Admiration and Emulation: The Friendship of Brahms and Dvorák

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Admiration and Emulation: The Friendship of Brahms and Dvorák, performed on May 14, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The American Symphony Orchestra has thought to contribute to the centenary of Johannes Brahms’s death by highlighting two unusual but significant dimensions of Brahms’s work and life. In this concert, we focus on Brahms’s friendship with Antonin Dvorák, a relationship that is quite unparalleled in music history. Next fall, we will explore some of Brahms’s works for chorus and Orchestra which are not often performed and deserve representation in this centenary celebration as a means of deepening our appreciation of the many sides of his complex genius.

Conventionally, music history has characterized Brahms as a conservative force at the end of a tradition, rather than as the herald of a new era. That distinction is usually reserved for his presumed arch-rival, Richard Wagner. We sometimes forget, however, that Brahms held Wagner in the highest esteem, and among his extensive collection of manuscripts, he sincerely treasured the works of Wagner. Nevertheless, it is true that Brahms lamented Wagner’s influence on a younger generation. Brahms’s conservative image was also reinforced by the fact that he often did not have a generous opinion of the work of his contemporaries, He had no pupils in the formal sense, though he sat on the board of Directors of the Conservatory of Vienna by holding a lifelong trusteeship at the Society of the Friends of Music. In 1875, he relinquished his post as conductor of the Society’s concerts.

Though surrounded later in life by a younger generation of admirers, Brahms was not noted for his encouraging manner. Quite to the contrary, the composers Hugo Wolf and Hans Rott developed psychotic obsessions with Brahms’s lack of appreciation for the aesthetic ambitions of the younger generation. Before he was institutionalized, Rott experienced a paranoid fear that Brahms had placed a bomb under his carriage. Wolf’s criticisms of Brahms during the 1880s make any subsequent example of critical vitriol seem pale. Gustav Mahler, also of Wolf’s generation, was somewhat more appreciative, since he was indebted to Brahms for having indirectly helped Mahler get his appointment at the Vienna Opera. Brahms had seen the young conductor in Budapest and was impressed with his talent, though he might have been less enthusiastic had he an inkling of Mahler’s compositional aspirations. Mahler considered Brahms a conservative master, whose allegiances were turned backwards in time rather than toward the future. There is also a famous anecdote concerning Brahms’s visit to a friend who was a composer of minor note. Brahms arrived to find the man playing outside with his children. His wife apologized for the host’s absence, explaining that her husband composed so much that he rarely found the time to break from his work – to which Brahms replied, “Thank God, it should happen more often.”

In Vienna, the circle of Brahms’s followers were pitted against the coterie surrounding Anton Bruckner, a circumstance which further lent to the perception of Brahms as a conservative force. But the Brahms circle was actually progressive and cosmopolitan. Brahms himself was a far-sighted individual, proudly self-educated, with a deep interest in literature and art as well as the history of music. And he was an intensely loyal friend. In exploring Brahms’s influence on and support of one composer of the younger generation — Dvorák found another avenue toward understanding Brahms not as the end of an era, but as the beginning of a new one.

In 1874, Brahms reluctantly sat on the jury of the Austrian State Stipendium with the critic Eduard Hanslick and the Director of the Imperial Opera, Johann Herbeck. The jury was to award financial support to talented composers in need within the Habsburg Empire. Brahms encountered a massive submission from an obscure Czech composer: fifteen works including two symphonies, several overtures and a song cycle (Op. 7). Brahms was visibly overcome by the mastery and talent of this unknown individual. As a result of Brahms’s support, Antonin Dvorák received the stipend (and twice more in 1876 and 1877). In 1877, Brahms arranged for Dvorák’s work to be given to Brahms’s own publisher, Simrock. Simrock not only accepted Dvorák’s Moravian Duets, Op. 20, but commissioned what was to become one of Dvorák’s most enduringly popular works, the Slavonic Dances, Op. 46.

