Performing Brahms in the Twenty-first Century

A Symposium on Performing Practice
June 30 to July 2, 2015
School of Music, University of Leeds

(Supported by the World Universities Network: Fund for International Research Collaborations)

Performing practices for nineteenth-century repertory changed radically during the course of the twentieth century. The period that separates us from Brahms’s lifetime saw a gradual stripping down of classical music performance to those elements of sound that can be explicitly notated, as discrepancies with the score came increasingly to be frowned upon as unwarranted violations of the composer’s intentions. Over time the stylistic revolution of the early twentieth century generated a kind of cultural amnesia, obliterating the awareness, forcibly expressed by Brahms’s close colleague Joseph Joachim, that reading between the lines of the score was essential in order to convey the composer’s conception to the listener. The new orthodoxy was based on a presumption that the score indicates most, if not all, that a composer expected to hear, and that obvious departures from it (with the exception of adding vibrato) were signs of a performer’s egoism and bad taste. Written evidence and sound recordings of musicians trained in the middle decades of the nineteenth century (including those of important composers), however, reveal a much more flexible approach to the notation.

In the case of Brahms and his circle, frequent and noticeable changes to tempo and rhythm were seen as integral to musical expression, character and structural clarity. Insinging, string playing, and even in wind playing, portamento was prominent as a means of heightening expression and enhancing legato. Vibrato had a similarly ornamental function and could appear and disappear very suddenly in response to an expressive musical gesture. In piano playing, separation between melody and bass (dislocation) and arpeggiation were employed to highlight dynamics, texture, and rhythmic inflection. Significantly too, some of Brahms’s markings appear to have elicited a range of interrelated musical responses in his colleagues’ performances, suggesting that these familiar symbols carried messages which have since been lost.

The Symposium seeks to bring together scholars, students, and professional musicians interested in historical performance, providing a forum in which they can exchange ideas and experiment with them in practice. In this way, scholars can help professional performers to engage practically with the latest research, while performers can help to refine, or even redefine the scholar’s research questions. To this end, the Symposium committee especially encourages submissions that deal with the historical evidence in experimental ways. We invite proposals for individual papers of between 20 and 40 minutes length, or presentations with a strong practical component (e.g. lecture recitals) of up to 40 minutes in length. In addition to these presentations, the Symposium will include workshops devoted to individual movements from Brahms’s sonatas and chamber music.

The official language of the symposium is English.

Every proposal must include:

• Name

• Email address

• Affiliation, if applicable

• For presentations: Title of paper/presentation including repertoire to be examined where applicable, Abstract of c. 300 words

• For workshops: instrument/ensemble, list of repertoire you’d be willing to play

• Short Biography/CV 150 words

• Technical/Audio Visual Requirements

Two nineteenth-century Erard grand pianos (1855 and 1878) and a modern Steinway grand will be available.

Proposals must be submitted by email to Professor Clive Brown ( by January 15, 2015. Emails must have the subject line “Performing Brahms Symposium.”

Proposals will be considered by the conference committee (Clive Brown, Kate Haynes, and Neal Peres Da Costa) and successful proposers will be notified by January 31, 2015.

Registration: Those attending the Symposium must register by April 30, 2015.

The Symposium is open to observers not giving papers / presentations.

There is no cost for attending the Symposium but attendees will be responsible for their own accommodation and subsistence. There will be a charge for the Symposium dinner.

Further practical details about the Symposium, including suggested accommodation and travel, will be available on the Symposium webpage soon.