Commentary Magazine

Brahms the Radical

In music, the past begins with Johannes Brahms. Hailed in his lifetime as “the third B,” a peer of Bach and Beethoven, he was the last figure to enter the canon of indisputably major 19th-century composers; today, he is the most frequently played classical composer after Beethoven, and his popularity is rooted in what is now seen as a conservative musical style. The other late romantics—Strauss, Mahler, Puccini, even Rachmaninoff—were variously beset by the doubts and ambiguities of modernity. Not so Brahms, who unhesitatingly accepted the continuing validity of the Austro-German musical tradition of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Yet Brahms is far closer to us in time than, say, Mendelssohn or Schumann. He lived long enough to hear ragtime, to have electric lights installed in his Vienna apartment, and to leave behind a brief but tantalizing record of his piano-playing.1 By the same token, his “conservatism” was much more subtle than is commonly understood. He has, for example, been caricatured as the sworn enemy of the stylistic innovations of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, and there is no small amount of truth to the charge. Yet he was twenty years younger than those composers—an obvious fact that tends to be overlooked—and his music was initially seen by 19th-century critics not as quaintly old-fashioned but as a radical departure from the prevailing norms.

Though the notion of Brahms as a radical is difficult for modern listeners to grasp, it made perfect sense to his contemporaries. To the end of his life, even his most enthusiastic advocates were baffled by the seemingly impenetrable complexities of then-new pieces, including the First and Fourth Symphonies, that have long since become staples of the standard repertoire. In the 1890’s, as Jan Swafford writes in his new Johannes Brahms: A Biography,2 the American critic Philip Hale quipped that Boston’s new Symphony Hall should have a door marked “Exit—in case of Brahms.” And as late as 1947, on the 50th anniversary of his death, Arnold Schoenberg published an essay, “Brahms the Progressive,” in which he claimed Brahms as an ancestor of musical modernism.

Schoenberg was right, but for the wrong reason. Brahms was indeed the grandfather of modern music—but not the egotistically hermetic kind in which Schoenberg specialized. His music pointed in another direction entirely.



Johannes Brahms was born in 1833 in a working-class neighborhood of Hamburg that later deteriorated into a brothel-ridden slum known as “Adulterer’s Walk.” He was the second child of a Bierfiedler, an itinerant bassist who played in beer-garden orchestras. The adolescent Brahms in turn played piano in bars and restaurants to help support his family, an experience that marked him with a permanent scar. It was there, he later told a friend, that he “received impressions which left a deep shadow on his mind.” At the same time, he was studying music theory with Eduard Marxsen, Hamburg’s best-known musician, who soon realized that though the boy was a gifted performer, it was as a composer that he would make his name.

In 1853, Brahms met Robert Schumann, who subsequently called the twenty-year-old composer “a young blood by whose cradle graces and heroes kept watch . . . destined to give ideal presentation to the highest expression of the time.” Brahms became a member of the Schumann household, and when his new patron was committed to an insane asylum, he became emotionally entangled with Clara Schumann, Robert’s wife, then one of Europe’s leading piano virtuosos.

Notwithstanding the hyperbolic praise offered by the Schumanns, Brahms was by no means a finished composer at twenty, or for many years thereafter. Not until 1859 did he produce an orchestral score, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15, an impressive but immature effort whose critical reception was mixed. It was only in 1868 that the first performance of the German Requiem, Op. 45, decisively won him the acclaim of the concertgoing public.

By then he had moved to Vienna, the capital of European classical music, and had acquired two more powerful advocates, the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim and the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick.3 Both men saw Brahms as the last best hope of the anti-Wagnerites, and though his own response to Wagner was more nuanced—he admired the older composer’s music but disliked his “stilted, bombastic” language and dramaturgy—he would become the unwilling focus of organized opposition to the Wagner cult.

Brahms’s long-awaited First Symphony, Op. 68, premiered in 1876, led to claims that he was Beethoven’s spiritual heir. (The pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow, referring to Beethoven’s nine symphonies, actually went so far as to dub Brahms’s First “the Tenth.”) The work’s successful reception seems to have lifted some psychic barrier, for Brahms thereafter produced three more symphonies, a second piano concerto, a violin concerto, and a “double concerto” for violin and cello, as well as twenty-odd exquisite miniatures for solo piano and several large-scale chamber-music works for various instrumental combinations. The only form he never attempted was opera, no doubt in part because he would have felt uncomfortable competing with Wagner.