It was also through Brahms’s intervention that the critic Louis Ehlert came to write his famous critical essay in 1880, which brought the international breakthrough in Dvorák’s career for which the dispirited composer had been waiting. Throughout Europe, German musical criticism and the German music industry dominated, and recognition by the German-speaking community was indispensable for any aspiring composer in both central and eastern Europe. Dvorák’s prior success in Prague constituted at best a provincial achievement; he needed to be accepted internationally – and that is precisely what the acknowledgment of Brahms provided. As Hanslick wrote to Dvorák in an 1877 letter discussing Brahms’s enthusiasm, “it would be advantageous for your things to become known beyond your narrow Czech fatherland, which in any case does not do much for you.” For Brahms, Dvorák’s Czech “otherness” was no more exotic than the Hungarian elements in his own music. What impressed Brahms about Dvorák was the seemingly unlimited inventiveness of Dvorák’s melodic materials, his uncanny sense of time and duration, and the dazzling sense of musical line that the younger composer achieved. Brahms considered string quartets to be one of the most difficult forms of composition; he did not think well of his own efforts in this area. Though he criticized Dvorák s as well, Dvorák was unique in Brahms’s view for having produced worthy contributions to the genre. Brahms’s enthusiasm for Dvorák was rooted in his recognition that Dvorák was a composer of such tremendous capacity that he possessed more than the ability to write novel tunes; Dvorák could in fact write extended musical essays of the quality to which Brahms himself aspired – modern incarnations of classical models.

Dvorák never forgot that he owed his dramatic international rise to Brahms’s interest. From the mid-1870s on, Brahms and Dvorák were in regular contact with each other, the older composer constantly offering advice and support. During Dvorák’s sojourn in America, Brahms took the remarkable step of serving as copy editor and proofreader for Dvorák’s submissions to Simrock in order to facilitate their timely publication. Even Haydn’s admiration of Mozart did not reach such an active level of involvement. Brahms even offered to leave his entire estate to Dvorák if he would move to Vienna, an offer Dvorák ultimately refused. Brahms was once quoted as saying that any composer would be honored to have the ideas that Dvorák discarded.

The capacity in Dvorák, recognized immediately by Brahms, to transcend the provincial or partisan is evident in Dvorák’s mature success in balancing the Wagnerian and Brahmsian influences in his work. His late works–the tone poems that were written after his return from America and after Brahms’s death–reveal a Wagnerian and Lisztian influence. But during the 1880s, when the Sixth Symphony was written and first performed, the neoclassicism represented by Brahms was for both aesthetic and biographical reasons in the forefront. Dvorák’s Sixth pays homage to Brahms and to Beethoven, particularly the latter’s Eroica. At the same time, however, it is unmistakably Dvorák. Here, Dvorák uses the Brahmsian example to surmount his status as an exotic, Czech folk-composer without forcing him to abandon his overt affection and debt to his musical heritage. What is perhaps most striking about this symphony is its explicit foray into large – scale symphonic form. Dvorák, like many other composers from the so-called European periphery (even Tchaikovsky), has been subject to the academic and often Germanocentric criticism of weakness with respect to their use of formal procedures in symphonic music. There seems to be something sentimental, formless, and purely lyrical in their use of techniques of musical elaboration, as opposed to the organic and dramatic way in which many composers have been seen as adapting symphonic form – the use of development, recapitulation, the coda, and, above all, patterns for the final movement. In his Sixth Symphony, Dvorák undertook to assume his place as master of the grand symphonic essay (much as he had in his First Symphony–the C Minor–which was only discovered in the twentieth century), by placing considerable weight in the finale.

Brahms’s Second Symphony one enters a somewhat different world. Like Dvorák, Brahms works explicitly within the context of Beethoven, and, to a lesser extent, Schumann and Schubert. As Reinhold Brinkmann makes apparent, Brahms’s Second Symphony also refers to his own Symphony No. 1 in C Minor. In Brahms’s Second, the gravity of the structure has often been understood to rest with the opening two movements; in Dvorák’s Sixth, one senses an attempt to find a way to balance the traditional emphasis on the first movement with the continuation of the post-Beethoven experiment of shifting the weight to the finale. Brahms, however, creates a finale with a more compact, condensed profile, thereby leaving the weight of the first movement undisturbed.

