Brahms: A Listener's Guide

Brahms: A Listener's Guide

by John Bell Young


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"Elegant, thought-provoking, often outrageous but always stimulating, this book will fascinate those who know a lot about Brahms as well as those who know little." — Stephen Hough, pianist and composer.
Hailed in his lifetime as Beethoven's successor and a powerful symbol of musical classicism, Johannes Brahms was nonetheless a controversial figure in a world infatuated with the bold new directions taken by Wagner and Liszt. Today Brahms' stature is unassailable, and his works remain staples of the repertoire in each of the many genres in which he composed.
This engaging survey of Brahms' music covers his major orchestral, choral, and piano music, culminating in a discussion of the ever-popular German Requiem. Author John Bell Young, a concert pianist and music critic, offers an astute commentary on many facets of the composer's life, including the attitudes of Brahms' contemporaries and his complex romantic relationships. Readers will find this volume an accessible guide to the great composer's compelling music, placed within the context of his era and environment.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486809380
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 01/18/2017
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

John Bell Young is an American concert pianist, music critic, and author.

Read an Excerpt


A Listener's Guide

By John Bell Young

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2017 John Bell Young
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-81777-4


Johannes Brahms: An Overview

As the story goes, Johannes Brahms, bored at a glittering society event at one of Vienna's more prestigious palaces, couldn't contain himself. Feeling trapped amid an impressive gathering of luminaries and lingering literati, he sought escape from the small talk. After all, for the solitary and private Brahms, to engage in anything but substantive conversation, if he had to converse at all, was a waste of valuable time. Acutely aware, too, of his status as an international celebrity, he vigorously declined to be drawn into a world of superficial adulation and hangers-on. He was not comfortable in large crowds, nor in unfamiliar company, and preferred instead the companionship of longtime colleagues and old friends.

Fed up with the din of polite conversation, Brahms, his hefty girth oddly complemented by his long white beard, stood up, excused himself publicly, and said, "If there is anyone here I have failed to insult, please forgive me!"

True or not, that endearing tale is one that paints Brahms, the man as well as the composer, with a fair degree of accuracy. While he was not known to have a hot temper, it was no secret that he was a loner whose need for solitude was artistically inspired and pragmatic. He could be rude or dismissive when he had to be, but behavior of that sort was for him the exception, not the rule. He abhorred playing out his life or creative procedures in public, and the notion of using his position to make known his darkest critical views, as Richard Wagner so often did, was anathema to him. Nor did he have any particular interest in, or even liking for, the innumerable honors society sought to bestow on him; indeed, he lost no sleep at all when he twice turned down, in 1877 and again in 1892, an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. (He did accept a similar honor, closer to home, from the University of Breslau in 1879.)

But Brahms was equally known for his unselfish willingness to help, encourage, and even finance other gifted composers. He was a tireless coach of the musicians in whom he saw potential, taking time out of his enormously busy professional life to advise and help them in any way he could. He was generous even to those who, like Wagner, loathed him and considered him a kind of public enemy by virtue of the kind of music he was writing. Brahms was a purist of sorts who rigorously declined, throughout his life, to assimilate anything that so much as smacked of program music. For him, drama, as well as the extramusical associations that were bound up with it, gained value only when it emanated from within the musical work, rather than being imposed, with superficial artifice, from without. The notion of virtuosity, too, as something either implicitly necessary or equal to the complexities of compositional process, struck him as ludicrous.

A scholar of early music, editing whole volumes of the music of Rameau and Couperin, with a special interest in the choral music of the Renaissance and baroque eras, Brahms was a throwback in some ways to the traditions and sensibilities of an earlier time. Rejecting the demands of his own era, which would have preferred to see any gifted young composer also assume the rigorous schedule of a performing virtuoso, Brahms settled rather comfortably into a different sort of life. And while, like any committed composer, he was only too happy to perform his own music, he turned away from anything resembling a concert career; neither the music nor the life of his contemporary Franz Liszt appealed to him in the least. Intuitive of his destiny, and assured of his future, he set about his life patiently, with the pragmatic diligence of one who takes no chances. Brahms constructed his career as much as he fell into it; whatever luck might have come his way, whatever useful and determinative influences fueled his ambitions, and whatever private or public favor or even disinterest he might have curried were all things and events that he deliberated and cultivated with aforethought.

To say that Brahms was a man who didn't bruise easily might be unfair, as he was, after all, human. And yet, in spite of the insults and disparagements that others, particularly Richard Wagner, saw fit to throw his way, he remained, in a word, imperturbable. He was neither vindictive nor confrontational, preferring to react to such criticism in quite another way: through his music. And as we shall see, he did so by means of codification or, more specifically, allusion.

Born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833, into a musical family, Brahms was enamored of symphonic music from an early age. His father was a double bassist in the Hamburg Philharmonic. Though his lack of a formal education was a sore point throughout his life, Brahms always enjoyed a healthy curiosity about all things intellectual. He was seven years old when he took his first piano lessons with one Otto F. W. Cossel; in Russian musical circles, that would be considered a late start destined to compromise precocity. Isolated from the mainstream, the young Brahms had little knowledge of the music of Chopin or Liszt; ironically, that he did not worked to his advantage. Indeed, it was his naiveté that allowed him to indulge wholly original musical fantasies of his own invention, thus distinguishing his compositional vocabulary and style from other composers'.

