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?

In the issue of The Independent of 30 March 1991, the British music critic Bayan Northcott wrote, under the title ‘Once and Future Master’:

‘By contrast [with Wagner] ….. Brahms seems to have worked from the apprehension that after Schubert and Mendelssohn, the great central tradition of composition had somehow got lost and was only to be found again, if at all, through a conscious effort of historical synthesis. Hence not only the unprecedented analytic insight he brought to the music of the past but his concern with manuscripts, scholarship, the whole paraphernalia of scientific musicology as it was emerging in his lifetime… Must one concede that, in anticipating the self-conscious and compound spirit of so much twentieth-century art from Picasso to T.S. Eliot, the first truly modern composer was not Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Debussy or even Wagner but Brahms? And how on earth is this to be squared with his apparent accessibility to the ordinary music lover. One answer would presumably lie in the many levels his music works on at once, somehow fusing together angular lines or teasing cross rhythms, which, in isolation, might seem to pre-echo Schoenberg or even Elliott Carter, in an assuaging flow. Does this in turn possibly explain his increasing attraction now? For if Brahms might be said not only to have anticipated some of the problems of Modernism but also their resolution, then he could well have a special message for these ambiguous times which, for want of a better term, we have settled to call Post-modern.’

A remarkable text which invites for comment.

Earlier, another unusual article about Brahms had appeared in the journal ’19th-Century Music’ (summer 1984) by J. Peter Burkholder under the title: ‘Brahms and Twentieth-Century Classical Music’, in which the author claims that Brahms is the single most important influence on 20C music – not in how it sounds, but in how we think about it: composers are striving to fit themselves in the canon as they go.


‘What is most radical about Brahms’s music is that he faced head on the problem of writing for a concert audience familiar with the music of the past, the problem that has been the principal concern of serious composers since his time.’


‘When new resources were called into play for programmatic, pictoral or coloristic reasons, there was no potential limit for the evolution of the musical language or for its comprehensibility. Even works which transcended tonality, such as Stravinsky’s early ballets, found enthusiastic audiences… While Wagner and Liszt provided new musical tools, Brahms helped establish the framework for using these tools, and his assumptions concerning what music is and does have been played out in succeeding generations. Thus it was Brahms the traditionalist rather than Wagner the revolutionary who created and confronted the central problem for composers of the twentieth century: the integration of a progressive musical language with an allegiance to the tradition of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.’

Typical of modernism is its view of history as a single line from the past, via the present, into a future, whereby music should reflect the conditions of its time of birth, i.e. ‘be modern’: a product of historicist thinking born together with and related to the Enlightment at the end of the 18th century and further developing in the 19th when history as a science took form and was also projected upon the development of the arts. As long as modernism is understood as a ‘progressive mentality’ with the aim to ‘develop the musical language’, it must certainly be confirmed that it was Wagner and Liszt who consciously attempted to find new musical tools. But modernism is, in itself, a complex, contradictory and ambigious concept without clear demarcation lines. For example, in the sense of composition as a strongly intellectual exercise where parameters are integrated to a very high degree and where intervallic and thematic/motivic structure is creating a strict unity which can be analytically demonstrated, it definitely is Brahms who is the more progressive of the two ‘warring’ 19C figureheads, preparing the way for Schönberg’s twelve-tone system and via his pupil Webern for the depressing herd of postwar serialists. But Schönberg’s music could not have existed without Wagner’s tonal exporations, which were ‘progressive’ as well in another sense. So, by ‘modernizing’ Brahms, Schönberg blurred the meaning of ‘progressive’ in the modernist narrative of history. With all this conceptual confusion, one can only conclude that the notion of ‘progressiveness’ is meaningless: it does not define musical meaning, neither value nor historical relevance.

