The Emotional Essence of Brahms


WHAT was Brahms’s reputation thirty to thirty-five years ago? A strange reputation. At any rate, a not very favorable one. Serious but boring music. This was almost the unanimous opinion of the general public. It was very evident that the public preferred Beethoven to him. Compared to Brahms only Bruckner seemed duller, not to mention Max Reger, Mahler, and others, about whom it was better from a sense of decency and delicacy not even to speak. Now, of course, both musicians and the public think differently about Brahms. In the beginning of the ‘modern’ epoch, musicians also denied him. At that time Brahms seemed so old-fashioned, heavy, clumsy, and academic that the very mention of him compromised those who entertained for him even the feeblest sort of sympathy. In the blossoming years of Richard Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, and Scriabine only imagine what could have been the interest in Brahms who belonged entirely to the past, was closely bound with the history of music, evidently leaned toward classicism, did not distinguish himself by any sort of innovation or daring, and did not even try to distinguish himself. Years passed. In this epoch Brahms was completely forgotten. Among advanced musicians he was not mentioned. Even if he was played occasionally, it was only in a musically backward milieu, in which the conductors, themselves mediocre and devoid of talent, played for a conservative, routine, and academically minded public.

During these years of contempt for Brahms, modernism succeeded in reaching certain high peaks. Since that time much in it has withered, paled, and shown itself to be not nearly as remarkable as in the years of its first appearance. Together with this change appeared a humbler attitude toward the past; a greater regard for it came into being, and finally there began the socalled ‘revaluation of values.’ A revaluation of values is in itself almost an admission of some sort of defeat and failure. We always count up that which we have left at that moment when we realize that we are not able to squander any more.

And so it happened with the riches of sound accumulated during the modern epoch of musical impressionism in the pre-war years. These riches have proved to be less great than we thought. From this period remain Debussy, Ravel, and, with reservations, Richard Strauss. All the rest which was of value in that period did not belong to militant modernism, and had never been contemptuous of Brahms, being itself on the periphery of that attitude toward music which was dear to him.

In what can one see the change in attitude toward Brahms at the present time? One can see it in the fact that, whereas formerly the ‘new’ musicians seldom denied him, now even those from the youth of the new generation, who do not love him at all, will be more apt to hide this and to be embarrassed by it rather than to show off and boast of their lack of recognition.

In this way, there have been established in our day two trends in attitude towards Brahms, two types of musicians: those who still love him, and those who have come to love him again.

These two trends have now met, but they are not synonymous. The attitude of those who have returned is perhaps more significant and valuable than the attitude of those who have, so to say, always remained true to him, as the former carries with it a new appreciation and a new understanding.

Would that this ‘ return ‘ were caused by pure motives — that is, only by interest in Brahms’s music itself and enthusiasm for it — and not by other motives, as for instance, the desire to hide behind Brahms in settling accounts with other musicians, which was characteristic in many ways of those who through the years had remained true to him. Brahms served them as a shield with which to protect themselves so as not to have to acknowledge, not to see, not to hear the new which was coming into life.

To make Brahms a defender of order, as many continue to do up to this time, is the sign of a not very serious approach to him. To value his music only for the pureness of its melodic contrapuntal line, for the gracefulness of writing and neatness of technique, is rather a poor occupation. Remember what Nietzsche wrote: ‘All is not good which is neat.’ Having dressed oneself in freshly washed rags one will be cleanly dressed, but in tatters. Now the respect of many musicians for Brahms is expressed in just this; for this reason, maybe, their own music gives us also the impression of ‘clean rags.’

The greatest antagonism to Brahms’s music has been manifested by the French. And even up to the present day this antagonism is being wiped out with difficulty. For this there are deepseated reasons connected with the very substance of French culture, in its general as well as in its purely musical aspect. In justice to the French it is necessary to add that Brahms himself did not like French music — in fact, did not like the French in general; and they, not knowing this, subconsciously digested his music with great effort.


Brahms has neither the indestructible contrapuntal logic of a Bach, nor the heroic civic spirit of a Beethoven, nor the overwhelming song-intoxication of a Schubert. But he has something else which none of these have: this is the hallowing of a commonplace life of labor, which may be called the ‘Consecration of Reality.’ It is just this quality which constitutes the emotional-religious substance of his music. Emotion is the chief quality of his music, without which it loses all meaning. Brahms did not need to flee from the world in order to create his art, as many great classicists had done before him. Contrary to them, he asserted himself squarely in this world with its sober reality, and this brings him near to us. The usual trivial and everyday life was odious to musicians in the period of the rise of the romantic school. They opened wide the doors to everything unknown, everything mysterious in life. Their object was to flee by any possible means from prosaic reality and the world of practical things and only staid truths, and to find shelter in a world of dreams and fantasy. The more unstrained these dreams and fantasies, the more they attracted the romanticists, until finally the power of chaos poured through these open dams and drowned music. Many of the romanticists knew how to hold these powers of chaos in subjugation to their will.

