Passionate hate and extravagant admiration

Musical Notes

DURING THE lifetime of Johannes Brahms, Western classical music was in its prime. A chain of extraordinary creators from Haydn to Schumann had made music, for the first time, "the art to which all other arts aspire". In an atmosphere like that, when an art and its public are burgeoning together, rivalries inevitably flare up.

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)

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