Tchaikovsky and Brahms
If Tchaikovsky's feelings about Wagner and even Beethoven can be described as ambivalent, alternating in the former case between repulsion and fascination, and in the latter between profound empathy and a certain awe, then his attitude towards Brahms's music, judging from the evidence we have, seems to have been unequivocal. Thus, in his earliest recorded comment on Brahms, an article written in 1872 (see TH 268 and the more detailed list below), Tchaikovsky pronounced him to be a "mediocre composer", who had not lived up to the messianic hopes placed on him by Schumann back in 1853. And in one of the last interviews he gave — to a Russian newspaper in 1892 — Tchaikovsky observed that Brahms could hardly be said to have made a lasting contribution to the treasure-house of German music (see TH 324). This might make it seem as if Tchaikovsky's appreciation of Brahms remained static over these twenty years. But actually it was not so!
For how could one otherwise explain the fact that in a diary entry of 9/21 October 1886 (admittedly not intended for publication) Tchaikovsky expressed himself in the most aggressive terms about Brahms, calling him a "scoundrel" and worse than that, whereas two years later, in a letter of 2/14 October 1888 to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, he spoke of the "noble purity" of Brahms's musical endeavours? The key to this sudden change in tone when referring to Brahms — even if his music still failed to appeal to him — lies in Tchaikovsky's first meeting with his great German contemporary on 1 January 1888 [N.S.]. Tchaikovsky famously described this meeting in Chapter V of his Autobiographical Account of a Tour Abroad in the Year 1888, but we also have the equally lively account provided by Anna Brodsky, the wife of the great violinist at whose house in Leipzig this memorable encounter took place. Tchaikovsky had at first been reluctant to walk into the room where Brahms was rehearsing his recently completed Piano Trio No. 3 together with Adolph Brodsky, but the latter stepped out and managed to persuade his illustrious guest from Russia to follow him into the rehearsal room. Anna Brodsky describes what then happened:
Tchaikovsky and Brahms had never met before. It would be difficult to find two men more unlike. Tchaikovsky, a nobleman by birth, had something elegant and refined in his whole bearing and the greatest courtesy of manner. Brahms with his short, rather square figure and powerful head, was an image of strength and energy; he was an avowed foe to all so-called 'good manners'. His expression was often slightly sarcastic. When A. B. introduced them, Tchaikovsky said, in his soft melodious voice: 'Do I not disturb you?'
'Not in the least,' was Brahms's reply, with his peculiar hoarseness. 'But why are you going to hear this? It is not at all interesting.'
Tchaikovsky sat down and listened attentively. The personality of Brahms, as he later told us, impressed him very favourably, but he was not pleased with the music. When the trio was over I noticed that Tchaikovsky seemed uneasy. It would have been natural that he should say something, but he was not at all the man to pay unmeaning compliments. The situation might have become difficult, but at that moment the door was flung open, and in came our dear friends — Grieg and his wife, bringing, as they always did, a kind of sunshine with them…" .
In Chapter VI of his Autobiographical Account, Tchaikovsky goes on to make a very interesting comparison between Grieg and Brahms, emphasizing the rapport he had immediately struck up with the Norwegian, whose music, in contrast to Brahms's, had always moved him. However, the point worth bearing in mind here is that Tchaikovsky was quite disarmed by the modesty and simplicity of Brahms, in whom, to judge from that bitter diary entry of 1886, he had probably been expecting to find a "conceited" celebrity. Anna Brodsky recalled how at the dinner which they had after the rehearsal the three composers had sat together at the table:
I can see Brahms now taking hold of a dish of strawberry jam, and saying he would have it all for himself and no one else should get any. It was more like a children's party than a gathering of great composers. My husband had this feeling so strongly that, when dinner was over and our guests still remained around the table smoking cigars and drinking coffee, he brought a conjuror's chest — a Christmas present to my little nephew — and began to perform tricks. All our guests were amused, and Brahms especially, who demanded from A. B. the explanation of each trick as soon as it was performed… .
