Professor Paul Berry on scholarship, performance, and Brahms

Paul Berry

Paul Berry

On Sunday, tenor Paul Berry, Associate Professor (adjunct) of Music History at the School of Music and the author of Brahms Among Friends: Listening, Performance, and the Rhetoric of Allusion (Oxford University Press), and Boris Berman, the Sylvia and Leonard Marx Professor in the Practice of Piano, will present “Of Love, Death, and Reconciliation: Songs and Intermezzi of Johannes Brahms.” Prof. Berry has shared a few thoughts about scholarship and performance, conceiving and preparing with Prof. Berman for Sunday’s recital, and “the value of live music-making.” 

Like many music scholars, I had been performing for years before discovering the academic disciplines devoted to the study of music. When I selected 19th century Austro-German song as an academic specialty in the early 2000s, I thought I was doing so because the subject allowed me to pursue a long-standing interest in German-language literature, but in retrospect a deeper reason was surely that my youthful instruments were voice and piano. As my scholarly interests have grown to include instrumental chamber music, the concerns of practicing musicians have remained central to my work: how the music feels in the hand or the voice, how the composer engages those feelings toward expressive ends, and how the act of musical performance can open up interpretive arenas for players and listeners alike. Brahms’ songs and piano pieces offer the historian particularly rich opportunities to investigate these questions, in part because he and his contemporaries left behind a vast array of documentary evidence that speaks to their own engagement with performance. To fully appreciate that evidence, I find I have to keep one foot in the world of the practicing musician, singing and playing the music I study rather than simply listening to it. This is one reason I love teaching at the School of Music: I learn as much from my students and their music-making as they do from me.

It was a wonderful privilege to prepare for this recital with Boris, who combines formidable knowledge of the repertoire with decades of experience playing Brahms’ music at a superb level. All told, we spent an average of more than an hour on each song we’ll perform, considering how Brahms’ compositional structures project his interpretation of each text and how the different musical choices we might make in realizing those structures could affect the listener’s understanding of that interpretation. Perhaps the most exciting part for me, however, was selecting the songs we would perform and placing them into a coherent order. The Four Serious Songs, Brahms’s last opus, are unusual in many ways, including their texts, which are not poems but passages concerning death from Luther’s translation of the Bible. These songs are usually performed continuously as a set, but, following Brahms’ own practice of creating flexible “bouquets” of songs, we decided to take them apart and use them as primary colors, emotional focal points around which other songs and short piano pieces could be grouped in provocative ways.

The piano pieces come from the collections of short works, Opp. 116-119, completed in the 1890s, that together comprise Brahms’ crowning achievement as a composer for the instrument. The songs span his entire output as a composer—from his first maturity in the early 1860s to the pinnacle of his public career in the 1870s and 1880s—and his life-long involvement with artfully arranged folksong. Some of them are quite dark, a few playful, many rich and autumnal, others light and fresh. Heard interspersed among the Four Serious Songs, the music on this program may facilitate for the audience some reflection about love, death, and the process of change—hence the title of the recital. But any such reflection will be individual, meaningful to each listener for herself alone. This, I think, is the value of live music-making in a time of pervasive distractions and pre-packaged playlists: to provide an unexpected space, an unpredictable collision of impulses, within which the self can find renewal and out of which conversation can begin again.

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Published February 27, 2019
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YSM professor and Brahms expert Paul Berry, on faculty pianist Boris Berman’s Sept. 27 recital program

Boris Berman, left, and Paul Berry

School of Music faculty pianist Boris Berman kicks off the 2017-2018 Horowitz Piano Series on Wednesday, Sept. 27, with an all-Brahms program featuring the composer’s late piano works, Opp. 116-119. We spoke with YSM Associate Professor of Music History Paul Berry, the author of Brahms Among Friends: Listening, Performance, and the Rhetoric of Allusion (Oxford University Press, 2014), about the works that Professor Berman will perform, what the music tells us about the composer and his environment, and what the late piano works demand of a performer.

Q: Brahms’ piano pieces, Opp. 116-119, were composed during the last decade of his life. What does that lateness mean in terms of the character of these pieces, and in the context of his career and his personal life? According to our program notes, Lionel Salter said, of Op. 116, “It is as if the composer at the end of his life had compressed the essence of his musical and emotional thoughts into these miniatures.” And Brahms himself described the Op. 117 set as “lullabies of my sorrow.” What, if anything, did Brahms’ friend Clara Schumann say about these pieces?

A: Well, the idea of lateness can inform our hearing of these piano pieces in several productive ways. The most obvious is their placement in the composer’s output. In the early 1890s, Brahms was not yet 60, and all his friends constantly commented on his fitness and robust health; he had no idea that this would turn out to be his last decade. But he did know that he would soon retire from public life as a composer. Indeed, he had already retired once, only to return to composition when he encountered the clarinet playing of Richard Muehlfeld. The late piano miniatures are the most abundant fruit of what he planned to be his final harvest. Especially with the example of late Beethoven in the ears of the musical public, a composer would naturally understand that his final works were likely to be interpreted as summations of his craft and emotional range, and compose them with the judgment of posterity in mind. Certainly Brahms did so with these piano pieces.

At the same time, the late piano pieces first surfaced not in published form, but in manuscript copies made for Clara Schumann, one of the great pianists and musicians of the century and Brahms’ oldest and firmest friend. Throughout the summers of 1892 and 1893, he sent her packages containing individual miniatures, some of which were so dramatic in effect that she took them to be the building blocks of a larger piano sonata (a genre Brahms had avoided since his youth). Though she had retired from the concert stage by now, these pieces soon became a dominant focus of her private music-making. In fact, we have accounts from her daughters and grandchildren concerning her renditions of them and, in some cases, the poetic significance she attached to them (Op. 118, No. 5, for instance, seemed to her to represent the emotional landscape of an elderly couple reminiscing about their lives together while their grandchildren play nearby). So from both a professional and a personal standpoint, Brahms’ late works lend themselves to interpretation as late works.