But what is modernism in music? There is only one factor which stands-out as the most defining element of modernist music, creating the breach with the fundamentals of art music as it had existed and developed since its early beginnings with Gregorian chant: the rejection of tonality. Modernism in music is an art form no longer defined by the use of the natural ‘pulling force’ of the harmonic series, as it functions within the cultural construct of the Western modes (the divisions of the octave, including the ‘chromatic field’). Thus modernism in music created an altogether new art form based upon pure sound, from any source: sonic art. If we want to understand the meaning of Brahms’ life work and the history of what followed in the wake of the dynamic tradition as represented by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, we should keep this definition in mind.

What Brahms represented, in the context of the 19th century, was the (fully successful) attempt to preserve the tradition of meaningful, expressive music which can stand on its own without an extra-musical supporting structure as in opera and the symphonic poem. The drive which propels the musical narrative forwards – narrative in the sense of autonomous, ‘absolute’ music – had to come from the material: themes, motives, structural context. This material was provided by a rich tradition, which carried with it a flexible grammar and an infinite range of topos which could be varied according to the composer’s taste and temperament. Wagner made use of this tradition as much as Berlioz, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Mendelssohn, as did Brahms. The spreading of a developmental style over whole movements, together with quick and unexpected modulations (however diatonic), was as unsettling the older tonal structural contexts as Wagner’s tonal explorations and free phraseology. Both Wagner and Brahms were, in fact, traditionalists, developing the classical tradition in different ways, as did later Strauss, Mahler, and – yes – Debussy and Stravinsky who used the very same dynamics which functioned within the classical tradition but invented wholly original ways of structuring and expressing them. Hence the quick acceptance of their music during their life time: they were making use of the same fundamentals on which the music of the past was based and on which audience understanding had developed.

Wagner and Brahms did not ‘contribute to the dissolution of tonality’ as has been claimed so often, but did no longer adhere to the structural function of long stretches in a single key as in the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven which formed well-defined ‘poles’ of tonal orientation. They compensated for the renunciation of this clear way of creating unity with creating a network of motivic relationships of the musical material, so that the music became structurally more flexible without loosing unity. These motivic relationships could be obvious variations (as often in Wagner) or subtle references (as often in Brahms). A great master in motivic variation and subtle and indirect references was Debussy, with his utmost sensitivity to intervallic relationships.

Wagner absorbed a wealth of other music that was known to him. Delving thoroughly into the operas of Wagner brings about a treasure trove of almost-quotations, material borrowed from either contemporary or older composers, but filtered through a very personal temperament. The same with Brahms: more consciously, and with a clear eye on the ‘abstract’ structural dynamics – since he was not writing operas but ‘pure’ music – he transformed material from the past into something new, in the sense of: moulded according to his personal taste and insights. That his music sounds much less dissonant and ‘progressive’ in the context of his times, is irrelevant: he created something personal, like Wagner and the others, and they all contributed to the further development of the tradition. It has to be remarked that the ‘absolute music’ of Brahms, like his symphonies and concertos, was stimulated by personal life experiences as much as Wagner’s, only he kept these in the background, being a more introvert and reserved character. Life experience was transformed and stylized into music without direct annotations or extra-musical references, but the result of experience is there in the music, in the ‘abstract’ and eloquent structures which ‘speak’ as if they were utterances in a ‘language of the emotions’.

If we go back to the quotes, and take-out the modernist notions of ‘progressive’, ‘conservative’ and ‘modern’ which blur the issue, then we can conclude that Brahms spotted that for a composer, if he is writing for a performance culture based upon a canonic repertoire, to be understood, he has to make use of the fundamental context on which this culture is built, i.e. a rich tradition which offers the conventions of a ‘language’ through which new creation can be communicated. Since extensive analysis of his music has shown that he was not merely a ‘follower of tradition’ but a free interpreter, the apparant dichotomy of the ‘conservative’ Brahms versus the ‘progressive’ Wagner looses all meaning: they were both united in the grand project of preserving, extending, and personally interpreting the classical tradition. Where Wagner in his utterances and writings took a persistent ‘progressive’ stance, claiming his work to be the only utopian direction possible after Beethoven’s 9th symphony, he was obviously wrong. But he was – in his usual contradictory manner – utterly right in writing his ‘Meisteringer’, after the explorations of ‘Tristan’, with which he placed his adventures in the perspective of the past, which is also the subject of the plot. The achievement of Brahms is, that his work belies the divisions in ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ music and that he showed how a cultural tradition can be treated not as a prescriptive orthodoxy, but as a dynamic and free praxis, free in the sense that models can be varied and freely interpreted and do not need to be followed slavishly. By using and manipulating the forms and underlying tonal dynamics of the classical tradition, both Wagner and Brahms were able to square their very individual intellectual pursuits with their apparent accessibility to the ordinary music lover – Wagner a bit later-on than Brahms, but basically relatively quickly, and within their own lifetime.

