Brahms - String Quintet Opus 111
Were it a stone dredged from a dark crevasse, which when cleaned were found to have infinitely refracting crystalline interstices formed by millenia of nature allowed to roam freely, this Quintet would rightly astonish. As the work of a human mind, or rather of a human spirit, certain doubts must surely arise regarding authenticity, regarding purpose, human spirit itself, I suppose. Though music making is necessarily a process of discovery of hidden laws of nature, a science, as an artistic act it must also have a point of view, something within which the artist pushes off of, which places an endpoint on a line which travels from soul to soul.
I applied Brahms to my brain during an evening drive to the Shitty Barn Sessions in Spring Green, WI, where I hoped to hear Dietrich Gosser. Gosser is a great songwriter, guitarist, and singer who writes music which has literally caused a man to cry. I watched the man cry, even when he might have somewhat prepared himself by telling us all about his previous tear-filled encounters with Dietrich’s music. Nonetheless, after the performance he stood stunned and fearless before us all, wet-cheeked again.
The primary emotion Brahms brought up from me was terror. As I arrived at the alcohol-fueled celebration filled with Golden Retrievers delightfully bringing one another the dead flesh and chewed play-toys of easygoing sociability, the Quintet came to an end, and I felt like a raw nerve had been drawn out between my eyes. Though I tried at the time to shoulder the blame alone for my frayed personality, as the evening passed I gradually understood that I was mad after witnessing complete madness, in the same way a tennis player might, after watching a Federer utterly demonstrate tennis excellence, surprise herself with an adopted - perhaps temporarily - mental acuity which allows the ball to float and grow and makes the physical aspect diminish.
In no other music have I heard so clearly this inner justification and complete clarity, which is typical of madness. G.K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orthodoxy_%28book%29), compares the materialist to the madman. “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Each has an entirely consistent viewpoint, bolstered by irrefutable facts and still fortressed into the mind though relentlessly attacked by the sane or faithful. “If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do.” His problem is not irrationality, but overrationality, and he needs not to be pinned down, but freed to grow up. “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it!” If only Chesterton could have exhorted Brahms. The materialist, the utter rationalist, occupies this same degree of loneliness, a shrunken husk of a world unfilled by love.
Brahms’s music is a masterful construction, but supports no point of view. He seems driven neither by faith nor by doubt, but in the throes of mania finds upon every new chance turning of the eyes confirmation of the utter rationality of Tonal Harmony. This quintet in G major seems to have the exact same content as other of his chamber music, for example the Clarinet Sonata in F minor (Opus 120 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_16io5rzmsQ). Each is a mere field of reason, upon which to plant several flags and then connect them with bits of string. His skill in flag-planting is unmatched, and he surely nears Lacanian ingenuity in the depth of his knowledge of knot tying. For a Mahler, however, the difference between G major and F minor might be the difference between a year of panic and one of joy.
The melody from Mahler’s first symphony, first movement was in my head at the beginning of the drive, and as I shut the door I found myself still singing it. Spirit unmoved by Brahms, yet he set my mind reeling.