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.

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.

  • V

    There are many other reasons to be ambivalent about Brahms. His personal conduct was not to be envied. See Ref: Clara Shumann. Also, if you can find them, look up some of her compositions. She was a much clearer composer (In terms of melody) and he stole many of them from her. Well, I guess opinions differ depending on who you believe. But when you see what she wrote– the coincidences are startling.

    Don’t even talk to me about how he treated cats.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/summathissummathat/ Joseph Susanka

      Inspired by this comment, V., I’m working my way through her Piano Trio in G Minor this morning. Next up, the Opus 7 piano concerto.

    • pianogirl88

      Unfortunately, V, if we judged our artists, be they musicians, painters, writers, poets, on the virtue of their personal lives, our lives would be bereft of much beauty. Now, if you would like to judge 20th/21st century music on how awful it sounds to the ears, be my guest!

  • Bob Harper

    Pace V, his personal conduct may be a reason to be ambivalent about Brahms the man, but it is no reason to be ambivalent about Brahms the composer. As for your “Blah” about the Op. 78 Violin Sonata, are you kidding me? That opening melody is sublime. Likewise the Op. 101 Piano Trio. And the Handel Variations. And the late piano pieces Opp. 116-119. And the String Quintets–the cello theme that begins Op. 111 is quite as heroic as the opening section of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. I could go on, but I think you know where I’m going.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/summathissummathat/ Joseph Susanka

      It’s rarely the opening moments that bother me, Bob. Those are often quite lovely. It’s the developmental bits that wear on me. They’re too hard for me to follow — too mushy, or too dense. (I struggle with similar issues when it comes to polyphony.)

      …but I promise to keep trying.

      • pianogirl88

        But sometimes we shouldn’t try so hard to understand, but to merely listen and let the beauty wash over us like a sunset filled with shades of pinks and purples, or catching the scent of lilacs in May. I cringe when I read some concert reviews in the paper and feel sorry for the critic who feels it’s his/her duty to pick and find fault, rather than to embrace the efforts of the performer, forgetting that the only perfection in music comes out of a recording studio.


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