Starting in the early 1870’s, Brahms had begun to make a good living through the sale of his music and the ample fees he commanded as a pianist and conductor; for the rest of his days, he lived in middle-class comfort in a small Vienna apartment, remaining unmarried but basking in the adulation of a small band of friends and acolytes. In 1890, his compositional output tapered off sharply, though he later wrote four pieces inspired by the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, the principal clarinetist of von Bülow’s Meiningen Orchestra, and a quartet of “serious songs” on biblical texts. He was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1896, and died the following year.



The details of Brahms’s life and character are endlessly interesting, though they shed little light on his work, save in the case of those few pieces he privately acknowledged to have been inspired by personal experiences. It may be of some value to know that he was, reportedly, incapable of having sexual relations with the women he loved—he preferred Viennese streetwalkers, whom he is said to have treated with scrupulous courtesy—or that he was a notoriously cantankerous man who at one time or another antagonized most of his closest friends. But there is no point in trying to read such things into Brahms’s music, which for all its palpable intensity of feeling is “objective” to the highest degree.

Indeed, the most significant thing about Brahms’s life may well be the extent to which it is not obviously present in his work. Where Wagner and Liszt were inveterate self-dramatizers, Brahms was a very different kind of composer, and that difference is central to the impression he made on his contemporaries.

By the 1850’s, the once-vital classical tradition initially codified by Haydn and Mozart had degenerated into the sterile pseudo-classicism against which Wagner, Liszt, and Hector Berlioz ultimately rebelled. Their romantic subjectivism became vastly influential among younger musicians, who turned their backs on such time-honored forms as the sonata, fugue, and theme-and-variations, preferring instead to compose expansive, loosely-constructed “tone poems” and “music dramas” whose inspiration was literary rather than musical.



At bottom, Brahms was no less romantic than Wagner. Virtually without exception, the art songs he composed throughout his career, as well as the brief piano intermezzi to which he turned in later years, are studies in unabashedly subjective lyricism, and even in his symphonies and chamber music, the lyric impulse is rarely far away. As Friedrich Nietzsche astutely observed in 1888:

If we discount what [Brahms] imitates, what he borrows from great old or exotic-modern styles, . . . what remains as specifically his is yearning. This is felt by all who are full of yearning and dissatisfaction of any kind.

Brahms’s quarrel with Wagner was not over spirit but over method. From the outset of his career, he elected to make use of the rigorous formal structures of 18th-century music, about which he knew more than any other composer of his time. A charter subscriber to the first scholarly edition of Bach, he regularly conducted Renaissance and Baroque choral music and edited for publication numerous scores by Couperin, Handel, and Mozart.

The intimate knowledge of preromantic music acquired through his studies taught Brahms that the great composers of the past treated the classical forms not rigidly but with freedom and flexibility. In much the same way, he would set about using their formal devices, including the highly elaborate contrapuntal techniques of the Baroque era. In Jan Swafford’s words:

If he encamped with the traditionalists, he was still too intelligent, canny, and historically aware to fall into the trap . . . of treating form mechanically, as a mold to pour notes into. An entry in [Clara Schumann’s] journal from November 1861 shows him pondering these issues: “An interesting conversation with Johannes about form. How the old masters had the freest form, while modern compositions move within the stiffest and most narrow limits. He himself emulates the older generation.”

It was Brahms’s formalism that initially caused many of his greatest works to be dismissed as overintellectual and austere to the point of dryness. Astonishingly, Eduard Hanslick criticized the First Symphony as the work of a composer who “seems to favor the great and the serious, the difficult and the complex, at the expense of sensuous beauty.” Much more insightful was the offhand remark of Richard Wagner upon hearing the Handel Variations, Op. 24: “One sees what may still be done in the old forms when someone comes along who knows how to use them.”

Of course, Wagner was a genius, while Hanslick was merely a critic. Still, his comment, perceptive as it is, tells only part of the story. For Brahms, formalism was not a musical straitjacket but a way of escaping the oppressive burden of romantic self-consciousness. What set him apart from his fellow romantics was his unique ability to see the “old forms” as the foundation of a living tradition, one capable of containing the violent dynamism of romantic subjectivism and turning it into high art



If this description of Brahms’s aesthetic sounds oddly familiar, it is because it so closely resembles the credo of the 20th-century tonal modernists. “Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength,” Igor Stravinsky declared in his Poetics of Music (1947). “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” Brahms himself could hardly have put it better. Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartók, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland: all followed a path blazed not by the “progressive” composers of the mid-19th century but by the testy reactionary from Vienna whose earliest admirers failed to grasp the radical implications of his art.