Q: In what historical and political contexts were these pieces composed, and how did Brahms’ immediate environment and the changing world around him inform the music he composed toward the end of his life? What do the pieces of Opp. 116-119 tells us about where composition had been and where it was headed?   

A: Brahms’ political environment was challenging for him and his fellow liberals, who found their longstanding commitment to education, religious tolerance, and upper-middle-class values under assault from populist and overtly religious parties, whose members preferred the more direct musical styles of composers like Wagner or Bruckner. Brahms’ primary musical market was under attack, and these pieces can be understood as speaking to the alternately nostalgic and grumpy impulses of a soon-to-be minority party. Those elements of this music that seem to us now the most forward-looking (daring modulations, hazy tonality, complex interweaving of multiple melodies) may actually have been designed to summon up appreciation for the learned elements of a craft that many already perceived to be outdated and in decline.

Q: Talk if you would about the form, structure, and styles of these pieces and how Brahms might’ve intended them to be performed and presented.

A: Most of these pieces present some variant of ternary, or three-part, form, in which the main material is presented at the beginning, cedes its place to contrasting material in the middle, and then returns to close the work near the end. Brahms’ craft emerges in the seemingly infinite variety of approaches that this ancient musical form elicits from him in each individual context, from the straightforward, almost folk-like simplicity of Op. 118, No. 5, to the complex twists and turns of Op. 117, No. 2. It’s always worth listening for moments of return, when familiar material reappears, and comparing them to one’s memory of that material from earlier in the piece; so many of these works create subtle but remarkable transformations in mood when one encounters the same material in new contexts.

Although these pieces are rightly seen as intimate, private ruminations, this is also virtuosic music, though it usually wears its virtuosity in an understated way. Most of the pieces were premiered in public by the best pianists then performing, and reviewers consistently noted the difficulties that they posed to a pianist’s technique, especially in the faster pieces. The final work on the recital, Op. 119, No. 4, is a good example, with its whirl of gypsy-style rhythms. But the slower works, too, present real technical challenges involving the thickening of texture, and these challenges are often aligned with pivotal moments in the unfolding of the piece: the return of familiar material after a long absence, for instance, is often much harder to play than the initial presentation of the tune. Even the famous lullaby, Op. 117, No. 1, is almost overwhelmed near the end when its fragile voices multiply under the pianist’s hands.

Q: What should audiences listen for in these works as they think about Brahms and his world and the culture in which we live today?

A: Some elements of our current political scene (the rise of populist ideologies in the United States and abroad, increasingly overt intolerance and suspicion of “elite” attitudes, a pervasive sense of loss and frustration) mirror aspects of Brahms’ own environment in the 1890s. The variety of moods explored in these short piano pieces, from resignation and nostalgia to brooding anger and firm resilience, therefore resonate productively in the present moment.

Q: What, in your opinion, does Professor Berman bring to these works? And what do these pieces require of a pianist, both technically and with regard to scholarship?

A: These works require of a pianist a deep immersion in the intricacies of the composer’s craft and a deep commitment to the emotional world projected in each piece. Professor Berman brings both immersion and commitment to his playing. He also brings a firm sense of clarity with respect to large-scale structure. He does not “lose” his listeners, but guides them through the unfolding of each piece.

Faculty pianist and Horowitz Piano Series Artistic Director Boris Berman performs an all-Brahms program featuring the composer’s late piano works, Opp. 116-119, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 7:30 pm, in Morse Recital Hall. Associate Professor of Music History Paul Berry will give a pre-concert talk at 6:30 pm in the Blocker Room. Learn more and purchase tickets

Published September 25, 2017
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School holds opening Convocation Sep. 3

YSM-Convocation-103At the Yale School of Music’s annual Convocation, which took place Wednesday, September 3, 2014 in Morse Recital Hall, Provost Benjamin Polak installed the incoming class of YSM students. Robert Blocker, Dean of the School of Music, hosted the event and honored several attendees.

Gregory E. Sterling, Dean of the Yale Divinity School, gave the invocation. Dean Blocker recognized Paul Berry, Assistant Professor Adjunct of Music History. Berry was one of only ten recipients of the Provost’s inaugural Teaching Prize (story here).

YSM-Convocation-039Dean Blocker conferred the Cultural Leadership Citation upon Dorothy K. Robinson, Vice President and General Counsel of the University. MORE

Published September 5, 2014
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Paul Berry among Provost’s 2013–14 Teaching Prize winners

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Paul Berry, Assistant Professor of Music History at the School of Music, was honored recently as one of the winners of the 2013–14 Yale Provost’s Teaching Awards. The awards celebrate teaching excellence at Yale.

The cornerstone of the Provost’s Teaching Initiative is the development and recognition of outstanding teaching by untenured faculty university-wide. With the generous support of an anonymous donor, the Provost’s Teaching Prize acknowledges the teaching excellence of 10 members of the untenured faculty each year. Deans and department chairs can nominate untenured faculty members who demonstrate a particularly high level of teaching excellence. These nominations, together with information from student evaluations, were used to determine the 2013–2014 Provost’s Teaching Prize recipients.

The citation for Berry’s award noted:
As Assistant Professor of Music History, Paul displays an exuberant passion for the subject of music. He has a gift for integrating the diverse cultures and backgrounds of School of Music students and engaging them as learning partners in making sense of music and its role in society—past, present, and future. Because Berry is both a scholar and a practicing musician, his class presentations reflect new ideas about historical works and a clear understanding of music in our own time.

Published May 23, 2014
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