The composer who is really antipodal to Liszt, not to Wagner, is Johannes Brahms. Liszt was a composer who scorned tradition and in the most real sense of the word stood irreverently before the past, even though he was too good a musician not to recognize the greatness of individual masters. Brahms was becoming more and more conscious of the possibility of finding models in the past, and was reaching back further and further into it. Liszt was a rhapsodist; Brahms adhered to acceptable, strict form, from beginning to end. Liszt proclaimed the fusion of music and poetry; Brahms kept secret all his impulses (the few inscriptions that exist in his works tell us little more about their real content than do the nicknames ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio and the ‘Sparrow’ Mass in Mozart). Liszt was the most European or cosmopolitan or Parisian of all musicians; Brahms was so very national, so much in the mainstream of the German tradition as created by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and the German folk song, that his effectiveness can never go beyond certain limits. Liszt was a child of the culture of his time, a culture which became a burden to him; Brahms was one of those rare 19th-century musicians who were born of simple musician fathers, yet appropriated to themselves all the culture of their time.
In so doing, he was well aware of the danger of being a composer born too late, no longer belonging to those happy times when the musician could create at the order of a society to which he belonged, and when the individual still was borne along by the spirit of the community. Wagner and Liszt were revolutionaries. They created against their times, and only the powerful force of will in Wagner was responsible for the fact that he did not succumb, like Liszt, whose creative activity ended in complete resignation. Wagner and Liszt were completely incompetent in professional, ‘bourgeois’ positions. Wagner’s six years as Capellmeister at Dresden ended in complete revulsion, flight, and exile. Liszt’s ‘special’ Court-Capellmeistership in Weimar ended with a complete surrender of arms before the Philistine world and with the deepest disgust. Brahms, on the other hand, was hurt to the quick and bore a grudge all his life over the fact that his native city, Hamburg, had not offered him the bourgeois position to which he believed he had some claim and for which his short-lived position as director of the Viennese Society of the Friends of Music (1872-75) offered no adequate substitute. Had he been born in the Middle Ages, he would have been a deeply satisfied member of the musicians’ guild. In general he did not feel that his status as a free artist was entirely a piece of good fortune, even if his success made it possible for him to spend the last twenty years of his life in the city of Mozart, of Beethoven, and of Schubert.
Brahms felt this failure deeply, but it is doubtful if such an experience alone was responsible for his reconsideration of his historical position. He had neither the desire nor the ability to abandon the paths that had been beaten by the very great masters of two or more centuries. He was not able to write operas like Wagner’s, nor willing to write rhapsodies like Liszt’s; and he was a much more responsible musician than Schumann. The transformation must have taken place in him before he had arrived at the age of twenty-four. In a letter to Joachim, with whom about this time (June, 1856) he was exchanging works in strict style, fugues and canons, there is a significant passage: ‘I occasionally reflect on the variation form, and find that it must be kept more strict, more pure.’ Yet the newer composers—among whom he includes himself and Joachim—’rummage about over the theme more. We keep anxiously to the melody; we do not treat it freely. We really create nothing new out of it; instead we only load it down.’ However one may interpret these misgivings, at least they indicate the yearning of a Romantic subjectivity towards the strictness and formal sense of the old masters. More and more Brahms came to hate every manifestation of willfulness in creative activity; he yearned more and more for the sureness which he found in the masterpieces of the past, in Beethoven, in Mozart, and—above all—in Bach.
The transformation of Brahms from an adherent of the Storm and Stress school, from an ‘involuntary’ to a ‘voluntary’ creator, to a musician who stands always in a certain relation to other musicians, is revealed in still another essential trait, in his attitude towards folk song. He is hardly to be thought of without his almost mystical veneration of everything created by the ‘folk’: in this respect he was a ‘Wunderhorn’ musician. His veneration remained constant his whole life long: even at the age of twenty he brought together from Schumann’s library everything in the nature of folk-like melodies that he could find, and his interest in these treasures of seemingly involuntary origin induced him later to concern himself, like Liszt, with a stock of melodies not always free from vulgarity—that of the Hungarian gypsies. In his first, ‘involuntary’ period, he drew folk song into the circle of his discovery and made it an element in his creative activity: the slow movement of his Piano Sonata Op. 1 is a series of variations on a supposedly Lower Rhenish folk tune, whose minor is at the end dissolved into blissful major; in the other two youthful piano sonatas, too, something folksong-like is the seed of the slow movements, and thereby of the whole work. Later, at the age of sixty-one, in his German Folk Songs, Brahms once again arranged the song from his Op. 1: but now it had become something sacrosanct to him; to the melody he added only an accompaniment. No longer did he encroach upon it; he had perceived that he, as a composer ‘born too late,’ could no longer be so ingenuous as could the old, great masters.
Brahms’s relationship to the earlier composers may also be differently expressed. Thus Philipp Spitta wrote:
The musical politicians of our day call Brahms a reactionary. Others say that Brahms demonstrates practically that in the Classical forms something new can still be said. Not still, but always—so long as our music remains, this will be the situation. For these forms are derived from the very inner nature of this music, and in their outlines could not have been more perfectly conceived. Even those composers who think that they have broken them, and thereby have accomplished an act of liberation, avail themselves of these forms in so far as they still have any desire at all to achieve a satisfying impression. They cannot do otherwise, so long as composition and contrast in music remain. They only do it much worse than does he who enters into the inheritance from the past with full awareness and with the intention of employing it in the service of the beautiful. Power, of course, is required; moreover, many ways lead to the shrine. Weber and Schubert, Schumann and Gade have in many ways loosened Beethoven’s firm construction and are, in the matter of musical architectonics, unquestionably lesser masters. They seek to make up for this deficiency through other, magnificent characteristics; and no one to whom music is more than a mere sort of arithmetic will be so pedantic as to look askance at their weaknesses. But the assumption that their willfulnesses are the guideposts to new and higher goals is false. The foundations must remain fixed, and each one builds upon them according to his needs. After Brahms, others will come who will compose in ways other than his. His endeavor was towards concentration and indissolubly firm union, using all the means that are proper to the art of music as such.
After long consideration he proceeded to the symphonic form—unless one wishes to consider his fateful First Piano Concerto a symphony. After trying out his powers in two Serenades, he set to work on his First Symphony, Op. 68. And what a significant development from this First to the last, the Fourth Symphony! A later admirer of Brahms, deserted from the camp of Liszt and Wagner, Hans von Bülow, coined an unhappy phrase for this C-minor Symphony by saying that it was ‘the Tenth.’ It stands only in a certain relationship to Beethoven; and the quality that places it in the genuine ‘Classical’ succession consists only of the concentration and masterfulness of structure, particularly in the first movement. The Second Symphony is pastoral in character. The Third—the most personal of all—is pseudo-heroic. And the last one proceeds from the balladesque to a note of fateful resignation, to a medieval Dance of Death in form of a Chaconne. That is the way taken by Brahms the Romantic: the fiery beginning, the perception of the greatness and unaffected happiness of the past, the sorrowful renewal of this happiness, and the resignation of the man born too late. Along this road, the concentration, the simplification, the masterfulness become greater and greater, right up to those farewell works, among which the final piano pieces and the Clarinet Quintet speak out in the clearest accents.
And now shall I show how, with your renditions of numbers one and six of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, you had the audience eating from your hands? No, I’ll simply remark that your impatience at the applause revealed that your hands had better things to do: The very first note of the next piece announced the fire to come.