When one attempts this kind of discussion of Brahms's music, there inevitably comes to mind the story of Brahms and the unfortunate musical dilettante. It is said that one evening, following a musical soiree at which Brahms had performed his early C-Major piano sonata, an enthusiastic fan accosted the master not only to express his admiration for the work but also to inform Brahms of the musical "discovery" he had made while listening; to wit, a thematic resemblance between this work and the Beethoven "Waldstein" sonata. Brahms turned to him and replied in his most ironic Plattdeutsch, "Das bemerkt ja schon jeder Esel!" ("Of course every jack-ass notices this!'') The moral of the story is that it is both too easy and too difficult for a careless listener to define the relationship between Brahms and the German musical past.
But we might also say that it is "too necessary" to make such an inquiry; for here was a composer, born a generation after Wagner and Liszt, who willfully rejected the musical mores of his time only to revert to earlier styles and forms. The years 1876-1881, for instance, witnessed the completion of Brahms's first and second symphonies, violin concerto, and second piano concerto--works among the most expansive and personal that he ever composed--yet, as commentators since have agreed, works which hark back to earlier composers, especially Beethoven. As a matter of fact, the last "German" symphony composed before Brahms's first in 1876 was Schumann's "Rhenish" in 1850. What made Brahms return to the past? No one can say. We can, however, describe his affinity for the music of the past, which influenced his creative genius and made him perhaps the most individualistic of the romantics.
To grasp this individualism clearly, one must have some idea of the prevalent trends in the philosophy of art and society in Brahms's day. With the death of Beethoven in 1827, German music's pole-star was extinguished. The succeeding musical generation found itself dividing into two basic factions: those like Schumann who tried to use and develop the forms used by Beethoven and who composed mainly instrumental, "absolute" music; and those like Wagner and Liszt who believed the old forms to be exhausted and who sought to create the "artwork of the future." Wagner, in his musical dramas as well as his writings, promoted the Gesamtkunstwerk, a concept which merged the various forms of artistic expression, each form of which would serve and, in turn, be served by another art form. (Subsuming all art, however, was to be the will of the creator, which, thus originally conceived as extrinsic to the work of art, would ultimately "be expressed" in each creation.) Musical cosmopolitans such as Liszt and Berlioz would often adopt foreign texts as programs to a concert work. Wagner's extra-musical ideas had wide appeal in his time and even influenced the work of non-musicians including the French symbolist poets and Nietzsche.
When Brahms came on the scene one generation later, he proved himself and his music to be exactly opposite to those of Liszt and company. Having grown up in humble circumstances he lacked the humanistic education and world-outlook of more privileged young people. He never learned to speak a foreign language, never travelled from the continent and, except for one spring in Italy, barely left countries where German was spoken. From his earliest musical studies in Hamburg he showed his reverence for the German musical tradition. Brahms would ultimately know and own all theoretical works from Fux, Forkel, and Mattheson to those of his own day, as well as many valuable manuscripts, first editions, and composers' complete works. As a mature and respected composer he was to undertake the painstaking task of editing the works of others, including Friedemann and Philipp Emanuel Bach, Handel, Couperin, Mozart, Schubert, and Schumann.
Brahms's debut as a pianist on September 21, 1848, was largely a failure. The program comprised various singers and instrumentalists (we must recall that the solo piano recital was Liszt's invention), performing long-forgotten works such as Rosenhain's Piano Concerto in A, Artot's Violin Variations, a clarinet piece by Herzog, etc. Then at the end of the concert Brahms completely ignored romantic conventions and played a Bach fugue, which shocked his listeners and resulted in bad reviews of the concert. His second recital several weeks later which featured Beethoven's "Waldstein" sonata was also poorly received.
Yet it would be wrong to infer that by the time of the mid-nineteenth century the "absolute" music of Beethoven and Schumann had been shelved, and Liszt and Wagner, uncontested, ruled supreme. Read what the most influential music critic of the day, the Viennese Eduard Hanslick, had to say about Liszt's symphonic poems in 1857: "The main prerequisite [of musical composition] is that music be based on its own laws and remain specifically musical, thus making, even without a programme, a clear, independent impression ... But to assume this relative position to be absolute, and to offer Liszt's symphonies as musical artistic creations, as masterpieces, or as the starting point of a rejuvenation of music, is only possible if we first abandon once and for all every previous conception of purely instrumental music and every remembrance of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn." Brahms, who had dared to snub Liszt in 1853 after his introduction by Joachim at the Altenburg, was to come to represent to Hanslick, as well as to Schumann, the hope of German music.
