Brahms and Tchaikovsky

Born in 1833 and 1840, in Hamburg and Votkinsk, both on the 7th of May.   The most popular, most beloved of all the great late romantic composers, and yet they couldn’t appreciate one another.  Brahms was indifferent to Tchaikovsky.  Tchaikovsky actively disliked Brahms’s music and argued that it was unappealing.

Today, their reputations are both solid.  We think of Brahms as more the formalist, the intellectual.  But compared to many 20th Century composers, his music is not at all abstract or difficult to appreciate with our hearts.  We think of Tchaikovsky as sentimental, but what a genius!  In originality of orchestration he is unsurpassed.   His works have deep integrity of structure, an intellectual attribute for which Brahms is known.  Even his counterpoint—the most abstract of compositional techniques—is brilliantly original.

(When I was young, I learned a prejudice against Tchaikovsky from musician friends who said his music was shallow.  So I’ve learned to love his music later in life than Brahms.)

Both repressed their sexuality.  Brahms was in love with the wife of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann.  Tchaikovsky was attracted to men, but secretive and ashamed in the repressive environment of Czar Nicholas.

The two men met twice in their lives.  Brahms was reported to be solicitous, Tchaikovsky a bit more stand-offish.  Neither was warm.

      “It is impossible in listening to Brahms’ music to say that it is weak or unremarkable,” Tchaikovsky goes on. “His style is always elevated. Unlike all our contemporary musicians, he never has recourse to purely external effects; he never attempts to astonish us, to strike us by some new and brilliant orchestral combination; nor do we meet in his music with anything trivial or directly imitative. It is all very serious, very distinguished, apparently even original, but in spite of all this, the chief thing is lacking – beauty! A few years ago, when I frankly expressed my opinion of Brahms to [pianist-conductor] Hans von Bülow, he replied: ‘Wait a minute, the time will come when you will enter into the depth and beauty of Brahms. Like you, it was long before I understood him, but gradually, I was blessed by the revelation of his genius. It will be the same with you.’ And still I wait; but the revelation tarries. I deeply revere the artistic personality of Brahms. I bow to the actual purity of his musical tendencies, and I admire his firm, proud renunciation of all the tricks that solemnize the Wagner cult, and in a much less degree the worship of Liszt, but I do not care for his music.   — Bradley Bambarger

Here are links to the scherzo 3rd movements of Brahms Symphony #4 and Tchaikovsky Symphony #4. Both movements are palpably joyous. (If you’e interested, you might listen to what comes right after the pizzicato string fade at the end of the Tchaikovsky movement. I won’t give away more.)

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