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!

Image Source: the invaluable Naxos.

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