In this concert, we reverse chronology by performing Dvorák’s symphony first, because it gives more room to the listener to make his or her own judgment on the matter of influence. Brahms’s symphony is much better known and legitimately acknowledged as a masterpiece. Dvorák clearly uses Brahms’s symphony in the same key as a model, but by no means should Dvorák’s be seen as mere aftermath. Listen, then, to the Sixth Symphony in its own right, and then remember its answer to the great achievement of Brahms. Furthermore, since both composers refer consciously back to Beethoven, let us allow Dvorák to initiate that dialogue first. It remains to the listener to discover the many interactions between Dvorák, Brahms, and Beethoven.

The central purpose of this concert is not only to celebrate the remarkable relationship between two great composers, but to remind us that the cantankerous Brahms was also a generous and devoted friend and mentor, and a dynamic visionary. Brahms managed to bring new life to forms which Wagner insisted were dead: the piano sonata, the string quartet, the song, and the symphony. Brahms’s example and achievement became an inspiration not only to composers in Germany, but throughout Europe and America, regarding the adaptability of classical and early Romantic traditions of music writing. In the twentieth century, Arnold Schoenberg reinvented Brahms as the father of modernism and of a progressive approach to musical composition. This radical revision of Brahms’s historical role has found many defenders. The “artwork of the future” need not turn out to be the music drama and tone poem exclusively. Brahms’s influence on Dvorák is comparable to Brahms’s influence on a wide array of turn-of-the-century composers, including Schoenberg, who saw the Wagnerian example as more daunting and less encouraging than the inspired achievement of Brahms, who, in his own time, despite staggering success and world-wide renown, suffered the misfortune of being branded a reactionary. The potential of the traditional to nurture the possibilities of the new finds ample testimony in what Dvorák learned from Brahms.

Symphony No. 2, Op. 73 (1877)

By Reinhold Brinkmann, Harvard University

Written for the concert Admiration and Emulation: The Friendship of Brahms and Dvorák, performed on May 14, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The four symphonies of Brahms are to be placed in pairs, both chronologically and contextually. Regarding the mutual relationship of the first two, Philipp Spitta remarked as long ago as 1892: “The first two symphonies form the imaginative contrast that is often noticeable in Brahms and must be regarded as a pair that has sprung from the self-same, deeply hidden root.” Recent studies have suggested that the First Symphony (finished 1876) marks the point where, after working from a careful plan over several decades, Brahms finally achieved and demonstrated a liberating self-detachment from his overly powerful symphonic inheritance-that is, the Beethoven tradition. By reinterpreting, by emphatically “misreading” (Harold Bloom) the Beethovenian symphonic “plot,” and with the Alpine horn melody and the choral-like hymn, that is, with nature and religion instead of history as the triumphant goals of his First Symphony, Brahms was clearing and paving the way for his own symphonic idiom. Thus, the Second Symphony (composed in 1877), after the First’s act of liberation, begins at the point where the latter ended-with the undisguised nature-metaphor in the horns and winds, and its pastoral “tone”: manifestly a world without conflicts, it seems.

But the natural note at the beginning of Brahms’s Second has only the semblance of spontaneity. The main theme of the first movement, with its 3/4 time, the triadic arpeggiation as well as the rhythm, clearly recalls the main theme of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony: even the nature-metaphor is determined reflectively; there is , in Brahms, no naive immediacy that has escaped from the idea and obligation of history. The two superimposed components of the thematic configuration itself-the horn/wind theme and the bass drone with its one-measure motive-form a hypermetrical conflict, their simultaneity is in metrical disagreement. A few measures later comes the extraordinary moment of the dissonant trombone chords, an extreme darkening and standstill within the symphony’s opening, casting a long shadow ahead over the entire movement; later there is the elegiac second theme in minor, there are the harmonic and metrical tensions of the development section, and finally, there is the ambiguous ending of the movement with its superimposition of the sub- dominant C minor and the dominant D major chords. In an important letter on the Second Symphony, Brahms himself referred to the state of melancholy as a signature of this music.