The victory over chaos brought these musicians, and together with them all music, enormous conquests and enrichment in the realm of sound. However, certain ones were unable to cope with this chaos and were engulfed by it. Thus perished Schumann. Brahms was the musician who stood closest to Schumann already during the latter’s lifetime, and after his death this intimacy continued under the influence of Klara Schumann. I think that the memory of the tragic fate of Schumann played a tremendous rôle in the life and creative work of Brahms. Schumann perished because he was unable to cope with the chaos which was gradually overpowering him and which in the end destroyed both his reason and his will. The madness of Schumann remained in the memory of Brahms all his life. His music, for all its outer resemblance with Schumann’s, with which it was impregnated, in reality became, as it were, the antithesis to Schumann’s. Brahms became his antipode. This was the consequence of a volitional process of Brahms’s healthy and vitally strong nature.

Summing up the Sturm und Drang period and taking into account the accomplishments of the romantic school, Brahms set himself the goal of bringing music back to a normal accord with life. He set himself the problem of uniting it with healthy disciplined labor and the peaceful existence of man. The religious import of his music consists just in this. Creative and enlightened labor became his religion.

Of course, I do not wish to say that Brahms was only a sober artisan, a musician deprived of all fantasy. He would have been no artist had this been the case. His music is enveloped in a haze of tenderest poetry and fancy, but the hysterical Lorelei, who lured on Schumann and forced him to plunge into the waves of the Rhine, was kind to Brahms. She became for him only a legendary maiden who wafted to him golden dreams of his homeland.

If this emotional significance is not to be heard in Brahms’s music, then what, in fact, is left? Let us not hesitate to say that there is almost nothing, because, in a strictly classical sense, everything which he says has been better and more forcibly said before him. Not even mentioning Beethoven, unsurpassable symphonist, both Schubert and Schumann, and, in many ways, Mendelssohn, had already expressed everything for which Brahms was working. On the other hand, Brahms’s music is not a repetition of the songs of the romanticists. Brahms repeats nothing of that said by his predecessors, and his music speaks entirely of something else. She is austere, chaste, is clothed in simple garb and does not speak grandiloquently. Oh no. If she can be reproached with anything at all, then it is rather with an excessive modesty and reserve. After the neurotic sensuality of the romanticists, Brahms made music pull itself together and return to practical reality; but for Brahms this reality was not such as it had appeared to the first-line romanticists, the creators and founders of the romantic school. Brahms ennobled this everyday reality. He ennobled it in that he was not embarrassed by it, and with his music said: ‘Yes, life is like that; it is built not on an illusion, but on tangible foundations; it is simple and humble, and as such we must love it.’

In his entire person Brahms was the classical type of a German Bauer. And in his music he was also this type. He was a peasant working music as a peasant works the soil. He modeled his musical compositions as clay is baked or a field is fertilized. In this sense, one can find a certain similarity between him and Cézanne. Cézanne’s attitude towards his work in painting was just as simple and just as ‘peasantlike’ as Brahms’s attitude towards his work in music. Cézanne was a peasant in French painting on French soil in the very same era when Brahms was a peasant in German music on German soil. The significance of Brahms for German music was well understood even during his lifetime by the penetrating Klara Schumann, when she wrote in her diary: —

Ich dachte wieder einmal so recht dankbar des Himmels, dass er der Welt mitten in das Wagner-Delirium so eine kräftige gesunde Gestalt gesandt, die für den Moment diesem die Wage hält, und bald uberwiegen muss. Die Menschheit muss ja mit der Zeit gesunden an dem Wahren, Herrlichen, das Brahms auf dem Wege seiner Vorganger fortschreitend schafft. [I thanked Heaven again very gratefully for having sent into the world, in the midst of the Wagner delirium, such a strong, healthy figure, which for the moment would balance this delirium and must soon outweigh it. The human race must with time gain health from the true and noble work that Brahms creates, moving ahead on the road of his predecessors.]

Chamber music is the foundation of all Brahms’s creative work. With his chamber music works he brings musicians back to the intimacy of the simple, domestic milieu for which 1 his music was created. This is already not a salon of mad dreamers and audacious innovaters as in the epoch of Berlioz, Paganini, and Liszt, but the snugness of the almost bourgeois well-being of a German family. It is in connection with this milieu that the religious import of his music is revealed. It is based on a religion of work and on the poetry of a peaceful domestic milieu, the work being in loving conjunction with the milieu.

From this point, from the chamber music style bred on such simple foundations, are lines leading to the great symphonic forms of Brahms. They are not with him mysteries or miracle plays, as with Beethoven, and they are not a feverish frenzy, as with Schumann, but simple symphonic gatherings — in other words, ‘academies.’ Brahms understood ‘academies’ as just symphonic gatherings for performing serious music, and not in that dry, negative sense which is now given to this term. The ‘Academic Overture,’ the ‘Serious Songs,’ the ‘German Requiem,’ are all links in one chain, stones with which he built his musical temple.

The religion of Brahms was, of course, not the same as if it had been religion of a dogmatic order. His religion was music and only music, and service to it was the sole and high meaning of his life. Let us recall the essence of one of his songs, which might be the slogan for all Brahms’s simple, lofty, and noble art: —

As one who gazes from the shore
On ocean’s blue unbounded,
Unheeding, though by treasure store
On ev’ry hand surrounded,
On ev’ry hand surrounded.
Or one who lifts his gaze on high
Where myriad stars are beaming,
And sees but one in all the sky,
The star of which he’s dreaming,
The star of which he’s dreaming.

(From the lyric ‘An ein Bild,’ by Max von Schenkendorf, ‘translated by Alice Mattullath. Copyright 1915, by Carl Fischer, New York.)