“Struggle is a very important part of some music,” Emanuel Ax says in one of his tonebase interviews. I hadn’t realized how true that statement was until I started putting together the second episode of the tonic, tonebase’s new podcast, about Leon Fleisher and the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto.

The Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto is the product of a whole lot of struggle. First, there’s the story of the opening to the piece. Fleisher calls it “soul-shattering,” like “Thor banging on the doors of Valhalla.” I learned, in putting together the episode, that this opening may have been Brahms’ way of dealing with the grief he felt when his close friend and mentor Robert Schumann tried to commit suicide. Brahms was young when he met Schumann, nowhere close to the “Great Brahms” that we now know. He was practically a kid, still writing home to his mom, who was writing back worried that her son wouldn’t make it as a musician. There’s a kind of rawness to that opening that captures the vulnerability of Brahms in that time, trying to make sense of the world, and the enormous pain he was experiencing.

Second, there’s the struggle Brahms endured just to put forth any music at all. Many people have heard that Brahms lived in the shadow of Beethoven’s music for much of his young life; it’s part of the reason it took Brahms 21 years to complete his first symphony, so daunted was he by what Beethoven had done. It feels like a miracle that he was able to complete his first piano concerto 18 years before his first symphony and 23 years before his second piano concerto. And yet, if you read his letters, it’s clear that he had all sorts of doubts about the first concerto. He couldn’t decide what form it should take -- whether it should be a two piano sonata or a concerto. He wrote and rewrote the three movements. He constantly sought advice from his close friend Joseph Joachim, and worried that he didn’t have the compositional chops to properly orchestrate the piece. As Fleisher says in one of his interviews, “in a few places, [Brahms] even fails,” and produces phrases that are awkward, orchestrations that are unbalanced. 

Importantly, though, the struggle is very much part of what makes the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto great. Despite the piece’s technical shortcomings, Fleisher says, “never again does he reach the same heights of daring and courage and adventure” as he reaches in the concerto. What would the piece be like if Brahms hadn’t allowed himself to be vulnerable, responding with such forceful emotion to his friend’s troubles? What would it have been like if Brahms had held onto it longer, waiting to polish it to perfection? It wouldn’t have been the same emotionally present, thrilling piece that it is. It wouldn’t have reflected a time in Brahms’ life, and his response to it.

One of the major lessons of episode 2 in the tonic is that obstacles and challenges are practically inevitable in one’s life, whether you’re a composer, or a pianist, or...anyone. The question is how you respond. This is a question we look into deeply through the life of Leon Fleisher, who famously struggled with focal dystonia for much of his career, unable to use his right hand. Instead of giving up, though, he broadened his horizons, committing himself to teaching, conducting, and championing left-handed repertoire. He rolled with what life threw at him, and, by the end, was able to recapture some of what he had lost. He even got to perform the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto, the piece he considered his “lifelong companion,” again.

Listen to the latest episode of "the tonic" – now streaming everywhere!

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Musician

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