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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

1. Brahms's opera,
Tom Jones


How many people know that Brahms, for all his protests to the contrary, harboured a secret desire to write an opera? The problem was to find a suitable plot. Hamlet and King Lear had occurred to him, but deep in his heart it was a comic opera that he yearned to write. These ambitions remained dormant until he happened by chance to mention the idea to Hugo Wolf. Wolf - in jest, of course - suggested Henry Fielding's novel, Tom Jones. It had everything, he argued: romance, intrigue, pathos, humour, not to mention a historical setting which would give ample scope to introduce authentic period music, such as 'Greensleeves' and 'Heart of Oak'.

Brahms, oblivious of Wolf's leg-pull, set to work immediately and over the next four years, between work on his Second Piano Concerto and Fourth Symphony, made substantial headway on the piece, showing it to various friends for their approval and comment. He even sent a copy of Act 1 anonymously to Wagner. Wagner however recognised the handwriting and sent it back with the comment: 'Stick to your symphonies, Herr Brahms!'

It was not until the opera was all but completed that Brahms realised what a mistake he had made and immediately abandoned the project. His immense labour, however, was not wasted, and several of the operas themes were reworked into later compositions. For example, Tom Jones's leitmotiv was adapted as the opening theme of his Fourth Symphony, whilst the love-duet in Act 6 between Jones and Sophia reappears as the tutti of the Double Concerto. But Wagner was right. The piece is short on dramatic bite and verve, and Brahms's lack of theatrical experience shows through on almost every page. There are far too many soliloquies and set pieces, which prevent the action getting off the ground. Take, for example, the overture: this is a full-scale sonata-form movement lasting well over 25 minutes; by the time it ends the audience will be ready for the interval. Even more ill judged is the passage where Tom attempts to seduce Mrs Waters: a passacaglia with 33 variations is a format hardly conducive to erotic drama. Admittedly there are some imaginative moments, notably the execution scene in the final act, with its impressive writing for double chorus accompanied by timps, trombones and (for the one and only time in his career) alto saxophone. However the effectiveness of this is somewhat weakened by the long orchestral epilogue which follows.

Taken as a whole, the opera is not Brahms at his best. Some would dub the venture a complete catastrophe. Yes, but if so, a noble and heroic catastrophe! After Brahms's death, rumours abounded that he had been secretly at work on a second opera based on Hermann Melville's Moby Dick, a subject much better suited to his genius, but no evidence of this has come to light.


Copyright © Trevor Hold, November 25th 1999


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