144. Brahms the Progressive
In 1933, Arnold Schoenberg—the founding father of atonality, and in many ways the very definition of “progressive”— turned the classical music establishment on its head when he declared Johannes Brahms one of the greatest innovators of the Romantic era. One of the pieces Schoenberg cited as evidence of Brahms’ pathbreaking sensibility is the featured work on today’s podcast: his first string quartet. Schoenberg felt that Brahms’ ability to spin out large sections of music from small motives foreshadowed twentieth-century techniques. We’ll begin with a twentieth-century work: Alban Berg’s Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, a series of brief miniatures. Apparently the piece caused some friction with Schoenberg, Berg’s teacher, who criticized his pupil for writing such small-scale works and encouraged him to think bigger. Interestingly, Berg would go on to become best-known for his operas—which were, without a doubt, larger in conception. Schoenberg’s criticism notwithstanding, the clarinet pieces are actually wonderful little works—atonal but strikingly lyrical.