Brahms: The Innovator

Pianist Pina Napolitano tells us why she thinks Brahms was a trailblazer of 20th-century music

Brahms: The Innovator

Brahms’s music has been the soundtrack to many days, thoughts, and emotions, as well as my companion to many hours at the piano. There is no need to explain why we love Brahms — the simple beauty of his music is explanation in itself. But I always felt that at the heart of this beauty lies an enigma – inextricable and very deep.

Brahms was considered a conservative, because he conserved the works of other composers – there is so much Bach in his music! But not only Bach: there can be found a counterpoint even more ancient alongside the majestic Beethovenian classical conception of form, Chopin’s romanticism, the intricacy of Schumann and of course, the deeply Schubertian love for melody. There is in Brahms’s music, essentially, everything that came before. 



But the enigma does not finish there. It is, surely, at least partially hidden somewhere in the compactness and ascetic soberness of Brahms’s forms and language. His pieces – and each bar within them — are like crystals, and to interpret them is extremely difficult. You cannot but touch a corner without altering all the others and deforming it. You cannot pay less attention to any note, because the same semantic weight and the same inevitability lies within all of them. At the same time, it must move, sing, swing and flow. An almost impossible combination.

Other answers came to me when I studied the piano works of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. I had a feeling that it was a continuation of the same discourse, but in another language. Brahmsian in metrical conception and phrasing, in compactness, in the level of polyphony and expression — but no longer tonal. Brahms the great conservative was also a great innovator, as I then read in the beautiful essay by Schoenberg: he had brought the tonal discourse and its forms to their extreme limits, which already foreshadowed their dissolution. It was not a showy, loud revolution in the style of Wagner, but rather a transformation. Brahms was not responsible for it, but rather that responsibility lay with the musical material itself. In fact, Brahms did not fancy himself a ‘progressive’, he would have laughed at this description; he considered himself instead to tragically be the last exponent of a musical tradition destined to finish with his death.



Performing his late works together with those of the Second Viennese School, alternating them and occasionally mixing their individual movements, intermingling them with those of Schoenberg and his pupils, I keep losing a sense of distinction between tonal, atonal and serial, and it feels to me like following the same discourse without interruption, simultaneously looking forwards and backwards in time.

The ‘enigmatic’ position of Brahms now seems to me precisely that he stands on a ridge between past and future. He is able to condense, rarefy, and summarise an entire musical tradition, delivering it, without even realising, into the hands of the future, preparing fertile terrain for new transformations. I think that the acceptance of a musical future, of modern and contemporary music, can take place only thanks to and in the name of the past, by making evident the inevitable links which connect these two slopes of time, in chains of continuous change.

Pina Napolitano is a leading exponent of the music of the Second Viennese School and Brahms. On 25 April 2018 she is performing at St John’s Smith Square in a concert titled ‘Brahms The Progressive’, exploring the connection between Brahms’s late piano music and the birth of Modernism through the works of Webern, Berg and Schoenberg. 

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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