The Other Voice of Johannes Brahms

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Other Voice of Johannes Brahms, performed on Nov 30, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

As the centennial year marking the death of Johannes Brahms comes to a close, it is to be hoped that our appreciation for the remarkable range of Brahms’s character and music has deepened, as well as our understanding of his complex and changing role in the history of Western music. During his own lifetime, Brahms was maneuvered into a position as the antipode of Wagner, when in fact Brahms was among Wagner’s most earnest admirers. He was profoundly impressed by Wagner’s genius and craft. Indeed, Richard Heuberger, composer, critic, and disciple of Brahms, reported that Brahms held two works of dramatic music in particular regard: Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Brahms’s objection to Wagner was more directed at the cult, the personality, and the man, than at the composer. Two works on this afternoon’s program, Rinaldo and Triumphlied, hint at Brahms’s awareness of Wagner’s musical influence. However, Brahms’s admiration for Wagner’s dramatic music did not stop him from being cast as the arch-conservative and the proponent of so-called “absolute” music.

Before World War II, Arnold Schoenberg wrote a seminal essay entitled “Brahms the Progressive,” which inspired a new direction of interest in Brahms. He was heralded as the prophet of modernism and given credit for extending the techniques of classical style–particularly in the transformation and elaboration of thematic material–in ways which served as models for the innovative strategies of the Second Viennese School. The Wagnerian path, in which music was subordinated to a narrative framework and where repetition thinly camouflaged by the magic of extended harmonies led to a musical aesthetic of lavish neo-Romanticism, was unfavorably contrasted to the economy, density, and essential integrity of Brahms’s music.

More recently, a third image of Brahms has come into being. Modern scholars see Brahms as mirroring the deepest paradoxes of the nineteenth century. In many ways, Brahms was terrifyingly conscious of the weight of history. In him we may see an artist who responded with intense self-doubt to the facile claims of progress that marked nineteenth-century politics and historical theory. If Reinhold Brinkmann, writing in the 1990s, has linked Brahms to the idea of melancholy, the German critic and pedagogue Louis Ehlert made precisely the same point in 1880. It is one of Brahms’s singular achievements that his music can seem to satisfy those content with sentimentality as well as those in search of a Mahler-like recognition of the bittersweet and ironic. Our contemporary image of Brahms is of the philosophical musician, in whose works we hear, as the composer Mauricio Kagel once noted, the spirit of the Tragic Overture and the Academic Festival Overture simultaneously. Affirmation and doubt stand side by side in a way that is singularly compelling to a modern sensibility in which faith and sincerity seem extinct.

All of these images of Brahms contain some, but not all, of the truth; they demonstrated how resistant he has been historically to definitive assessments. Today’s program therefore seeks to complicate his legacy further by considering yet another aspect of Brahms’s life and achievement. Of all nineteenth-century European composers, Brahms was perhaps the most intensely curious and well-read. For all of Wagner’s penchant for writing prose works and delivering himself of opinions in writing, a cursory glance at the library of Brahms inspires awe and wonder. He once boasted as a young man that he spend all his money on books. The worlds of literature, philosophy, and art history were dear to him. In Brahms the composer, therefore, one always encounters Brahms the reader, and while few of his works carry an overt program, it is rewarding to consider what Brahms was thinking about in matters literary and philosophical when he wrote music. If indeed the two towering figures in late nineteenth-century music were Brahms and Wagner, perhaps the greatest contrast lies in Brahms’s personal integrity, his resistance to anti-Semitism, his determined association with progressive voices in his own time, particularly in Vienna, as opposed to the dishonest, spiteful, and racist fulmination of Wagner the poseur, that object of Nietzsche’s vitriolic reassessment.

Of Brahms’s often performed music, the most familiar is his chamber music, where intimacy, subtlety, and spiritual complexity are perhaps most appropriately expressed. The symphonies and concertos which are part of the standard repertory have been properly judged as works of chamber music writ large. Their scale emerges as the outgrowth of smaller constituent elements and gestures. There is very little in Brahms that is overtly theatrical, grandiose, or pretentious. Even the allure of Ein deutsches Requiem, for example, rests in Brahms’s ability to transform the evident monumentality of the sound into an intimate experiences for each listener. The works on this afternoon’s program are no different in this sense, but they have not shared the same popularity or favor as the composer’s other works.