The second movement, a demanding, expansive Adagio with a grand cantilena, adheres to this expressive state. But then comes a particularly light, uncomplicated, and relatively short third movement (most beloved by the general public and repeated immediately upon the audience’s request at the symphony’s premiere). And finally, there is the closing movement, not a “Finale” in the emphatically symphonic meaning of the late nineteenth century, but more a Haydnesque type of Kehraus, a joyful “last dance.” Thus, the entire symphony is clearly divided into two polar “halves” of quite different expressive qualities: two “melancholic” movements are followed by two “serene” ones. And the question is whether the latter are able to counterbalance the former, whether they can convincingly transform the melancholic state of mind into a serene view of the world. At least quantitatively there is no balance: the first two movements take about 30 minutes as opposed to the 13 minutes of the last two (times measured at the 1877 premiere). For this author there is also an aesthetic discrepancy. In his understanding of art and his experience of music, the third and the fourth movements are too “lightweight” after the profundities of the first two. Quantitatively as well as qualitatively, the Second Symphony seems curiously “top-heavy.” But this question as well as the proposed answer are handed over to the ear and mind of tonight’s musicians and their audience.

Symphony No. 6, Op. 60 (1880)

By Anton Dvorák

Written for the concert Admiration and Emulation: The Friendship of Brahms and Dvorák, performed on May 14, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The similarities between the Brahms Second and Dvorák Sixth are striking. Both symphonies are in the key of D major. Brahms marked his movements Allegro non troppo, Adagio non troppo, Allegretto Grazioso, and Allegro con spirito. Dvorák followed with Allegro non tanto, Adagio, Presto, and Allegro con spirito. (These designations for the first and last movements are nowhere else found in Dvorák’s symphonic output). Both first movements, in triple meter, begin with a sequential move to E minor, and the last movements, which both feature note against note counterpoint in rather strict quarter notes, employ similar harmonic patterns. There can be no doubt about Dvorák’s debt to the older composer, reminding us that he was an inveterate modeler, borrowing liberally from Wagner, Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven, and Smetana, just to mention a few. In this case, though, with similar key choice, harmonic gestures, and movement titles, it is unlikely that Dvorák wished to conceal the connection, indeed, it seems more like an hommagia á Brahms than a plagiarism de Brahms.

It is not surprising that the movement which is “different” from Brahms is the third — Dvorák was not to steal from Brahms’s Allegretto Grazioso until he composed his Symphony No. 8. The rather conspicuous Scherzo of the Sixth is marked Furiant, giving the symphony somewhat of a self-proclaimed “Czech” tone. Thus it might be fitting, but ultimately wrong, to assert that with this gesture, Dvorák willingly proclaimed himself the Czech Brahms. Fitting because of the similarities mentioned above; wrong because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that what Dvorák really wanted to be was the Czech Wagner.

At the very least, there was a kind of conflict Dvorák became infatuated with Wagner in the early 1860s while playing viola in the orchestra of the Provisional Theater. In the 1870s and early 1880s, Brahms became first a stern but admiring mentor and gradually a friend. But despite the assertions of most of Dvorák’s biographers, he never “recovered” from his reverence for Wagner, and showed this by renouncing the idea of “absolute music” in the last years of his life, turning to tone poems and operas. The timing of this shift coincided rather oddly with the death of Brahms.

Perhaps this struggle can be heard a bit in the Sixth Symphony, despite its strong, Brahmsian tinge. The second statement of the main theme, with its overpowering punctuation by the full brasses recalls Dvorák’s favorite piece, the Tannhäuser Overture, while the Scherzo, with its Bacchanalian gusto, is more Nibelungs and Walküres than anything from the world of Brahms. In his excellent book on Brahms’s Second, Late Idyll, Reinhold Brinkmann refers to the Dvorák symphony as a work which “clearly follows in Brahms’s footsteps, but more brightly, almost unproblematically.” Yet, when we listen to the painted outburst in the middle of Dvorák’s Adagio, or the syncopated climaxes of the magnificent outer movement codas, we cannot agree with the assessment. Just as Brinkmann finds hidden melancholy penetrating Brahms’s idyll, adding greatly to the depth of his symphony, so we may hear in the Sixth something profound in Dvorák’s desire to be both Brahms and Wagner at the same time.