Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms; drawing by David Levine


On Easter Monday, 1872, when Brahms was thirty-eight years old, he wrote to Clara Schumann:

All winter long I have been doing counterpoint exercises very assiduously. What for? To be better able to disparage my pretty things?—I did not need counterpoint for that. To become a university professor?—no, not that either. To learn to write music better?—even that I’m not hoping for. But still in the end it’s a bit tragic when one gets to be too clever for one’s needs.

By 1872, Brahms had become the leader of the conservative faction of European music as well as the most learned composer in the history of music. He was able to make a very good living simply from the sale of his published works without relying on patronage or a salaried appointment—unlike Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, or any of his predecessors whose music would remain, like his, in the repertory for another century.

Yet he was temperamentally uncertain of the value of his work. He submitted his compositions for advice from the musicians and amateurs he most respected, and often enough refused to accept their counsel. He destroyed dozens of large-scale works. His first published string quartets were preceded, he said, by twenty that have now disappeared. Trunkfuls of early works were burned. The manuscript of the Sonata for Piano no. 1, opus 1, published when he was twenty years old, is titled “Sonata no. 4.”1 But it was not merely the compositions of his youth that have gone forever. In 1880, when he was forty-seven, he played two new trios for Clara Schumann. She preferred the one in E-flat major. He burned it. The very large number of works that have survived—121 opuses—must be about one third of his total output.

On October 1, 1853, Robert Schumann wrote in his diary: “Visit from Brahms (a genius).” The twenty-year-old Brahms who appeared at the door of the Schumanns’ house in Düsseldorf with a large sheaf of his own compositions was nothing like the heavily bearded, massively rotund figure that we know from later photographs. He was slim and delicately beautiful, with a high-pitched young boy’s voice, and for a long time looked much younger than his years. A virtuoso pianist and already a composer with a large body of work, he had been befriended by the twenty-two-year-old Joseph Joachim, the most famous young violinist in Europe, who remained Brahms’s close friend for the rest of his life; he advised Brahms to go to see the Schumanns. Clara was one of the most successful pianists of the time, and Robert, still undervalued and struggling as a composer, was nevertheless recognized in advanced circles as one of the leaders of the Romantic movement in music.

In his new biography of Brahms, Jan Swafford remarks that he was not the first handsome young composer that Schumann proclaimed as the new hope of German music (Schumann confessed in his diary to homosexual fantasies). This time, however, he guessed right, as he had guessed right twenty years earlier with Chopin. For several hours, Brahms played his compositions for Robert and Clara, who then persuaded him to stay in Düsseldorf for a month. On October 28, the leading music journal of Germany printed an article by Schumann called “New Paths”:

I have thought…that…someone must and would suddenly appear, destined to give ideal presentation to the highest expression of the time, who would bring his mastery not in process of development, but springing forth like Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove. And he is come, a young blood by whose cradle graces and heroes keep watch. He is called Johannes Brahms…. Sitting at the piano, he proceeded to reveal to us wondrous regions. We were drawn into circles of ever deeper enchantment.

The friendship of Robert and Clara Schumann resulted in immediate success for Brahms. He was praised by Berlioz and Liszt, and several of his works were printed by the leading German music publisher.

On February 26 of the following year, Robert Schumann realized that he was becoming insane, and planned to have himself committed to an asylum. The next day he unsuccessfully attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. Brahms at once rushed to Düsseldorf, arriving on March 3 to aid Clara, who was already pregnant with a seventh child. On March 4, Robert was taken to an asylum, and Clara was forbidden to visit him, as it was feared that he could become violent. For the next two years, Brahms helped Clara to care for her family and to run the household. On the 29th of July, 1856, Schumann died in the asylum with his wife and Brahms present. In October, Brahms returned to his home in Hamburg.

It was clear to all of Brahms’s friends that he was in love with Clara Schumann, and her children believed that she expected Brahms to propose marriage after the death of Robert. At first she thought that she loved him like a mother. Such feelings are often unstable, and they may have changed into something more passionate during the long enforced absence of her husband and the months spent with Brahms. The two questions that every biographer begins with are: Did they become lovers? And why did they never marry? Styra Avins, in her large selection of Brahms’s correspondence, says rightly that these are less interesting questions than the inquiry as to “what, given their difference in background, character, and age, kept them bound to each other throughout their entire lives, in an alliance as close as any family tie.” Clara, nine years younger than Robert, was fourteen years older than Johannes Brahms. She was the daughter of a wealthy professional musician; his father was a poor double bass player. She was an internationally famous pianist, while he was an obscure young composer for many years even after Schumann’s article had brought him some public notice.


