Aspects of Proustian Memory and Narrativity in Brahms’s Op. 51 Quartets

“A poet who alludes creatively is not a passive copyist, and a poetic whole may take up within itself a consciousness of echoes.” – Christopher Ricks[i]

Brahms’s Op. 54 Schicksalslied contains a striking gesture of literary revisionism. The text of this 1868 work, taken from Hölderlin’s Hyperion, is effectively a one-note elegy reflecting on the irremediability of the Gotter/Menschen divide (“You walk in the light, / Weightless tread on a soft floor, blessed genii…But we are fated / To find no foothold, no rest”[ii]), but Brahms, after following Hölderlin to the end of his final despairing stanza, effects a significant change in its emotional conclusion. The music, having at first illustrated the Glänzende Götterlüfte (“radiant gods’ mild breezes”) of the heavenly realm, and then the despair of the “suffering mortals” doomed to be at its remove, suddenly, and without any kind of implicit prompting from the text, recapitulates the music of the Götterlüfte opening, transposing its original shadowed E-Flat into a pellucid C. It then, shorn of much of the Moll-dur duskiness that shadowed the exposition, finds its way in 29 bars to a resolution on a root-position C Major chord—resolving, as it were, Hölderlin’s last convulsion of despair into an upward-looking glance of hope. The narrative effect of this revision, which we must owe entirely to Brahms’s own personality and ingenuity, is difficult to describe, but we might say, obliquely following Heidegger’s identification in Hölderlin of “commemorative thinking,[iii]” that it is an effect of creative memory. By adverting to the unreachable sublimities of the past, symbolically speaking, Brahms seems able to resolve the work’s almost oppressive anxiety and discordance into an allusive but individualized conclusion, turning a memory of unattainable perfection into a path toward fresh stylistic/semantic discovery. It is as if, we might say, by accepting and even incorporating the influence of the distant Himmlischen upon his creative thinking, Brahms is able to ameliorate the anxiety of his removal from them, and in so doing to find a new way forward for himself.

It would, of course, be spurious to read too much into the biographical implications here, but taken in the context of Brahms’s lifelong struggle with his musical forebears, it is easy to see how he might have found this interpretation to be personally resonant. Brahms’s lifelong agonies over his place in musical history have been exhaustively documented, not least by the composer himself, and his endless and (as he saw them) fruitless strivings after the sublimities of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven—those godlike beings blühet ewig, as Hölderlin’s says, in their inspiration—ingrained in him a deep sense of futility, a despair that all that was truly great in music had already been written. (“Really, I don’t know where [modern] music is coming from,” he later said to the composer Richard Heuberger. “It seems to me it will completely stop!”[iv]) Coming between[v] the composition of his first published string quartets, Op. 51, and his first symphony, Op. 68, the two genres in which Beethoven was unequivocally dominant, it may be that the Schicksalslied was conceived at a time when his consciousness of legacy and memory was particularly acute, and his desire to assimilate and overcome them correspondingly more intense. We might well see the end of the Schicksalslied, therefore, as a metaphor for this process of assimilation—a symbolic musical agon whereby Brahms, to escape the tyranny of memory, turns a retrospect of the past into a prospect for the future.

This is speculation, naturally, but it does offer (potentially) interesting insight into the mind of a composer coming to terms with the magnitude of his musical heritage, and with it the commensurate expectations of himself. In his 2014 book Schubert’s Beethoven Project, which I have taken here as a kind of springboard, John M. Gingerich describes a similar period of anxious individuation in Schubert’s life (his “Jahre der Krise” [years of crisis] of 1818-1823) wherein his “fledgling, exploratory” early works, all composed under a young man’s anxiety of influence, gave way to “mature work, conceived with an acute awareness of his inheritance as well as his legacy.[vi]” The stimulus for this transition, in Gingerich’s analysis, was Schubert’s assimilation of Beethoven (particularly the Beethoven of the symphonies, quartets, and piano sonatas) into an individualized matrix of style and idea, one which enabled him to figure his habitual, lied-like melodies within conventional structures and to enact a new conception of narrative form:

“Schubert wished to tell a different kind of story for an age and a generation for whom narratives ending in heroic climax had acquired a sour taste. More than twenty years before Beethoven’s heroic style became institutionalized, Schubert found in the sonata form he inherited, with its built-in cycles and redundancies, a vehicle well-suited to the expression of a new experience of time and memory.”[vii]

Obviously, the context of Schubert’s agonistic strivings with/against Beethoven’s example was very different from Brahms’s—Schubert had to contend, after all, with Beethoven in his own lifetime—but when we consider the structural/conceptual commonalities of the works from these periods, a comparison of their Beethoven “projects” seems highly apposite. Brahms too sought to figure a personal style and sensibility within an idiom defined by Beethoven’s influence, furthering its formal and expressive potentiality. Brahms too, in confronting Beethoven in his most dominant genres (with the exception of the piano sonata), sought to finally exorcise an inhibition of his creative growth. Brahms too, overwhelmed by the weight of his musical inheritance, developed a cyclic, highly allusive style that, playing upon his auditors’ sense of memory and association, individuated Sonata form(s) to his own ends. One could go on.

