Though the symphonies of Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler loom large in the classical music pantheon, Brahms’ four symphonies “provide the perfect universe for any conductor,” according to Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “Each Brahms symphony is a small planet, with its own unique ecosystem. Yet each of the symphonies is transformed and informed by the others, thereby creating a mini-symphonic solar system.”
This month, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform the complete Brahms symphonies: on May 4-9, Symphony Nos. 1 and 2, and on May 11-13, Symphony Nos. 3 and 4. Muti thus joins all previous CSO music directors (except for Artur Rodzinski, 1947-48) in leading the CSO in the complete Brahms symphonic cycle during their respective tenures.
If Brahms provides the perfect universe in the realm of classical music, his music has been almost equally appreciated in the world of pop culture. His symphonies in particular have provided points of departure for novelists, filmmakers and rock/pop composers. Here are a few examples:
Aimez-vous Brahms? Written in 1959 by Françoise Sagan, the novel Aimez-vous Brahms? uses the composer’s music, particularly his orchestral works, as a metaphor for impossible love. At one point, Paule, the novel’s protagonist, puts on a recording of a Brahms concerto, but can’t bring herself to listen to the end because “it’s just too romantic.”
“Goodbye, Again”: Françoise Sagan’s novel inspired this 1961 film, directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Ingrid Bergman, Yves Montand and Anthony Perkins, against a wall-to-wall backdrop of Brahms, specifically his First and Third Symphonies. In the movie, the heroine (now called Paula) is an older woman (Bergman) in love with her longtime beau (Montand), but he refuses to settle down and wants to chase twentysomethings. When a 25-year-old lawyer (Perkins) meets and immediately falls for Paula, she resists his advances, until he invites her to a Brahms concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris.
Georges Auric, later the artistic director of the Paris Opéra and the Opéra-Comique, arranged the Brahms’ works on the soundtrack and wrote the film’s underscore. The Poco allegretto movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 provides the film’s theme, and at one point, the song takes wing in a nightclub scene as a chanteuse (Diahann Carroll) croons the melancholy ballad “Say No More, It’s Goodbye” (later covered by the piano duo Ferrante and Teicher). Of the song, the Illustrated London News wrote: “It insistently vulgarizes and cheapens a theme from Brahms.”
Santana, “Love of My Life”: For his comeback album “Supernatural” (1999), which went on to win eight Grammy Awards, classic rock veteran Carlos Santana teamed up with superstar rock singer-songwriter Dave Matthews on the track “Love of My Life,” based on the third movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. Some might call it a rip-off, since the melody is clearly Brahms’ and the composer is not credited on the disc. In a 2010 interview with the San Jose Mercury News, however, Santana acknowledged his inspiration: “One of my very favorite classical works is Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90, the third movement, Poco allegretto, by Johannes Brahms. I heard this glorious piece of music shortly after my dear father passed away, and I was haunted by it until I was able to identify and locate the original song.”
A Birkin ballad: British actress turned muse Jane Birkin reunited with her former lover, French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, to record the album “Baby Alone in Babylone” (1983). The title song, also based on the Poco allegretto movement (and which later won the Grand Prix du Disque for best French song), turns Brahms into a vehicle of conspicuous consumption, L.A. style: “I’m drowning inside a dream of colors/Made of Pontiac and Cadillac/Of Bentley and L.A./Of Rolls-Royce and Buick/In a metallic night.”
“Song of Love”: Released in 1947, this lush MGM biopic depicts the tragic lives of Robert Schumann (Paul Henreid), wife Clara (Katharine Hepburn), and friend and third wheel Johannes Brahms (Robert Walker). Years after Schumann dies, Brahms proposes marriage to Clara but she refuses because she still feels bound to her immortal beloved. In real life, Walker found himself in his own weird romantic triangle, losing wife Jennifer Jones to movie mogul David O. Selznick (producer of “Gone With the Wind”). “My personal life has been completely wrecked by [David O. Selznick’s] obsession for my wife,” Walker once declared. “What can you do to fight such a powerful man?”
TOP: Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Perkins share a few moments of happiness in “Goodbye Again” (1961), which features Brahms on its soundtrack.