Obsessive streak: Brahms’s use of polyrhythms

Posted on: October 23, 2018

“A century separates the clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms, but at the emotional heart of each sits a slow movement of rapt, bucolic calm,” writes Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim in Sunday’s (10/21) New York Times. “Listen closely to Brahms’s Adagio, and you may notice a destabilizing irregularity … the bumpy feel of a cross-rhythm.… In the Passacaglia [of the Fourth Symphony] the winds … lay down a noble but urgent melody.… When the violins elaborate on this melody in eighth notes, the upper winds add agitated ornamentations, some in triplets, some in eighth notes…. Things sound on the verge of falling apart.… Zoom in on his use of rhythm, and … he might be considered the most dissonant composer of the Romantic era. The conductor Manfred Honeck … said … that when the music’s inner complexity is brought out and ‘served up a little bit,’ Brahms ‘comes across as almost modern.’ … Brahms didn’t invent the practice of superimposing duplets and triplets in music: Beethoven explored it…. The rhythms in Schumann are sometimes wildly unstable. But for Brahms, subdividing a measure of time into different units and layering different patterns on top of one another seemed to be almost a compulsion.”

Posted October 23, 2018