When Brahms reached his maturity the European musical world was raging in what has been called "The War of the Romantics". Commanding the self- proclaimed "Music of the Future" were Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. The figurehead of the opposite camp (dubbed by Liszt "the posthumous party") was Brahms, whom Robert Schumann had introduced to the world as the virtual Messiah of music.
On closer examination, however, this tidy historical picture blurs. Brahms was not a simple traditionalist, nor the leader of the Brahmsians; his friend the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick was the conservatives' chief sword-bearer. On the face of it, Brahms pursued his busy and prosperous creative life and left the battles to others. His private attitude toward his rivals further muddles the picture. He happened to admire Wagner's music considerably. Among friends, Brahms habitually praised this rival who regularly excoriated him in print.
It's not that Brahms approved of Wagner's aesthetics. The mountain of philosophy with which Wagner buttressed his revolution appeared to Brahms so much self-serving claptrap. Yet he frequented the operas, studied their scores intensively, and half-seriously called himself "the best of Wagnerians".
Liszt was another matter. Early in his career, Brahms and a friend wrote a manifesto condemning the Music of the Future. Directed at Liszt, the manifesto was leaked before it was ready and served mainly to embarrass the authors and touch off the war. From that point Brahms retired from public musical politics.
Brahms had nothing against Liszt personally, and said of his performing: "Whoever has not heard Liszt cannot even speak of piano playing." Liszt's compositions, however, appeared to him utterly fraudulent. He wrote a friend that Liszt's Christus "appears so incredibly boring, stupid, and absurd that I can't imagine how the necessary swindle will be perpetrated".
Brahms liked to sit over beer and pontificate; his circle heard many tirades against another rival: "Bruckner? That's a swindle that will be forgotten a year or two after my death." In truth, the anti-Bruckner efforts of Brahms and his ally Hanslick do honour to neither man. If Brahms was brutal at times, he could be remarkably generous when he chose to be. His attacks on Bruckner were the one instance when he deliberately did harm to a defenceless rival.
But was Brahms determined to destroy his competition, excepting only Wagner? No. By his maturity he had found perhaps unprecedented acclaim as a composer, and he knew that perfectly well. If he was simply rivalrous he would not have called himself "the best of Wagnerians". If he wanted to ruin other symphonists he would not have promoted Antonin Dvorak as energetically as he did. He even did favours for composer Hugo Wolf, who as a critic was fanatically anti-Brahmsian.
Brahms showed nothing like Wagner's instinctive contempt for rivals. He brushed aside aesthetics and politics and looked at the crafting of notes. He hated passionately and admired extravagantly. One can quarrel with his opinions, but accept their essential honesty. Brahms responded to rivals with the same deep-rooted integrity that he brought to bear on his own music.
Jon Swafford's `Johannes Brahms: a biography' is published by Macmillan (pounds 30)