Emanuel Ax writes:
I have loved the music of Brahms since I was a teenager. We still listened to music on long-playing records, and I wore out two copies of the B-flat Piano Concerto played by Arthur Rubinstein. The more I got to know his music and his personal story, the more I admired both. I believe it was Herbert von Karajan who said in an interview that Brahms's music is like "a deep well: You can keep drawing from it forever and never come to the bottom." It remains a very true and potent image for me—I have been studying and practicing his music for 40 years, and wish that I had another 40 to understand it better.
His life was, I feel, as full of integrity and sadness as his music. He worshipped Robert Schumann, and his one true love was the wife and later widow of his idol, the great pianist Clara Schumann—a love that remained unconsummated. I think of him sometimes as a latter-day knight, laying the Handel Variations and many more of his solo and chamber works at her feet like so many deeds of chivalry for his fair lady.
He never ceased trying to improve his ability and knowledge. Through most of his life, he corresponded and exchanged counterpoint exercises with his dear friend violinist Joseph Joachim. He also edited the works of Schumann and Chopin, a tremendous undertaking that would occupy most talented musicians full-time. He encouraged contemporary composers such as Dvořák, and very often helped them financially and anonymously.
It is a great privilege to be able to participate in concerts devoted to his music and that of some exceptional composers of our time with the great artists Anne Sofie von Otter and Yo-Yo Ma. For this project, we have asked Brett Dean, Anders Hillborg, Missy Mazzoli, and Nico Muhly for something a bit unusual. Brahms's friend, the great Joseph Joachim (being a true son of the Romantic era), declared that his motto was "Frei aber Einsam" ("free but lonely"). For a special occasion, Schumann, Albert Dietrich, and Brahms composed a sonata—each contributing a movement—based on the notes F, A, and E. Brahms, not to be outdone, seems to have adopted a motto as well: "Frei aber Froh" ("free but happy"). The opening of his Third Symphony uses this motto in the notes F, A, and F. We have asked the composers if they would be willing to use those notes as a theme or motive in their pieces, and they have all agreed. We are hoping that this idea, far from being a restriction, will be an inspiring starting point for them. We are all very excited to work on their music. We are very grateful to the generosity of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Cal Performances, UC Berkeley; Carnegie Hall; and Symphony Center Presents, Chicago for making this project possible—and for giving us the opportunity to share this wonderful music.
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