Swafford believes the old story that as a small child Brahms was obliged to play the piano in whorehouses, and infers a juvenile experience so traumatic that it was later impossible for him to have a physical relationship with any woman except a prostitute. Swafford embroiders this account, which has been proven to be mistaken, with lurid details:

Johannes was surrounded by the stench of beer and unwashed sailors and bad food, the din of rough laughter and drunkenness and raving obscenity…. Between dances the women would sit the prepubescent teenager on their laps and pour beer into him, and pull down his pants and hand him around to be played with, to general hilarity.

To this he even adds some horrid speculation that goes beyond the popular legend:

There may have been worse from the sailors. Johannes was as fair and pretty as a girl.

We all know what sailors get up to on those long weeks away from the female sex.

Fortunately, the picturesque story of the prepubescent Brahms performing in low-class sailors’ dives is simply false. (Swafford does not list in his bibliography the volume by Kurt Hoffmann, Johannes Brahms und Hamburg [2nd revised edition, Reinbeck, 1986], in which this story is effectively refuted.) Brahms late in life may have spoken about having played in cafés as a child, but they were certainly respectable cafés, and it is unlikely that he did any work of this kind before he was fourteen. It is true that as a child he may have seen some shocking sights in Hamburg. I did when I went to Hamburg thirty years ago and found a city divided between the grandly respectable bourgeois quarters around the Alster and the port with some open streets entirely devoted to prostitution and cafés whose special attraction was naked women wrestling in mud. All that was a part of life in Hamburg, and there is no reason to think that little Johannes was traumatized by what everyone took for granted.

It is fairly certain that the relation between Johannes and Clara remained platonic—although Swafford muses: “Maybe after all there had been some sweet dalliance. We will never know” (Swafford’s style veers from the efficiently readable to the commonplace and even, as here, to the appalling). Brahms’s attachment to the older Clara was as much worshipful as passionate, although she drove all thought of other women from his mind (his mother, perhaps significantly, was seventeen years older than his father). Less than a month after Schumann’s death, he and Clara traveled with two of the children to Switzerland, and then he went back to Hamburg, never again to be part of the Schumann household.

Avins finds an important change of tone in the correspondence at this point. We do not know what happened: whether the twenty-three-year-old Brahms found daunting the prospect of marriage to a woman with seven children, or whether the dreadful marital troubles of his own parents, which came to a head at this time, were a warning about the difficulty of a marriage with such an evident disparity of age, or whether the young and ambitious composer was uneasy about a union with a musician so much more famous than he was—all this is only speculation. His attachment to Clara remained powerful, and she was certainly jealous of any attentions he paid to other women. In fact, Brahms’s later failure to marry seems to me due probably more to his continued devotion to Clara, from which he never really could, or wanted to, free himself, than to any traumatic juvenile experience. And there is no reason to think that he experienced the slightest guilt or misgivings about frequenting prostitutes.


Avins’s Life and Letters is more ju-dicious about these thorny problems than Swafford’s biography, and offers a greater illumination of Wagner’s pathological hatred of Brahms (according to Avins, Wagner’s mistress Mathilde von Wesendonck closed her doors on him just when she became a fervent admirer of Brahms’s music). Brahms was a somewhat reluctant Wagnerite—one act at a time was enough for an evening, he felt, but Wagner’s attacks on Brahms were virulent; he even accused Saint Johannes, as he nicknamed him, of being Jewish. Today the opposition of Brahms and Wagner seems absurd: like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, they always had more in common than either of them would admit.

