Learning to Live with My Brahms Ambivalence

They say admitting you have a problem is the first step, so I’m coming clean: I’m ambivalent on the matter of Brahms.

I enjoy some of his music a great deal — his First Symphony is a favorite, in no small part because its finale was the first piece of music I single-handedly identified on the radio despite my father’s protestations that I was incorrect, and yes, COMPETITIVE! — but I find many of his compositions overwritten. I’ve always gravitated towards clear, straight-forward melodies, and those are not Brahms’ forte. Take his Variations on a Theme by Haydn, for example. The piece starts out promisingly enough, but by the middle section, I always find my attention (and his melodic focus) wandering far afield.

OK, fine. Maybe it’s me, and not Brahms. But the ambivalence remains.

His Hungarian Dances? Fantastic. His Sonata No. 1 for Piano and Violin? Blah.  The Tragic Overture? Towering, Beethovenesque stuff. The first piano concerto? A decidedly mixed bag. It’s quality work, in most cases. There are simply too many notes, that’s all. If he just cut a few…

There is one piece that leaves me decidedly ambivalence-free, though: his Academic Festival Overture. It’s spectacular, and its stirring cords have enlivened many an otherwise-drab day in the office. I suspect my appreciation is colored in no small part by its pivotal appearance in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s People Will Talk, but so what? “Gaudeamus Igitur,” I say!

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Image Source: the invaluable Naxos.

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About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.