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.