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Johannes Brahms - Studies In Musical Biography

Of very different personality from that of Tschaikowsky is the subject of our study this month. The morbid temperament of the Russian, coloring with dark hues his life and compositions, contrasts vividly with the sunny, but no less strong, disposition of the German. Both were inclined to solitariness, and both were bachelors, but their solitary habits arose from different causes. As one is led to expect by such temperamental variation, their compositions show contrast equally pronounced. Both reached unusual heights of fame, each was original and individual. Their careers illustrate the truth that while the roads to success resemble each other in some respects, they converge from widely distant parts of life's circle, and differ from each other very materially. Each earnest worker who attains to success does so in individual ways, and herein is one of the chief values, if not the chief value, of biographical study, namely, in the opportunity it presents for the comparative study of ways and means when modified by temperament and environment.
We see in Brahms, given by some a place beside Beethoven and Bach, a quiet, simple figure; loving seclusion but genial and friendly with those whom he knew and trusted; secluding himself through no tendency toward melancholy desire to be alone, but because it enabled him to do his work better; living an unassuming life for many years in the same house, content to study and compose. Brahms possessed a strong personality. The traits that prompted him to retire from public notice after successful hearings and devote himself to close study, that made him oblivious to the criticisms and censures of the press, that caused him to detest show and everything meretricious in its nature are the inward evidence of strength of character. We find Brahms capable of carrying out his plans, patiently awaiting results, and with unswerving directness moving onward toward the ideals which dominated him. The applause of the crowd, even the praise of friends, were extraneous matters; he was satisfied to create works in which these ideals were embodied, leaving the future to determine their position. The storm and stress of battle for recognition did not attract him; his creations were to make their way by inherent vitality. Wagner fought his way to recognition, Brahms waited for recognition to come.
Johannes Brahms, the son of a musician, was born at Hamburg and spent his boyhood there. His training was of the character which thoroughly grounds and prepares for exceptional productivity. Its nature may be surmised from the following incident, which occurred when, as a youth of twenty, Brahms was making a tour with the violinist, Remenyi. They were to play the Kreutzer Sonata, when it was discovered that the piano was a half-tone below pitch. Despite the spoiling of the effect, Remenyi was about to lower the pitch of the violin, when Brahms volunteered to transpose the piano part to the higher key, although he was playing from memory. This he did without decreasing the worth of the artistic interpretation. When twenty-nine years old he settled in Vienna, which had not done justice to Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann. His advent in Vienna was that of one who came to claim his own. The critics were not able to comprehend the full extent of his genius, and announced their unreadiness to accept him as a composer on the strength of the works presented. Composers of established reputation received him into the inner brotherhood at once. As has already been said, he did not rush into the arena to make known his compositions; he was ready to wait. Like Bach, he remained quietly at home doing the work which came to his hand, unmoved by the restless ambition which touched so many of his contemporaries.
He began his career in the day of the romantic school, and wrote most of his works during the conflict which raged about the "music of the future." Yet the smell of fire is not upon his garments; he preserved the classic traditions of Bach and Beethoven, and was not swerved by either romanticism or realism from the pure beauty of the classical form. His unusual constructive skill and the definite character of his genius made his contributions to the classical school individual, a distinct addition in a field that was supposed to be already filled to the full. His music is still the subject of much argument, pro and con; he wrote as his genius dictated, and not as others would have. He expressed his realization of the beautiful in his own language, and his realization of the beautiful differs from that of many who set themselves to criticise his music. He is still called academic, harsh, unbeautiful, because his sense of beauty does not agree with that of his critics.
To study the life of Brahms is to enter into the very fundamentals on which our musical structure is based. For to understand the life-work of Brahms and appreciate it means a study of the music of Bach and Beethoven, and of Wagner. These have established art standards which still rule, and the art of Brahms is so individual, so independent, that it must be compared with theirs, and yet in this comparison there is danger. There are too many instances of pitting one master, with distinctive characteristics, against another equally distinctive, in an effort to establish his position. This is a comparison which works harm and leaves the student less informed than before. There is a comparison which illumes; such a comparison is the following, quoted from James Huneker's essay on Brahms:—
"Wagner was a great fresco painter, handling his brush with furious energy, magnificence, and dramatic intensity. Beside his vast, his tremendous scenery, the music of Brahms is all brown, all gray, all darkness, and often small. It reaches results in a vast, slow, even cold-blooded manner compared with the reckless haste of Richard of the Footlights. One is all showy externalization, a seeker after immediate and sensuous effects; the other, one of those reserved, self-contained men who feel deeply and watch and wait. In a word, Wagner is a composer for the theater, with all that the theater implies. * * * Brahms is for the concert room, a symphonist, a song writer, and, above all, a German."
Here is a comparison which gives the peculiarities of each composer without detracting from either, giving the student a clue which will help him in searching for the secret of the power of each. It is in this spirit that our biographic study should be conducted. In the life of Brahms, his own early exhibition of care and persistence, the wisdom of his teachers, his thorough equipment, as revealed by the incident quoted above, his patient self-cultivation after successful appearances, and his personal characteristics stand out prominently. The forms in which he composed, the nature and extent of his creative powers, his position and influence in Vienna, and later, abroad, his modesty, the characteristics of
his music and the particulars in which it excels demand careful study. In this connection the art of Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner should be studied. For this purpose considerable reading must be done. Chapters, seven, eight, eleven, and twelve of Parry's "Art of Music" should be carefully read. About Brahms, "A Biographical Sketch," by Dr. Herman Deiters; "Johannes Brahms," in "Studies in Modern Music," by W. H. Hadow; "The Music of the Future," in "Mezzotints in Modern Music," by James Huneker; "Recollections of Johannes Brahms," by Dietrich and Widmann, should be read.
1. What was the first element in the success of Brahms ?
2. What were his personal characteristics, and how did they effect his work?
3. Name the essential attributes of his music.
4. Analyze him and his creative power.
5. What is his relation to his predecessors? To his successors?
6. How would you compare his art with that of Bach? Of Beethoven? Of Wagner?

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