Johannes Brahms was a mysterious man who composed some of the world’s most passionate music, brought under strict control by a heavy adherence to conventional musical forms. For Brahms, music needed to always struggle for a higher level of perfection—experimentation outside of established rules, on the other hand, should always be kept to a minimum.
Brahms became, in essence, the gruff old father figure in Western classical music who felt that things were moving too fast for comfort (an ironically antithetical viewpoint to that held by his spiritual mentor Ludwig van Beethoven). He viewed the advent of program music and the haphazard harmonic and formal experimentation of his contemporaries as suspicious, if not dangerous to the progression of Western music (with German music being considered by Brahms and many others of the time to be the pinnacle of European musical art). Brahms felt that there was still much to learn from the advances in music made by composers during the first half of the 19th century, and the idea of such music being used as a tool for pandering to the public, instead of being carefully studied and applied intellectually, aggravated the conservative composer throughout his life.
(The elder Brahms.)
There is nothing “radical” about Brahms’ music in the sense that it pushes the boundaries of form and harmony like his contemporary and quasi-nemesis Richard Wagner. Brahms hoped to rein in many of the advances made earlier in the century by Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann so that they could be better understood and built upon incrementally. Wagner’s extremism, on the other hand, represented an antithesis of sorts to Brahms’ musical conservatism. Wagner often attacked the advances made by composers who came before him, particularly those made by Jewish composers due to his fabled anti-Semitism. Despite Wagner’s particularly hostile reputation among more conservative musical circles, under the careful sponsorship of his father-in-law Franz Liszt, he was still able to amass a legion of supporters of his highly unconventional musical and dramatic style.
While Wagner was indeed a musical genius, he held certain delusions about music, such as the supposed “fit of pique” wherein he wrote and published an article attacking the lasting musical influence of Jewish composers, such as (and with particular emphasis) Felix Mendelssohn, and Wagner’s long time supporter Giacomo Meyerbeer. This, and the composer’s lurid past as a left-wing revolutionary, made the thought of Wagner completely altering the course of German music particularly unsettling to Brahms.
When Brahms was 20, he and his friend, the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi, began touring Europe as performing musicians. By that time they had become regionally popular in the city of Hamburg and decided they could successfully tour Europe as young, up-and-coming artists.
(Reményi and Brahms.)
During this time Brahms and Reményi met with Liszt at the Court of Weimar. Brahms had always been a firm and devout skeptic, even in his youth, and he was no doubt skeptical of the great musical “charlatan” Franz Liszt. Legend has it that following Liszt’s curt play through of Brahms’ Scherzo, Op. 4 at the piano, Brahms fell asleep during a performance of the Sonata in B minor, which Liszt had only finished composing that year (he later attributed this faux pas to his exhausting travel schedule). Unlike Brahms, Reményi, particularly as a Hungarian compatriot of the elder composer, surely must have understood what he witnessed to be an awesome event in the history of music, and I am very much inclined to agree. However, Brahms had, most likely, already convinced himself that the creative output of Liszt and his bohemian ilk in Weimar was of little interest to him, and perhaps felt no desire to feign interest in Liszt’s highly unconventional sonata. In any event, the young Reményi took great offence to Brahms’ slumbering during Liszt’s performance and parted ways with him shortly thereafter—leaving Brahms to continue his tour of Europe alone.
Much of Brahms’ self-critical yet passionate nature stems from his association with Robert and Clara Schumann, and particularly from his unrequited love for the latter. Brahms made an unexpected visit to the Schumanns in 1853 with a letter of introduction from the violinist Joseph Joachim, whom he met during his concert tour with Reményi. What resulted from this visit was Robert Schumann’s sudden, and almost excessive public praise of Brahms as a musician and composer. The 20 year old Brahms was by no means ready for the expectations Schumann’s strong vocal support had set up for him as a musician. This inability to immediately live up to the expectations among those who valued Schumann’s judgment instilled a sense of unworthiness that would haunt Brahms for the rest of his career. Despite this troubling start to his associations with the Schumanns, Brahms developed a close friendship with Schumann and his family that would last for the rest of his life.
