Prior to deciding to learn German, I had already viewed the Berlin Philharmonic as one of my favorite performing groups (I was devastated when I found out that I missed their performance in Ann Arbor, even more-so when I found out that my friend ran into Simon Rattle, their principal conductor in a Starbucks). Having played the violin since I was little, German composers have played an instrumental role in shaping my repertoire. The music scene truly drew me to German culture in which the epicenter seemed to lie in Berlin—perhaps this naturally lead to a bias on my part?
For this assignment, I listened to nearly an hour’s worth of classical music by Johannes Brahms, a German composer born in Hamburg. Many of these pieces were performed by German groups such as the Berliner Philharmoniker. The first piece is the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms. Composed in the summer of 1880, Brahms was originally against the idea of even writing the piece. Its purpose was to serve as a form of gratitude for being awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau; Brahms hated the indulgence of celebrity, and only intended to leave a thank-you note until he heard that the university would accept nothing less than a musical composition. So, in the end, he composed the overture, which exhibited a boisterous, light-hearted theme that was meant to convey a drinking song. Funny, Brahms.
I discuss the Academic Festival Overture first because it is the only piece that I found that loosely follows a narrative, which brings up an interesting aspect of German history being its occupancy of absolute music and German Romanticism. In essence, absolute composers, often developed under Romantic schools of thought viewed music is only to be enjoyed as music itself, and free of any narratives or underlying meaning. My interpretation of this is enjoying music for how it makes one feel, regardless of how you may analyze its intention, which heavily contrasts the styles of composers from other countries. For example, Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev were famous for the political themes underlying their compositions. Shostakovich’s Symphony 5 was actually known for bringing its audience to tears because they resonated with the political message in light of treatment under the Stalin regime. In my time researching Brahms, I struggled to find any meaningful messages behind his works, which is likely the intention.
In researching the Berliner Philharmoniker and German composers such as Johannes Brahms, I found myself learning about the significant ways in which German culture has contributed to some of the things that I enjoy most, being classical music and the violin. I believe that learning about culture and history is a critical component to language learning, because these various aspects come together to form a cohesive package. In addition to the Academic Festival Overture, I also listened to the Violin Concerto in D Major, and the Symphony No. 3.