A certain degree of luminosity

David Hoose- “Brahms Double…. You know, I’ve always thought of that as a rather “brown” work.”

Kenneth Woods- “Really… I’ve always thought of it as red, even though I know it’s kind of a thorny and problematic piece.”

David Hoose- “Well, that’s good. Red…. That, at least, already implies a certain degree of luminosity. I’m looking forward to hearing it…”

I relay this brief excerpt from my conversation with David on our way to work with his conducting class last Wednesday because it highlights our complex way of linking music and color.

I don’t even have perfect pitch so it would be ludicrous to claim synesthesia, but there are certain keys with which I have rather specific associations to color, if not luminosity. A minor, the key of the Brahms Double, for instance, is almost always red to me. Mahler 6- most definitely a red piece.

More often than not (Mahler 6 being a notable “not”), the red of A minor is autumnal- Brahms Double is certainly autumnal music to me. A minor red is the red of maple leaves in early November. The later Brahms chamber works with clarinet are autumnal in a more obvious “going for a long walk by myself in the woods to think about everything I’ve lost and miss in life” way. The Double Concerto is autumnal more in the way that Oktoberfest is autumnal. It is music of reflection, affection and celebration.

The first movement may be tragic, but it’s also an expression of Brahms’ affection for tragic movements-a tip of the hat to the Tragic Overture, the first movements of the 1st and last symphonies and the first two string quartets. The second movement is so simple and folksy, coming from a composer who mastered the art of perpetual variation technique- it’s as if he’s saying “these are the kinds of folk tunes I’ve loved.” It reminds me of when Brahms and Bruckner found themselves at adjacent tables in their favorite pub in Vienna. When Brahms heard his rival order sausages and red cabbage he turned to him and said….

“Sausages and red cabbage- at last something you and I can agree on, Bruckner.” To me, that second movement’s theme is all sausages and red cabbage. Even though the movement is in D major, the cabbage, that sour, minor-key vegetable, is still resolutely red.

Then there is the Finale, a movement in which Brahms seems keen to satisfy himself and his listeners (while tormenting his performers), but not his acolytes and fans (Clara Schumann disliked the piece and Joachim was ambivalent about it), nor his supporters in the critical establishment. Starting from a jaunty, Hungarian theme, this movement is as close as Brahms ever came in mood, if not in sound, to Schubert’s movements where one seems to stroll from adventure to adventure, happening to happening, world to world, all in the same tempo. For such a large and powerful piece, the ending is most memorable for its complete lack of seriousness. It sounds like one’s fourth beer at Oktoberfest, not a serious-minded Brahmsian summation of formal elements. It also sounds, even in the major, rather red.

E-flat major, a tritone away, is also red, but a more physical, even virile red. The Eroica, Mozart 39, the Emperor Concerto, Mahler 8- these are red pieces without any Autumn at all.

This week, I’m conducting another Brahms piece- the radiantly golden D Major Symphony, no. 2. Most of my friends seem to agree that D major is golden or yellow- we even have a CD of a former Cardiff pianist called “The Key of D Major is Sunflower Yellow.” Bach’s 6th Cello Suite is in the key of sunshine.

G major, on the other hand, is blue. F major is green, but less green than D major is yellow.

C minor, maybe my favorite key, has no color association for me at all. To me it is the key of the funeral march, whether that be the 2nd movement of the Eroica or Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. D-flat major is also my favorite key (why on Earth should I have to limit myself to one favorite key?). D-flat has a color, but I can’t describe it. D-flat is the 3rd Movement of Beethoven’s last string quartet, a piece that is always guaranteed to make me cry. D flat is a tri-tone away from the blue of G major, but its beauty comes from its strangeness, its otherworldliness.

On the other hand, I find the extreme sharp keys troubling, even upsetting. The F# Major of the Trio from the 2nd movement of Bruckner 9 has always sounded like a nightmare vision of a Heaven that is tainted with insanity to me. C# major, which on the piano should be the same as D-flat is similarly cruel in its blinding glare.

Schubert understood the power of key better than anyone, even Bach and Beethoven. Only he could have understood that his final two chamber works, the G major String Quartet and the C Major String Quintet, would be more powerful for his use of such seemingly banal and naïve keys. He understood the power of simplicity where lesser artists worshiped the one-dimensionality of overt complexity, and also understood the deep pain of innocence lost.

But then, there is A minor- whether the blood-red of Mahler 6, or the Autumnal luminosity of the Brahms Double, which I miss already…. How ironic that almost as soon as the leaves turn red they begin to fall from the trees and turn brown again. Maybe David was right? From Autum red to brown is a journey of but a few hours.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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