In letters written to his brothers the following day, Tchaikovsky makes exaggeratedly comical references to Brahms's stoutness, as well as calling him rather irreverently "a frightful tippler" with whom he had gone on a "drinking binge". Still, apart from this bantering tone — which contrasts with the admiring comparison of Brahms's features with those of "a benign, elderly Russian priest" in the Autobiographical Account — it is clear from these letters that Tchaikovsky was touched by the genuine kindness and warmth which Brahms had shown him. More importantly perhaps, as he noted in a letter to his publisher Jurgenson a few days later, reporting how Brahms had attended one rehearsal for the Gewandhaus concert on 5 January 1888 [N.S.] at which Tchaikovsky was due to conduct his own Suite No. 1, and how they had again emptied a few bottles of wine together, the Russian composer was impressed by the fact that "Brahms is not at all as proud as I had imagined".
Probably the main reason why Tchaikovsky had nourished such animosity towards Brahms before he actually met him was the way in which influential German critics, above all the highly conservative Eduard Hanslick (1825–1904), had been proclaiming Brahms to be the guardian of the classical tradition bequeathed by Beethoven against the 'decadent' tendencies of Liszt and Wagner. Quite apart from his dislike of Brahms's more restrained style, Tchaikovsky was angered by the way these same critics ignored or rubbished his own works on the few occasions that they had been performed in Germany so far and instead held Brahms up as the paragon for symphonic writing (when in 1876 he finally completed his First Symphony — "Beethoven's Tenth", as some in Germany called it). As he confessed in a letter of 19/31 March 1878 to Nadezhda von Meck, explaining why he had no wish to represent his country at the International Exhibition in Paris later that year, Tchaikovsky was certain that there was no living composer before whom he had to prostrate himself, but because Russian music was little known in the West, this meant that if he happened to meet any European "celebrity" he always feared that he would be treated condescendingly. That was too much for his pride to swallow, and it is interesting that in this letter of 1878 the 'hate-figure' he chooses to illustrate his point is Brahms. Tchaikovsky describes an imaginary visit to him in Vienna, which contrasts markedly with the very relaxed and jovial nature of his actual meetings with him ten years later: in Leipzig in January 1888 and in Hamburg in March 1889.
Even before he was able to spend long periods abroad, Tchaikovsky, thanks to his contacts with music publishers and musicians such as Hans von Bülow, was very much aware of the latest critical trends in Western Europe. He would therefore have read about the great acclaim which Brahms received in Germany after the first complete performance of Ein deutsches Requiem in 1869. In Russia there were not that many opportunities to hear Brahms's music, though, since until quite late in life Brahms had not ventured to present himself before the public with a major symphonic work (especially after the failure of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1858), and his efforts so far had concentrated mainly on solo piano and chamber music, songs and choral pieces, all of which were probably not sufficiently appealing to be included in the Russian Musical Society's concerts. Still, in 1872 Tchaikovsky was able to hear Brahms's String Sextet No. 1 in Moscow, and, although in his article on this concert (TH 268) he first hastens to deny that Brahms was the "genius" of whom Schumann had spoken, as well as denying "the slightest gleam of original talent" in his music, it is worth noting that Tchaikovsky does praise some aspects of the sextet.
The next concert in Moscow featuring a work by Brahms and attended by Tchaikovsky was the public début of Sergey Taneyev as a pianist on 17/29 January 1875: significantly, the work he had chosen for his début was Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1. Although in later years Taneyev was no admirer of Brahms, the fact that he picked this particular concerto suggests either that he was able to appreciate its beauty or simply that, after the success of Ein deutsches Requiem, Brahms had become a force to reckon with, even in Russia. Tchaikovsky in his review (TH 300) praises Taneyev's performance enthusiastically, but says nothing at all about the music he was playing, which is very surprising, since this work was quite new to Russian audiences. We can only speculate as to why he observed such a silence: was it because he did not like it but did not wish to turn Taneyev's brilliant début into an occasion for criticizing Brahms, or was he perhaps still feeling hurt by the severe criticism to which his own Piano Concerto No. 1 had been subjected by Nikolay Rubinstein a few weeks earlier and therefore resented the appearance in Moscow of this 'rival' work?…
That there may have been a certain defensive reaction in his remarks on Brahms over the next decade, culminating in that virulent diary entry of 1886, is suggested by the following: Modest Tchaikovsky, in his biography of the composer, notes how for a concert on 14 September 1878 [N.S.] at which the fantasia Francesca da Rimini was to be performed in Berlin for the first time, the conductor Benjamin Bilse had also selected Brahms's Second Symphony (1877), which was quite new at the time and would guarantee a large audience, as well as forcing Berlin critics to take notice of Tchaikovsky's music, something that they had been reluctant to do in the past. Tchaikovsky was in Moscow at the time, but Iosif Kotek, who was then studying in Berlin, reported back home that the concert had divided German critics: a few had taken Tchaikovsky's side, but by far the majority had praised Brahms's idyllic symphony to the skies, whilst dismissing Francesca da Rimini as "a hellish torture on the ears" (Ohrenschinderei) or a "musical grimace" .
