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Tuesday, March 21, 2017 10:30am

Unconditional gifts


Renowned British conductor and ASO regular guest Mark Wigglesworth returns to Adelaide to open our 2017 Master Series with music he loves. Here, Wigglesworth writes about one of his favourite composers.

Unconditional gifts: Brahms

“Brahms's music contains a generosity of spirit that knows no bounds”

I once heard it said of Brahms that in his heart he is both young and old at the same time, but never middle-aged. His ability to portray the ardour of youth alongside the wisdom of experience allows him to connect with both the head and the heart in equal measure. His passion and his intelligence lie in perfect balance – and a good performance of his music celebrates both. It was Beethoven who said that ‘music is the mediation between the intellectual and the sensuous life’, and it was Beethoven who forced open the door that allowed a composer to own up to his work as self-expression. But once that door was broken down, it was perhaps Brahms who benefited most from the opportunity of being able to personalise his music without yet feeling he had to shout about his individuality from the roof tops.

His ardour is unrestricted by the taste with which it is expressed. Despite the image we have of him in later life as a rather grand and portly old man, in his youth Brahms was quite an athlete – worth remembering if we want to avoid the slightly bloated affect his music can have when played with more fat than muscle. When I look at his scores, I don’t hear the self-indulgent, sonorous wallowings that he used to be associated with. I see clean, taut, lithe lines that are able to deliver reasoned arguments with just as much power as they can express unbridled and passionate declarations of love.

I used to think of his symphonies as his four children, genetically connected yet each with their own unique individuality. The First is the bold and romantic adventurer, clearing the path for those who follow. The Second, without the pressure of inheritance is free to enjoy a more relaxed and sunny disposition. The Third faces the problematic challenges of a middle child whilst the Fourth, forced to grow up too soon seems almost wise before his time, serious and nostalgic for a past that one wonders ever existed.

But now I feel they reflect a journey that describes a lifetime of ambition, desire, longing, joy, uncertainty, intimacy, anger, regret, wisdom, acceptance and love. Perhaps love above all. Hearing his music you feel overwhelmed by how much he offers so unconditionally. Whilst his contemporary Wagner demands a great deal from the listener, Brahms simply gives. There is a generosity of spirit in his music that knows no bounds. His music looks forward and back; it provokes the mind and inspires the heart; smiles and cries; walks, runs, and pauses between the two. The fulfilment he offers is one in which his surprises feel inevitable; the truths he expresses seem to appear simultaneously both new and familiar. Each bar is like meeting a stranger that you feel you’ve known all your life. I could never have a favourite composer, but were I ever to have to choose to only live with one, it would probably be him.

Mark Wigglesworth conducts Silver & Gold on Friday 31 March, 8pm and Saturday 1 April, 6.30pm at the Adelaide Town Hall. For more information and booking details click here.

First published in Gramophone on 15 March 2011. Republished by the ASO with permission.


Mark Wigglesworth 1 (Credit Ben Ealovega).jpg
Mark Wigglesworth 032 credit Sim Canetty-Clarke.jpg


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