., and Sunday, Jan. 24, at 3 p.m. in the Warden Theater of the Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce St. Lyric Fest was founded in 2003 and is directed by mezzo Suzanne DuPlantis of East Falls and pianist Laura Ward of West Mt. Airy.
Although Brahms (1833-1897) is best known for his “Lullaby,” the simple sweetness of this score belies the complexities of his life. After being introduced to Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara, while he was quite young, Brahms received generous support from both the composer and the pianist, eventually falling madly in love with Clara. Even after Robert’s death by suicide in 1856, their relationship was never fulfilled beyond that of musical colleagues, leaving Brahms more than a little embittered by Clara’s decision to remain the “Widow Schumann” — in effect the High Priestess to the cult of promoting Robert’s music — rather than becoming “Mrs. Johannes Brahms.”
Throughout his lifetime, Brahms became the spokesman for those composers who preferred to adhere to the classical traditions of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and early Beethoven. On the other side of the argument were composers such as Liszt and Wagner who took as their starting point the works Beethoven wrote later in his career, scores that retained classical developmental techniques while forging new and freer forms of structure.
Liszt’s symphonic poems and Wagner’s operas are examples of these new creations. Brahms stood as their polar opposite. His adherence to classicism during the romantic epoch was supported by the Viennese music critic, Eduard Hanslick, who disliked Wagner’s music intensely.
Through Brahms’ music and letters, as well as theatrical narration, the concert will reveal the context of his life. Performances by soprano Laura Dixon Strickling, baritone Jeffrey Williams, tenor Jonas Hacker and mezzo Chrystal E. Williams will include a varied selection of solo songs, duets and quartets with Ward at the piano and actor Jim Bergwall reading from Brahms’ letters.
“Let’s face it,” said DuPlanits. “Most composers are geniuses. But their letters reveal that they are also quirky, driven, troubled, lonely, complex human beings. Does it matter when you listen to their music? We’ll let the listener decide, of course, but I can tell you this much — it will be completely fascinating!”
“As a pianist,” Ward commented, “I find Brahms’ songs very satisfying. The first half of his output was in the smaller forms — art songs, chamber music and piano pieces. He truly loved the song form. Songs were not something he composed on the side.”
Ward pointed out that “Brahms yearned for a normal love life, but he was never to find it. His songs are filled with yearning. Whenever he was falling in love, his song output was filled with passion and joy. After breaking off a potential relationship, his songs are heartbreakingly sad.”
Many years ago when I was a student at the Peabody Conservatory of Music of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, I took an accompanying class taught by Ellen Mack Senofsky. We spent an entire semester working on the songs of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms with a gifted young baritone. Of the three composers, it was Brahms’ songs I found to be the most satisfying as a pianist because he evoked an orchestral universe of sounds from the piano.
Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door, with students admitted for $5 cash at the door with ID. For more information, visit www.lyricfest.org.