Magazine article Musical Times

Brahms in Brief

Magazine article Musical Times

Brahms in Brief

Article excerpt

Brahms in brief ROBERT ANDERSON

Johannes Brahms: life and letters Selected and annotated by Styra Avins Translated by Josef Eisinger & Styra Avins

Oxford UP (Oxford, 1997);

xxviii, 858pp; L35. ISBN 019 816234 0.

Brahms would not have blessed this volume. When Liszt's La Mara wanted a Brahms letter in a collection of correspondence by musical celebrities, his position was clear: 'I never write other than reluctantly, hurriedly, and hastily'. He further pointed out `that no one could do me a worse turn than to have my letters printed.' On another occasion he summed up the matter: 'I don't write letters, I answer them', and Hermann Deiters, his first biographer, was given equally little encouragement in August 1880: 'I need hardly add that I dislike talking about myself, also dislike reading anything that concerns me personally'. Brahms had a case. His letters are without flair and often humdrum; sometimes he wrote unwisely, as in the manifesto against Liszt, or the lengthy letter to Amalie Joachim in which he so castigates Joachim's jealous imaginings about a supposed affair with Fritz Simrock that it was cited in evidence at the divorce proceedings. Occasionally Brahms is playfully vague or teasing; elsewhere his expression is so convoluted that needless misunderstandings inevitably arose.

The essential strength of the man is manifest throughout. It now seems that the middle-class schooling, the firm musical grounding by Cossel and Marxsen are of more formative importance than any exploitation of his gifts in Hamburg dives or brothels and any parental poverty. More significant between mother and father was the great age gap, with Johann Jakob 24 and Christiane 41 at their marriage. Though the relationship came shipwreck, and Clara Schumann would have nothing more to do with Johann Jakob, Brahms remained warmly in contact with both parents, aiding financially, and also supporting his widowed stepmother beyond the call of duty. Neither Brahms nor his brother Fritz wedded, and domestic rows at home were a possible factor in keeping them bachelors. As early as October 1859 Brahms writes from Detmold: 'I am in love with music, I love music, I think of nothing but, and of other things only when they make music more beautiful for me'. With the final settling in Vienna (1871), life and art were a unit.

Brahms the composer reveals little. A letter of 1858 to Clara Schumann makes the point: `Never be surprised, dear Clara, that I do not write about my work. I do not like to and cannot'. Yet musical advice is constantly sought from Joachim, notably as op.l5 turns from two-piano sonata to symphony to piano concerto, over the Violin Concerto, and in a much-desired exchange of contrapuntal exercises. Occasionally the silence is broken with other correspondents, as when Vincent Lachner queried the veiled menace of timpani and trombones near the start of Symphony no.2 and Brahms confessed: `that I am a deeply melancholy person, that black pinions constantly rustle over us' and that the succeeding work, the op.74 motets, `throws the necessary sharp shadows across the lighthearted symphony'. Quoting the 'Goldberg' Variations and Beethoven, Brahms declares his own attitude: `in a theme for variations, almost the only thing that actually has meaning for me is the bass'. Bernard Shaw commented caustically on that moment in the Requiem when `Brahms sets a pedal pipe booming and a drum thumping the dominant of the key for ten minutes at a stretch'; Brahms had already made his own aside when discussing an appropriate fee for the work, offering to discount `the boots I wore out walking in Winterthur and Baden trying to find the notorious pedal-point'. So little had been made of Christian redemption in the Requiem that Amalie Joachim had to sing 'I know that my Redeemer liveth' in the middle to pacify the clergy. Brahms later felt it wise to consult a solicitor over the apparently agnostic though biblical texts of the Four serious songs. …

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