There is, of course, an entire library of criticism dedicated to explicating these and other aspects of Brahms’s formal and stylistic integration of Beethoven, with an additional library comparing them with those of Schubert. But what I find particularly interesting, and which has hitherto been largely undiscussed, is the extent to which Schubert’s reinvention of Sonata’s “experience of time and memory” can also be said to reflect Brahms’s own efforts to accommodate Beethoven’s influence, particularly as regards his use of allusion and memory as musical devices. Schubert—as Gingerich, Frisch, and others have demonstrated—frequently enacts in his late music a striking individuation of musical-narrative grammar in which “memories” of Beethovenian style are figured within gestures of innovation, many of them mapping development to cycles of repetition and self-reference. The effect therefore is often of a style whose very gestalt is articulated around a consciousness of recollection, where the implied “narrative” itself is an attempt to assimilate obsessive memory. Gingerich analogizes this to the narrative of time lost and recaptured (retrouvé) in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, and we do not need to look far to see how this structural/stylistic paradigm illuminates Brahms’s own “Beethoven project.” The works of the Schicksalslied period, particularly those in the Beethovenian genres, often enact complex structures of allusion that enable Brahms to individuate with and against the remembrance of music past—even employing, and much more than Schubert, direct references to Beethoven’s works—and seem to frame their own narratives as dialectical recollections/absorptions of Beethoven’s legacy. (We might think of the obvious, but by no means unambiguous invocation of the An die Freude in the last movement of Brahms’s first symphony). These narratives, a word I use for want of a better one, frequently allow Brahms to open his music up to a consciousness of its inheritance (ameliorating, we might say, an anxiety of unconscious influence), and to subtly transmute, like Proust’s narrator, moments of recollection into fresh semantic/stylistic possibility—assimilating, as it were, memory to potentiality. Gingerich’s analogy has its limitations in this respect, as I will show, but its fundamental principle, situating musical narrativity within a “Proustian” literary model of allusion, does free a discussion of influence/reference from its usual, restrictive dialectics (irony vs. sincerity, subversion vs. homage, etc.) and can helpfully reframe our understanding of referentiality within some of Brahms’s most allusive works. This is what, with reference to the op. 51 quartets, I shall propose to do in this essay.

To begin with, however, we must look more closely at this Proustian analogy itself. Gingerich’s striking formulation, which is given remarkably short shrift in his otherwise superb book, is used by him to articulate both the character of Schubert’s music (“The nexus of memory, solitude, self-awareness and landscape furnishes the interior drama of the two Müller cycles and of the Heine cycle, and is…redolent of a Proustian psychology”[viii]) and its unique structural/associative topology:

“The simple opening of Schubert’s quartet [String Quartet no. 13 in A Minor] functions…a bit like Proust’s childish madeleine: it holds the germ of memory. It serves as a talisman of memory to which the rest of the piece will have free access…Through a cycle of return and departure, of reiteration and comment, each successive phrase of the melody seems to comment upon or reply to the whole of the proceeding music. Later (most obviously in the retransition) he returns to the accompanying strands, presenting them in defamiliarized contexts that isolate and reveal their latent qualities…Instead of questing forward like the protagonist of a Bildungsroman from his callow beginning until he achieves maturity, Schubert’s movement circles back to touch the talisman of memory, and seems to spread out from it in all directions.[ix]

Put more simply, for Gingerich, Schubert’s constantly recursive, even repetitious style of development is “Proustian” in the way it seems constantly to reassess itself, to circle back rather than proceed on a straight Beethovenian trajectory.[x] It will often establish a basic set of textures or motives at the beginning of a movement, like those in the opening bars of the A Minor quartet, and then return to them basically unchanged throughout, even after their constitutive elements have been broken off and developed individually (Gingerich analogizes this experience to “gaz[ing] again upon a family portrait having acquired intimate knowledge of the individual personalities”[xi]). All of Schubert’s elaborative developments, in other words, are assimilated through moments of Proustian recollection into a recursive whole, and seem to map the music to two timescales, one which is constantly moving forward, and another which can at any time expand to comprehend all which comes before and after.[xii] Thus, with every allusion to the melodic/textural material in the opening bars of the A Minor quartet, we are brought into a dual-consciousness of time, one which integrates all development into a web of motivic association and reframes it (the material) as the work’s impression point—the Eindruckspunkt, in Wilhelm Dilthey’s formulation, around which the entire musical gestalt is articulated.[xiii]

Example 1 Schubert D. 804 mvt. 1 mm. 1-11, the beginning of what Gingerich calls Schubert’s musical “madeleine” in the A Minor quartet.