I find some of the letters omitted in Avins’s selection, particularly those discussing musical questions, more interesting than the numerous letters to Brahms’s father, which display only an estimable filial affection. Swafford’s book, on the other hand, gives a detailed and almost always interesting account of Brahms’s career. (I should have liked more of Brahms’s grouchy jokes. My favorite—not included here—is the one about the second violinist of a string quartet, who was bothering the composer after the performance of one his quartets. “And what did you think of our tempi?” he inquired anxiously. “Wonderful,” Brahms replied. “Particularly yours.”) With all its faults—the end notes are incorrectly numbered, and the index is disastrously incomplete—it reads very well, and displays an evident love of the music.2


Brahms’s Sonata in C Major, opus 1, opens with an unmistakable reference to Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata in B-flat Major, opus 106, and combines this with the structure of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata in C Major, opus 53, which begins with one phrase in C major repeated in B-flat major—so that the second phrase of Brahms’s sonata arrives at the key of the “Hammerklavier”; in case any pianist is too stupid to recognize the quotation from the “Hammerklavier,” he or she is given another clue. When, twenty-three years later at the age of forty-three, Brahms finally published his First Symphony in C Minor, opus 68, it contained an unmistakable reference to Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 in D Minor in the main theme of his last movement (someone remarked on this to Brahms, and he replied, “Any jackass can see that”). Since he destroyed several sonatas before publishing opus 1, and several attempts at writing a symphony before making public the C Minor, these references are like a manifesto. In spite of all his modesty and his uncertainty about his own work, Brahms wanted a public understanding that he was working in the tradition of the greatest monuments of classicism, and would not publish until he could stand up to the “Hammerklavier” and the Ninth Symphony. Since he was eighteen or nineteen when he composed the C Major Sonata, he understood the nature of his temperament and his task from the very beginning.

The standard opinion (it is repeated by Swafford) that Brahms started as a follower of the Romantic generation of Schumann and Chopin that just preceded him, and only later turned to a revival of the classical forms of Haydn and Beethoven, does not work. In addition to falsifying the inherent classicism of his earliest work, it hides the continued force of the Romantic tradition throughout Brahms’s life. One example of this survival is the set of Variations on a theme of Paganini for piano. Swafford suggests that Brahms called these variations “Studies” because they display “the kind of keyboard pyrotechnics that the rest of his piano music avoids.” They are called studies, in fact, because they are simple short finger exercises, and they sound like basic finger exercises more than do the études of Chopin or Liszt. Brahms even included part of one of the variations in his 51 Finger Exercises for the piano.

An essential characteristic of Romanticism was to take a marginal and despised genre and elevate it to the grand style, as Blake transformed little moral poems for children in doggerel verse into the Songs of Innocence and Experience, John Constable and Caspar David Friedrich made simple landscape with no narrative content a substitute for religious and historical painting, Schumann transfigured popular dance music in Papillons and Carnaval, and Chopin turned the mazurka and the étude into creations of extraordinary profundity. The transcendence of the finger exercise in the Paganini Variations is one of the last and most daring projects of the Romantic movement in music.

If new life was to be breathed into a moribund classical tradition against the school of Liszt and Wagner that Brahms found basically so repellent, with its flashy modernism and its rejection of the older forms, this could not be accomplished simply by continuing to employ the old forms. The reference to the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth in the finale of Brahms’s C Minor Symphony is a polemical answer to Wagner’s claim that after Beethoven’s last symphony the future no longer lay in pure instrumental music but in music drama. In a brilliant and sensitive book with excellent analyses of the orchestral work, Brahms: The Four Symphonies, Walter Frisch points out how early Brahms’s intentions were recognized. The great scholar Friedrich Chrysander, who edited Handel with some minor help from Brahms, wrote ten years after the première of the symphony:

What is involved here [the reference to Beethoven] is the problem of how to create an antitype [Gegenbild] to the last portions of the Ninth Symphony, an antitype that can, without the aid of the human voice, match the manner and strength of the Ninth. And insofar as this attempt has succeeded, it signifies an attempt to lead back from the symphony that comprises instruments and voice to the purely instrumental symphony. At the same time it signifies an expansion of those effects that can be created through purely instrumental means.

For Brahms it meant returning not only to Beethoven but to the purely instrumental works of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart. At the same time, the procedures of these composers could not be simply reproduced, but they had to be given a new character, a contemporary power. Most neoclassical composers have taken only that part of the past which they found congenial, adding a few personal touches, and dropped the rest. The extraordinary project of Brahms was to incorporate almost the entire classical tradition in his work while expanding it with the techniques that he had both developed himself and learned from his knowledge of Chopin, Schumann, and even Wagner.3 It was, paradoxically, his success that helped to destroy the classical tradition as much as Wagner did, and inspired Arnold Schoenberg’s claim to derive his innovations from Brahms. It is in Brahms’s music, not in Wagner’s, that the harmonic implications of bass and treble are so often out of phase. That is why an initially advanced composer like Richard Strauss who grew eventually more conservative came directly out of Liszt and Wagner, while Schoenberg could acknowledge the inspiration of Brahms—who would, of course, have been appalled by the later development.

