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A Requiem in Reverse?: Marin Alsop talks to Jeremy Siepmann

August 16, 2013

Marin Alsop

Marin Alsop’s affinity with Brahms is by now a matter of historical record. Both on CD and in the world’s concert halls she has brought an almost missionary zeal to her championing of this composer (though she would be the first to point out that Brahms has long gone beyond the need of missionaries). Her identity with the music has been palpable, her sense of style seemingly innate. But her closeness to Brahms transcends mere love (if one can dare to call love ‘mere’). She owes to him a life-changing debt, incurred before her teens, if only just. It was a turning point she well remembers.

‘Ever since I first heard his String Sextet in B flat major, when I was 12 years old, he’s held a very special place in my heart. It was Brahms’s music, in fact, that first enabled me to comprehend music’s profound ability to touch and move us.’

Having often reflected that Brahms is perhaps not a composer for children, in the sense that, say, Mozart and Beethoven are, I was struck by the age at which Alsop fell in love with him—and by the work that did it. ‘I hadn’t thought of that aspect, actually—but in any case, by that time I was already an adolescent. I was growing into adulthood rather than growing out of childhood, if you see what I mean. And that’s a different thing. The big thing I knew then was that emotionally he spoke to me. As he always has.’

Oddly, for those of us who love it, Brahms’s music has remained controversial long after his death. Benjamin Britten, for instance, was contemptuous of him, Tchaikovsky (going back a bit) called him ‘a giftless bastard’ and ‘a self-inflated mediocrity’, and I know numerous people, even today, who disparage him as ‘thick’ and ‘heavy’. What is it, I wondered, that seems to make him such a hard nut for many people to crack? The moment you discover his polyphonic soul, surely, the previously (im)perceived ‘thickness’ gives way to aural textures as transparent as Debussy’s (Schnabel even called Brahms ‘the first Impressionist’). ‘Well I do know that there are a lot of contemporary composers who don’t like Brahms. And to me, that’s just incomprehensible. And I agree with you about this stereotype of Brahms being ‘heavy’. But I think a lot of this reflects less on Brahms’s music itself than on an awful lot of dense interpretations. I think if you come to Brahms from the early music side (as you know, he was steeped in early music—quite exceptionally for his time) then you find a definite lightness of texture. So no, in a word. I don’t understand this anti-Brahmsian stereotype at all.’

Another claim one still hears is that his handling of the orchestra was stodgy, glutinous, opaque and so on. Alsop, obviously, isn’t buying that one. What for her are the most striking, the most significant, perhaps also the most challenging aspects of his orchestration in the Requiem? ‘The challenges, I think, are the same as with any vocal work: balance, of course, is always crucial—and capturing a wide variety of sound worlds that are distinct yet unified. Brahms achieves a quite enormous range of moods and textures—and his use of registration is simply phenomenal. He wasn’t a revolutionary or innovator in instrumental terms, he didn’t add any instruments to the orchestra that weren’t there before, but his use of the existing instruments is just inspired. Of course he was extraordinarily traditionalist, constantly looking back to Beethoven—in terms of his usage, even, of the trombones, for example. What particularly catches my attention in the Requiem is the way he mines the depth of the orchestra. He also adds the organ as an underpinning, which gives a very subtle, unmistakable profundity to the overall sound. The organ, though, is never featured. It’s always in the background. Yet whenever he uses it, it helps to cast this extraordinary darkness over everything. And to open the first movement with no violins? This is just brilliant! Using just the violas on down, he creates a wonderfully earthy quality. Without his having to refer to the darkness that most requiems require, he’s able to do it in terms of pure orchestral colour, and that’s amazing.’

I note that after that low beginning there’s a sort of ‘risingness’ about the whole structure of the piece. Not least in the key structure. Almost from the start, basically, it’s upward bound. ‘Exactly! Yes. It starts in the depth, but when the return occurs, in the seventh movement, everything is quite astonishingly transformed.’

But what makes the Requiem a revolutionary work? What are its most unprecedented features? All these years (and requiems!) later, does it retain its uniqueness? ‘I think it does. The choice of text is very personal, and completely unique in the Requiem genre; so are the positive outlook and the lack of any reference to God or Christ; and the through-composed nature of the piece, transformed from the first movement to the last, is very typically Brahmsian. I think it’s telling that he himself described the piece not only as a German but as a human requiem. It’s a requiem for all humanity, a requiem about the living rather than the dead or dying—and this is a completely different perspective from what we experience in all the other requiems. The very fact that Brahms personally selected all the texts, rather than those of the standard requiem mass, gives the whole work an intimacy and a personability which is strikingly individual. Brahms was notorious for never leaving any clues to his inner, personal life, but in this piece, I think, we really discover his essence; discover what really mattered to him; what he thought; his concept of religion; his concept of life; his concept of death. As I say, it really is extraordinarily individualistic.’

