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The Conscience of the West

The final upholder of a waning tradition? Or revolutionary precursor of total serialism? On the centenary of Brahms's death, Bayan Northcott assesses the composer's standing
No doubt it was in his most provocatively elitist manner that Stravinsky informed a Dresden journalist in 1929 that "What the public likes in Brahms is the sentiment. What I like has another, architectonic basis." Yet the remark reminds us that the reputation of great composers is rarely a simple matter: that what the public likes, what the critics value and what the composer's professional peers really think may differ quite markedly. The great Wagner-Brahms controversy, for instance, was always of more concern to the musical press than to the public which, by the time of Brahms's death, had accepted his symphonies, concertos, German Requiem and much of the chamber and piano music as core concert repertoire, just as it had accepted Wagner's mature music dramas as core opera.

And Brahms's fellow composers? There were always some who took to him totally, such as Hans von Bulow when he declared, "I believe in Bach the Father, Beethoven the Son and Brahms the Holy Ghost of music," or Schoenberg, who claimed him as his own precursor in his famous essay "Brahms the Progressive". Nor has such adulation been confined to composers of the Austro-German tradition: "How beautiful Brahms's [violin] sonatas are!" wrote Poulenc; "Oh, how I love the Fourth Symphony!" exclaimed Shostakovich. Equally, there have been those who rejected Brahms outright: Tchaikovsky, who confided to his diary, "Played over the music of that scoundrel, Brahms. God, what a talentless bastard!"; or Hugo Wolf, who declared, "One cymbal clash by Bruckner is worth all the four symphonies of Brahms with the serenades thrown in." Yet, when Grieg writes, "A landscape, torn by mist and clouds, in which I can see ruins of old churches, as well as of Greek temples - that is Brahms," it is not so clear whether he meant praise or blame. Among Brahms's contemporaries and successors alike, such ambiguities of feeling have tended to focus on three concerns: the sound of his music, the nature of his creative psychology and the implications of his historical position.

To think of Brahms, admittedly, is immediately to think of an exceptionally rich, dark, complex norm of musical texture, and it is understandable that composers of opposite tendencies - the luminous resonance of Debussy, the sensitised thinness of Britten - should have shied away from him. But complaints about Brahms's "gravy-brown" scoring have often been coupled with the charge that he wrote awkwardly, even "against" the techniques of certain instruments, particularly strings. And these have come from some surprising quarters. Elgar admired Brahms's Third Symphony so much that he paraphrased the second subject of its finale in the corresponding passage of his own First. Yet a lecture he delivered on the Brahms Symphony at Birmingham University in 1905 culminated in a detailed critique of its sometimes "casual" orchestration: "When we see a chord, and know that this chord employs every instrument, and know also that pp is required, we may enquire why the instruments are so arranged as to make it almost impossible to obtain a real pp." How, then, to account for the reaction of an even more acute pair of orchestral ears? For, in an article of 1912 comparing Brahms's Second with the Cesar Franck Symphony, Ravel remarked, "Brahms's superiority is clearly seen in one respect, namely, his orchestral technique, which is extremely brilliant."

Presumably, Ravel meant that Brahms's scoring was perfectly calculated to convey the substance of his music. But he had another reservation: "The themes bespeak an intimate and gentle musicality... Scarcely have they been presented than their progress becomes heavy and laborious." Ravel objected, as a matter of aesthetic principle, to symphonic development for its own sake, but his remark touches on a more persistent criticism of Brahms; that the music too often seems emotionally inhibited, resorting, instead, to learned contrivance. According to Hans Keller, this was the nub of the problem for Britten, who "resented the lack of spontaneity in the writing, in particular in those passages where Brahms seems to interrupt a melody abruptly in order to avoid what he might have thought of as sentimental writing." The link with the apparent emotional unfulfilment of Brahms's personal life, his aggressively defensive manner, and so on, would seem obvious enough, and Keller himself considered that audiences loved Brahms's music "the more for its neurotic shortcomings, for they are able to identify with the all too human inhibitions which thus manifest themselves."

Yet Keller once defended Tchaikovsky from charges of morbidity by asking whether his fans really packed out concerts merely to hear a man pitying himself. And he might equally have questioned whether music-lovers flock to Brahms simply because he expresses the melancholy of impotence. Pace Britten, that hardly accords with the sheer variousness of his influence upon subsequent composers. In more depressive moments towards the end of his life, it is true, Brahms tended to think of himself as the final upholder of a waning tradition - "the last wave", as he once described himself to the young Mahler. And the composers he audibly affected around the turn of the century were mostly among the more conservative of the time: Reger and Pfitzner in Germany, Stanford and Parry in Britain, the young Nielsen in Denmark and Dohnanyi in Hungary. Yet, by the 1930s, Schoenberg and his pupils were promulgating an entirely contrary image of Brahms as a composer constantly pushing forward; in particular, as the master who developed Beethoven's thematicism so all-pervasively that the emergence of the serial method became historically inevitable. And, more recently, interest in Brahms has taken still other forms, what with Ligeti's ghostly "Hommage a Brahms" in his Horn Trio, and Kagel's affectionately surreal recomposition of the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel. Brahms the post-modernist? It is at this point that one begins to suspect Britten's curious practice of playing over Brahms periodically in order, so he said, to make sure the music was as bad as he remembered it - and to notice some oddly Brahmsian procedures beneath the surface of his music (compare the glancing opening of Britten's Sonata for Cello and Piano with Brahms's late E minor Intermezzo, Op 116 No 5, for starters).

What has been going on here? Keller defined neurotic self-consciousness as original sin because it implied a preoccupation not with what one is, but with what one once was. Yet, whatever the personal cost, Brahms's self-consciousness could also be seen as historical virtue. Earlier than any other great composer, he appears to have grasped the reality of an ageing culture: that, instead of being replaced and forgotten, works of the past were now piling up in ever vaster repertoire; and that, from now on, composers seeking to transcend either slavish imitation of the past or rootless rebellion against it would consciously have to select and synthesise their own working traditions. Hence Brahms's unprecedented exploration of the classical, baroque and renaissance repertoires for forgotten techniques which he believed, remastered, might yet yield something new - a procedure in which he anticipated Stravinsky perhaps even more than he did Schoenberg. So it is that, if a Brahms piece proves to be packed with echoes of Schubert, Beethoven and Haydn, fused with techniques from Bach, Schutz and Isaac, one can be sure they are not inadvertent, but there for a chosen purpose and meaning. Indeed, it is not too much to say that, through such an approach to composition, Brahms emerged as the Conscience of Western music - such would certainly be the implication of Alexander Goehr's argument that any university music department seeking to encompass Western tradition in its fullness has to place Brahms at the centre of its studies. However inspiring, Conscience Figures are not always comfortable to live with - which may explain Britten's chafing as much as any stylistic disparity. But Stravinsky surely confirmed the master's quite special standing when he remarked of his "great feeling for Brahms... you always sense the overpowering wisdom of this great artist even in his least inspired works"n