Brahms’s relation to the past is therefore subtle and complex. Many scholars have tried to find quotations from earlier composers in his works. Along with this goes a small musicological subindustry identifying “Clara” allusions in Brahms and Schumann: that is, melodies that spell out the notes CAA, or transposed variants like FDD, or upside-down forms like ACC, also with transpositions, or backward forms like AAC. These are easy enough to find in whatever tonal pieces one looks at—or even in atonal music. Proving that a passage of Brahms signifies Clara, or Beethoven, or whatever is like proving that Shakespeare was written by Bacon or by the Earl of Oxford or by Queen Elizabeth: if one accepts the decoding procedures, it is easy enough to find evidence for any of these figures. One can find a “Clara” motif untransposed and right side up at the beginning of the finale of Mozart’s Sonata in A Minor, K. 310, and backward in the theme of Bach’s Fugue in A Minor from the first book of the Well-Tempered Keyboard. Since the portrait of Clara in Schumann’s Carnaval is composed with the letters of Asch,4 the town where his fiancée of the time, Ernestine von Fricken, was born, I do not find evidence of the “Clara” motif in Schumann very impressive, and the examples winkled out of Brahms are even less cogent.

As for Brahms’s reminiscences of other composers’ melodies, it should be noted that although there are twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and one might think that the permutation of twelve elements will give a large variety of forms, nevertheless almost all tonal melodies outline in some way the three notes of the tonic triad (CEG in C major, for example), and the permutation of three elements provides only a very small number of basic forms. Each tonal melody is therefore structurally identical with thousands of others. Most of the resemblances that one finds are consequently trivial: the second theme of the slow movement of Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony is remarkably like the folk song that opens the last of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, and the coda to the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in D Major, opus 10, no. 3, is exactly the same as the beginning of the song “How Dry I Am,” and is also the exact inversion of the opening of the F major second theme in the finale of Brahms’s Sonata for Piano, opus 5.

Nevertheless, Haydn did not know the Bach variations, and the passage in Brahms is not an upside-down souvenir of Beethoven’s opus 10, no. 3 (or a forecasting of a later popular tune), but an adaptation of Beethoven’s use of a chorale tune in the rondo of the Sonata in C Major, opus 2, no. 3. The pitches of these two hymnlike melodies, however, are entirely different,5 but the rhythm and the texture are the same, and the function of the tune is also identical: Brahms learned from Beethoven that a lyrical chorale placed at this point of a brilliant and agitated finale was a good idea. He studied Beethoven not to steal tunes, but to learn how to compose. Borrowed melodies are mostly inadvertent and rarely important: the first two bars of the main theme of Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute are the same as the beginning of a sonata by Clementi, but this was interesting largely to Clementi, who pointed it out to everyone for years (“Mozart heard me play this piece”).

Yet Brahms’s adaptation of classical models was essential to his style, and his use was exceedingly refined. To see how his mind worked from the beginning of his career, we might consider his Variations for piano on a theme of Schumann, opus 9.6 These were composed a year after Schumann’s incarceration in the asylum. Clara had written a set of variations on the same theme a year before, and Swafford says that, although showing considerable independence, Brahms’s set has “echoes of Robert’s music and of Clara’s variations.” This is a considerable understatement.

One of the variations was immediately recognized as a literal quotation of another piece by Schumann: that is, Brahms took a piece by Schumann in B minor and turned it into a variation of the theme in F-sharp minor (which, in fact, just preceded the B minor piece in Schumann’s collection, so Brahms expected everyone to notice the adaptation). After the variations were published in 1857, this gave rise to a strange incident when a journalist wrote an article praising Brahms, who liked the attention. In a letter to Clara, however, he claimed that there were

some downright stupidities, as when e.g. he is of the opinion that the B minor variation was not intentionally written to imitate the corresponding piece in your husband’s work!

