My musical education (so vestigial as to barely be worthy of the name) somehow always skirted round or leapt over Brahms – straight from Beethoven to Wagner, without passing France, so to speak. And when I backtracked a bit to discover Lieder, Brahms again got overlooked in the excitement of Schubert and Schumann. I like the bits everyone likes – Academic Festival Overture, St Anthony Variations, German Requiem – and if I recognise something lush and symphonic but don’t know what it is, it usually turns out to be Brahms.
The BBC has kindly given me the opportunity this week to make up for my ignorance with Radio 3’s ‘Brahms Experience’ – though presenter Tom Service does his best to put me off by declaring that ‘We’re going behind the beard to the seething passions of the man it so expertly disguised’: this at a time when my toes had barely uncurled after ‘World Smile Day’ on Friday. Still, I thought a bit of background reading would be appropriate, so I turned to Hermann Deiters’s biography, published in Germany in 1880 and translated into English in 1888.
(The English version is worth a mention itself. It was translated by Rosa Newmarch (1857–1940), who later became better known for her pioneering writing on Russian music and musicians, and the text was edited with a preface and up-to-date list of Brahms’s works by John Fuller Maitland (1856–1936), whose 1884 life of Schumann we have reissued, along with his 1894 Masters of German Music, and who would later publish his own biographies of Brahms and of the violinist Joseph Joachim, close friend and colleague of Robert and Clara Schumann, into whose circle the young Brahms was introduced.)
Deiters first met Brahms in 1856, in Bonn, where the composer (his exact contemporary) was spending time in order to be close to the asylum where his friend and mentor Robert Schumann had been confined since his mental breakdown and attempted suicide in 1854. Deiters himself had studied classics and philology, taught by Welcker, Ritschl and Otto Jahn, another classicist with a keen interest in musicology. He would later pick up the baton of Alexander Thayer’s monumental life of Beethoven, publishing three volumes before his own death in 1907. (The work was concluded by musicologist Hugo Riemann (1849–1919), and the three-volume English translation, which we have reissued, was published in 1921.)
Meanwhile, the Schumanns, then living in Düsseldorf, had been visited on 30 September 1853 by ‘Herr Brahms, from Hamburg’, bearing an introduction from Joachim. Clara wrote in her diary: ‘This month introduced us to a wonderful person, Brahms, a composer from Hamburg – 20 years old. Here again is one of those who comes as if sent straight from God. He played us sonatas, scherzos, etc. of his own, all of them showing exuberant imagination, depth of feeling, and mastery of form. Robert says that there was nothing that he could tell him to take away or add.’
Born in Hamburg in 1833, Johannes Brahms began musical instruction with his father, a ‘town musician’ and therefore a versatile instrumentalist. He composed from an early age, but appears deliberately to have destroyed many of his early efforts. In the spring of 1853, he went on tour as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi, during which he met Liszt and Joachim. He managed to fall out with Reményi by not being sufficiently enthusiastic about a piece by Liszt (he allegedly fell asleep during the performance), and they parted company. This is (whether true or not) nicely symbolic of the subsequent relationship of the Schumann/Brahms and Liszt/Wagner camps…
Robert Schumann was determined to let the world know of this new musical phenomenon, but his enthusiastic article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which Deiters quotes extensively, may have done Brahms as much harm as good: it placed him firmly in the Schumann faction, and, as he himself realised, placed a huge burden of expectation upon him.
Deiters is anxious in his biographical sketch to emphasise that ‘The outward life of the artist has been a somewhat uneventful one.’ But in fact he travelled widely across Europe, performing as pianist in his own works and those of other composers. He took a post as director of the choir of the principality of Detmold-Lippe (which I had not heard of until last week, when it was mentioned in ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’, on BBC Radio 4, as the smallest of the pre-1871 German states to issue its own coinage).
He also lived at different times back in Hamburg, in Switzerland and in Vienna, as well as acting as guest conductor (often of the premieres of his own works) at different city and court orchestras all over Germany. He even made the one of the first recordings of music (certainly the first by a serious composer), playing one of the Hungarian dances for a representative of Edison. He may even be heard speaking on the recording, though this is disputed.
But perhaps what Deiters is anxious to do is to dissociate the home life of Brahms from the scandalous behaviour of his contemporaries Liszt and Wagner, and especially to emphasise that the deep, supportive relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann was a friendship of two dedicated performer/composers, and nothing more: of course, whether it ever was anything more has occupied the biographers of both since the end of the nineteenth century. Extracts of letters from the two to each other and to third parties, given in volume 2 of Litzmann’s life of Clara, show deep mutual affection and admiration, but an awful lot of the writing is music criticism, and Clara, by fourteen years the older, often refers to Brahms as being like a son to her.
Deiters’s musical analysis of the works composed up to 1879 takes up the bulk of the book. He sees two periods in Brahms’s output, divided by a time in the late 1850s where he published very little – a greater maturity of style and structure emerging from a period of intense theoretical study, resulting in ‘A remarkable increase of artistic power and conviction … To attain beauty of form and clearness expression is the fixed principle which henceforth governs his creations; and imagination [which characterised the early works] must bow down before it and give way to a sober and dignified moderation.’ So this week, I’ll see if I can identify the differences, and try fill in one of the many yawning gaps in my musical knowledge.