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Book Review

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms, A Biography

A Biography

Jan Swafford
NY: Knopf, 1997. 699pp
ISBN-10: 0679422617
ISBN-13: 978-0679422617
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In terms of bringing its subject to life, this is one of the most satisfying biographies I have ever read. As a biography of a composer, it benefits from having a composer as its author. As a modern biography, it avoids both "pathography" and putting its subject on a pedestal, even to make him an "easier target," as Swafford puts it in the preface to an earlier biography, of Ives. Swafford has taught me many things I have not known, and some I have wondered about, since I read Karl Geiringer's biography of Brahms long ago.

One of the cliches of 19th century musical history is the hostility between the Brahmsians and the Wagnerites. As far as Brahms himself is concerned, this is a myth. He actually regarded Wagner's music highly and sent a laurel wreath on the occasion of Wagner's death. He also thought highly of some of Mahler's music, most notably the scherzo of the Resurrection symphony. It was the music of Liszt and Bruckner that Brahms couldn't stand. There was no sympathy between Brahms and Tchaikovsky either. Brahms did have a lifelong liking for popular music, including gypsy music and German folk music.

In spite of his conscious efforts to write for a middle class audience, Brahms' music was considered difficult. The Leipzig audience, in particular, disliked his music – it wasn't enough like Mendelssohn's. The premiere of the First Piano Concerto there was a particular disaster, both musically and for Brahms' personal life. (I will come back to that.)

It is well known that Brahms wrote no operas, but less well known that he wanted to write them and long sought a suitable libretto. He considered setting Gozzi's King Stag and Love for Three Oranges. One reason he did not do so was the inhibiting shadow of Wagner. Just as he felt constraint in writing a symphony because of the burden of living up to the models Beethoven provided, Brahms was not about to look ridiculous in comparison with Wagner. He also had to live up to Schumann's predictions of great things for Brahms.

As a composer, Brahms generally worked out his compositions slowly in his head – he had an exceptional musical memory – before writing them out, and he destroyed most of the sketches he did produce, along with some completed works, notably a second violin concerto and a second double concerto, because initial public reaction to the first ones was not encouraging. (He also destroyed much of his correspondence, though less than I had understood to be the case – evidently some people including Clara Schumann held out on his requests for return of his letters.) Swafford provides considerable musical analysis, with musical examples, particularly of Brahms' major chamber music.

Again, it is well known how long Brahms waited to write for orchestra. One indication of his becoming successful at orchestral writing was the change in attitude of the players of the Vienna Philharmonic at the time of the Haydn Variations. They had not concealed their disdain for one of Brahms' serenades they had to play, and on that occasion Brahms told them that, if they were looking for another Beethoven, those days were gone forever, or something to that effect. But they were quite friendly for the rehearsals of the Haydn Variations, which was an immediate success, and after that Brahms wrote regularly and successfully for orchestra.

Brahms seems to have been a good conductor. He was originally also a good concert pianist, though not in Clara Schumann's class, but as he did not like to practice his later performances suffered.

As a person, Brahms was not known for his tact, and his friends, like Joachim and Clara Schumann, had a great deal of prickly bruskness and withdrawal to put up with over the years. He also seems to have been one of those people to expect their friends to read their minds. Even after many years, Clara felt she did not fully know him. The most egregious instance of public tactlessness was an expression of outright German chauvinism in Denmark after Bismarck had annexed Schleswig-Holstein, and this at a festive occasion. Brahms also shocked even his friends on one occasion when he baited Goldmark for having written, as a Jew, a setting of a Christian text. He appears to have taken strong exception to the rabid antisemitism of Karl Lueger's Vienna, late in the century, however. Swafford quotes him as saying, presumably as a sardonic commentary on this, that he was about to have himself circumcised.

A positive side of Brahms' character was his generosity with money once he had some to give. One extraordinary incident shows his humanity. A fire broke out in the apartment building where he lived and, rather than rescue an important music manuscript he joined the fire brigade in an effort to save the home and shop of a carpenter, whom he then helped financially to recover. (A friend did run up for the manuscript, after failing to persuade Brahms to get it.)

One of the things I've most wondered about Brahms personal life – aside from prurient curiosity about the nature of the relationship between him and Clara Schumann – which they ensured is forever going to remain unknown – is why Brahms never married any of the women he loved and courted, particularly Clara. After reading Swafford, I think I know; at least I understand better than I did. There are at least three or four reasons. First of all, when he was young, he just plain couldn't afford it. He had lived in the Schumann household during the time Robert was institutionalized, and it seems clear that he and the considerably older Clara loved one another. (Interestingly, Johannes' mother had been much older than his father.) But when Robert Schumann died and they might have married, Brahms backed off and moved away. There were all those children that he was in no position to support in the expected bourgeois fashion. And Brahms was unemployed. He was to be passed over repeatedly for the music directorship in his native Hamburg, which would have established his career and given a him secure income; this was a source of great bitterness to him. (When it finally was offered, when he was old, he turned it down. Swafford thinks he wouldn't have stayed, anyway.) I had always assumed that Clara refused Brahms, but Swafford's reading of the available evidence strongly suggests that Clara was quite upset by Brahms' withdrawal. Later Brahms became engaged to a singer his own age, but backed out of the engagement after the failure of his D minor concerto. He said to someone that he couldn't bring failure home to a wife. He also felt that he simply had to be free and unencumbered in order to compose. Finally, Brahms was highly conflicted about women, and a discussion of this is the one bit of psychologizing that Swafford does. Brahms was one of those men who divided women into virgins and whores. His experience with the latter began in pre-adolescence in Hamburg when he earned money by playing in waterfront brothels (where he also learned he could read novels or poetry while playing the piano, an amazing achievement.) In Vienna, prostitutes he knew, and who found him kind, greeted him on the street. (Swafford's main source for this is The Unknown Brahms, by Schauffler, who knew Brahms' contemporaries in Vienna.) At any rate Brahms evidently was unable to establish intimacy with respectable women. He kept falling in love with them though, and evidently they with him.

Swafford's documentation could be more ample; it consists mainly of simple citations, and much of it to secondary literature. He is extraordinarily good at close reading of the available texts, however, though one may sometimes wonder if his great empathy crosses the line to imaginative reconstruction. In any case, this biography is an exceptionally good read.

Copyright © 1999 by R. James Tobin