The poet Siegfried Sassoon was once amazed that a Rite of Spring audience was, except for him, taking it all so calmly: ‘They are listening to this not-quite-new audacity as though it were by someone dead, like Brahms.’
‘Dead like Brahms’ – in the early 1920s you couldn’t get any deader than that. This was the same composer who, in the later 1890s, had been fêted in a triumphant series of concerts as the most celebrated composer in Europe. A whole generation of composers had already fallen under the spell and the authority of his style: the Brahms ‘fog’ (as it was less flatteringly known) was everywhere.
Meanwhile there had been the First World War which came near to breaking up our civilisation. The survivors, that young generation of the 1920s, were traumatised, split between trying to forget the immediate past and finding someone to blame for it. They lashed out indiscriminately at the ‘Old Gang’ – of which Brahms was seen as a leading member. The generation game has rarely been played with such venom. And ‘the war to end all wars’ had only produced an exhausted form of cultural politics which tried to displace the Austro-German tradition with a rather queasy Franco-Russian one.
It’s easy now to treat Brahms’s music like a huge quiescent old pussycat that one can stroke without getting scratched. During his lifetime, however, his music was found uningratiating, if not forbidding, and frankly rather difficult. The First Piano Concerto in 1859, for example, offered audiences (according to a contemporary critic) ‘a waste, barren dreariness’ and when Clara Schumann later encountered Brahms’s ravishing Intermezzo in B minor, Op. 119, she was shocked by its thorny dissonance. The very young Schoenberg soon hunted out these brand-new difficult pieces, discovering in them just that rebarbative quality which appeals to the young. The rest, as they say, is history – the music history of the 20th century, which was built out of the further implications of Brahms’s music just as much as from the hypnotic drama of Wagner’s.
As a boy growing up in the poorer areas of Hamburg, Brahms read deeply in folk tales, mythology and studied collections of folksongs. When the Hungarian fiddler Ede Reményi visited after the 1848 revolutions, Brahms joined him on tour. Whatever he then picked up of Hungarian/gypsy music would surface throughout the rest of his life – particularly in the G minor Piano Quartet and in the quasi-improvisatory section of the Clarinet Quintet of 1891. Another important influence on Brahms would come from the violinist Joseph Joachim, who became his duet partner: the two young men swapped post-contrapuntal problems and their solutions. Through his unusually broad interest in Renaissance and Baroque music, Brahms also formed long-term friendships with Friedrich Chrysander, editor of Handel, and with Philipp Spitta, editor of Schütz and Bach.
In 1853 Brahms presented himself at the house of Robert and Clara Schumann and was greeted there as a young messiah. The sense of having come home at last, both personally and musically, was soon eclipsed by two lasting sorrows: Schumann went mad – Brahms helped Clara through this terrible situation; and Brahms’s subsequent emotional dependence on her formed the desolate pattern of his life. Girls came and went, one of them Clara’s daughter Julie, whose engagement to an Italian nobleman produced from Brahms on one hand the first set of Liebeslieder waltzes, on the other the aching void of the Goethe settings, Alto Rhapsody, its slow movement a ‘gentle portrait’ of Clara.
By the time Brahms finally settled in Vienna in 1869 at the age of 36, the course of the rest of his life had been set. His performing career continued to fill the winter months, composing the summer ones. Composing started early in the morning with the aid of strong coffee: it ceased at lunchtime. He worked in Vienna, at Portschach in Carinthia and at Thun in Switzerland. He sustained over many years a formidable workload. Indeed, what he left behind may well have been a fraction of what he wrote: intense creativity was tempered by ever fiercer self-criticism. Wholesale burnings are said to have taken place in his last years, but much earlier he himself claimed to have destroyed 20 string quartets before releasing the pair of Op. 51.
It is difficult to say when Brahms’s vintage years begin. The summers of 1878 and 1879 produced the Violin Concerto, the Op. 76 piano pieces, the G major Violin Sonata and the Op. 79 piano Rhapsodies. 1881 was the year not only of the monumental Second Piano Concerto, but of the marmoreal choral work Nänie. The Fourth Symphony of 1885 ends with the greatest passacaglia since the time of Bach. (Even so, it is outpaced for me by the Double Concerto of 1887 – the nearest Brahms gets to rejoicing.) The Swiss summer of 1886 gave us the gaunt powerful C minor Piano Trio and the Second Cello Sonata. Then in 1890 came the G major String Quintet, Op. 111 – the work with which Brahms thought that his composing career had come to an end.
Yet Brahms’s creative energies were renewed when he met the German clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, prompting him to write the Clarinet Trio, destined unfairly always to live in the shadow of its immediate successor, the Clarinet Quintet. The E flat and F minor sonatas followed, Janus-like in the way in which they draw not only upon the sonata tradition of his immediate forebears, but transform the world of the old contrapuntal masters. And his late piano pieces of 1892 and 1893 – intimate diary entries, every bar the work of a master – would gain a huge following. The last of the giants who gave art its rules has, even in our own age, an intimate appeal to the secret places in the heart of all music lovers. It is quite something to be dead like Brahms.