This principle is impossible to elucidate more clearly without extensive use of musical examples—many of which Gingerich, to his credit, provides—but suffice it to say that, technically speaking, Gingerich’s Proustian analogy is a very innovative re-framing of things that have long been understood about Schubert’s music: It operates cyclically rather than unidirectionally, it plays upon repetition and an implicit desire for return, and it frames development as an (often thwarted) journey of homecoming. Walter Frisch articulates essentially these same principles in his 2000 essay “’You Must Remember This’: Memory and Structure in Schubert’s String Quartet in G Major D. 887,”[xiv] which is one of Gingerich’s primary points of reference, and John Daverio, in analyzing the self-reflexive structures of Schubert’s D. 935 impromptus, even invokes Proust’s memoire involuntaire as a metaphor for Schubert’s reflexively “suffusing the present with an aura of pastness.”[xv] It is not the what, therefore, of Schubert’s developmental procedures that Gingerich’s analogy particularly illuminates—what technical and formal elements underpin their often recursive structure—but rather the how, how Schubert’s cycles of allusion and association play upon our sense of memory to create narrative and “meaning”:

“The highly discursive multi-layered field of memory, the interplay between many short sections of various degrees of reality and varying temporal modalities, the circling trajectory, the sudden transitions created by a vividly remembered sensory detail…In Schubert’s work, as in Proust’s, memory seems to rove freely, all the while a master is cunningly weaving his story.”[xvi]

This is all very well, and as a surface-level metaphor it describes the uncanny, echoic qualities of Schubert’s music very effectively. Schubert’s greatest works do often seem to evoke narratives of time—or love, or joy, or beauty, etc.—lost and then, if not exactly “recaptured,” at least obsessively recalled, often with a tincture of poignancy and regret. (As examples, we might think of the Quartettsatz, D. 703, in which a singing D-flat major melody is recalled from an ever-present C-minor void threatening to engulf it, or the first movement of the D. 960 Piano Sonata, in which the harmonic/melodic peregrinations of the development seem motivated by a desire to recapture the serenity of the opening bars.) They also seem to use this roving structure as a way of individuating musical forms very much determined by Beethovenian expectations, whereby the linear, developmental narratives of Beethoven’s Sonata form(s)—Gingerich cites the repeatless first movement of the Op. 59 no. 1 quartet as a prime example—give way to discrete, semi-imbricated cycles of textural/melodic variation. Unfortunately, as with most surface-level metaphors, the efficacy of these comparisons is ultimately limited, for they depend on very reductive readings of their subjects. Schubert’s “Proustian” effects, for instance, are often equally perceptible as end-directed, Sonata-form gestures of development and recapitulation, and Proust’s ranging style of allusive narrativity, which is the keystone of Gingerich’s thesis, is never as purely integrative as his reading assumes. On this point, here is Malcolm Bowie, one of Proust’s greatest Anglophone critics, in Proust Among the Stars:

“The peculiar ingenuity of [Proust’s] syntax is that it brings together into one continuous pattern a continuous forward-flung intention and a simultaneous host of retrospective or sideways vistas. It seeks stability and finality, celebrates these qualities with its emphatic final cadences, yet leaves the door open too. Riddles remain to be solved, curiosity to be satisfied, and a larger narrative syntax to be pursued. A balance must be kept between completion and necessary provisionality.”[xvii]

The very fabric of Proust’s narrative is based on the notion that meaning emerges from a proliferating web of memory and possibility, one in which, as his narrator says, “life is perpetually weaving fresh threads which link one individual and one event to another…so that between any slightest point of our past and all the others a rich network of memories gives us an almost infinite variety of communicating paths to choose from.”[xviii] To be sure, Gingerich’s enclosed analogy of “gaz[ing] again upon a family portrait having acquired intimate knowledge of the individual personalities” aligns rather badly with this vision of ramifying potential and connectivity, and we might say that, on a semantic level, it is here that it stands most in need of expansion. A true Proustian musicality, if that is what we wish to call it, would not just comprehend a cyclic, memory-oriented narrative, as Gingerich’s ultimately does; rather, it would situate this narrative within a shimmer of ambivalence, a sense that meaning is constantly unfolding within a provisional, ever-ramifying web of signification.

