Bach Fest Features an Inspired Brahms

Emma Selmon, Executive Editor

Despite weather shifts more dramatic than Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in d minor,” the 85th Annual Bach Festival was a success. While excellent performances were heard all weekend, one question plagued everyone’s mind: “Why are they playing Brahms on Bach Fest?”

In his Saturday afternoon lecture, “Bach’s Influence on Brahms,” Dr. Daniel Beller-McKenna of the University of New Hampshire provided an answer: “Why not?”

Dr. Beller-McKenna, author of Brahms and the German Spirit, has focused much of his research on Johannes Brahms, a German composer who lived from 1833 to 1897. In his lecture, Dr. Beller-McKenna explored the impact that the work of the 18th-century Baroque master had on the compositions of the 19th-century Romantic pioneer.

Brahms was by no means the first composer to be interested in Bach: he was “born into the Bach revival” that began in 1829 in Berlin with composer Felix Mendelssohn’s presentation of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Brahms was introduced to the work of Bach in 1853 when he met fellow composers Robert and Clara Schumann: a book of Bach works containing notes by these three composers is in the possession of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at the Conservatory.

Taking advantage of the Schumann’s library, Brahms studied the works of Bach and sought to master his compositional techniques. Though Brahms was not the first composer to draw from the masters of a previous generation, the degree to which he committed to learning Bach’s style was unique.

In addition to practicing Bach’s style of composition, Brahms also frequently programmed Bach’s works in concerts. Some of the works Brahms had selected were performed on the festival’s Friday night concert, “The Bach that Brahms Performed.”

Dr. Beller-McKenna selected a number of Brahms’ works leading up to Ein deutsches Requiem to demonstrate how Bach’s influence can be found throughout the compositions of Brahms. Although the impact of Bach is obvious at times, Dr. Beller-McKenna emphasized that Brahms’ compositions were “not just an aping of an earlier style”: he utilized the styles of Bach at times, but the works he created were Brahmsian.

Ein deutsches Requiem was selected as the centerpiece for this year’s Bach Festival because it is a large-scale work that seamlessly blends elements of Bach into the Romantic musical language of Brahms. Whether or not it is possible to definitively pinpoint a specific Bach work that may have inspired the Bachian elements of the Requiem, the profound impact of the composer is apparent to Dr. Beller-McKenna: “By this time, Brahms had been able to incorporate Bach’s style into his own music.”

Brahms was one of countless composers who looked back to Bach in his compositions, but the intentionality with which he endeavored to integrate Bach’s style into his own made Brahms “the conduit to Bach going forward.”