Monthly Archives: May 2014

Brahms the progressive?


In the 19th century, and still long afterwards, Brahms was considered a ‘conservative’ composer, while Wagner and Liszt represented the ‘progressive line’, a notion which, with hindsight, was used by progressive composers like Schönberg to justify their own explorations which were presented as developments away from, and in the same time, rooted in tradition. In 1947 Schönberg wrote his famous essay ‘Brahms the progressive’ in which he showed that a return to the contrapuntal, imitative style (from which Schönberg took his cue for his own endeavors) was initiated by Brahms as a disciplined alternative to the coloristic and emotionalist excesses of ‘free’ romanticism. Schönberg wanted to show that he had digested the influences of both Wagner (in terms of tonal and expressive exploration) and Brahms (for his structuralist approaches), whereby Brahms was promoted as a ‘progressive’ composer so that modern ‘progressives’ like Schönberg could demonstrate their relationship to the traditional past, in the hope to get understood in a performance culture where the past was an impressive and oppressive presence.

But how ‘progressive’ was Brahms in reality?