I do not wish to put too fine a point on this, not least because Gingerich seems fully aware of his analogy’s limitations,[xix] but it seems to me that it is his very (mis)reading of Proustian narrativity that leaves it open to revealing exploration, for it opens the door (if only implicitly) to a musical style that does effect this synthesis of memory and semantic potentiality. Schubert’s cyclic, self-reflexive structures may be too end-directed and univocal to be helpfully described as Proustian (to say nothing of too slight, typically confined to a single movement), but the notion of a style articulated around allusive memory and provisional signification proves remarkably well-suited to describing Brahms. Not only does Brahms’s practice of “developing variation” align much more closely with the structural aspects of Gingerich’s theory (in a piece like op. 51 no. 1, for instance, all of the development is effectively articulated around the “memory” of the opening motifs), but his use of multivalent allusions to himself and to other composers—moments of recall that assimilate fixed intentionality to a fluctuant, provisional structure of ”meaning”—seems to enact something like the “play” between memory and potentiality we see in Proust’s narrative syntax. (Proustian sentences, says Bowie, often “come to rest upon a recovered sense of propositional fulfillment, only to have certain of their elements wrested from them and driven into new associative configurations by what follows.”[xx]) Brahms will often employ an apparently direct allusion to music of the past (an example might be the quotation of Beethoven’s An Die Ferne Geliebte in the finale of the fourth symphony[xxi]) only to pivot from the expected syntax of this allusive proposition, typically refiguring his referent’s implicit semantic/stylistic structures to reflect his tendencies toward the dubious and ambivalent. This is very much of a piece with his ongoing efforts to assimilate and advance musical tradition on his own terms, and examining his allusions in this way allows us to articulate, without recourse to the reductive technical terms of musicology,[xxii] the evolving semantic dimension of his allusivity (how it plays dynamically upon a listener’s sense of memory and association, how it assimilates past to present, how it engages his/her ideas and expectations in a process of meaning-making, etc.) as well as how they made of what was for him an often oppressive musical legacy a source of the fresh, flexible, and new. In conceiving of them as analogous to Proust’s “complex pattern of…intention and…retrospective or sideways vistas,” in other words, we can make better sense of their narratives as evolving dialectics of memory and possibility.

To illustrate this, we may turn to the Opus 51 quartets. These two works, it has long been known, are positively steeped in echoes/allusions to other composers,[xxiii] but a number of their subtlest invocations of Beethoven (and I have here attended to only a small sample of those available[xxiv]) enact in my conception this peculiarly Proustian relation between remembered intentionality and provisional, and therefore original, semantic “play.” To begin with, here is a subtle allusion which crops up in the development of the countersubject in the first movement of Op. 51 no.1:

Example 2 A comparison of Op. 51 no.1 mvt. 1, mm. 34-36, the first variation of the countersubject, and mm. 249-251, where the development takes on, in the second violin and viola lines, the rhythmic and melodic shape of a Beethovenian “fate” motif.

The effect of this allusion, which takes nearly 250 bars to emerge as such, is difficult to describe out of context, but it is essentially a last, ultimately successful attempt to defuse a developmental tension that has animated the entire movement. All of the music leading up to this point is poised around a dialectical struggle between two conflicting themes, the rising subject (mm. 1-7) and the eight-note offbeat figure of the countersubject (mm. 35-36), and this moment of Beethovenian transformation—altering the countersubject, previously rendered usually over a compass of four notes and in an alternating rise/fall or fall/rise configuration, into a repeated “fate” motif—not only brings them together in simultaneous counterpoint, but conduces apparently without effort to the movement’s witty, faux-rallentando resolution:

Example 3 Op. 51 no. 1, mvt. 1 mm. 252-260, the faux-rallentando that concludes the first movement.

The effect of this, again like that of the allusion itself, is difficult to articulate, but from a narrative standpoint we might say that it accomplishes two things: 1.) It finds a way of defusing a dialectical tension that has consistently stymied the movement’s progression (Brahms tries repeatedly to bring his conflicting themes together before this allusion, only to repeatedly come to ground), and 2.) it redirects the movement’s implied, intentional narrative trajectory (in Beethovenian terms, conflicting thematic tropes assimilating toward an apotheosis) toward something more ambivalent and individualized—a resolution whereby triumphant developmental integration is suggested rather than actively played out, and closure is achieved through an echtBrahmsian gesture of rhythmic play.