In letters to his benefactress, Tchaikovsky had no need to be tactful about his aversion to Brahms because Nadezhda von Meck herself disliked his music (making an exception just for the Hungarian Dances). Nevertheless Tchaikovsky did try to be objective, basing his judgements not on any personal resentment he may have felt at the way Brahms was being trumpeted as the worthiest heir to Beethoven by some German critics, but on actual study of his works. Thus, on 2/14 February 1880, Nadezhda von Meck wrote to him from Moscow saying that she was going to send him the scores of Brahms's Violin Sonata No. 1 and Violin Concerto (in 1879 she had heard its dedicatee Joseph Joachim play it in Vienna but had not been impressed). In his reply from Rome on 12/24–14/26 February 1880 (Letter 1425), Tchaikovsky thanked her as follows: "I am by no means a great fan of Brahms, but these two things, especially the concerto, are very interesting for me, and when I have played them through, I will tell you what I think of them." One likely reason why he was so interested in familiarizing himself with the Brahms concerto may have been that he wanted to compare it with his own Violin Concerto (1878), which had not yet been performed because it had gained a reputation as "unplayable". (When the work was finally premiered by Adolph Brodsky in Vienna on 4 December 1881 [N.S.], Hanslick notoriously described it as "stinking music" — an insult which Tchaikovsky would never forget [see Chapter IV in TH 316], and, coming as it did from a zealous champion of Brahms, this may well have aggravated his bitterness at the latter's status in European music.) In a letter to Nadezhda von Meck a few days later, Tchaikovsky gives an interesting report of his impressions after studying the score of Brahms's Violin Concerto: in summary, his music did not appeal to him because it was "not warmed by genuine feeling" and lacked "life and colour". These were precisely the qualities which drew him to Grieg instead, and whose absence in Brahms's music (as Tchaikovsky saw it) meant that the latter always left him cold, much as he regretted it because at their meetings in 1888 he had found Brahms to be such an amiable person, as he would later emphasize in the Autobiographical Account.
Tchaikovsky was certainly no hypocrite, for even in the presence of someone who was as enthusiastic about Brahms as the great pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow he did not conceal his indifference to the German's music. Tchaikovsky had first met Bülow during the latter's concert tour to Russia in 1874 and was delighted to find in him one of the earliest champions of his music in Western Europe and in America, where in 1875 Bülow premiered his Piano Concerto No. 1. In 1877, however, after hearing Brahms's First Symphony, Bülow found a new worthy cause to which he would devote his considerable energies. This did not mean that he ceased to value Tchaikovsky of course, but it was after all Bülow who later coined the famous phrase about the musical trinity: "Bach — Beethoven — Brahms"! When he embarked on his second concert tour to Russia in the 1884–85 season, Bülow was determined "to ensure the success in Russia of Maestro Giovanni [i.e. Brahms], who has so far been rejected here" . At a Russian Musical Society concert in Saint Petersburg on 12/24 January 1885, in which he conducted the premiere of Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3, Bülow also played and conducted Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2. This time it was Tchaikovsky's music which got the lion's share of applause and critical acclaim. César Cui, for example, praised Tchaikovsky's new suite, but said that in Brahms's works generally he was just interested in the technical aspects, for they were no more than "kapellmeister music" . It also seems to have been during the rehearsals for the premiere of the Suite No. 3 that Bülow spoke to Tchaikovsky about Brahms, and when his Russian friend frankly expressed his reservations about the latter's music, he had made the "prophecy" that one day Tchaikovsky, too, would see the light and be converted to Brahms. Tchaikovsky recalls this prophecy in Chapter V of his Autobiographical Account, adding that unfortunately this "revelation" had not yet come.
