Brahms, Scaggs, Intimacy

I had intended to post this several weeks ago, but then the election sucked up all my attention. I’m not an aspiring political columnist, however. In this post I turn to my lifelong interest in music.

In one of his final episodes of Vinyl Tap (May 2, 2021) Randy Bachman played songs of shelter and solace for the pandemic. One was Boz Scaggs’s We’re All Alone, most famously covered in 1977 by Rita Coolidge. Though my preferred taste in music is classical, I have some acquaintance with pop, and this is a song I was vaguely aware of. This time I listened carefully, and its theme – love as solace from the hardships of the world – resonated.

A Connection between Two Works

For some reason I can’t fathom, We’re All Alone reminded me of Brahms Intermezzo for Piano, opus 118, number 2. This is probably Brahms’s most popular late piano piece, and I’ve heard it frequently on classical radio. So, I began thinking about the commonalities and distinctions between the two pieces. I also consulted my undergraduate classmate Phil Aaberg, a composer and musician whose interests encompass those genres.

The two pieces are paced moderately slowly. Both are in major keys (We’re All Alone in G, the Intermezzo in A), though neither has the upbeat tonality we often associate with major keys. They are also comparable in duration, We’re All Alone at 4 minutes, relatively long for a pop song, and the Intermezzo at between 5 and 7 minutes depending on the artist.

Intimacy as Enduring Solace

Scaggs begins We’re All Alone with a menacing image of the external world “Outside the rain begins/And it may never end.” But the rest of the song is about lovers seeking solace from that world in each other: “close your eyes and dream/And you can be with me;” “close the window, calm the light/And it will be all right/No need to bother now.” It also refers twice to the wind and thus imagines a shelter from the wind. The song looks forward to a love that is changing yet enduring: “Once a story’s told/It can’t help but grow old/Roses do, lovers too, so cast/Your seasons to the wind/And hold me dear, oh, hold me dear.” Boz Scaggs recorded We’re All Alone in 1976, when he was 32 and had been married for three years. I find it fascinating that so early in his marriage he was imagining what marriage would be like decades later.

At this point, you might be wanting to (re)hear We’re All Alone. All the early versions had lush orchestration characteristic of the Seventies, starting with piano and guitar and then building to strings swelling at the end. I now find this type of orchestration of a ballad excessive. Rita Coolidge has a lovely, rich voice if you feel you must listen to her iconic version. Frankie Valli’s was definitely over-the-top. I prefer Scaggs’s nasal voice but heartfelt tone in a 1996 version accompanied only by a piano, bass, and guitar.

I’m All Alone

Now please listen (again perhaps) to Brahms’s Intermezzo. Glenn Gould’s version strikes me as excessively calm and restrained, but quintessential Gould. I prefer the more romantic versions of Arthur Rubinstein and Van Cliburn.

The Intermezzo, of course, is much more complex musically than We’re All Alone. Brahms only direction to the pianist is “teneramente,” or play it tenderly. What I hear in it (as do many of the other listeners commenting on YouTube), particularly in the high notes, is a reaching out and yearning. It is profoundly emotional and melancholy.

The CBC’s classical broadcaster Paolo Pietropaolo imagines a personality for each musical key, accompanying his narrative with clips from famous classical pieces in that key. A Major is the will-o-the-wisp. As Pietropaolo plays a clip from the Intermezzo he says, “you’ll still want her, you’ll always want her, but you know you probably can’t have her.”

Brahms life story fits this interpretation. He wrote the Intermezzo late in life and dedicated it to Clara Schumann, the platonic love of his life. Brahms became a part of the Schumann household years before and supported the family during Robert Schumann’s mental illness. After Robert’s death, Clara Schumann firmly saw her identity as widow, and Brahms could not conceive of himself as husband, rather than as friend. But Brahms’s feelings for her are apparent in the music. New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini in his recent book The Indispensable Composers describes the pair as “Clara, the honorable, long-suffering widow Schumann, and Johannes, the increasingly irascible and aloof composer and pianist.”

In Erik Erikson’s terminology, Brahms had numerous opportunities for intimacy, especially with Clara Schumann, but ultimately chose isolation. Professionally, Brahms had achieved fame and fortune, but personally cultivated isolation. This music suggests that he nonetheless harbored profound regrets about his choice. Paradoxically, he turned the regret into professional achievement.

Finale

Boz Scaggs’s story is that two lovers are alone from or even against the world, but together with one another. Brahms’s story is that he truly is alone. But his solitude allowed him to create this work of beauty that we can appreciate and embrace.

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