How significant, I wondered, how essentially expressive, how symbolic is the work’s meticulously organised structure? Come to that, can structure be expressive? Or is it, in fact, a powerful but unconscious perception, for performer and listener alike? ‘I think Brahms is a master of both conscious and unconscious structural unity. The fact that the work ultimately encompassed seven movements, with seven being such a symbolic number, is really a kind of perfection. Transformation through unity is his ultimate achievement here. The fact that it’s in this great arch form is a major responsibility for the conductor, in terms of pacing, of architecture…it’s a really beautiful structure—but then I wouldn’t expect less from someone who could write the Third Symphony! This kind of cohesion amidst tremendous contrasts is unique to Brahms, I think. And there are so many unexpected twists and turns that make complete sense once you know the piece, but which can be a little bewildering you first encounter it. I remember when I first heard it, I was totally engaged, but I could never guess what he was going to do next. In the end, though, as I say, it makes perfect sense. But only a genius could have thought of it! The combination of the contrasts between the movements and their remarkable cohesion…well how do you achieve that combination? It’s really quite some feat!’

But can structure be expressive? ‘I think it can be, yes. But I think that stressing the structure for its own sake is more likely to obscure than to illuminate the music. So it’s my responsibility to weave that element into the narrative somehow. And maybe it’s an unconscious narrative!’

As anyone who’s participated in the Requiem knows full well, Brahms keeps his singers quite exceptionally busy throughout. Does this impose any expressive restrictions when it comes to the overall pacing of the work? ‘Pacing is critical, of course, not only in terms of architecture, but in terms of sheer physical stamina. The singers must save essential control and focus for the final movement which is an absolute tour de force of vocal control and endurance. But it all depends on the choir you have, and the choir in this performance—the Leipzig MDR Radio Symphony Chorus—is just fantastic. Fantastic. They could handle this challenge all on their own, pacing themselves perfectly. But here, as with all matters of pacing, you do have to be careful not to give too much too soon, or possibly give of the maximum, because it can become a little numbing to the listener as well. It’s a matter of restraint; of knowing just when to unleash the forces and when to pull them back.’

There are distinct links between the movements, at several levels. Is this something Alsop seeks to highlight? And if so, how? ‘Well it depends on the length of the movements. I think it’s important to have an awareness of all of them, and certainly in my performance, in terms of key structure and pacing, one can adjust the segues or the time between movements. In a recording that can be hard to do, because it’s a little bit proscribed. There are some obvious links that definitely need to be highlighted, in terms of timing between movements or setting things up—particularly the differences between the first and final movements, and all the brilliant harmonic surprises. I do like to anticipate these, and set them up a little bit, so I can set them off against the other movements. A lot of the connections, though, are the kind of organic connections that the listener may not be aware of but somehow organically senses.’

Looking at the work as a whole, how, I wondered, would Alsop summarise the main challenges to the conductor? ‘It’s a highly integrated work, in which the choir is the highlighting component, if I can put it that way. But the orchestra, the orchestration, is equally important. For me it’s very reminiscent of the way Brahms ties things together in his symphonies. He does it in the same manner, whether it’s thematic, or derived from the key structure, or textural. Maybe it’s because I’m a symphonic conductor, but the whole piece really feels to me less like a choral work, per se, than like a symphony with chorus. But Brahms didn’t need a symphony in order to be symphonic. Not only the Requiem but the two piano concertos are an excellent example of that.’

And what for the conductor—what for this conductor—are the work’s greatest rewards? ‘I think the essence of the work, despite its being a requiem, is an affirmation of life. It offers a very holistic, inclusive answer to those existential questions about what happens after this life, and where do we go. For me, the whole piece resonates with spirituality—a very inspirational kind of spirituality, embracing one’s own personal, philosophical look at life. That said, it’s fairly packed, too, with the most amazing emotional pay-offs: the way he unleashes all these great forces; the wonderful, surprising modulations, which set up the brilliant fugue. The whole thing is a celebration of music—music of the present but also music of the past, to which, as I said earlier, Brahms was devoted. It’s one of the things I most love about him: the way he has one foot in the past, looking back to the great traditions of Bach and Beethoven, and another solidly planted in the future, anticipating harmonic developments that were soon to come. For me these moments are transformative. The greatest payoffs, though, aren’t only the most obvious ones. Probably my favourite movement of all is the last, which ties together the entire piece so beautifully. And of course no sooner do I say that than I start thinking about all the other movements, which are also my favourites! And that to me is a definition of a great piece!’

True to her perception on that day, all those years ago, when, at the age of 12, she first ‘met’ and fell in love with Brahms, Alsop continues ‘to comprehend music’s profound ability to touch and move us’ (her own words, remember) and to inspire others, through her example, to do likewise. Few callings can be so richly rewarding. Few aspirations can be nobler. For music, to borrow another of her words, is transformative. As Brahms is in his Requiem—the only work of its kind to be heralded (and not by Alsop alone) as an affirmation of life.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

Marin Alsop Biography & Discography

Featuring Marin Alsop – The Brahms Symphony Cycle:


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