The imitation, Brahms thought, should have been obvious.

The other references to Schumann in this set of variations are more complex. At the end of the tenth variation, a theme by Clara that Robert used as the basis for his Impromptus on a theme of Clara Wieck is literally quoted by Brahms in an inner voice; the melody of the opening of this variation, Swafford writes, is derived from the bass of the F-sharp minor theme. This is not quite right: the melody has been recognized by many scholars as a quotation from the slow movement of a string quartet by Schumann. Brahms cleverly remarked the identity of the string quartet melody with the bass of the F-sharp minor theme, and built his variation on that, and he produced a very learned inverted canon with it.

Other allusions to Schumann’s works may have escaped notice. The last variation is clearly a reworking of the second of Schumann’s Impromptus on Clara’s theme. There are variations based on Carnaval, on other movements from string quartets, and on the Toccata for piano. The twenty-two- year-old Brahms must have spent his months in the Schumann household studying Robert’s complete works until he knew them perhaps better than the composer. I can identify about eight of the models, and I am convinced the other variations are based similarly on works of Schumann I do not know or do not understand as Brahms did. In a sense, the variations are a young composer’s homage to the whole of Schumann’s life. The most interesting adaptation is the second variation, which comes from the last piece of the Kreisleriana. In that work a theme in 6/8 time and steady dotted rhythm is played by the right hand, while the left almost always comes in on what sounds like the wrong beat. In Brahms’s variation, it is the left hand that plays the same dotted rhythm, and the right hand that always comes in on an off-beat. The two pieces do not sound at all alike, but Brahms has learned something about composition from Schumann.

This is a guide to a study of Brahms’s use of models. When he is quoting an earlier composer, it should be obvious to any jackass. When he is learning a way to write, the original is so transformed that the two works do not resemble each other in performance. “There is no song of Schubert from which one cannot learn something,” Brahms once claimed, but that does not mean that he ever tried to sound like Schubert. The opening of Schubert’s Quintet for Strings in C Major begins with a tonic chord, a diminished seventh on the tonic, and a return of the tonic harmony. That is the way Brahms’s Third Symphony begins, but the effect is transformed beyond recognition, from a quiet phrase in the middle register to a rising fortissimo motif with the brass. I only assume that if I have noticed the identical harmonic progression used to initiate a large-scale work, then Brahms, who knew Schubert’s work much better than I do, must have observed it, too, and since the next bars heroically employ the typical Schubertian procedure of alternating major and minor, I think he was intentionally expanding what he had been able to glean from studying Schubert into massive effects that the earlier master could not have imagined.


Other composers have used models for composing. Most young composers do until they find their own voice: Mozart imitated Haydn’s quartets closely when he was sixteen, but later, when he dedicated six quartets to Haydn, “who taught me how to write,” his forms are his own. Beethoven imitated a Mozart quartet closely once (with opus 18, no. 5) because, I think, he needed to prove that he could write a Mozart quartet if he wanted to as well as his more original inspirations. Schubert closely modeled a few works on Mozart and on Beethoven. Later composers were more systematic. Strauss has references to The Magic Flute throughout Der Rosenkavalier in order to create a proper Viennese atmosphere: the comic entrance of Baron Ochs, for example, is absurdly modeled on the trial by fire and water of Pamina and Tamino. The last movement of Samuel Barber’s piano sonata is an almost servile imitation of Brahms’s fugue from the Handel Variations. Stravinsky once told Elliott Carter that he always used models when composing. Nevertheless, there is a great difference between Stravinsky’s procedures and Brahms’s method. Stravinsky had no intention of reviving a style of the past: as he himself said, he used classical formulas in his neoclassical period the way he used folk material in his earlier ballets. For Brahms, it was only possible to write large-scale works—symphonies, string quartets, and chamber sonatas—by mastering the techniques that originally brought these forms into being.