Brahms wished posterity to know little of his creative process. He intentionally destroyed virtually all his sketches for works in progress and, except for the most glancing references in his letters, wrote nothing about his music. Fortunately for posterity, however, his genius was recognized early--and not in the too-distant past--and the puzzles which so often haunt the musical editor in establishing a sound text are comparatively absent or at least soluble in Brahms's case. We do know that he would change his mind after the completion of a work, and would sometimes add or omit a movement, or even alter the form of the work altogether. The history of his piano concerti will make this clear.
Since Brahms felt responsible for continuing the noble tradition of German music, he was early compelled to compose symphonies, as his precursors Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann had done. His first serious essay in this direction was during 1854, when he had just completed three movements of a sonata in d minor for two pianos. He wrote to Joachim, "I wish I could play the first three movements with Frau Schumann. ([They sound] Improved.) [But] Actually not even two pianos are enough for me." Therefore he decided to expand the instrumentation and thus to begin his first symphony. In 1855 he wrote to Schumann, "Last summer I tried my hand at a symphony, and even finished orchestrating the first movement, as well as composing the second and third." Yet Brahms's "real" first symphony (his c minor symphony, which Bulow dubbed "the tenth," after Beethoven) would have to wait until 1876, for he revised the d minor work a second time, adding a new second movement and a piano soloist to create his First Piano Concerto in d minor, Op. 15 (1861). The work is immature Brahms, full of Beethoven sonorities and Sturm und Drang conflicts that were to be expected of every young composer at this time. The thematic exclusiveness of the piano part no doubt finds its origin in the work's original conception a two-piano piece, when the composer would have wished to bring the individual instruments into as much relief as possible, but Karl Geiringer's hypothesis is also enticing: "It is an interesting fact that Brahms repeatedly entrusted to the piano in the first movement ideas that are only remotely, if at all, connected with the thematic material of the orchestral part. This is somewhat reminiscent of the 'Vivaldi Concerto-form,' often employed by J.S. Bach wherein the solo instrument and the orchestra elaborate different subjects. This may be more than a coincidence, as Brahms at that time was devoting himself to the study of Bach's works."
The Second Piano Concerto in B-flat major, Op. 83 (1881) contains some strange contradictions. Using exactly Beethoven's orchestra with two additional horns (Das Rheingold and the Symphonie Fantastique might as well have never been composed), Brahms produced a work that was at once a summary of the post-Beethoven style, yet also his most personal statement. The concerto was worked out in Brahms's mature vein: his use of chromaticism, modulation, etc.--and yet there are reminiscences throughout of music from a much earlier time; e.g., the quasi-Baroque harpegement in the third movement (Bar 59 et seq.), and even a hint of the aflcient church modes in the second (Bar 43 et seq.) And to top it all off, this concerto has remained the longest and among the most difficult in the standard repertory, despite the modest role of accompanist that the pianist must often assume.
The work was begun in 1878, but set aside during the composition of the violin concerto, and completed in the summer of 1881. Brahms resented his piano concerti being referred to as "symphonies with piano," but to this day the despised title seems to fit as a description of the second. The added scherzo--having been evicted by Joachim from the violin concerto--militates strongly for a "symphonic" reception of the now four-movement work.
The composer, demanding full utilization of the piano's sonority and the soloist's endurance, wrote endless passages in octaves, thirds, and sixths; and when he first played over the work for his "victims" (as he'd designated them) Hanslick and Billroth, even called it his "long terror." His "victims," however, were encouraging and in October, 1881, Brahms presented the work to his lately acquired champion Hans von Bulow, with whom he performed it the following month to great acclaim. Seated in the audience was his former rival, the seventy-year old Franz Liszt, who subsequently requested that a copy of the work be sent to him. By the time Brahms received the following letter from the greatest pianist who ever lived, no doubt both men had long since forgotten their contest to create "the music of the future.''
"Honored Master, I beg you to forgive my delay in thanking you for so kindly sending me your Concerto. Frankly speaking, at the first reading this work seemed to me a little grey in tone; I have, however, gradually come to understand it. It possesses the pregnant character of a distinguished work of art, in. which thought and feeling move in noble harmony. With sincerest esteem, most devotedly, F. Liszt."
Timothy Robinson is a freelance writer who frequently writes about music.