I promised myself that by year’s end I'd finish the massive bio of Brahms by Jan Swafford (Johannes Brahms, a Biography, Vintage Books, 1997), which I've been reading all year with great enjoyment. It's been slow going, since it’s such a huge compendium of knowledge and information about the life and times of Johannes Brahms and his many friends, colleagues, and relations over a long lifetime of music-making. Also, every time Swafford goes into an analysis of the music Brahms was composing during different periods of his life, which is often, I find myself stopping to listen to the works he's describing.
Thankfully, I have a Spotify account and an iTunes account, which helped me to find the numerous works that are analyzed in the book. Reading this book is like taking a college course on 19th century music, since the author also spends time discussing the works of other composers in Brahms’s world, including Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Wagner, Mahler, and of course, Robert and Clara Schumann, though not with the same depth of analysis and usually only in relation to the works of Brahms himself.
Today, I finally managed to finish the book. Like most bios and bio pics, it reaches its climax around the peak of his musical career, when he completed his fourth and final symphony, and then plods along like a hiker who's made it to the peak of the mountain, took in the grand view, and is now wending his way carefully back down the mountain. The last few chapters are a drag, especially since just about everyone who was important to Brahms is exiting the stage, so to speak. And finally, Brahms does as well, after a long bout with liver cancer. It's a sad end to a somewhat dark and tragic human story, and yet the book like Brahms's works is full of grandeur and moments of sheer brilliance. It’s definitely worth the struggle to read it all the way through. I now have a much more intimate understanding of Brahms and his music, and I believe, a far better understanding of music in general.
I still have in my possession a good number of cassette tape recordings of Brahms from my college days, when I first became enamored of the man and his music. We sang some of his songs in our Chamber Singers choral group at Dartmouth College, and I even learned to play a few of his “easier” pieces on piano. Thus, I was already quite familiar with many of the works described and analyzed in the book, particularly his piano works and his symphonies and piano concertos. At the same time, while reading this book, not only did I learn a lot more about these works I thought I knew, but I also picked up a great deal of knowledge about other works of Brahms that I didn’t know as well or at all.
One of the keys to understanding Brahms is his relationship with Robert and Clara Schumann. This early and tragic episode in his life is told with such great insight and clarity by Swafford that I found myself completely drawn into the story. Swafford makes it very clear how profoundly the Schumanns influenced the dashing young musician in his early years, an influence that lasted for his entire life. His complicated and often stormy relationship with Clara, who was much older than he and had to continue to support her large family following her husband Robert’s untimely death, is a central motif in the book, and it seems no coincidence that soon after she expired, Brahms did as well. At one point Brahms exclaims that Clara was the one person in his life who truly captured his soul, or something to that effect (I’d have to hunt down the exact quote). And since he never married, this casts a tragic pall on his entire life.
Everyone who knows something about Brahms knows about his relationship with the Schumanns. Lesser known (at least by me before I read this book) is the fact that Brahms spent his earliest days as a professional musician playing in the sailor’s haunts of Hamburg, much as the Beatles did over a century later. Swafford makes a big deal of this early experience, claiming that it colored the rest of his life and may have been one of the reasons he favored prostitutes and seemed to avoid sexual relations with women of “good standing.” I’m not sure what to make of this, but the image of a 15-year old Brahms hammering out waltzes and polkas to drunken sailors and whores is one that is hard to get out of one’s mind.
For me, the best parts of the book are the sections where Swafford puts Brahms’s greatest musical works into the context in which they were composed. He makes it clear that Brahms struggled all his life to go beyond his “comfort zone” of deft piano works and learn to compose orchestral works. It took Brahms much longer than most other musicians of his age to compose his symphonies, and perhaps for this reason, each of his four symphonies stands on its own as a great masterwork, whereas for many other musicians, the first few symphonies were a write-off (who listens to Beethoven’s first symphony?) He also worked hard to learn how to compose for other instruments besides the piano and was doing so until nearly the end of his life. His clarinet trios and quintets and his string quintets are fine examples—and here’s where my own knowledge of Brahms’s work was greatly enhanced as I hadn’t really listened to these works before.
Swafford emphasizes how Brahms had a testy, tempestuous, and difficult relationship with just about everyone who was close to him, and the closer that person was, the more difficult the relationship. It seems that Brahms found it very challenging to get close to people without barking at them now and then, like a dog guarding its home. Thus, it’s amazing how soft and sweet so much of his music is, and how popular and much beloved he was by the bourgeoisie of his home country Germany and his adopted city Vienna. And yet there is a darkness and a morose quality to much of his music as well. Swafford points out frequently that Brahms wrote songs for the people. He especially seemed to enjoy writing songs for women and was frequently attracted to young, beautiful singers who flitted in and out of his life like muses. And yet he never let them get too close to him, lest their beauty fade. In other words, keeping a distance allowed him to worship them and not see their flaws.
Clara was a different story, and their relationship comes across as a kind of dysfunctional marriage, with a great deal of misunderstanding and emotional wounds and scars accumulated over the decades. And yet they never lost love and affection for each other despite all that came between them. Truly a love story for the ages. As Swafford writes, we will never know the physical components of their relationship and can only be left guessing at what happened between them in Brahms’s younger days. Spiritually, they seem to have been made for each other, with Brahms serving as the more stable counterpart to the brilliant madness of Robert Schumann.
One can also surmise that loving Clara so intensely held Brahms back, not only from more healthy relations with other women, but also from exploring the depths of his own genius. His tendency to rely on Clara’s opinion for nearly everything he produced seems to have been a great tether on his own wayward tendencies, both for good and for bad. We will never know what he could have composed had he not been so dependent on her judgment and on the judgment of her husband from beyond the grave.
One thing that Swafford hammers again and again is Brahms’ deep respect and knowledge of music history and theory, and especially counterpoint. It seems that every time he encountered a younger musician who sought his advice and shared some compositions with him, Brahms would tell that person to go back and study counterpoint. He seems to have had a lifelong obsession with Bach, even continuing to read Bach’s compositions after he lost the ability to play them. “Go back to Bach!” is what he was saying in essence. And this is probably good advice for any musician.
As Swafford writes in his conclusion, Brahms was the last of the giants in an age of musical titans. He was the rightful heir to the line of great composers that went from Bach to Haydn and Mozart to Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann. Chopin and Mendelsohn play more minor roles in the story as do others. Brahms’s rivalry with Wagner is a big theme in the story, and yet it’s clear that he also had an abiding respect for his rival’s musical talents. As for Liszt, Brahms seems to have despised his flowery compositions and his showy virtuosity (a bit of professional jealousy might have also played a role). After Brahms, Dvorak and Mahler took up the podium (both men were close to Brahms though their work departed from his). Schoenberg, who tried to revolutionize music with his atonality, later declared Brahms a “progressive” and his own music seems to have been influenced by some of Brahms’s work.
At the same time, during the early twentieth century, the forces of war, revolution, and technology in the form of recorded music were shattering that world and creating a new kaleidoscopic world of music that was much more fragmented, diffuse, and abstract than before. The piano-playing, merry-making, beer-chugging, choral-singing world of bourgeois Vienna seems to have died not long after the death of Brahms in 1897. And now we find Brahms on CDs and mp3s, and thanks to Spotify and iTunes and the efforts of countless fine musicians, we have access to his entire corpus of works, but we will rarely if ever experience them in the intimate ways that he and his people did in their living rooms, cafes, concert halls, and bordellos.