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Brahms: Regressive Romantic or Progressive Visionary?

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In the past, Johannes Brahms was seen as a "traditionalist" at a time when Richard Wagner was seen as the way of the future. Many regarded (and still regard) Brahms' music as a throwback to the days of Haydn and early Beethoven, and was looked down by some of his contemporaries for not progressing beyond what Beethoven achieved. In the early 20th century, these views began to change considerably. Ever since Arnold Schoenberg wrote his famous essay "Brahms, the Progressive", many musicians have changed their views regarding Brahms' musical influence. However, I have encountered many people who greatly dislike Brahms, and I haven't been able to get a clear answer for that. 

Feel free to share your thoughts on why you love, hate, or are indifferent to Brahms and his music!

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I'm rather indifferent to the music of Brahms, but I definitely appreciate the influence he had on other composers (namely British ones.) My problem is that there's music of his I dislike, and the things I do like often resurface in music I enjoy a lot more. I guess I can say I have respect for Brahms even though I'm not in love with his music. 

And to answer the original question, I think he's very much a Romantic but not necessarily a regressive one.

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I think the deal is not really Brahms but the way that musicology itself kind of came into existence in quite a different way than it had been before the 20th century.  Schoenberg is one of the figures, along with Hugo Riemann and later Erwin Ratz, to name a few, who kind of began analyzing music in such a way as to find the things that Brahms did actually special.  As a side (but relevant) note, Ratz's book "Einführung in die musikalische Formenlehre. Über Formprinzipien in den Inventionen J.S. Bachs und ihre Bedeutung für die Kompositionstechnik Beethovens", as the name implies in German, is one of the first serious attempts to connect the relevance of Bach's formal experiments with what Beethoven later did in his Sonatas and his concept of "motivisch-thematische Arbeit," which is what Guido Adler called the process which motives and themes are developed during the 'development' segment of the Sonata form.  In essence, it means division and sequencing of motives derived from an overall larger theme.


Now why the hell do I say all this? Because this intricate look at how form is put together through these elements brings attention to what Brahms was doing, such as obfuscating the reprise segments of his forms among many other things.  There's much to analyze from Brahms which, if looked at with the right analytical lenses, gives you a rather interesting look at how he subverted many of the tropes that were present in Beethoven's standard Sonata model (which he himself also subverts, of course, but that's another thing.)  How about a concrete example?


Sonata in F# minor, Op2, first movement.  The reprise arguably starts in the FF Furioso mark (my score doesn't have measure numbers, but it's often at the end of page 7) where the theme actually appears but with a variation. Now, normally, if this was Beethoven, this would be a Scheinreprise (false reprise,) since it's not 1:1 what the theme is like at the very start.  But if you look later, that is actually the only reprise that follows the rhythm. Later (A Tempo Sempre FF) there is a sequence built on it which has the same model of the original, but by that point it couldn't really be called a reprise either.  It's stuff like this that makes Brahms interesting to look at, in my opinion.

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What makes Brahms interesting to me is the way he accepts the confinement of his time, yet stretches the possibilities. 

The first intermezzo of his op119, motivic build on stacking thirds, he explores common practice harmony, but really to the limits.

Near the end he manages to play in effect an F major triad over a B major triad. Tritone apart. (and an added G) Love this moment so much. There is functional use of harmonic tension in the form, as it is the last moment where the tuplet-variation of his motive occurs. But the idea of getting here by just play falling 3rds, and vary upon that, is just brilliant.



Edited by jrcramer
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20 hours ago, SSC said:

There's much to analyze from Brahms which, if looked at with the right analytical lenses, gives you a rather interesting look at how he subverted many of the tropes that were present in Beethoven's standard Sonata model (which he himself also subverts, of course, but that's another thing.) 

Another example that comes to mind is the recapitulation in the 1st movement of Brahms' 4th symphony. The symphony begins with the main theme, which is just a chain of falling thirds, in the strings with a somewhat upbeat tempo. The "proper" development section ends quietly and harmonically unresolved. The winds then play the main theme from the beginning (same notes and everything), but much slower and each note sustained....all without any underlying harmonies. The strings answer with transitional material from before, still harmonically ambitious. This goes on for a couple of measures. And then the violins pick up the original melody, that was part of the main theme, and you would DEFINITELY know its the recapitulation at this point...but the actual recap started like 8 measures ago. 

Check it out in the audio below. The development ends and the recap start at around 6:50


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