Books: What was behind his beard?

JOHANNES BRAHMS: A Biography by Jan Swafford, Macmillan pounds 30

THE CHIEF consideration, in the selection of material for a biography of an artist or author, should be whether the facts in question were of a nature to make the artist, whom we love and honour in his art, also win our esteem as a man." So Brahms told Josef Widmann in 1889, taking the conventional 19th-century view that the biographer's job was to affirm the greatness of great men. Brahms was by then casting a nervous eye on how posterity might regard him. Always jealous of his privacy, and already given to destroying the rejected drafts and unused sketches for his music at regular intervals, he turned his attention in old age to the question of his private papers. He cajoled a reluctant Clara Schumann into an exchange of the letters they had been writing each other for nearly 40 years, with a view to destroying them. Thankfully, both of them ended up breaking the bargain and the written record of Brahms's most important relationship, musically and emotionally, did not disappear into the fire as completely as he had at first intended.

When Max Kalbeck's four-volume biography began to appear some 13 years after the composer's death, Brahms the man was still largely known by the disguise he had adopted in middle life: a crusty old bachelor, prickly and sarcastic on the surface, but essentially modest and kind. Physically, he had made himself into a caricaturist's dream: a stout, bearded figure, with a cigar perpetually on the go (even when he was playing the piano), and his hat crammed jauntily on his head as he strolled through the streets of his adopted Vienna, off for an evening of roguish gallantry with young female admirers, perhaps, or a meal of dumplings and smoked meat in robust male company.

In this new biography Jan Swafford sets out to penetrate this disguise and show us what he calls Brahms ohne Bart: Brahms without the beard. This is not to say that he claims to have hunted out a great deal that previous scholars have missed or that he believes Brahms had any dark secrets - unless one counts a habit of visiting prostitutes, hardly surprising for a bachelor of his milieu and generation. Swafford comes to the task armed simply with a determination to understand a personality which, in the private life and the music, has so often proved hard to grasp. And it must be said that he has succeeded magnificently.

Not the least of this book's many virtues is the clarity with which it depicts the 20-year-old Brahms setting out from his native Hamburg in 1853 to discover and be discovered by the musical world: literally a beardless youth, whose unspoilt looks and awkward charm, as well as talent, made an impression on virtually everyone he met. The violinist Eduard Remenyi may have been gilding reminiscence when he described Brahms falling asleep while Liszt played a particularly affecting passage from his latest piece, but clearly the fresh young man foreshadowed his older self in knowing his own mind and being none too tactful in expressing it.

Such self-confidence made the affinity he found with Robert and Clara Schumann all the deeper and more immediate. By the end of 1853 Robert had burst into print hailing him as the genius of the future - dangerous praise that did not just put Brahms on the map of the musical world, but put him in a particularly tricky spot among its complex politics and rivalries, as Schumann's successor and the new alternative to the New German School which Liszt then led and Wagner would soon dominate. This set the pattern for Brahms's public career in both its reverses and its triumphs, as well as beginning a private, love-hate obsession with Wagner.

At the same time, Brahms's relations with Clara Schumann set another pattern; first, respect for her musicianship and musical judgement; then affection growing, as Robert declined in the asylum, into ardour and finally, after Robert's death, a firm withdrawal into mere friendship. Brahms would repeat the dance of courtship and retreat with a series of young women musicians over the years, growing all the time more deeply entrenched in his bachelor existence. Swafford finds the source of his thwarted sexuality in his humiliating experience as an adolescent when his family's poverty had forced him to play the piano in Animierlokale, or bar-brothels. Brahms himself attributed his single state to the failure of the Hamburg Philharmonic to appoint him as its conductor: that, he insisted, was the rejection which had shut the door on marriage and bourgeois respectability, leaving him, even in fame and comfortable old age in Vienna, still a "vagabond".

The music tells a different story and tells it in a typically Brahmsian manner. As a young man he first celebrated his friendship with Robert Schumann by collaborating with him and Albert Dietrich on the F-A-E Sonata whose central motif plays with the phrase Frei aber einsam ("Free but lonely"), the motto adopted by Joachim, the violinist for whom the piece was intended. Years later, in the climax to the opening movement of the G Major String Sextet, the pattern formed by the notes hints at his abandoned courtship of the young soprano Agathe von Siebold. "AGA(T)HE" sings the upper melody, supported and answered by the word "ADE" in the pitch below: "Agathe, farewell". Even from the start, the autobiographical springs that nourished Brahms's music were hidden, cabbalistically encoded. Deep personal emotion would always survive, but as something yearned for rather than possessed, something to which the music always bids farewell.

Longing and loss: the moods which characterised Brahms also in a sense characterised his age, and his simultaneous acknowledgement of them may have been the deepest source of the bond he formed with his audience. Yet Brahms's maturity as a composer, let alone his popularity, were a long time coming. Twelve years separated the annus mirabilis of 1853 from the G Major String Sextet, his first masterpiece in chamber music. Another three years passed before the premiere, in 1868, of A German Requiem, the first large-scale work to win him recognition with the wider music- loving public. And it was not until 1876 that he completed his First Symphony, anxiously meditated and long delayed but soon dubbed "Beethoven's Tenth" and seen as establishing him, after Bach and Beethoven, as the third of the great Bs in music.

Brahms's slow development did not stem from the unresolved complexities of his inner nature, nor from the burden of praise Schumann had heaped on his shoulders, though both could easily have stultified a lesser artist. He had blazing talent all right but, as Swafford shrewdly observes, he also possessed an even rarer gift: "wisdom in managing it".

Brahms, trained by Edward Marxsen in a North German tradition which emphasised musical form, knew only too well that instrumentation and orchestration were his weak points. To achieve his destiny he had patiently to put himself to school again, and indeed never ceased doing so. Even late in life he still took elaborate care to consult Joachim on technical points when writing for the solo violin. And arguably he did not fully respond to the coloration of instruments other than the piano and the human voice until, in old age, the playing of Robert Hausmann helped him to the cello, and the playing of Richard Muhlfeld helped him to the clarinet. The result was a last flowering of his chamber music in the Second Cello Sonata, the Third Piano Trio, the Clarinet Quintet and the two Clarinet Sonatas, works which matchlessly exploit the capacity of their instruments to express all the shifting tones of longing and loss.

Wagner might declare the symphony dead after Beethoven and turn instead to the task of transforming opera on his own radical terms, but Brahms's temperament and early training made him refuse to relinquish traditional forms and techniques. He clung to the symphony and the sonata, to counterpoint and melodic development, but in a spirit that placed equal demands on himself and his listeners. Brahms, as Swafford says, could easily have been a pedant if he had not been a genius. He was a collector and student of old music, an advocate and performer of Bach when Bach sounded dry to most ears. Yet, for all its learned rigour, Brahms's music was at the same time passionately lyrical, disconcertingly innovative.

That is surely why Brahms's achievement, though always appearing substantial, has remained elusive. Different ears have heard radically different voices in his music. To some contemporaries he sounded unapproachably severe, yet no sooner was he dead and his era past than he had begun to sound dated and sentimental. And no sooner had Modernism, following in the line of Wagner and the New German School, made this judgement into orthodoxy than Schoenberg claimed Brahms's technique as foreshadowing his own experimentation. Perhaps the greatest virtue of Swafford's book is its refusal to choose between these different Brahms and to reduce the complexities of his work, as of his temperament, by claiming him for one camp or another. The essential Brahms, he rightly insists, was Classical and Romantic, conservative and progressive, looking at once backward and forward; his voice was unique, "which is to say, both singular and alone".

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