Universiteit Leiden

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Academy of Creative and Performing Arts (ACPA)

Doesn't Play Well With Others

What are the socio-political implications of performing Johannes Brahms's chamber music in 19th-century style?

May 1896. Johannes Brahms gloomily listens to a group of friends rehearsing his Violin Sonata Op. 100 and Piano Quintet Op. 34. Beyond this affluent, intellectual and cosmopolitan enclave, an ascendant far right seeks to oust these progressive Liberal elites from cultural and political positions of power by highlighting their ties to Jews, and by seducing lower-class voters with their abrasive style of emotional rhetoric. Brahms is labeled degenerate and anti-German—his chamber music, designed for the private salon, undemocratic. 

May 2019. A group of friends perform Op. 100 and Op. 34 in an Amsterdam synagogue. They use 19th-century performance techniques to champion liberty over consensus, provocation over compromise, and expressive immediacy over precision, control, and serious art-historical reflection—music for the people, not for a cultural elite. They soon learn, however, that these musical values align both with historical ideologies that sought to annihilate Brahms, and with the violent underbelly of the modern neo-Romantic movement.

This project explores prickly resonances between socio-political currents that Brahms abhorred and modern ultra-Romantic revivalist movements in political, literary and musical spheres. As neo-Romantics we look to 19th-century German aesthetic ideals as a form of protest—against an elite status quo, mundane bourgeois comforts, the rigidity of modernism, and the ironic cynicism of postmodernism; we promise an emancipation of feeling—the freedom to encounter art works, and each other, directly, powerfully, and without intellectual mediation; we champion the 'sharper key'—a coarse, individualistic, instinctive and emotionally-immediate rhetorical mode. Like those who unleashed the sharper key on Brahms, however, beneath this movement's revolutionary façade lurks a virulently anti-Liberal, hyper-nationalistic, anti-LGBTQ and xenophobic underbelly. As such, while this project explores a sharper musical key in Brahms's chamber works via public performances and experimental, unedited lo-fi recordings, it also asks what responsibility we have vis-à-vis its more ominous socio-political parallels: are we ethically bound, for example, to create work that highlights the messy pluralities, and violent consequences, of an easily idealized and perverted past? While these are complex issues, what is clear is that identity and politics have always been entwined in this repertoire and to suggest otherwise may certainly be unethical.

Piano Quintet, Op.34


Dr. Anna Scott (piano), Joan Berkhemer and Rada Ovcharova (violin), Dr. Emlyn Stam (viola), Willem Stam (cello), and Geoff Miles (audio engineer)

Contact: Dr. Anna Scott
Duration: 2019 - 2020
Funding: SIA Regieorgaan
Photo credit: Dr. Anna Scott

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