This is worth exploring in greater detail. In the terms that I have described, this allusion is Proustian in essentially two ways: It assimilates multiple dimensions of musical time through a gesture of recall (the allusion unites the present form of the countersubject, the previous forms of the countersubject, and the alluded-to form of the countersubject in Beethoven), and recasts the semantic intentionality of its referent, a Beethovenian sonata narrative in which conflicting elements are brought together, into an ambivalent, provisional configuration—deliberating rendering ambiguous what, in Beethoven, was authoritative and direct. (It also, as it happens, recapitulates what we saw as the metaphorical narrative of the Schicksalslied, whereby an allusion to music of the past resolves tensions of the present.) This latter point—this wresting, in Bowie’s words, of an apparently fixed proposition into fresh associative form—is particularly important for our purposes, for it enables us to conceptualize much more clearly than we could in a conventional technical/theoretical analysis what I’ve termed this allusion’s “playful” assimilation of its semantic heritage. Where most allusions to Beethoven 5, like the one Raymond Knapp finds in the finale of Brahms 4,[xxv] are used to invoke an implied narrative which the composer can either affirm or subvert (usually one of struggle developmentally overcome), here Brahms, by deliberately sublimating those associations through a gesture of rhythmic play, seems to leave that potentiality implied but unexplored—part, as it were, of the Proustian “sideways vistas” present in his auditor’s imagination. Where we might expect this allusion to herald the start of an extended coda wherein, finally, the movement’s antinomies are wrought into accord, Brahms seems instead to shrug his shoulders and, by declining to play out this development explicitly, allows them to resolve provisionally, as though this Beethovenian resolution were part of a web of narrative possibilities to which the music relates but refuses to adhere. This interpretation is given extra weight if we follow David Lewin’s definition of the conflicting forces in this movement as differing “modes of musical thought” inherited from Brahms’s past,[xxvi] and we might say (again following the narrative of the Schicksalslied) that Brahms, simply by adverting to musico-narrative expectations of the past, is able to turn askance from them and, while pursuing a very intentional tack, allow fresh stylistic/semantic possibilities to proliferate around him. His allusive proposition is brought to rest, so to speak, on an emphatic final cadence, but leaves a larger narrative syntax to be explored.

This is, to be sure, a very speculative way of framing what is finally an eight-bar allusion in the context of a 248-bar work, but it does, I think, clarify some of the individualizing force behind Brahms’s allusive gesture, as well as exemplify what is perhaps the essential aspect of Beethovenian allusions as they operate in these quartets: They always give the impression (unlike, for example, the structural allusion to Schubert in the first movement of Op. 51 no. 1[xxvii]) of being both intentional and comprehensively integrative of their semantic heritage, never appropriating Beethoven’s “narrative syntax” for the sake of straightforward subversion or homage. Their typical mode could be compared to Harold Bloom’s notion of daemonization—the “revisionary ratio” whereby a creator individuates a remembered sublime by “describing” rather than “sympathizing” with its essential features[xxviii]—but is complexified by what I’ve defined as their Proustian tendency to reset these descriptions (which we might define as the enacting of an allusion at a remove from its narrative or expressive intent) in open-ended semantic configurations. This allows an often direct “memory” of a Beethovenian narrative or sensibility—for Beethoven was by temperament more given to direct, unequivocal expression than Brahms—to assimilate, through a direct engagement with the auditor’s memory and expectations, to something more questioning and ambivalent, that is to say, more authentically Brahmsian. All of this is of course highly subjective, but when contextualized alongside other allusions within these quartets we can, I think, see it borne out by the music.

Here, for example, is the all but unmissable allusion to Beethoven’s Op. 130 Cavatina in the second movement of Op. 51 no. 1:

Example 4 Op. 51 no. 1 mvt. 2 mm. 22-26.

Example 5 Beethoven Op. 130, mvt. 5 mm. 33-42.

Brahms’s allusivity in this passage is initially much more overt than in the previous movement—the crescendo rising figure of bars 22-23 culminating in an inverted major chord could almost, when taken in context, be called a quotation—but the peculiar allusive feint he makes in bars 25-27 is worth particularly close attention. Here Brahms seems to invoke the tenebrous transition into the “plunge into darkness, melancholia, and dread”[xxix] of the Cavatina’s middle section, but at the point of maximal emotional/narrative significance, the withdrawal from an inverted major chord into a descending pianissimo triplet figure, he sidesteps its implied thematic/harmonic trajectory and launches instead upon an extended A Flat Minor development of the triplet figure itself.

Example 6 Op. 51 no. 1, mvt. 2 mm. 27-31.