Unfortunately, Brahms’s exemplary role in the evolution of tonal modernism has yet to be generally acknowledged. His name is nowhere to be found in Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music, Paul Hindemith’s published correspondence, or the article on neoclassicism in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and he is mentioned only in passing in the letters of Ferruccio Busoni, the German-Italian composer who first formulated the principles of the neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) in music. Ironically, it was only from Arnold Schoenberg and the New Viennese School, the opposing group of modernists who abandoned tonality in favor of Schoenberg’s system of serial composition—an anti-traditional innovation that Brahms would have found at least as repellent as Liszt’s “music of the future”—that he won unstinting praise as a significant forebear.

Why was Brahms ignored by those who should have been his champions? The most likely reason is that the modern movement in music originated as an international revolt against the dominance of German romanticism, and, despite his neoclassicizing tendencies, Brahms remained to the end a German romantic of the deepest dye. But what the 20th-century neoclassicists missed is that, unlike other romantics, he sought not to undermine the classical tradition but rather to refresh and renew it.

That he succeeded in his self-appointed task can no longer be doubted. A century after his death, Brahms continues to figure prominently in the repertoires of virtuoso instrumentalists and symphony orchestras the world over. And now that young composers have started to break with the nihilistic ironies of postmodernism, his example is, if anything, more relevant than ever before. At the end of the 19th century, an age of unprecedented intellectual hubris and spiritual chaos, Brahms triumphantly reaffirmed the ability of the tradition-steeped mind to take raw passion and shape it into transcendent art. Today, with the high culture of the past in seemingly irreparable ruins, it is hard to imagine a more appropriate model for the daunting task of reclamation that lies ahead.



Brahms on CD: A Select Discography

Numerous recordings of Brahms’s music were made by musicians who began their careers when 19th-century performing traditions were still alive and flourishing; many of these historically important 78’s are now available in digitally remastered versions. His music remained equally popular after the invention of the LP, and is no less so in the age of the compact disc. Here are fifteen of the best Brahms recordings of the century:

1927: Fritz Kreisler, who played for Brahms as a teenager, made the first commercial recording of the Violin Concerto, accompanied by Leo Blech and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. Kreisler was closely identified with this concerto throughout his long career—he went so for as to acquire the autograph manuscript, which he bequeathed to the U.S. Library of Congress—and his recording, which features his own cadenzas, is noteworthy for its piercingly nostalgic sweetness (Biddulph LAB 049/50).

1929: Alfred Cortot, Jacques Thibaud, and Pablo Casals, the first “all-star” chamber-music ensemble, never recorded any of Brahms’s trios as a group, but they did join forces in the studio for the Double Concerto in A Minor, Op. 102, with Cortot conducting the Orquesta Pau Casals of Barcelona. (The greatest French pianist of the 20th century, Cortot was also an accomplished conductor who gave the French premieres of Brahms’s German Requiem and Wagner’s Parsifal.) Despite faded sound and uncertain orchestral intonation, this forceful performance is an indispensable document of prewar solo string playing at its most individual (Pearl GEMM CD 9363).

1936: The Ukrainian basso Alexander Kipnis made the definitive disc of the Four Serious Songs, Op. 121, in which he is sensitively partnered by the English accompanist Gerald Moore (whose playing, alas, was underrecorded at Kipnis’s insistence). The nobility of the interpretation is matched by the dark splendor of Kipnis’s voice (Music & Arts CD-661).

1937: The artistic partnership of Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic, to be sundered in 1938 by Hitler’s takeover of Austria, can be heard to good effect in their recording of the First Symphony. This expansive performance is a classic example of the Viennese way with Brahms, in which structural clarity is subordinated to Austrian Gemütlichkeit (Preiser 90114).

1938: Egon Petri, Ferruccio Busoni’s best-known pupil, was urged by Brahms in 1896 to “become a well-educated man, learning Latin and Greek and all the other subjects.” As an adult, Petri would be recognized as the most intellectual of piano virtuosos (his pupils included Samuel Lipman, COMMENTARY’s longtime music critic). His recording of the Handel Variations is memorable for the bracing clarity with which he articulates the work’s contrapuntal complexities (Pearl GEMM CDS 9078).

