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Friday, February 20, 2015

That Scoundrel Brahms

Guest Bloggers Dept.: Even as we grappled with multi-tonality of Schnittke’s music last Sunday and the less-challenging but still-challenging journey through Hindemith’s, we anticipated an easier-to-parse pleasure from the music of Brahms, because pleasant-sounding melodies too often obscure the rest of the content. But even with Brahms it has been a challenge, as these reports from his lifetime (and shortly beyond) can attest, drawn from Nicholas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective.


I PLAYED OVER THE MUSIC of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius. Why, in comparison with him, Raff is a giant, not to speak of Rubinstein, who is after all a live and important human being, while Brahms is chaotic and absolutely empty dried-up stuff. – Tchaikovsky’s Diary, October 9, 1886.

Johannes Brahms
Musical people, as a rule, have not as yet got “educated” by the “music of the future” up to the point where they may enjoy passage after passage bereft of all tonality by meandering through doors of modulation, around corners of accidentals, and through mazes of chromatics that lead nowhere in particular unless it be to the realm of giddiness. They long occasionally to come out into the sunlight or to emerge upon some scene where recognizable objects may be viewed, grouped or marshaled somewhat according to nature and the understood laws of unity and symmetry. There is so much of this ultra-modern kind of writing in the Brahms Serenade, op. 11, that, with its inordinate length, its total effect is wearisome. The general treatment in this Serenade is after Brahms’s usual fashion, abstruse, intellectual. The work, on a first hearing at least, is largely unintelligible. – Boston Daily Advertiser, October 31, 1882.

Brahms’s Second Symphony was listened to attentively but did not arouse any enthusiasm. What work of Brahms ever did? Of course it is an exceedingly erudite work, so to speak, containing details which betray an honest and profound musical thinker; but it lacks grand, sweeping ideas, and is deficient in sensuous charm. The Allegretto is the most original movement of the four. It is marked “grazioso,” yet it rather reminds one of the gambols of elephants than of a fairy dance. The greater part of the symphony was antiquated before it was written. Why not play instead Rubinstein’s Dramatic Symphony, which is shamefully neglected here, and any one movement of which contains more evidence of genius than all of Brahms’s symphonies put together, and would certainly be received with more favor by the audience? – New York Post, November 1, 1888.

Brahms takes an essentially commonplace theme; gives it a strange air by dressing it in the most elaborate and far-fetched harmonies; keeps his countenance severely; and finds that a good many wiseacres are ready to guarantee him as deep as Wagner, and the true heir of Beethoven. ... Strip off the euphuism from these symphonies and you will find a string of incomplete dance and ballad tunes following one another with no more organic coherence than the succession of passing images reflected in a shop window in Piccadilly during any twenty minutes in the day. – George Bernard Shaw, The World, London, June 18, 1890.

To me it seems quite obvious that the real Brahms is nothing more than a sentimental voluptuary. ... He is the most wanton of composers. ... Only his wantonness is not vicious; it is that of a great baby. ... rather tiresomely addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and making a prolonged and intolerable noise. – George Bernard Shaw, The World, June 21, 1893.

The themes of the Piano Quartet, op. 26, of Brahms are dry, insipid, and of trifling importance. ... We see the man at work rather than the result of the labor. The digressions are like the paths in a labyrinth; they perplex the wanderer who seeks a resting place; his eyes fall everywhere upon covers of counterpoint; and if by chance he threads the maze and finds the center, it is too apt to prove a disappointment instead of a relief. For in this Quartet, the promises of Brahms are seldom kept; the fuss and fury of preparation leads to a weak performance, and a little mouse is the reward of a great groaning and sore travail. – Philip Hale, Boston Traveler, December 31, 1890.

I do not like and I cannot like the C minor Symphony of Brahms. I am willing to admit without argument that the Symphony is grand and impressive and all that. So is a Channel fog. ... This C minor Symphony seems to me the apotheosis of arrogance. ... Or let the Symphony be treated in symbolism: The musicians are in a forest. The forest is dark. No birds are in this forest save birds that do not sing. ... The players wander. They grope as though they were eyeless. Alarmed, they call to each other; frightened, they shout together. It seems that obscene, winged things listen and mock the lost. ... Suddenly the players are in a clearing. They see close to them a canal. The water of the canal is green, and diseased purple and yellow plants grow on the banks of the canal. ... A swan with filthy plumage and twisted neck bobs up and down in the green water of the canal. And then a boat is dragged towards the players. The boat is crowded with queerly dressed men and women and children, who sing a tune that sounds something like the hymn in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. ... Darkness seizes the scene. – Philip Hale, Boston Journal, October 8, 1893.

Brahms’s C minor Symphony figured on the program. I have most carefully studied the score of this symphony, and have pored over the analytical program, but acknowledge my inability to grasp the work or to see why it was written. The composition reminded me of a visit to a sawmill in the Adirondack Mountains. Great logs of melodies were hauled up with superhuman power and noisily sawed into boards of phrases varying in length and thickness. Some of them were again reduced to shingles and laths of figures, to be finally stacked away in a colossal pile of a climax. ... Brahms despises the charm of mere beauty. His harmonies are abrupt and not luxurious, his melodies quaint or grim rather than beautiful. He is somewhat too manly a musical bully. – Clarence Lucas, Musical Courier, New York, December 6, 1893.

The Brahms Sextet is a work built upon dry-as-dust elements. It is one of those odd compositions which at times slipped from the pen of Brahms, apparently in order to prove how excellent a mathematician he might have become, but how prosaic, how hopeless, how unfeeling, how unemotional, how arid a musician he really was. ... You feel an undercurrent of surds, of quadratic equations, of hyperbolic curves, of the dynamics of a particle. . . But it must not be forgotten that music is not only a science; it is also an art. The Sextet was played with precision, and that is the only way in which you can work out a problem in musical trigonometry. – Vernon Blackburn, Pall Mall Gazette, London, February 28, 1900.

Art is long and life is short: here is evidently the explanation of a Brahms symphony.
– Edward Lorne, Fanfare, London, January 1922.

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