From fresh-faced youth to bearded prophet
It’s hard nowadays to picture Brahms other than as a bearded patriarch, stern guardian of the German instrumental tradition. For many, he is the composer who upheld the values of abstract music in the face of ruinous harmonic experimentation, bombast and passing fashion.
Each age, however, constructs its own image of a composer, and so it was with Brahms. His early works were seen as challenging, in content as much as in technique, and the public was slow to warm to them. In the article that launched Brahms’ career – ‘Neue Bahnen’ (New Paths; 1853) – Robert Schumann hailed a Messiah for German music, whose passage through the world, like Christ’s, would not be easy. Brahms was trained in the ‘the most difficult aspects of his art’; ‘wounds,’ Schumann foretold, ‘might well await him’.
How could this most conservative of composers possibly be described as progressive?
Brahms had arrived at Schumann’s door a virtual unknown, and the older composer’s encomium undoubtedly gave his career an initial boost. Yet he struggled to find publishers for his more demanding pieces. Brahms’ description of his Cello Sonata Op 38 as ‘easy’ in a letter to one publisher could be read as a composer’s unrealistic assessment of his own work; it’s more likely, however, that he was willing to use any ruse to place his music before an indifferent public.
As time went on, as the fresh-faced youth was replaced by the bearded prophet, Brahms was embraced by audiences. It wasn’t until the success of Ein deutsches Requiem (1868) that his music started to gain global traction; however, works that we now take as staples were often seen as problematic, even by members of Brahms’ own circle. On hearing a piano-duo version of the Fourth Symphony (1885) Eduard Hanslick, probably Brahms’ greatest apologist, remarked: ‘I felt as if I was being thrashed by two clever men’. Antagonists such as Hugo Wolf interpreted Brahms’ careful compositional crafting as a fundamental lack of imagination: ‘his entire output is one great variation on the works of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann’, Wolf snorted. Though such comments reflect the bitter dispute that raged between the so-called New Germans and the traditionalists, for whom Brahms had become a figurehead, they also contain a streak of envy. By the end of his life – especially after the deaths of Wagner (1883) and Liszt (1886) – Brahms reigned alone. As Wolf put it, ‘no singer, no violinist, no pianist, not a single orchestral society dares stage a concert without at least one work by Brahms’.
It wasn’t just performers who felt Brahms’ ubiquity. Writing in 1912, Walter Niemann identified fifty composers of piano music who were clearly under his influence. Hugo Leichentritt went further, claiming that ‘from about 1880 all chamber music in Germany [was] in some way indebted to Brahms’. Even for an admirer like Max Reger, Brahms had become a sort of stifling ‘fog’. A reaction was inevitable, and by the inter-war period Brahms’ music was so passé that few could see its radical facets. So, when Schoenberg gave a centenary address in 1933 entitled ‘Brahms the Progressive’, it was largely assumed he had taken leave of his senses. How could this most conservative of composers possibly be described as progressive?
Schoenberg’s was a voice in the wilderness; Germany in 1933 had no interest in the rantings of an iconoclastic Jew. What’s more, the Nazis had little taste for Brahms, whom they suspected of Jewish ancestry. (Was ‘Brahms’ a corruption of ‘Abrahamsohn’?) So, it wasn’t until the post-war period that Schoenberg’s views started to take root, initially within academic circles, where the extraordinary motivic complexity of Brahms’ music was increasingly recognised. The pendulum, it seemed, had swung.
"The SCO is ideally placed to deliver fresh perspectives on on Brahms"
It’s tempting to think that we enjoy a balanced image of Brahms today. Analysts are aware of the intricacy of his music, many marvelling at the depths they find in it. Yet audiences no longer baulk at the more intellectually ambitious compositions, such as the symphonies; rather, listeners revel in the luxuriant sound-worlds that Brahms conjures. It would also be wrong to suggest that our image of Brahms is now fixed. The period-instrument revolution has started to embrace his music, forcing us to rethink our perceptions once again. Pioneers, who cut their teeth on Baroque and, later, Classical music, have ventured further and further into the nineteenth century, using instruments from the period to create appropriate soundscapes. The results, as with forays into earlier repertoires, are often revelatory.
A second phase of experimentation, still in its infancy, involves recreating the performance styles of Brahms’ lifetime. Some elements, such as the widespread use of portamenti (slides between notes) and deliberate asynchrony (the avoidance of precise ensemble for expressive effect) are an acquired taste, and it is debatable whether such techniques will ever (re)gain a foothold in mainstream orchestras. Conductors are more likely to adopt the extreme tempo fluctuations that we know Brahms favoured. A highly impulsive performer, he liked to change speed, sometimes drastically, as the music grew more or less excited. Clara Schumann’s account of turning pages for Brahms in a performance of his Piano Trio Op 8 is shocking: he was, it appears, so unpredictable that both page-turner and fellow performers were soon completely lost.
What of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra as it embarks on a season of the symphonies? In many respects, the SCO is ideally placed to deliver fresh perspectives on Brahms. Throughout his career, the composer worked with ensembles of many kinds. However, he prized most highly his association with the Meiningen Court Orchestra, which in his day was much the same size as today’s SCO.
Given the breadth of its repertoire, the SCO cannot be expected to change its instrumentarium for each composer. However, to mark the Brahms cycle the Orchestra, guided by Principal Horn Alec Frank-Gemmill, has acquired a set of new horns by Andreas Jungwirth. These are hybrid instruments, a halfway house between natural horns (horns without valves) and modern instruments. They have a lighter sound than the modern horn, an important consideration given the size of the SCO’s string section and, crucially, valves make it easier to play passages that lie awkwardly on natural horn. We know that Brahms favoured the natural horn for some pieces – notably, the Horn Trio Op 40, – but it’s unclear whether this preference extended to the symphonies. According to Frank-Gemmill, the horn-writing of these works demands an unusual degree of virtuosity; the sound of valveless instruments is so distinctive that it tends to dominate the orchestra. For all his love of the horn, this surely was not Brahms’ intention.
Most importantly, perhaps, the SCO now has an established tradition of delivering on modern instruments performances that challenge those of the best period bands. Under Ivor Bolton and Sir Charles Mackerras (who bought a set of natural horns for the Orchestra), the SCO has produced highly polished, stylistically aware interpretations, a tradition maintained and developed by the Orchestra’s current Principal Conductor, Robin Ticciati.
Will the coming season reveal another aspect of Brahms? We must wait for the baton to fall.
The Brahms Series is proudly sponsored by Baillie Gifford