Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, two of the greatest composers of the late Romantic era, were contemporaries, masters of symphonic music who held each other’s work in the worst of regards.
Born on the same day, seven years apart, the two mutually disdained one other’s music, but actually got along on the two occasions they met, according to first-hand accounts.
Brahms held true to his German, sober school of thought, composing symphonies and chamber pieces on the foundation of his native country’s musical logic. Tchaikovsky was wildly emotional and colorful, even rifting at times with his own Russian counterparts.
Brahms reportedly fell asleep during a rehearsal for Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, while Tchaikovsky had some notable quotes in his diary about the German composer.
“Brahms is a celebrity; I’m a nobody. And yet, without false modesty, I tell you that I consider myself superior to Brahms,” Tchaikovsky wrote.
While both had deep fondness for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Robert Schumann, they battled within the ideologies of their own countries at times as well. Brahms found himself on one side of the War of the Romantics, taking on composers such as Richard Wagner. Tchaikovsky had a similarly rocky relationship with The Five (Balakirev, Cui, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov) on how Russians should approach composition.
Indubitably, the work each produced has become legendary symphonic music, full of melodies and harmonies known the world over, and they have rightfully been placed in the halls of compositional giants like Beethoven and Bach.
Conceived by famed violinist and Savannah Music Festival associate artistic director Daniel Hope, “Brahms vs. Tchaikovsky” pits two great pieces of chamber music from the composers against each other with a theatrical presentation to highlight their rift. Hope wrote an accompanying script for two actors who portray the composers and will hurl now infamous insults between movements across stage.
“I wanted to explore these two giants, their relationship, their music and their take on life,” Hope said. “Both composed two of their finest chamber music pieces within a few weeks of each other, which I found fascinating.
“Tchaikovsky his ‘Souvenir de Florence’ Sextet and Brahms his Quintet Opus 111. They could not be more different and yet both are masterpieces. By performing them exactly side by side, movement to movement, one hears them in a completely different context.”
Savannah Music Festival executive and artistic director Rob Gibson first saw Hope’s “Brahms vs. Tchaikovsky” piece two years ago at the Bristol Proms, a series of classical music concerts broadcasted over radio and television in Great Britain. That was the only other performance of the piece, but Gibson and Hope have added more to the U.S. debut.
“We’re adding another layer to it, “Gibson said. “They did a little bit of this in England. We’re going to put cameras on the stage, projecting on a big screen behind them. So if you’re sitting out in the Lucas Theatre, you’ll see a camera that might be on a cellist looking up so you can see it. We’re going to be mixing from four different cameras on stage. So it will be multimedia, theatrical with the two actors, and it will be musical.”
The event was designed not only as a view into a fascinating artistic rivalry of two great musical minds, but is also being presented as an educational tool. Whether you are an ardent fan of either composer or a newcomer to the music in general, hearing these two great pieces of chamber music played back-to-back in contrast, in the same performance, is a rare opportunity to gain a new appreciation of the sheer skill and bravado these giants of music possessed.
“My mother was a piano teacher,” Gibson said. “I had to play the piano. I had to collect the dead white European guys like Brahms and Tchaikovsky on top of the piano. Because people haven’t had that type of experience, this type of concert makes it extremely palatable and also very modern. People are used to something visual to accompany music.”
“I simply cannot wait to be back in one of my favorite places in the world,” Hope said. “Savannah means so much to me and my family and the festival continues to grow from strength to strength. I am proud to be a part of it.”
BRAHMS VS. TCHAIKOVSKY
When: 6 p.m. March 24
Where: Lucas Theatre for the Arts, 32 Abercorn St.