(Brahms in 1853.)
Following Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide and subsequent internment at a mental institution in 1855, Brahms became the de facto head of the Schumann household at the age of 22. It was during this time (if not before) that he developed a deep emotional connection with Schumann’s wife, Clara Wieck Schumann. It was also an extremely unproductive time in Brahms’ career, given his new responsibilities as a caretaker for Clara and her eight children, as well as a stand in for Robert’s personal business in his absence.
Incidentally, there are several Freudian analyses of this apparently platonic, though intensely passionate relationship (eg. Brahms’ deep rooted Oedipal complex, his childhood spent as a pianist for dance halls and brothels, etc.), but one thing remains clear: both Clara Schumann and Brahms’ bond became one of the most powerful forces in Western music at the time.
When Robert Schumann died in 1856, Brahms and Clara Schumann would spend the remaining years of their association writing music and promoting each other’s works throughout Europe. He would go on to dedicate one of his greatest compositions, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, to Clara, who then, in turn, premiered the work in Brahms’ home city of Hamburg. Together, they also did much to validate and later canonize the late Robert Schumann’s oeuvre.
(Young Clara Schumann with her children.)
Despite Brahms’ sincere respect for the late Schumann, there is no doubt that the composer had a truer spiritual connection with Beethoven—whom Brahms hoped to one day emulate if not succeed in terms of artistic genius within the medium of absolute music. This almost monotheistic dedication to the great German composer consistently put him at odds with Wagner and his followers, whom Brahms felt were taking German music in the wrong direction. However, the composer’s new-found resolve obtained during his relationship, professional and otherwise, with Clara Schumann, led to a peak period of popularity in Europe and beyond for Brahms during the 1860s and 1870s. This did much to diffuse the spread and influence of Wagner’s controversial methods. Moreover, towards the end of the 19th century, Wagner’s harmonic style became almost a cliché among the growing pantheon of nationalist composers gaining fame throughout the world.
Composers such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky in Russia and Antonín Dvořák in Bohemia were often criticized for their adherence to Wagner’s methods—as his influence on their music was often unmistakably obvious. Many, as a result, gave up their adherence to Wagner’s popular and evocative style, settling instead for the more time-tested methods of Brahms and other canonical German composers (including the great composers of their own respective national traditions).
(Brahms at the height of his popularity as a touring musician.)
Unlike Wagner, much of Brahms’ music is written for piano as a solo or collaborative instrument, and one gathers that most of his music, orchestral and otherwise, had their beginnings with Brahms at the instrument. Also, his music is very confined and dialectic—the Dionysian restrained by the Apollonian. This means that Brahms, while being an incredibly passionate man, preferred to contain it within tried and true absolute musical forms, such as the symphony, the concerto, the sonata, etc. Liszt and Wagner, on the other hand, saw music as only an aspect of a much larger dramatic form—where the former often set literature to music, and the latter preferred to compose larger-than-life dramatic musical displays in his quest to perfect the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art.” To Liszt and Wagner, music was a tool to amaze, inspire and entertain (often in the Dionysian sense). To Brahms, music was whole and absolute in itself—co-mingling it with other artistic mediums served only to lessen its value as an autonomous art-form.
Although much of his music fails to excite on the level of some of his contemporaries, Brahms’ works are a boon for music analysts and structuralists who who want to understand the classical form at the height of its mastery. To many, Brahms represents the climax of the first Viennese school of musical expression begun by Haydn and Mozart, molded by the genius of Beethoven, and brought to a close by Gustav Mahler in the 20th century. However, what Brahms may be best known for is his role as a musical politician, and his successful campaign to keep the radicalism of Richard Wagner and his followers from completely replacing several hundred years of musical tradition with their own significant, though flawed, advances in the medium.