Where the original passage in Beethoven is used to transition into an anguished melodic uprising in C Flat Major (posing the question, in Maynard Solomon’s words, of “how to endure pain of this intensity…how to breathe freely again” which he will then answer in the later movements[xxx]), here Brahms, by developing the music that conduces to rather than enacts this emotional outburst, seems to interrogate the source of that very questioning. (“Why must I feel this way? Why must I respond in the way that’s expected?”) This moment of fearful potentiality in the Cavatina could, in theory, lead to anything, and Brahms by “describing” rather than “sympathizing” with its huge complex of emotive and narrative implications (in this case, as in the fifth symphony, a narrative of despair arduously overcome) suddenly seems to locate his own narrative within the fluid interstices of these implications themselves—finding original thought, as it were, in what Beethoven might have said. It is as if the music suddenly remembers the Cavatina, summons up its full range of musical-narrative associations, and then, while keeping these associations implied in the auditor’s imagination, spins off creatively between them, keeping its own allusive narrative poised, as Bowie says, on a dubious balance between “completion and necessary provisionality.”[xxxi]

This is, again, a very subjective reading of a brief allusion, but within the terms that I’ve described we can once again see Brahms assimilating multiple dimensions of musical time—the rising figure of bars 22-23 derives as well from the opening bars of the piece—and once again setting its received narrativity in a provisional, questioning configuration. The element of play as something witty and ludic is less pronounced here than in the first movement, but in so far as it articulates the music’s “transduction” of its semantic heritage (to borrow a term from genetics) the principle still applies: Brahms allows his music to remember a moment of musical-narrative significance in his Beethovenian past and then, by ambiguously resetting its semantic/narrative orientation, assimilates Beethoven’s fixed intentionality to something ambivalent and new. An authoritative Beethovenian sentence, with its implied sense of propositional fulfillment, is opened up to ambivalence and doubt, and its constitutive narrative/semantic elements are wrested, à la Proust, into fresh, open-ended figurations. A musical memory has given way to possibility.

We also witness this, and indeed much more directly, in the first movement of Op. 51 no. 2. Here is what Brahms does with an allusion that yokes a figure of supreme emotive and narrative in his oeuvre, the frei aber einsam (F-A-E) motif symbolizing the conflict and anguish of his personal life, to one in Beethoven’s, the first emergence of the Heiliger Dankgesang in the Op. 132 quartet:

Example 7 Op. 51 no. 2, mvt. 1 mm. 1-3 The opening F-A-E motif of Op. 51 no. 2 which Brahms will develop into a Beethovenian allusion in mm. 120-127.

Example 8 A comparison of Op. 51 no. 2, mvt. 1 mm. 120-127 and Beethoven’s Op. 132, mvt. 3 mm. 1-5.

Where this original figure in Beethoven has the character of an assuaging revelation, a heaven-sent “answer” to the unsettledness of the previous movements, here Brahms, by darkening his F-A-E allusion’s tonality (in spite of tracing C-A-C form of Beethoven’s C Lydian theme, the music remains in A Minor) and placing it before an exposition repeat, implicitly repositions it as a question in its own right. It is as if a transcendent, Beethovenian solution is tried for the particularly Brahmsian anxieties associated with the F-A-E motif and is found wanting. The music seems to twice advance this allusion as a way forward for the movement’s harmonic restlessness only to twice come up short, the first time leading to a literal starting-over in the repeat of the exposition, and the second to a thorny G-Sharp Minor interrogation of the allusion itself (mm. 129-133). It even hints at a third emergence of this allusion in bars 262-278, recapitulating the prefatory tied eight-note figure of bars 104-108, but abandons this possibility before it can come to fruition, soaring up to a fevered pitch in bars 278-282 and crashing back to Earth in bars 287-288. In narrative terms, it is as if the healing, consoling quality of allusion is tried, tested, and finally debunked, and the music is forced turn its unconsummated F-A-E recollections toward a resolution more dubious and open-ended. Their original transcendence, like the radiance of Hölderlin’s himmlischen, cannot be attained, but Brahms, in opening up his allusion’s implicit ambivalence and dubiety, is able to find in it a fresh, more personal narrative syntax to be pursued.

As a final example, here is what Brahms does with an allusion in the coda of the fourth movement of Op. 51 no. 2 to the final coda of Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet: Example 9 Op. 51 no. 2, mvt. 4 mm. 234-243.

Example 10 Beethoven Op. 132, mvt. 5 mm. 287-306.

