A Bolt of Primal Light From Cal Bach

Michael Zwiebach on April 21, 2011

When a small coterie of interested scholars and musicians began producing new editions of ancient music in Germany in the 1850s-1860s, enthusiasm was limited. One of the people who really got into it, though was Johannes Brahms.

California Bach Society

Having bootstrapped his knowledge of the inner workings of the written music tradition, Brahms was inspired by the sudden availability of the music of old masters like Heinrich Schutz. And it is Brahms' identification with that tradition that is the subject of the upcoming California Bach Society concerts, programmed by their Music Director, Paul Flight.

That interest may make Brahms sound like an old fogey, but actually the choral music that he wrote under the Bach-Schutz-Early influence has added drama and impact. In the Hamburg festive motets (Op. 109) that begin the CBS program, you hear a clarifying rhythmic energy and drive, especially in the second motet. It takes off like a bolt of primal light, and never lets up. There's no sense of late-style, retrospective art here.

It's not easy, however. "Part of the reason you don't hear these pieces so much is that it's difficult to make them sound well," says Flight. You have to solve technical problems from the older style because, "some things get expansive and complicated in Brahms' motets. There's a heavy interest in counterpoint and in canons — for example the second motet has a canon in augmentation between the tenors and basses."

On the other hand, Brahms also was seriously interested in folksong, like many in his generation, and he was able to find that in the German tradition as well. "I'm contrasting the music of Hans Leo Hassler with Brahms' folk-like music because Hassler has a simple, heartfelt quality in a lot of his music associated with simple sentiments — music that is just basically a tune and harmonization. One of his songs got turned into an early Lutheran chorale, almost unchanged."

In short, the program introduces some of Brahms' less-heard chamber music in a historical context. And Flight realized that his CBS chorus were exactly the right people to take on the challenge. "We're so used to some of the gestures in Schutz, Senfl, and those guys, that when they recur in Brahms it's familiar and a good fit."

In a spring and summer that's going to see a lot of Brahms played in the Bay Area, this may be your only chance to hear from the less well-known side of this musical giant.