In 1846, at Cossel's prodding, Brahms, who had already expressed more interest in composition than in performing, went to Eduard Marxsen (1806–1887), a prominent Hamburg pianist and composer. It was on Marxsen's recommendation that he made his first attempt to contact Robert Schumann, but the effort failed when the sample of his work he hoped Schumann would at least examine was returned to him unopened. Nevertheless, under Marxsen's tuition, music, art, and literature became for him an extended family on which he could rely for sustenance; these became the measure of his humanistic Weltanschauung and of his own faith, which he interpreted in an entirely individual manner, as his magnificent German Requiem would later demonstrate so profoundly. He was a spiritual man — but not a zealot — who happened to value the wisdom of the Bible he came to know so well. But he also refused to blindly subscribe to the ersatz representations that human beings, in the guise of acolytes, made in the name of a personified God.

By all accounts Brahms was a fine pianist, a proficient horn player, and a passable cellist, though not one given to playing all the right notes all the time. His objectives were to make music and to use his abilities as both a performer and a composer to serve art, but not to serve himself in the creation of it. This attitude earned the respect of both Robert and Clara Schumann, to whom he was introduced by his friend the violinist Joseph Joachim. He met the Schumanns at their home on September 30, 1853, and with that, his fate was sealed. He respected and adored them both and found in them like-minded spirits. After Robert's death in 1854, he turned to Clara, at first in the naive but youthful hope that this older woman and distinguished concert pianist would return his romantic infatuation in ways that went beyond friendship. As far as anyone knows, and in the absence of any concrete evidence to the contrary, their relationship indeed blossomed, but only into the platonic sphere of close confidence and collegial endearment.

Brahms reviled mediocrity. He routinely destroyed his own works, dissatisfied with anything that might survive, thanks to popular interest, without deserving it on aesthetic and artistic grounds. He had no desire whatsoever to have his name associated with any work of art that could not be objectively evaluated, in musical as well as historical categories, as both revelatory and enduring. Thus what for some might have seemed merely fetishistic was for him a matter of artistic necessity. His temperament, fueled by solitude and self-awareness, favored an almost monolithic patience. To this end, he was careful to harvest and set aside the best of his ideas even at times when he had no particular place to house them compositionally.

That he so frequently reinvented his music, recasting it in new forms until he got it just right, was itself a consequence of his steely self-discipline and Brahmin-like willingness to appease the gods of patience. For Brahms, the creation of a musical composition was never a matter of professional adjudication, or even determination, but an organic process that demanded forethought, reflection, and above all maturity. And those things in turn required time or, more specifically, the passage of time. Just as time and gestation imbue a great wine with its bouquet, harmonic resonance, andambrosial fragrance, so does time condition, enrich, and enliven art, imbuing it not merely with the spirit and thoughts of its creator, but with an autonomous existence that allows it to mature, endure, and thrive for generations to come.

Acutely aware of what his work might mean for posterity, and thus for civilization, Brahms astutely but firmly rejected any activity — be it a public interview, an academic honor, or even the composition of music the sole purpose of which was to make money — that might later be construed as selfish and superficial. Given the abundant fruits of his labors, and what he in fact left behind, we can easily see now, in retrospect, why he did so.

For a long while, and well into his thirties, Brahms, who had already settled in Vienna with the enthusiastic endorsement of the Schumanns, had found a certain satisfaction as a choirmaster. Though at one time he had his heart set on becoming the director of the Hamburg Philharmonic, he abandoned that idea when the august institution snubbed him in favor of a singer, Julius Stockhausen. With that, he resigned himself to accepting an appointment, with only the slimmest support, as the leader of the Vienna Singakademie. He led this ensemble in a cappella music of Renaissance and baroque composers, including Heinrich Schütz and J. S. Bach. It would be five more years before he took up permanent residence in Vienna, but no matter; in the interim he lavished most of his time and attention on composing, bringing forth such works as the F Minor Piano Quintet, the D Minor Piano Concerto, the G Major String Sextet, the E Minor Cello Sonata, the Paganini Variations for piano, more than a dozen songs, and, last but not least, the German Requiem.

With the death of his mother in 1865, Brahms was inspired to compose and finally bring to completion the Requiem he had so long had in mind. Its creation was a seminal event that changed his life forever. It took only three performances of the work, in various stages of incompletion, to persuade the public, and indeed the world, that in Johannes Brahms was a very great composer indeed, one equal to Beethoven and Bach. In 1869, Brahms found himself a subject of public adulation; he had become, in a word, a star. And with that status came all manner of accolades, invitations, commissions, influence, and wealth beyond anything he had ever known, much less expected.