From this follows that Brahms’ influence upon Schönberg’s intellectualism (and everything that followed in its wake) can only be evaluated as a misunderstanding (on Schönberg’s part) of what this tradition in reality was. So, indeed Brahms anticipated the fundamental problem of 20C modernism and offered the obvious solution, which can only be understood if the distinction between ‘conservative’ composers and ‘progressive’ ones can be seen for what it is: a false projection, resulting from a historicist interpretation of music history as a line on which the ‘progressive’ works mark the various stages of ‘development’ into some utopian future.

Obviously, many composers of today do not write at all for the central performance culture but created a mental sphere of their own, either the one defined by sonic art, or the more ‘alternative’ one where theatricals, world music (whatever that may mean), bits from pop and improvisation offer entertainment to its specialized audiences. The central performance culture, where the canonical works still define artistic quality standards, has become an almost ‘closed’ circuit like an island within the broader contemporary nonsense parading as ‘culture’. Can the tradition – in the sense of a living thing and not as a museum – live again? The answer is: yes, in case composers are willing to delve into the complexities, and musical and human values as embedded within the classical tradition, and take the trouble to learn the ‘language’ which would make their works understandable within the context of the central performance culture.

As a composer with a stubborn will to contribute to a tradition which he saw as something living and meaningful, transcending time and place, and which he loved and identified with on a profound level, Brahms would be an excellent role model for today. However, in the context of our current contemporary culture, where modernism and postmodernism have become the conventional, institutionalized consensus, that would seem to be as radical and extreme as Schönberg was considered in his own day, but so be it.

‘Brahms’s mature works sought to communicate hope without any falsification of the harsh complexities of life so that individuals in an endangered modern world might be inspired to combat the erosion of intimacy, imagination, culture, civility and civilisation.’ (Leon Botstein)

© John Borstlap / 2014


Addition September 2015:

Both Brahms and Wagner had a great intellectual curiositiy which extended far beyond the realm of music. Both had large libraries and read about history, science, bought the new editions of novels and poetry, kept a keen eye on the newspapers, read magazines dedicated to any field – except the vulgar entertainment. We know that Wagner wanted the newest technologies for his theatre and had his eye focussed on the future, which does not surprise us, but less known is that also Brahms was abreast of the latest scientific developments of his times, and welcomed the new electric lighting in the Viennese houses. One modern thing he did not like however, was the bicycle: he found that the style of this new mobility diminished man’s dignity. He wholeheartedly condemned the increasing right-wing antisemitism in Viennese politics and identified with the upper, liberal bourgeoisie where he had many friends and where he regularly circulated, in spite of his sloppy dressing habits and really too short trousers. In dinner table and salon talk he demonstrated a wide knowledge and understanding of both the past and the present world, together with an impressive erudition in terms of culture, including the visual arts. All this is comparable with Wagner, but the difference is that Wagner always felt the need to lecture before a private and silent audience, standing and walking excitedly as a crossing between a theatre performer and a university lecturer, while Brahms kept his knowledge mainly to himself and only opened the windows on his mind when asked or when in intimate, relaxed company. With Wagner, the temperament was directed towards the outside world, varying it and continuously adding to it in the process, as with Brahms concentration turned inwards, shedding all things superfluous and unnecessary, trying to find the essence of phenomenae. And all this is found in the music.

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