The study of the way Brahms exploited his knowledge of the musical past is generally marred by an exclusive concentration on thematic resemblance. That is not how Brahms worked. As I have said, when there is a thematic allusion in Brahms, he expected it to be immediately evident. He did not like talking about it. When someone commented on the obvious dependence of his Scherzo in E-flat Minor for Piano, opus 4, on Chopin’s scherzos, he replied acidly that he had never heard or seen a piece by Chopin in his life. I would not have thought that anyone could believe that the young Brahms in 1852 with his already extensive knowledge and devouring curiosity for all kinds of music had never come into contact with the works of Chopin, but some musicologists have taken his claim seriously: one can only marvel at their credulity. Brahms’s awareness of the second and third scherzos of Chopin is shamelessly demonstrated on almost every page of his opus 4.7

Thematic relationships in his music are vitally important, but they are almost always easily recognizable. Everyone hears that the opening themes of the first and last movements of his G Major Violin Sonata begin with the identical motif. If the relation was not easily identifiable, Brahms claimed that it was uninteresting or fortuitous—or even implied a lack of inspiration. In a letter to Adolf Schubring on February 16, 1869, he wrote:

I dispute that the themes of the various sections of No. 3 [of the German Requiem] are meant to have something in common with each other. (Except for the small motif…). Should this be so, however, (I purposely summon nothing to my memory): I want no praise for it, but admit that when I work my ideas don’t fly far enough, hence unintentionally often return with the same thing.

However, if I want to hold on to a single idea, it should be clearly recognizable in every transformation, augmentation, inversion. Anything else would be the worst kind of playing around and always a sign of the most barren invention. Unfortunately, the fugue in No. 6 is evidence that (for the sake of “momentum”?) I am not exactly strict.

Given Brahms’s reluctance to discuss thematic relationships—or, indeed, to discuss his musical technique seriously—we need not take this literally, but it ought not to be dismissed. Unifying a work of music by building it around a single motif and its transformations is an integral part of Western musical technique since Bach—or, indeed, since the late fifteenth century with Josquin des Prés. This motivic work holds the piece together, but the successive transformations of the motif do not always raise the ghosts of all the earlier ones. It is clear for Brahms, however, that if some kind of significance is to be attached to any thematic resemblance, if it is the bearer of a message, it must be clearly recognizable. The same must be said of Brahms’s rare direct allusions to the works of another composer (as opposed to his adaptation of devices he discovered through his study of the past). The allusions had a meaning for Brahms’s contemporaries: they were not esoteric, to be discovered only a century later.

In Brahms Studies 2, David Brodbeck (who edits the collection) demonstrates Mendelssohn’s importance for Brahms by uncovering allusions to Mendelssohn’s works. I do not think they are allusions, but reminiscences (which is what Brahms’s contemporaries called them): they may even have been unconscious in origin, although Brahms probably recognized their source more quickly than his critics. In a letter of 1878, quoted by Brodbeck, to a composer, Otto Dessoff (who noticed with consternation that he had unconsciously stolen something from Brahms), Brahms dismisses the whole subject with contempt:

I beg you, do nothing stupid. One of the stupidest topics of stupid people is that of reminiscences…. Don’t spoil it, leave it alone…. After all, you know that I too have stolen on occasion, and much worse than you have done.

Brahms’s debt to Mendelssohn is not an occasional tune. He learned to use a Mendelssohnian texture as early as the slow movement of the First Piano Concerto, and it was Mendelssohn, rather than Beethoven or Schubert, who taught him the most subtle ways of bringing back an earlier movement in a finale: the G Major Violin Sonata uses a Schubert trio as a model for this effect, but in the Third Symphony, where the finale dissolves back into the first movement, he clearly learned from Mendelssohn’s works, above all, the E-flat Major String Quartet and the E Major Piano Sonata.

In Brodbeck’s volume,8 Kenneth Hull finds an allusion to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Brahms’s Fourth: it is so different that it is not easily recognizable. It could be entirely fortuitous, and cannot be construed as carrying a message. Hull construes the difference as ironic, but this game seems to have no rules: if the two passages are alike, that proves the allusion; if they are different, then the change proves that Brahms is being ironic.9

In his biography, Swafford discovers that the main theme of Brahms’s Third Symphony of 1883 is rather like the opening of Wagner’s Rheingold played upside down. Both themes, of course, consist largely of the simple tonic triad, the least convincing basis for a resemblance. In any case, the opening of Brahms’s String Quartet in C Minor of 1873 starts with a theme that resembles Wagner’s even more closely and is right side up. I think it more likely that Brahms remembered and inverted his own theme rather than Wagner’s, but I cannot imagine why he would have thought it a good idea to do either.