That this sort of recognition in his lifetime was possible was evidence enough of how far music, by that time widely accepted as an art worthy of serious contemplation, had come with regard to its social and even professional status. While his success riled some, including the self-serving Wagner, who had fully expected to inherit Beethoven's throne and rule the musical world unchallenged, it served only to embarrass Brahms, who made every effort to see it for what it was — ephemeral, vain, and wholly inconsequential to his compositional aesthetics.

Brahms never married, having seen in that institution an implicit responsibility that he dared not assume. He was fully aware of the price a commitment to wife and family would extract from him, and, equally cognizant of his universal gifts and destiny, he resolved to avoid such ties. He refused to put himself in a position that would compromise his life work or hurt, however unintentionally, anyone who got in the way of it. And so he remained a bachelor all his life, his relationships with women rarely blossoming into more than a series of dates and, in the best instances, warm and lasting friendships.

As for his compositional style, well, a great deal has been said and written. It is not my intention nor within the scope of this book to move into that subject with the rigorous analytical zest that so many scholars, including Geiringer, Swafford, Schauffler, Stuckenschmidt, Schoenberg, Notley, and Beller-McKenna, have invested. Suffice it to say that, as a young man, Brahms found himself enamored of Hungarian music, as were so many others in the late 1840s. That is because in 1848, the Austrians, then all-powerful, and the Russians, aspiring to the same, put down a near-revolution in Hungary. Driven by their enemies from their home territory, hundreds if not thousands of Hungarian freedom fighters — what today we call insurgents — jawboned their way through Europe, bringing with them the colorful customs, fashion, art, and music of their homeland. Even Liszt, who left Hungary as a child, couldn't claim this authenticity for himself and thus, like other composers, could give voice to the indigenous fantasies of his childhood only by composing his own brand of Hungarian music.

Brahms, an echt-German provincial of Lutheran stock, found this music exotic and aspired to find a way to incorporate it imaginatively into his own compositions. He studied its litany of bizarre, angular, and often irregular cross-rhythms, gave voice to its intoxicating streams of triplets and to the so-called Gypsy scale (C, D, E-flat, G, A-flat, B, C'), and came to admire the frenetic czárdás, with its propulsive duple meter. Despite the dubious authenticity of such music — often it was more style than substance, created and played ad hoc by street musicians — there were at least some authentic elements. One can only speculate what conclusions Brahms would have come to, or how his music might have been influenced by the findings and experiments of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, who scoured their native land in search of Hungary's indigenous folk music.

Brahms, perhaps as a means of holding on to his values and keeping to himself, was fond of composing in the countryside and produced his best works while on holiday. In 1890, he tried in vain to announce his retirement, but he couldn't resist the call of the muse. In his last years he composed, in addition to a number of brief but highly complex piano works, the A Minor Clarinet Trio, the B Minor Clarinet Quintet, and two clarinet sonatas. Evidently something of the melancholy sound of that instrument appealed to him in his waning years, as if it were an emblem of his mortality.

When Clara Schumann, the one person he loved more than anyone save his mother, died in May 1896, something of Brahms died, as well. Less than a year later, on April 2, 1897, Brahms, too, gave up the ghost. He was accorded military honors and laid to rest in Vienna's central cemetery next to Beethoven and Schubert.


The Four Symphonies

Though Brahms penned only four symphonies, his reputation as perhaps the greatest symphonist after Beethoven had already been established during his lifetime. Even so, the remarks of some of his staunchest advocates were known to jar him. Indeed, his friend Eduard Hanslick, a preeminent critic, embarrassed Brahms when he declared the Third Symphony to be the new "Eroica." The composer cringed just as much when the Second Symphony was likened, with dreary disregard, to Beethoven's "Pastoral."

Always the perfectionist, Brahms was not comfortable with anything he composed unless it met his rigorous standards. The number of sketches, incomplete pieces, and even completed manuscripts he threw on the logs could likely have filled the Library of Congress. Brahms was as merciless a critic of his own work as he could be of others'. His self-criticism led him to work at a pace, often slow, that befitted his temperament and maximized his creative juices. It sometimes took him years to complete a single work, or to recast it in another form more suitable to the material, or, alternatively, to restore a work already thus transformed to its original state. This tendency to rework his material was not due to any lack of confidence on his part but was rather a measure of his resourcefulness. It could even be construed as a particularly ingenious career strategy that allowed his abundant ideas time to mature.

There was, and perhaps still is, a long-held superstition among composers that anyone who lived to write nine symphonies, as Beethoven did, would not live to write another. After Beethoven's death in 1827, composers ran scared, preferring to consolidate their symphonic output into just a few major works. With that, the quest for the musically monumental had begun, though only a few would satisfy it with anything substantial. Berlioz and Schumann each penned massive symphonies, and on the cusp of the twentieth century, Mahler and Bruckner did the same.


Excerpted from Brahms by John Bell Young. Copyright © 2017 John Bell Young. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction xiii

Chapter 1 Johannes Brahms: An Overview 1

Chapter 2 The Four Symphonies 9

Chapter 3 The Piano Music 45

Chapter 4 Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 93

Chapter 5 Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 105

Chapter 6 Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Op. 45 113

Appendix: Intonatsiia, or the Art of Listening 129

Glossary 137

Selected Bibliography 145

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