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

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own