It’s hard to think of another major 19th-century composer who rejected pictorialism in music as wholeheartedly as Brahms. Bruckner, maybe? Though one could argue that while his symphonies are as outwardly ‘pure’ as any, the music expresses tangible sensations and feelings through his channelling of religious and Wagnerian influences. Chopin? For all his poeticism, his musical forms are abstract and any descriptive subtitles were imposed by others – except that he felt the need to label the viscerally illustrative ‘Funeral March’ of the B flat minor Sonata as such. Even Brahms’s idol Beethoven allowed the outside world to invade his otherwise highly cogent musical edifices with the babbling brook and thunderous storm of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony.
Aside from works with texts – songs and choral works in his case – the closest Brahms came to illustrating anything tangibly extra-musical was the Tragic Overture, and even here the portraiture is generic and non-specific in the extreme (and in some commentators’ views not even particularly ‘tragic’). No symphonic poems like Liszt or Dvořák; no operas or works for the theatre requiring pictorial scene-setting like most of his contemporaries; no descriptive piano pieces like Schumann. And there’s a tell-tale indication in that none of his pieces – even his piano miniatures, which persist in using generic musical titles such as ‘intermezzo’ or ‘rhapsody’ – has been given a poetic nickname, or at least one that has stuck. Instead, we have symphonies, concertos, a wealth of chamber music, all couched in purely musical terms. Could this be one reason why some people don’t ‘get’ Brahms, as was discussed recently when BBC Radio 3 devoted a week of programmes to the composer’s music?
I’ve recently been absorbing myself in the musical intricacies of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, in the writing and preparation for publication of the latest of my Masterpieces of Music eBooks. It’s a work that, by all accounts, was written under the influence of life-changing experiences for the young composer: witnessing at first hand the tragic decline of his new mentor Robert Schumann, while recognising his growing affection for Robert’s wife, Clara. The concerto’s central slow movement has variously been described as a portrait of either Clara or of Brahms’s great friend Joseph Joachim, who acted as his musical and career advisor through the 1850s. But while these options may well have been in the composer’s mind when he wrote the music, as indeed Robert’s suicide attempt may have coloured the portentous nature of the first movement (though in reality it was drafted before Schumann leapt into the Rhine), it is fair to say that expressions of these extra-musical inspirations do not reach the audience as such. The emotions have been sublimated into musical abstraction.
The bulk of my book, as in the others in the series, is devoted to a blow-by-blow description, with audio and musical illustrations, of the music itself, with the intention of taking the reader through every thematic transformation, each formal reference point, all the textural and harmonic subtleties of a work that lasts some three-quarters of an hour in performance. What I found hard to avoid was presenting the concerto’s first main theme in terms of a vehement question that frustrates the questioner by going unanswered. Here I was not attempting to pose anything descriptive, but merely pointing out how a musical line can mirror the structure, the grammar, of prose or poetry, how a theme can be constructed like a sentence, with principal and subsidiary clauses.
In the end this ‘analysis’, for want of a better word, reinforced my view that Brahms, above nearly all his contemporaries, used music in an abstract way to express nothing more than itself. Which isn’t to degrade his ambition in any way, but to emphasise that he was the supreme exponent of ‘pure’ music, music whose effect on the listener’s brain and heart is achieved not by reference to things beyond itself but instead by drawing an emotional response from the very notes, harmonies and textures of his writing – in short the very essence of the Classical–Romantic creator that he was. Strangely, this might almost make him a kind of soul-mate to Stravinsky of all people, who claimed in 1936 (at the peak of his neo-Classical phase) that music ‘is essentially powerless to express anything at all’. Yet we know that it can and does, and in Brahms’s case the composer manages, by the miracle of his genius, to express the whole of human experience in music – it’s just that as listeners we don’t have, or have the need, to translate it into a medium beyond the music itself.
My Masterpieces ofMusic eBook on Brahms’s First Piano Concerto is published by Erudition.