The effect of this moment in the Op. 132 is of a long-sought A Major breaking through, as if by divine revelation, a brooding, obsessive A Minor that has haunted the piece from the beginning. The cello traces in its treble register the tied, arpeggiated motif of the movement’s opening bars but leans into this figure on a G Sharp, transfiguring it seemingly without effort into radiant A Major. The other parts duly fall in line with this modulation in the following measure, and the music, having attained what T.S. Eliot called a kind of “heavenly or at least more than human gaiety,”[xxxii] races clear of its A Minor shadows to end on a chuckling shout of joy (mm. 394-402). Brahms, surely conscious of this unforgettable effect, recapitulates this cello-lead transformation in bars 238-240 of his quartet—the cello traces a smoothed-out version of the movement’s rondo theme in A major—but thereafter resets its implied narrative trajectory in a more Brahmsian direction. The last movement of the Op. 51 no. 2 is a lusty, rhythmically inventive elaboration of the quartet’s opening material (including the F-A-E motif we saw developed in movement 1), but Brahms, after feinting towards a Beethovenian A Major resolution beginning in bar 237, pulls back and ends instead on a lively gypsy-style variation in A Minor:

Example 11 Op. 59 no. 2 mvt. 4 mm. 328-358.

The effect of this abortive allusive gesture is rather like that of the first movement’s, invoking a moment of transcendent Beethovenian apotheosis only to spin off in a more ambivalent, more Brahmsian direction. Just as the first movement of Op. 51 no.1 ends with an implied Beethovenian “resolution” (the da-da-da-dum fusion of the A and B themes) conducing to a Brahmsian resolution of rhythmic play, here the music adverts to a sublime, affirming ending only to eschew this implied apotheosis in favor of playful, even cheeky finish. The fixed, authoritative propositions of Beethovenian memory are thus summoned up only to give way, as if with a wink and a nudge, to unconsummated possibility, making what was once Beethoven’s into something fully Brahms’s own.

In Proust’s own reading of interpretation “the end of a book’s wisdom is the beginning of our own.”[xxxiii] Although this way of exploring Brahms’s allusions does not elucidate them from a technical perspective (which has, in any case, been amply done by musicologists since the 19th century), it allows us to investigate them as metaphor, a modality that admits of more nuance in defining complex allusions than musicology’s usual paradigms of assimilation vs. contrast. Metaphor, says Christopher Ricks, depends on apprehending a truly new combination of similitude and dissimilitude, and with it the multivalent structures of likeness and unlikeness that allow new “meaning” to come into being.[xxxiv] It opens up a space of complex interchange between existing and emergent ideas, what has been said in the past versus what is being said in the present, and invites the reader/listener to participate in a game-like process of negotiation between them. In every respect, this way of framing and conceptualizing allusions suits Brahms down to the ground, for it takes into account the knowing, playful qualities of his allusivity—Paul Berry, for example, has demonstrated how many of Brahms’s allusions were intended as coded messages to his friends[xxxv]—and accommodates their tendencies toward ambivalence and uncertainty. The limitations of this approach, its dependence on subjectivites like musical narrative and time, limit its effectiveness as an objective modality of interpretation, but insofar as it clarifies the narrative “surface” of Brahms’s allusivity, as Gingerich’s reading does of Schubert’s, it helps us frame more clearly these works’ complex engagement with their Beethovenian heritage.
[i] Christopher Ricks, Allusions of the Poets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 82.

[ii] Taken from Friedrich Hölderlin: Selected Poems and Fragments (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1998), 25.

[iii] See Martin Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn “Remembrance” Translated by William McNeill and Julie Ireland (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018).

[iv] Quoted in Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 606.

[v] Precise dating of these works based on their times of conception and completion is problematic. We do know that the earliest Schicksalslied sketch was written in 1868 (the year Brahms’ op. 45 requiem was premiered), and that Brahms claimed that the op. 51 quartets were “begun earlier” but written “for the second time” in 1873 (Swafford, 659).

[vi] John M. Gingerich, Schubert’s Beethoven Project (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 14.

[vii] Ibid. 136.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid. 137.

[x] Gingerich makes the point that Beethoven’s particular individuation of the sonata form—defined by its end-orientated thematic/motivic development, its expression of form as process, and its inexorable presence of line—was institutionalized as the normative musical style of the 19th century, and that most new music was subsequently judged against it. This remained the case well into the 20th century (Gingerich, 106).

[xi] Gingerich, 137.

[xii] This principle of a Proustian temporality avant la lettre is justified by Gingerich through a citation of Charles Rosen’s The Romantic Generation. In this work, Rosen demonstrates that the notion of Proustian memory, which we might define as an amalgam of involuntary recollection and dual-temporality (the past assimilated in discrete moments to the present), had already been formulated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by writers such as Wordsworth and Ramond de Carbonnieres, and that their principles had already by the time of Schubert acquired common currency. There is nothing casuistic, therefore, about applying Proustian analogies to Schubert, Brahms, or any European artist of the 19th century, for “Proustian” ideas existed even before they were formulated and defined as such.

