Brahms and Cuchulainn

In the nineteenth century the Gothic style was identified with the Baroque period. 

The Germanic peoples, who had always been subjugated by Greek-Roman culture, rebelled in the eighteenth century, claiming their past: the Gothic. They restore the Gothic buildings, invent the Gothic novel, invent the neoGothic that continues until the threshold of the twentieth century. 

Music also wants to engage with this current, but the problem is that the Gothic composers were magister Leoninus and magister Perotinus whose music, from the constructive point of view, was not comparable to the technique of the great Gothic cathedrals. 

It is said then that the equivalent of Gothic in music is Bach. 

Wagner speaks of the gloomy German Gothic about the C sharp minor prelude of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, first book. 

Even Busoni, in 1912, met two German musicians living in Chicago who had turned the Art of fugue in every way. And he writes an article entitled The Chicago Gothics

In Brahms there is the claim of a Gothic past that transcends classicism and catches in the Baroque. In 1853, the year in which Brahms composed the Sonata in F minor Op. 5, Wagner temporarily set aside the Ring of the Nibelungs to write Tristan and Isolde

Consciously or not, Brahms participates in this cultural aura

The harmonization of a bass descending chromatically within the interval of the fourth F-C at the beginning of the Sonata in F minor Op. 5 clearly represents a bass of Passacaglia, a baroque Passacaglia. The Sonata also ends with a Giga: another Baroque stylistic reference. 

The metric analysis instead reveals the sense of anguish, of emotional disorder, not of tranquility. The first phase, for example, is irregular: five bars instead of the canonical four. The Sonata then continues with two five-bar phrases, and then with a six-bar phrase. 

An interpretative key to the dramaturgy of this masterpiece can be found in the Cycle of the King Arthur, in the Cycle of the Nibelungs, in the Cycle of Ulster. 

In the latter, the Irish hero Cuchulainn is a model similar to Achilles, which the Irish did not know. It is in fact an anthropological myth: the invincible hero who has his weak point. While Achilles had it in the heel, Cuchulainn had it in the ban on eating dog meat. One night he is hosted by a person who offers him dog meat, which he eats in order not to fail in the duties of hospitality. The next day he duels and is killed at the age of twenty. 

A possible dramaturgical reading of the Sonata could therefore be the following: first movement: portrait of Cuchulainn. Second movement: love duet. Scherzo: mortal duel of Cuchulainn. Fourth movement: mourning and glorification of the hero.

Picture: J.C. Leyendecker - Cuchulainn In Battle (1907)

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