Culture Magazine

Polyrhythms in the Music of Brahams

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?, NYTimes, 19 October 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. In both, the strings play with mutes, creating a sound like a summer-morning haze, over which the clarinet drifts in unhurried legato lines. Brahms wrote his in 1891, after he had heard the Mozart quintet performed and grown infatuated with the clarinet’s sound.
Listen closely to Brahms’s Adagio, and you may notice a destabilizing irregularity that is built into the rhythmic texture and lends it buoyancy and unease. Though the sound of the strings in the opening is misty, it is swirling with syncopations, overlapping cross-rhythms and hemiolas, rhythmic devices that dissolve a listener’s grounding sense of a first beat to the bar.
You don’t have to be musically literate to know the bumpy feel of a cross-rhythm. Two-against-three can be a parent strolling hand in hand with a skipping child. Triplets on top of eighth notes are like a slow canter next to a trot: The two horses might move at the same speed, but you wouldn’t want them pulling a carriage together.
Polyrhythms run through Brahms’s music like an obsessive-compulsive streak. In a bucolic moment such as the one in the Clarinet Quintet, which the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performs on Nov. 15, they seem to subtly mirror the organic irregularity of nature.
A soul divided against itself?
That strategy of making emotions intense by juxtaposing opposites was inherently Romantic. The pianist and physicist Peter Pesic, whose fascinating book “Polyphonic Minds: Music of the Hemispheres” traces the role musical polyphony has played in man’s understanding of the mind, made that point in an interview. He said that 19th-century composers like Brahms were keen to exploit the expressive possibility of polyrhythms because they felt these represented something of the “intrinsic dividedness of the soul itself.”
Like the protagonist of Goethe’s seminal “Faust,” “they believed that we have two souls in our breast,” Mr. Pesic said. “That thought was dear to the Romantics because it seemed to give a new depth to the feelings and emotions: They were not a single thing but a clash between different things.”
Science, too, was then shifting to an understanding of the brain as not a single entity but as an organ comprising many subcenters. Pathologists examined the role of the brain’s two hemispheres in patients with mental illness; phrenologists tried to map mental faculties onto different areas.
I discuss polyrhythms in Chapter VI of Beethoven's Anvil (2001), pp. 116 ff. In a fragment I cut from the book I discuss the performance tips that, Joseph Hoffman, the 19th & 20th century virtuoso, offered in the pages of Ladies Home Journal. I've just posted this online:
3 Against 2: A Draft Fragment, https://www.academia.edu/37615907/3_Against_2_A_Draft_Fragment
See also, my post, Three Against Two the Tambuka Way.

You Might Also Like :

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

These articles might interest you :

  • Big Food Giants Manipulate Public Health Policy in China

    Food Giants Manipulate Public Health Policy China

    Coca-Cola is at it again. As soda sales decline in the United States and Europe, beverage companies look to emerging economies like China for growth. And, it... Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Dietdoctor
    DIET & WEIGHT, HEALTH, HEALTHY LIVING, MEDICINE
  • Jewellery for a Precious You

    Jewellery Precious

    Jewellery is always close to a woman’s heart. It completes her look and boost confidence. Considering the changing trends in jewellery fashion, it becomes... Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Dr.jenifer Sayyed
    LIFESTYLE
  • Rajshri Productions’ Next Is A Film On Friendship | Hum Chaar | Trailer

    Abhishek Dixit’s debut feature film Hum Chaar is a Bollywood film made under the banner of Rajshri’s film. Hum Chaar is written and directed by Abhishek Dixit. Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Themoviean
    ENTERTAINMENT, MOVIES
  • Saint Paul the First Hermit

    Saint Paul First Hermit

    Today is the feast day of Saint Paul the hermit. This is a sweet and delicate Oatmeal Bread topped with rolled oats and naturally sweetened with agave. Saint... Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Veronica46
    FOOD & DRINK, RECIPES
  • Irupathiyonnaam Noottaandu | Teaser | Pranav Mohanlal | Arun Gopy

    Arun Gopy’s Irupathiyonnaam Noottaandu is an upcoming Malayalam action-drama feature film starring Pranav Mohanlal and Zaya David in the lead roles. Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Themoviean
    ENTERTAINMENT, MOVIES
  • A Year Of Body Positivity

    Year Body Positivity

    Last January, as I sat there on New Years eve all set to make the same old resolutions I've made year after year for as long as I can remember, I realised how... Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Sparklesandstretchmarks
    DIARIES, SELF EXPRESSION
  • Garden Bloggers Bloom Day – Jan 2019

    Garden Bloggers Bloom 2019

    Euphorbia rigidaWhen I went out to take the photos for this blog post I was surprised at how much was in flower dotted around the garden. Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Patientgardener
    GARDENING, HOME