Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vicarious Déjà vu?

.This morning I indulged in some “desk work” with my Brahms Requiem score, in preparation for [ensemble]'s upcoming performances.

“Desk work” entails sitting and staring silently at the score. Well, there’s more to it than that, of course; what I’m actually doing is thinking, working over the music in my inner ear, embedding words and rhythms in my memory, analyzing the forms and structures of the music, and taking time to understand how my part fits into the entire work. “Desk work” is entirely separate from practicing, which is vocal work done at the piano or (sometimes) with a recording. Sometimes during desk work I go to the piano to work out an intellectually challenging vocal line or to unravel some knotty counterpoint, but most of the “desk work” actually takes place at the island in the kitchen, laptop at the ready, so that I can enrich my thinking with research and supplemental information.

This morning, I was deep into a silent study of the D major fugue of the third movement, internalizing the wonderful syncopations of the soprano part in the extension of the first exposition (mm.185-187). Hmm…that sure reminds me a passage in the Credo of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, specifically, the countersubject in the “et vitam venturi” fugue. I went online to see if there might be any info on this connection…more on that another time. But while I was browsing, I did find a real gem: a photofacsimile of a full score of Brahms Requiem that had belonged to Richard Barth (1850-1908). I believe that this is the first edition, issued by Brahms' friend and publisher J. M. Rieter-Biedermann.

Barth, a virtuoso violinist and conductor, was a friend of Brahms and was a member of the composer’s inner circle of musicians and intellectuals. As a youth, Barth had so severely injured his left hand that he could no longer play the violin conventionally; nonetheless, he taught himself to play “backward,” executing the fingerings with his right hand and bowing with his left hand (his instrument was also strung “backward”). Barth, who had studied with Joseph Joachim, performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto under Brahms’ direction, and toured to Amsterdam with the composer.

During his career, Barth often performed and conducted Brahms’ works, in particular the Requiem. The facsimile I found online seems to have been the copy from which he conducted; on the verso of the title page is a list of the dates, cities, and soloists for ninenteen performances of the Requiem between 1894 and 1917. Inside, the score is liberally marked with red and blue penciled cues and notes. Of particular interest in Barth’s score are numerous notes about the contrabassoon and organ, indicating the passages in whichthese distinctive instruments should (and should not) play. There has been much discussion over the years about the contrabassoon and organ parts in the Requiem; perhaps Barth’s notes provide some clue to Brahms’ wishes?

A little frisson comes over me here…one can imagine Brahms and Barth sitting down together, score between them, a bottle of Brahms’ favorite Rhenish near at hand, sorting it all out with great good cheer. Take a look...see if you get the same feeling that I did – can I call it “vicarious déjà vu”? It’s not a memory of my own experience; rather, it’s my imagined memory of what Barth’s experience might have been.

Note the bookplates inside the front cover…on each you may see the main theme of the fourth movement of Brahms’ First Symphony. While on one of his beloved mountain vacations, Brahms had famously jotted this theme on a postcard that he had sent to his close friend Clara Schumann; that anecdote lives on in the mountain-themed bookplate on the left, which shows that this score had once belonged to Richard Barth. The bookplate on the right implies that this score was later owned by Brahms scholar Kurt Hofmann.

(There’s also an intriguing poem handwritten in German on the flyleaf…If I’m able to find or devise a translation I’ll post it. Unlikely, though.)

1 comment:

  1. What an exciting experience! I'm waiting for the score to download now. Isn't the Petrucci library a wonder?


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