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Brahms as the analysts see him The variations of Johannes Brahms Julian Littlewood Plumbago Books (London, 2004); xiv, 369pp; £40 / £19.99 PBK. ISBN 0 9540123 4 8/ 0 9540123 3 X.
Expressive forms in Brahms s instrumental music: structure and meaning in his Werther quartet Peter H. Smith Indiana University Press (Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1005); ix, 325pp; £49.95. ISBN 0 253 34483 2.
IN THE MUSICO-ANALYTICAL SCHOLARSHIP on Brahms, two names loom large: Heinrich Schenker and Arnold Schoenberg. Although these two theorists crop up again and again in reference to the music of other composers too, both had a particular fascination with Brahms.
Schenker and Brahms shared a mutual admiration, with the conservative Schenker regarding the latter as the 'last master of German composition'.1 Whilst Schenker's admiration is not adequately reflected by his small number of published analyses of the composer, there nevertheless remains a large amount of material in Schenker's unpublished private papers, indicating that the theorist was fully engaged with the composer's music.
Schoenberg's work also illustrates his engagement with Brahms. In his introduction to Julian Littlewood's book, Alexander Goehr discusses a copy of Brahms's Handel Variations that his father annotated during Schoenberg's composition classes. It seems that Schoenberg was concerned with rhythmic procedures, the grouping of variations by character and, above all, Brahms's practice of cleverly distributing the theme between the hands of the pianist. Goehr writes: 'Looking back at Schoenberg's observations, I can see now that, in the way he described Brahms as distributing motivic elements through different voices, he saw a useful precedent for himself in the increasing importance he gave to a polyphonic basic structure: this sense culminated in his classical twelve-tone pieces.'
In the two books reviewed here- Littlewood's The variations of Johannes Brahms and Peter H. Smith's Expressive forms in Brahms's instrumental music - Schenker's analytical method is the most prevalent, whilst Schoenberg's influence is more or less restricted to the identification of broader aspects of Brahms's compositional style. Yet despite their common theoretical heritage, the books are remarkably different. Littlewood's study examines Brahms's numerous sets of variations, including both independent sets and those within larger works, and is careful to place them within a broader musical and cultural context. Meanwhile Smith focuses on one work, the 'Werther' Piano Quartet op.60, but locates it within Brahms's output as a whole. Littlewood's approach is very much in the British analytical tradition: he draws on numerous analytical tools without feeling tied to one theoretical system, and focuses on the particularities of the music at hand. In contrast, even though Smith provides much detailed analysis, his book is also a statement about music theory; he aims not just to explain Brahms's music but also to contribute more broadly to musical scholarship. Similarly, even though both books make use of Schenkerian analysis to a greater or lesser extent, their approaches differ: Littlewood provides Schenkerian analyses of Brahms, whilst Smith critiques Schenkerian theory through analyses of Brahms.
AS LITTLEWOOD points out in his 'Prologue', there has not been an English-language monograph on variation form since Robert Nelson's The technique of variation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1948). In the half-century since the publication of Nelson's book, a lot has changed in the world of musicology and music analysis, and many of these changes (such as the widespread adoption of Schenkerism) are reflected in Littlewood's long overdue book.
Littlewood divides his book into three parts. …