Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 64:15 July 17, 1998 p14
A New Look at Johannes Brahms
[orig. title: Looking Backward with Brahms]
Review by Leonard J. Lehrman
885 words
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU

Johannes Brahms: A Biography by Jan Swafford, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, [721 pp.] ISBN 0-679-422261-7

In 1967, a gifted young composer and trombonist from Chattanooga, Tennessee named Jan Johnson was President of the Harvard-Radcliffe Music Club, shortly before its demise. Reconciling the desires of a wide public for continual exposure to the (mostly) 19th century classics with the needs of living composers to write and find an audience for their own works proved too contradictory, and only a couple of years later the organization burst apart at the seams.

Thirty years hence, having changed his surname to Swafford, Jan is still dealing with the same contradictions: Endeavoring to pursue a career in composition, for which he has won a number of awards, he has nevertheless become much better known as the author of The Vintage Guide to Classical Music and biographies of the American composer Charles Ives and, most recently, the self-styled Hamburg exile in Vienna: Johannes Brahms.

Ives may have been the forward-looking "Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln of American music," in Leonard Bernstein's often-cited words. But Brahms was in many ways the end of a line, the classicist of late Romanticism who took inspiration from and performed many more of his forbears than his contemporaries--an inclination Swafford seems to share:

"I'm not too keen on the state of music in the US these days, and our friends in academe are doing their best to kill it off altogether.... In my book, nobody alive is in the league of Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, Ives, et al," he stated in a letter to this writer [12/31/96]. Focusing on Brahms's 1888 vocal quartet "Naechtens," set entirely in 5/4 time, Swafford sees a direct link to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring 25 years later, forgetting the much earlier chorus in the same meter by Mikhail Glinka in Ruslan and Ludmila. Among a few other errors, he misquotes, without attribution, the lyrics of the American off-Broadway classic "Try to Remember" and misspells the "Schicksalslied" as if it were a Yiddish transliteration: "Shicksalslied."

Reviews of his Brahms biography have been, in Swafford's own words, "all over the map, from 'masterpiece' to borderline pan." For our purposes, a few points largely ignored by other critics deserve prominence, in particular: how Brahms behaved towards women, Jews and antisemitism.

Brahms intentionally destroyed a large amount of his correspondence, along with sketches and even many complete compositions, so we will probably never know the full extent of the romantic relationship he had with Clara Schumann, who, 14 years his senior, was in many ways the love of his life. That he frequented whorehouses, claiming to have played the piano in them while still an adolescent, and many times came close to but never consummated a marriage or the composition of an opera, is well known.

He was an admirer of the militarism of Bismarck, and his Triumphlied, now considered as inferior as Beethoven's comparable Wellington's Victory, was a great contemporaneous success, even with Clara Schumann. Nevertheless, maintains Swafford, "he remained a liberal and a democrat at heart."

Though an admirer of much of Richard Wagner's music, especially the Prelude to Tristan, Brahms let himself by championed by the Viennese (Jewish) critic Eduard Hanslick as the anti-antisemitic alternative to the saint of Bayreuth's and Franz Liszt's "Music of the Future." His friends Theodor Billroth and Viktor von Miller zu Aichholz co-founded the "Party of Resistance to Antisemitism" in 1891, and Brahms himself told Richard Heuberger, "Antisemitism is madness!"

Nonetheless, his own insensitive behavior toward Jews in his circle of friends hardly shows him to have been a model of understanding. His needling of Karl Goldmark, composer of The Queen of Sheba among many other often successful operas, went beyond the bounds of mere teasing: Goldmark had set one of the Psalms to music, using Martin Luther's German translation of the text. "Don't you think it extraordinary that a Jew should set Martin Luther's words!" pontificated Brahms at dinner with him at the house of Ignaz Bruell (who also was Jewish) in Vienna, going on relentlessly until "the dinner came to an abrupt end."

Swafford attempts in effect to apologize for his biographee, but Brahms himself never did. Goldmark soon thereafter moved out of Vienna, which eventually became "one of the most reactionary musical centers of all," as well as a hotbed of antisemitism. The story of Brahms's growling ironically, "Next week I'm going to have myself circumcised," is also not as unambiguous in its possible interpretations as Swafford tries to impute.

On the other hand, Wagner's Parsifal is aptly characterized by Swafford as "perhaps the highest expression in art of pseudo- spiritualized German antisemitism." Yet it was first conducted by a Jew, Hermann Levi. One wonders with anticipation how James Levine will treat that subject in this summer's seminar in Bayreuth on "Wagner and the Jews."

An especially revealing bit of correspondence between Brahms and Bremen music director Karl Reinthaler reveals more than almost anything Brahms's human, even humanistic, areligiosity, thus at least partially fulfilling his biographer's attempt "to understand Brahms as a person, in the context of his art and age." Urged to make his German Requiem more Christian, Brahms responded: "As far as the text is concerned, I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and instead use Human... But I had better stop before I say too much."

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