Coveting My Neighbor’s Solo
Updated: Jan 28
This is something I wrote months ago when someone in management asked me to “write something about music” for a newsletter. "Maybe write about your favorite solo." I have no idea if it will ever be used. It was sitting in the can, I don't really have anything else to write about, so I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone and make some use of it. What, nobody will read something about music? That is ALWAYS a possibility.
“The eagle from the north” is how Robert Schumann described a 20-year-old Johannes Brahms who showed up on his doorstep in 1853 with a letter of recommendation from violinist Joseph Joachim, Schumann’s most trusted friend. The young Brahms was a handsome devil, wasn’t he? And Clara, Robert’s wife, was every bit as talented and remarkable as her husband. A lot of ink has been spilled about that meeting, on Schumann’s immediate championing of Brahms, on the value of that friendship, on the the hard-following descent of Schumann into insanity and death, and on the blossoming of the friendship between Brahms and Clara, no need for me to elaborate. Or rather, if I elaborate we'll never get to my topic.
The fates play silly buggers with us sometimes, sometimes they align, sometimes hard to tell which. In a letter to her (seven!) children, Clara wrote: “You hardly knew your dear Father, you were still too young to feel deep grief, and thus in those terrible years you could give me no comfort. Hope, indeed, you could bring me, but it was not enough to support me through such agony. Then came Johannes Brahms. Your Father loved and admired him, as he did no man except (Joseph) Joachim. He came, like a true friend, to share all my sorrow; he strengthened the heart that threatened to break, he uplifted my mind, he cheered my spirit when(ever) and wherever he could, in short he was my friend in the fullest sense of the word.”
Perhaps it was fate for Brahms to spend his life in a relationship that was at once spiritually rooted and domestically adrift. Perhaps that was an engine of his creativity. It is difficult to imagine relationships in that time. Communication was only by letter (thank goodness, for history’s sake) and very slow. The stakes of a sexual relationship were high. We have no evidence that one of the most famous romances of classical music was ever consummated, but the letters show that Brahms, for the rest of his life, belonged to no one else.
We skip across much history and come to Brahm’s Fourth Symphony, begun in 1884, premiered in October, 1885. Time was running out for both of them; Clara died of a stroke in March, 1896 and Brahms died 11 months after her.
You would think there would be enough clarinet solos to keep me busy. There is a non-clarinet solo, though, that is never far from my thoughts. It is the flute solo in the fourth movement of the Fourth Symphony. The first time I heard it was during my freshman year in college, playing principal clarinet in the Washington State University Orchestra, and I remember being so entranced in the first rehearsal that I forgot to count and didn’t come in with my own solo immediately following. “CLARINET!” bellowed our conductor, Martin-Beatus Meier, an old-school German.
“I’m sorry, maestro, I was listening to the flute,” I replied.
“You want to listen to the flute, you buy a ticket,” he growled. “Or LEARN THE SCORE. The flute stops, one beat later YOU play. How hard is that?” Embarrassment is an efficient teacher, and to this day I do my best to learn the score.
Perhaps there is something to the fact that I hear the solo several times a week as my wife teaches flute lessons, but that can’t be all of it, there are lots of flute solos and I don’t feel the same irritation when a student butchers Leonore or Carmen. There is just something about the Brahms solo that has never let go of me, and I have been turning it over and over in my mind my entire career.
Do I wish it were a clarinet solo? Yes and no. The solo occupies a place of particular prominence in this magnificent symphony, bridging from E minor to E major to begin the middle section of the final movement. It is unlike anything else in the movement, in fact, it is the only actual solo in the entire movement. Many instruments have a solo bar or two here and there as a melody is passed around; only the flute is given an entire eight bars, a complete utterance. This is significant. Brahms was scrupulously economical in his use of materials, and the extravagant melodic color of the flute solo sets it off like a diamond among all the passacaglia variations. Who wouldn’t want that solo?
But Brahms knew his orchestration; a flute playing a high F sharp (the highest note of the solo) is smack in its power range while a clarinet playing the same pitch is starting to run out of steam and sound a little thin. Not that we clarinetists have anything to complain about, ahem, two sonatas and a string quintet, cough, cello trio.
The movement itself is a passacaglia, a 17th-century musical form defined by variations over a repeated ground bass, with its theme based on Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata BWV 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (for you, Lord, I long). The eight bars that open the movement are repeated, over and over, with both harmonic and melodic variation. That is the compositional craft of the movement, and it is the genius of Brahms to innovate within such restriction, to make something stupendous out of materials that a lesser mind would have rejected as inadequate. For good measure, the movement can also fit within a sonata-form analysis.
The flute solo, however, breaks away from the landscape of the form and takes flight. Humans communicate with things that break a pattern, this is hard-wired — we are evolved to read meaning in the rock in the trail that has been moved, the broken twig, the whiff of perfume where there was none before. Which of these things is not like the others? To be sure, each of the 30 variations (excluding the coda and final statement) in the movement are masterful, and all differ in one way or another, but the flute solo is a message. What does it say? Ah, that’s the question.
Is Brahms speaking to Clara? The solo begins with a question, the upward inflection of rising half steps is just as pleading in music as it is in speech. “Liebst du mich noch?” No, not that, their love had been steadfast for three decades. And look at the third bar, how it is the same idea as the first, but with a rising third instead of a minor second, and no expressive hairpins. Significant. It is the same question, only softer, more timid, or more tender, and yet more inflected, more questioning. The flute is a soprano voice, is it Clara speaking? Perhaps Brahms is recalling a particular conversation, something they would remember together. The phrases alternate rising and falling inflection, then a repeated affirmative, rising to a climax and falling to a repeated question and finally acceptance with the modulation to E major. The solo describes a beautiful, yearning arch; perhaps it describes the arc of two lives, separate and together, both nearing the end.
Some may be thinking, “Why does this solo have to be about Clara Schumann? Why do we assume everything is about Clara?”
To which I can only answer, of course the solo is about Clara.
Just listen to it.