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It's Only the Truth if you can Yell the Loudest!
Brahms writes a "letter to the editor"

Back in the good old days of the 19th century life was simple and friendly; people acted with honesty and integrity, and folks' anxiety about the future was rather low.

And if you bought that, I've got a bridge you may be interested in.


People always find something to squabble about...even that "universal" language called music. In fact, be particularly suspicious whenever you see people referring to it as a universal language. Usually what that means is that people are under the assumption that the things they value in music are universally good, and the things they don't care for are universally bad.  They may cite the very fundamental laws of the universe as justification, or the immovable wall of custom.

Why am I bringing this up? Because just such a debate raged in musical Germany in the 19th century. And one of the principle characters was a young man. Perhaps you've heard of him. His name was Johannes Brahms.

He had a rather heavy burden on his shoulders. One of his mentors, the very zealous Robert Schumann, had announced his compositional debut in quite Messianic terms. Actually, the eager elder composer had borrowed indiscriminately from a number of mythological traditions to proclaim to the world that the future of music had arrived. "Over his cradle graces and heroes have kept watch" he wrote of this young man whom he seemed to think had sprung directly out of Zeus's forehead, forgetting for the moment that it had actually been the goddess Athena. For some time, Schumann wrote, the world had been preparing for someone to show them the way forward, and here, at only 20 years of age, was a finished product. He needed no training. All his compositions were revelations of another world, the range of ideas enormous, the working out of the themes without a misstep anywhere, in a word, perfect.

How would you like a recommendation letter like that? And Schumann published it, no less, in a major newspaper devoted to music. Now, our dear zealot had been guilty of trespasses of decorum on several previous occasions. Many names you have never heard of, in fact, were given great fanfare and predicted fine futures by his enthusiastic pen. But this article was over the top even for Schumann.

He had his reasons, partisan though they were. Brahms's visit to the Schumann household in 1853 confirmed several of Schumann's own ideas about music. For one, Brahms was above empty displays of virtuosity. The musical  idea expressed in the composition was more important than being a pianistic show-off, even though, as Schumann's wife Clara commented "his [compositions] are very difficult." And those compositions were also sonatas, songs, quartets--surely he would write a symphony too, wouldn't he? All those old forms in which Schumann's idol, the great Beethoven, had excelled. And his music was not driven by an external program, or fanciful story.

Schumann had his enemies.  Two of the worst offenders were close contemporaries.  Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt both championed music as drama, as subservient to a story line, not a time-tested musical process. Franz Liszt was a great musical showman who stunned his audiences (particularly its female members) with his thunderous paroxysms of sound.  And Richard Wagner was out to reform Germany by requiring it to sit through his six hour operas.

A twenty-year old Brahms had already managed to sleep through Liszt's virtuosity en-route to the Schumann household in 1853. Liszt's programmatic, massive one-movement piano sonata, its apocalyptic fugues, its heroic octave passages, its constantly shifting moods, must have disoriented the tradition-conscious Brahms, who is said to have dozed off while Liszt performed it for him shortly after it was written.  Liszt wrote music as if trying to fill a wing of the music library in Weimar, and his pen was an active supporter of music which clothed an idea or a drama, a decisive break with the old concept of the sonata as Beethoven knew it. But it was Liszt's cantankerous son-in-law who really gave Brahms pause.  Wagner was a true high priest of his own music and an implacable enemy of anyone who got in his way. Even Liszt eventually made the unfortunate mistake of dying during Wagner's annual opera festival, and received no deathbed visit from the younger genius' widow, his own daughter Cosima. It was unforgivable to distract the attention of the faithful.

Brahms was less than thrilled with Wagner's attitude. It was shrill, it was paranoid, it made enemies of everyone who wasn't part of the self-appointed musical seer's inner circle. And in a typical rhetorical tactic, it assumed for itself a title that left no room for dissent, calling itself "The Music of the Future." In other words, get with the program, this is the one true musical faith.

Wagner had no reservations about expressing himself in prose either--in his 1000 page autobiography that he dictated later in life or in innumerable articles in journals that outlined his place in the musical universe.  His first task, familiar to many a high priest of a new religion, was to appropriate to his own cause the prophets of old.  In other words, he had to claim Beethoven. 

The last symphony of Beethoven is the redemption of Music from out of her own peculiar element into the realm of universal art. It is the human evangel of the the art of the future. Beyond it no forward step is possible; for upon it the perfect artwork of the future alone can follow, the universal drama to which Beethoven has forged for us the key.