But the rarity of these works in no way reflects upon their artistic value. Brahms’s acute self-criticism led him to destroy a great deal of unpublished music about six years before his death. Unlike other major figures in the history of music, there is probably no second-rate Brahms; in fact one suspects that Brahms was perhaps too rash. It is therefore not entirely accurate to identify these works as “lesser” Brahms, despite their relative obscurity in his canon. All three works date from the late 1860s, after Brahms permanently moved to Vienna. Although he lived in the city for over thirty years, he never identified himself with Vienna the way its native-born citizens did. He remained an outsider, a north German and a Protestant who was viewed with suspicion by many Viennese intellectuals, politicians, and musicians. He enjoyed the popular music of the city and he developed a close friendship with Johann Strauss the younger, whose music Brahms loved and admired. (There is a famous anecdote about Brahms’s writing out on a fan the opening notes to the “Blue Danube” Waltz with the phrase, “Alas, not by Brahms”.) Brahms’s alienation was further defined by political events. The Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War and the creation of a German empire, for example, was not an entirely welcome event in the Habsburg Empire, since Austria had been defeated in 1866 by the Prussians. Yet Brahms was delighted, as Frank Wedekind (a devoted admirer and author of Lulu) later immortalized in a 1909 play. Furthermore, in an age of burgeoning nationalism, sections of the German-speaking population of the multi-national Habsburg Empire began to dream of breaking away and becoming part of an All-German empire under Prussian leadership. From 1870 on, the political climate in which Brahms lived and worked in Vienna became increasingly divisive and strident.

The Song of Triumph is less known not because of its failings as a work of music, but because of its synthesis of political and religious sentiments. In the wake of two world wars, it is understandable that an unabashed celebration of a militarily powerful and unified Germany as a act associated with a Protestant theology would fall on unsympathetic ears in the English-speaking world. Likewise, Rinaldo is a text twice removed from the consciousness of audiences in America and England. Tasso’s and Ariosto’s epic romances have not been widely read in America or England since the eighteenth century and Goethe’s reworking has had no place in his English-language canon, insofar as there is one beyond Faust. Furthermore, the sound of Rinaldo–the reliance on male choir and solo tenor–has associations with the male choral societies of nineteenth-century Europe and America, a forgotten tradition closely related to German musical culture. At the beginning of this century the German-speaking men’s choral association in Buffalo proudly held the same toot as the prestigious Vienna men’s choral society: “Free and loyal in song and deed.” The Liebeslieder Walzer are of course among the most well-known of Brahms’s works, but are rarely performed in this arrangement by the composer. The orchestration of the waltzes is a fine example of how Brahms can easily retain the integrity of the scale of the waltzes while making elegant use of the wide range of sound available in a full orchestra.

The reception of works of music should not remain frozen in history; it takes time to vindicate works of music, to allow neglected masterpieces to emerge from the weight of historically contingent prejudices. The failure of Triumphlied and Rinaldo to become as well known and popular as they deserve can be largely attributed to matters of politics. The fin de siécle generation already in Brahms’s lifetime–not to speak of the generation that came of age at the turn of the century–found what they regarded to be the ideology of these works to be either foreign or unattractive. Additionally, a work like Rinaldo, Brahms’s closest effort at operation and dramatic music, complicates the neat polarity between Brahmsian absolute music and Wagnerian programmatic music. The anomaly of Rinaldo as well as the politics of the Triumphlied made these works increasingly obscure as the twentieth century wore on. But as the century finally draws to a close and we enter a second hundred years of engagement with the music of Brahms, these two neglected major works ought to take their rightful place. We may now take the opportunity to discover the power and beauty of these works, if only to enhance further our picture of this great musician and thinker to whom so many concerts have been dedicated in 1997.