1949: Wilhelm Furtwängler’s conducting style waxes and wanes in critical favor, but his studio recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of the Haydn Variations, Op. 56a, is admired for its visionary lyricism even by those listeners who normally find his Brahms interpretations too rhapsodic (EMI ZDHC 65513).

1951: Arturo Toscanini played the music of Brahms more often than that of any other composer, and the austere Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98, was ideally suited to his passionate yet controlled style. This studio performance with the NBC Symphony, made shortly after the introduction of the LP, is perhaps the greatest of Toscanini’s many commercially recorded discs (RCA Victor Gold Seal 60260-2-RG).

1954-56: The Hollywood String Quartet, whose members played in Hollywood’s resident film-studio orchestras during the 40’s and 50’s, recorded Brahms’s three piano quartets (Opp. 25, 26, and 60) and the F-Minor Piano Quintet, Op. 34, with the pianist Victor Aller, another of the many talented artists who settled in Los Angeles and made a living providing music for the movies. These superlative performances, like the rest of the Hollywood Quartet’s recordings, are striking for their combination of high emotional intensity and uncanny technical command (Testament SBT 3063).

1961: Otto Klemperer’s magisterial recording with the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra of the German Requiem features the vivid solo singing of the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, generally regarded as the finest German singers with international careers after World War II (EMI CDC 47238).

1962: The American pianist Leon Fleisher, the most gifted of Artur Schnabel’s many pupils, made comparatively few recordings before losing the use of his right hand to carpal-tunnel syndrome in 1965. They include a performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat, Op. 83, with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, in which Szell’s post-Toscanini orchestral discipline is fused with Fleisher’s Germanic rigor to electrifying effect (Sony Masterworks Heritage MH2K 63225).

1968: Characteristic of the warmly romantic Russian approach to Brahms is a live performance by David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter of the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108. Oistrakh’s fat-toned violin playing is perfectly balanced by the incisive accompaniment of Richter, the outstanding pianist of the Soviet era (Melodiya/BMG 74321-34181-2).

1970-71: Van Cliburn’s recordings of a well-chosen group of Brahms’s shorter piano pieces, originally available on an LP titled My Favorite Brahms, have unfortunately been broken up and spread across two separate CD’s. In any format, though, these uniquely tender performances easily rank among the highlights of modern Brahms interpretations (RCA 7942-2-RG and 09026-60419-2).

1989: The Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter has recorded a splendid collection of Brahms’s solo songs, insightfully accompanied by Bengt Forsberg, her regular recital partner. Included are the Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103, and a wide-ranging group of individual songs featuring the popular Die Mainacht, Vergebliches Ständchen, and Von ewiger Liebe (DGG 429 727-2GH).

1992: Brahms’s success dates from the publication in 1869 of the first two books of his Hungarian Dances, a series of transcriptions for piano duet of popular Hungarian melodies. Though these marvelous pieces were later arranged for solo piano, violin and piano, and orchestra, the original versions are the best, and they are played with irresistible panache by Duo Tal & Groethuysen, a team that specializes in the little-known literature for “four-hand” piano—two pianists at one keyboard (Sony Classical SK 53285).

1997: The newly released recording by the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin of the Paganini Variations, Op. 35, is one of the most staggering feats of virtuosity ever committed to disc, a performance comparable to the playing of Vladimir Horowitz in his absolute prime (RCA 09026-68910-2).



1 The so-called “Brahms cylinder,” on which the composer plays an excerpt from the G-Minor Hungarian Dance, was made in 1889 by a European representative of Thomas Edison. The whereabouts of the original wax cylinder are no longer known, but a single, badly deteriorated acetate copy is owned by the British Library, and can be heard on About a Hundred Years: A History of Sound Recording (Symposium 1222). Internet users can also listen to the Brahms cylinder at

2 Knopf, 699 pp., $35.00. Swafford’s book is an intelligent, nonscholarly treatment whose psychobiographical speculations should be viewed with a skeptical eye. A useful corrective is the recently published Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters (Oxford, 858 pp., $49.95), the first large-scale selection of the composer’s correspondence to appear in English, excellently edited by Styra Avins.

3 Joachim, who gave the premiere of the D- Major Violin Concerto, Op. 77, in 1879, made five acoustic recordings in 1903, including shaky but still-vital performances of his own transcriptions of the G-Minor and D-Minor Hungarian Dances. (He also recorded movements from Bach’s B-Minor Partita and G-Minor Sonata, as well as one of his own encore pieces.) These rare recordings, collected on Opal CD 9851, provide an invaluable perspective on 19th-century performance practice.


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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