There's that word universal again!  By universal drama Wagner was of course referring to his own operas, the glorious consummation of what Beethoven had prophesied in his ninth symphony when he had introduced voices into the finale.  To Wagner, and the host of young, rabid disciples that sprang up around him, they were in the midst of a great historical tradition with Beethoven as its patriarch, its Father Abraham, and Wagner as the logical heir to this throne. Wagner's massive orchestra, his epic operas (he did not write Symphonies or Concertos, only operas), his fusion of mythic legend, drama, singing and music into one great cloth--this was the consummation which Beethoven's prophecy had predicted.

Not that Wagner was alone in his use of "prophecy." Peruse Schumann's article for a bit and you'll notice that Schumann also declares Brahms the heir to the great Beethoven.

See a problem here?

Biographers tell us that most of the shots fired were from the Wagner camp. Wagner, himself a master of the poison pen, wrote endlessly about his position and its correctness, denouncing his enemies, even basing  the part of a pedantic buffoon in one of his operas on a critic he didn't like. Eventually Wagner-friendly forces took over operation of the very newspaper Schumann had used to predict Brahms's future greatness and kept up a raging string of editorials. Everybody had to choose sides.

History records that the two combatants met once. Brahms played his piano Variations on a Theme by Handel, op. 24 for Wagner, who came astoundingly close to launching a compliment. He said "it just goes to show what can still be done by somebody who knows how to use the old forms." In other words, Wagner recognized that Brahms really knew how to compose, even if he was using the "backward" mold of piano variations instead of the wave-of-the-future music drama. It was a backhanded compliment, but still astonishing for Wagner.  Brahms, for his part, actually owned the score of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, an opera which celebrates an ancient tradition of artist-singers in Germany, and which begins with a long display of contrapuntal writing with which Wagner no doubt wanted to prove that he stood on the shoulders of Bach.  Like many leaders of opposing parties, there seemed to be a bit of admiration between the two mixed with all that scorn.

Brahms, for his part, had mellowed a little by the time of that meeting. He had been a young firebrand once, but had not taken part in the Dresden revolution of 1848, not nearly gotten himself arrested for associating with a member of the communist party, not been banished for non-payment of debts--in a word, he had never been Wagner. Brahms, too, lived in poverty while he tried to get the world's attention, but he pinched his pennies and lived within his means. Wagner had to let the world know he was entitled to the privileges of genius. It was rare for Brahms to leave the country. Except for a few summers in Switzerland as he aged, and a brief tour of Italy when young, he rarely left his native Hamburg. Wagner had already tried to make his living in Paris, sneaking across the border of the Germanys twice to avoid being arrested for his political ties or his massive debts.  And, reticent individual that he was, Brahms was not given to expressing himself in pen or in public, whereas Wagner had an acute case of verbal diarrhea.

But there was a time when Brahms had decided to speak out. Before we give the impression that Brahms lived with his mother and only went out to church on Sundays, let us recall that this impoverished young man had worked in a bar/brothel as a pianist to support his family during adolescence. He was from the rough part of town. He had survived being run over by a horse-drawn tax-cab in his youth. And he was given to rather salty turns of phrase in private and in letters.  He could be tactless, a trait which caused rifts with nearly every friendship he ever had at some point. Some of the things he said about the Wagnerites were probably every bit as wicked as the things they were saying about him.

He only ventured once, however, to do it in public. This was a time when he and some of his friends decided to circulate a petition.  It decried the Wagnerites assumption that they alone were the high priests of music, and called them on the carpet for doing deplorable and perverse things to it. In the high-minded manner of a proclamation it called the Wagnerites to account.

Or would have, if the letter had not been intercepted by the enemy while it bore only a few signatures. Instead of a grass-roots movement to show by sheer numbers how Wagner was popularly opposed by hordes of musicians his party delightfully assumed were on board with him, Brahms and his friends suffered a publicity nightmare.


After that, Brahms decided to speak only in music. His next set of variations for the piano is a bold, virtuosic set of variations on the famous theme by Paganini. On hearing this demonically gifted violinist light up the Parisian landscape in 1830, a young Franz Liszt had retired for three years to see if he could learn to do the same thing with a piano.  Brahms must have known he was deep in "enemy territory."  It is as if Brahms is saying "hey, I could out-duel you with fire and devilry if I wanted to."

In the newspapers, Brahms kept his lip zipped for the rest of his life while the Wagnerians and a few loyal allies, including the critic Wagner made fun of in his opera, duked it out in words. By this time there was no placating anyone, and even when Brahms sent flowers to Wagner's family upon hearing of his death, the followers of the unrelenting musical high priest assumed it must be some kind of insult.

Brahms eventually fulfilled Schumann's prophecy with his Symphonic masterpieces, delayed in production though they were by the weight of expectation. He achieved the rare distinction of being considered the greatest composer of his age throughout Europe even before his death.  He let his music speak for him. It still does.


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