In short, Brahms’s borrowing of melodies is no greater than that of most composers from Bach to Stravinsky. Where Brahms differed from his predecessors and his successors was in the adaptation of structural devices learned from the past and transformed into a modern idiom. The disadvantage of all the industrious hunting and decoding of allusions is that it deflects attention away from his formidable achievement. He was still, in the twentieth century, a composer who excited no little controversy. Immensely popular with audiences and performers, he was condemned as the embodiment of bourgeois cultural values by many critics. Virgil Thomson despised him: he was the symbol of the Teutonic musical tradition that Thomson hoped would be supplanted by Gallic style. Arnold Schoenberg adored him, but many other composers disliked him, including Pierre Boulez and Stravinsky—although the latter suddenly changed his mind very late in life when he became fascinated by the rhythmic experiments he found in Brahms.

When Brahms adapts new material to a technique he had learned from his study of the past, he generally appears most original, sounds most like himself. His melodies often outline spiky, dissonant shapes that resemble Stravinsky’s, and his motifs leap into forbidding intervals like sevenths; he also uses odd rhythmic periods, and loves strange groups of five bars, or even five-beat rhythms. Wagner also uses dissonant melodic forms and even five-beat rhythms when he wants to represent hysteria, as when Tristan tears the bandages from his wound in the third act of Tristan und Isolde. Brahms’s five-beat rhythms are integrated seamlessly into the musical texture and made to seem almost normal, as in the wonderfully expressive and melancholy double stops opening the C minor section of the development of the Violin Concerto.

By means of the accompanying harmonies, Brahms made his dissonant melodies sound graceful and supple (the second theme of the opening movement of the great Viola Quintet in G Major, opus 111, for example) or mellifluous and infinitely melancholy, as in the late Intermezzo in B Minor, opus 119, no. 1. The dissonant shapes of so many of his melodies are softened—almost explained away—by the accompaniments, but the dissonance nevertheless leaves a residue that is not completely dissipated, since melody and accompaniment are at odds with each other. It only remained for later composers to allow the dissonant character of the melodic outline to speak out unprotected. He disdained the complex chromatic harmony of Wagner, but his own harmony, in appearance closer to Mozart and Beethoven, is in fact equally radical and more dissonant. He stretched the function of the most basic traditional harmonies beyond expectation, and he made weak, subsidiary harmonies suddenly play an unprecedentedly powerful role. 10 Much of his work was a systematic dislocation of classical procedures, disconcerting above all because his understanding of the earlier style was more profound than any of his contemporaries’. That is why the revolutionary potential of his innovations was, for those who listened to them carefully, as explosive as Wagner’s.

His music is easy to listen to, but, because of its reticence, difficult to appreciate. The instrumentation is extraordinary in its resolute elimination of any facile effect. Tovey remarked on the astonishing use of the triangle in the scherzo of the last symphony, astonishing above all because Brahms introduces it at once while the orchestra is making a loud noise: a few pages later when it plays a delicate solo part, we are no longer aware of the strangeness of its timbre. The early Piano Trio in B Major begins with a beautiful cello melody clearly designed for that instrument—except that the cello does not get to play until the fifth bar while the opening is given to the piano. The Horn Trio, as well, opens with a melody obviously intended for the horn but first played by the violin. Brahms would not openly exploit tone color at the expense of form.

Above all, he reveled in material that was brutally uncomfortable to play. Beethoven and Chopin write awkwardly for the pianist’s hands when the logic and the passion of the music impels them, but Brahms begins at the outset with motifs that stretch the muscles unmercifully. This is paralleled by his compositional choices: he obviously liked melodies that another composer would have thrown out (the scherzo of his A Major Piano Trio used to be called the “wastebasket scherzo,” because that is where any other composer would have tossed it). Such melodies were a challenge to him.

He once remarked that it would have been wonderful to be a composer at the time of Mozart when it was easy to write music. That is the key to his triumph. He always chose the hard solution. He knew that the great forms and traditions of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century music could be revived and continued only with difficulty. The nostalgia for the past that informs so much of his work was neither facile nor self-indulgent. He was ruthlessly self-critical and apparently modest, unsure of himself only because he knew that the kind of work he produced and the nature of its style could only survive if it measured up to the greatest achievements of the past.

This Issue

October 22, 1998