[xiii] Wilhelm Dilthey writes in Gesammelte Schriften that an artist (a visual artist in this case) frequently unifies all of his impressions of reality around a single “point” (Eindruckspunkt) which gives articulation to the whole. This principle (which is generally less useful for analyzing music than it is literature or the fine arts) is uniquely applicable to Schubert here, for Schubert, the consummate songster, habitually frames entire movements around melodies or motives which are “responsible for providing cohesion and continuity between large, clearly demarcated blocks of music” (Gingerich, 114).

[xiv] Walter Frisch, “’You Must Remember This’: Memory and Structure in Schubert’s String Quartet in G Major D. 887,” The Musical Quarterly 84/4 (Winter 2000), 582-600.

[xv] John Daverio. Crossing Paths: Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms (Cary: Oxford University Press, 2002), 55-56.

[xvi] Gingerich, 137-138.

[xvii] Malcolm Bowie, Proust among the Stars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 41.

[xviii] Quoted in Bowie, xv.

[xix] Gingerich’s notion of Proustian musical “time,” he admits, is impossible to justify in theoretical terms. It is enacted not on the normal, technical levels—structure, rhythm, harmony, etc.—of music theory, but rather on the level of narrative audiation, the complex tendency of listeners to ascribe story elements to abstract musical forms. Because the language and tools of music theory are overwhelming spatial and not temporal, these story elements are difficult to theorize, and we are left with “prose, in all its imprecision and subjectivity” (Gingerich, 110). I take Gingerich to mean by this that “prose”—encompassing abstract analogy and metaphor—is the best way of articulating music’s temporal and narrative effects, and that its limitations on the level of music theory, while regrettable, are also unavoidable. This essay, for better or worse, has followed the same principle.

[xx] Bowie, 65.

[xxiii] Allusions may be found to many, if not most of Brahms’s canonical predecessors, and many of them have been noticed and analyzed over the years. As this ground has been well trodden in over a century of Brahmsian research, I have made no effort to be comprehensive and would refer the interested reader to the vast existing library on the subject.

[xxiv] The question of what does and does not constitute an allusion within these quartets is inevitably subjective and problematic, and I’ve refrained here from engaging in the kind of analytical justification that characterizes most studies of Brahmsian allusivity. What concerns me more are their effects, however abstract, within the works’ surface narratives.

[xxv] Raymond Knapp. “Brahms and the Anxiety of Allusion.” Journal of Musicological Research 18/4 (1998): 1–30.

[xxvi] Lewin identifies this conflict, played out for him in the piece’s opening bars, as one between Beethovenian “sentence rhetoric” and Mozartean lyricism (“during bars 9-10 and the lyric trope of bars 11-12…[w]e observe here an abrupt shift of rhetorical mode, temporarily negating the peremptory demands of the Beethovenian sentence by indulging in the lyric luxuriance of Mozartean dominant prolongation“) and he extrapolates from this a dialectic of style that drives the entire movement.

[xxvii] Formally, this movement bears much the same relation to Schubert’s Quartettsatz that the third movement of Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 1 bears to the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3: They can, in Charles Rosen’s words, “be described and analyzed to a great extent as if they were the same piece” (qtd. in Swafford, 171).

[xxviii] Haraold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence has frequently been employed in analyses of Brahms’s allusions to his predecessors, with interesting if inconsistent results. I quote his description of “daemonization” here because it aptly characterizes the way Brahms distances himself from a remembered sublime while quoting and individuating it, but the comparison can only go so far. Bloom’s formulation applies primarily to poets who took a corrective and therefore self-promoting stance in relation to a predecessor (an example would be the way the irreligious Shelley and Byron “daemonized” Milton’s religious sublime), but Brahms never gives the impression of alluding to the past in order to diminish it. On the contrary, his allusions can sometimes seem like gestures of obeisance or self-abasement, an acknowledgment to his auditor that, “yes, I know I can’t match this, but you can see that I’m not going to try.”

[xxix] Maynard Solomon, Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 239.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Bowie, 41.

[xxxii] Quoted in Lyndall Gordon, Eliot’s New Life (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988), 143.

[xxxiii] Marcel Proust, “On Reading.” Collected in Marcel Proust and John Ruskin on Reading (London: Hesperus Press, 2011).

[xxxiv] Ricks, 85.

[xxxv] Paul Berry, Brahms Among Friends (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

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