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Hommage à Brahms

Brett Dean (b. 1961)

Following studies in Australia, Brett Dean traveled to Germany in 1984 and became a violist with the Berlin Philharmonic the following year. He began composing in 1988, initially as an arranger and working in improvisation for radio and film projects in Australia. He became established internationally as a composer in his own right through performances of the ballet One of a Kind (choreographed by Jirˇí Kylián for Nederlands Dans Theater) and the clarinet concerto Ariel’s Music, which won an award from the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers. Dean’s compositions are characterized by clarity and direct expression. Since leaving the Berlin Philharmonic in 2000, he has lived in Australia as a freelance composer. In 2009 he won the Grawemeyer Award for his violin concerto, The Lost Art of Letter Writing.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has played and presented a number of Dean’s pieces in recent seasons, including the U.S. premieres of his Viola Concerto (with Dean as the soloist) and, in the opening weeks of this season, the oratorio The Last Days of Socrates.

According to the composer, the three movements of Hommage à Brahms “can be played as a set of three (with a total duration of eight-nine minutes) or placed – still as a set of three – within a selection of my other “Hommage” Etudes.” [His other “Hommage” Etudes are to Janácˇek and Kurtág; he also has a Prelude and Chorale in homage to Bach.]

“Ideally, however, they are conceived as interludes to be played between Johannes Brahms’ four final pieces of Op. 119 (1893), i.e. Engelsflügel 1 placed between Brahms’ B-minor and E-minor Intermezzos, Hafenkneipenmusik between the E-minor and C-major Intermezzos, and Engelsflügel 2 between the C-major Intermezzo and the E-flat-major Rhapsody. It then constitutes a seven-movement work with a total duration of c. 25 minutes.”

Dean defines “Engelsflügel” as “Wings of Angels,” and angels have figured into several of his compositions. His 1996 piano quintet Voices of Angels was inspired by the angels of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Dueno Elegies, and in 1999 he wrote an orchestral piece called Beggars and Angels, after a 1994 exhibition in Potsdam that paired sculptor Trak Wendisch’s beggars with oil paintings of angels by Heather Betts, Dean’s wife. (Not all of his supernatural inspirations are heavenly: Dean also wrote a solo woodwind piece called Demons.)

Last year Dean wrote a piece called Engelsflügel for the Louisville Wind Symphony. “It found its beginnings in a recent set of piano pieces of mine that paid homage to the piano music of Johannes Brahms,” Dean wrote. “Having started out as an examination and exploration of the very particular accompanying figurations found in Brahms' songs and duo sonatas, Engelsflügel took on a life of its own as I investigated the many timbral possibilities of this ensemble.”

A fairly literal translation of Hafenkneipenmusik would be “Port Tavern Music,” which clearly suggests a reference to the dance music that Brahms is supposed to have played as a child in Hamburg’s sailors’ bars. Brahms’ father, a professional musician on several instruments, did play in dance halls and taverns. Although after leaving secondary school Brahms did play popular music for private gatherings, working-class music halls, and theaters to help support his family, the old story that he played in port brothels as a young boy has been questioned since the 1980s.

- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.