Nevertheless, it was probably Bülow's enthusiastic championing of Brahms during his second visit to Russia which encouraged Tchaikovsky to study the German's works quite intensively over the next few years. Thus, Nikolay Kashkin later recalled how during his visits to Maydanovo between 1885 and 1888 he and Tchaikovsky would frequently play through piano duet arrangements, in particular of works by Brahms: "Tchaikovsky greatly respected this composer for his sincerity, earnestness and the absence of any hankering after success, but at the same time he had little sympathy for his works, which he considered to be far too cold and dry. He was inclined to ascribe this lack of sympathy to his insufficient familiarity with Brahms's music, to an insufficient understanding of his works, but even when he played them through again and again, this did not alter his initial attitude to them" . Kashkin, however, is clearly projecting here Tchaikovsky's later much more respectful attitude towards Brahms (after meeting him in Leipzig and Hamburg, in 1888 and 1889 respectively) onto those years when he just knew Brahms from his works, or rather piano transcriptions of these. For the experience of playing through a symphony by Brahms (probably No. 4) in Maydanovo together with Herman Laroche on 6/18 October 1886 prompted Tchaikovsky to make that furious diary entry (referred to earlier and quoted below) three days later . Still, the following year at Maydanovo he played through another Brahms symphony with Laroche .
It is not surprising, then, that when he arrived in Germany at the end of 1887 to start his first conducting tour of Western Europe, the "agonizing question" of Brahms's pre-eminent status in that country (at least among those who weren't Wagnerians) continued to trouble Tchaikovsky, as he pointed out in Chapter XI of the Autobiographical Account. His personal acquaintance with Brahms of course immediately dispelled the misconceptions he had earlier had of the latter being some puffed up "celebrity". Tchaikovsky now saw for himself the modesty and generosity of his character, and it is possible that beneath Brahms's outward gruffness he also discerned something of that child-like vulnerability which so endeared him to those who knew him best, especially Clara Schumann. Tchaikovsky observes with some regret in the Autobiographical Account that he and Brahms had not really become close friends, as had been the case with Grieg. Perhaps it was a case of like repelling like to some extent, since, despite all their differences, there was a certain melancholy in both Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and it is understandable why the latter should have preferred the more naïve cheerfulness of Grieg and his wife Nina. At any rate, the reason which Tchaikovsky gives in the Autobiographical Account for this failure to become true friends (all joint "drinking-sprees" notwithstanding!) is that each had misgivings about the other's music. Thus, even getting to hear two new works by Brahms (the Piano Trio No. 3 and the Double Concerto) — moreover, in performances in which the author himself took part — did not cause Tchaikovsky to revise his earlier judgements. On the contrary, he reflected in his Autobiographical Account on how Brahms lacked a gift for beautiful melodies, and how his music in general had "something dry, cold, nebulous, and vague which repels the Russian heart". The only merits he recognizes in Brahms as a composer are mostly negative virtues: namely, his abstinence from flashy orchestral effects, his "heroic" refusal to make any concessions to Wagnerism, and his high-minded earnestness.
It does credit to Tchaikovsky's honesty that, whilst he was of course tactful in Brahms's presence, he did not hide his true feelings from some of the admirers of the latter's music whom he encountered in Germany. For example, Anna Brodsky recalled how after that rehearsal of Brahms's new piano trio and after the author had left, her husband had asked Tchaikovsky what he thought of the work:
'Don't be angry with me, my dear friend,' was Tchaikovsky's reply, 'but I did not like it.'
A. B. was disappointed, for he had cherished a hope that a performance of the trio in which Brahms himself took part might have had a very different effect and have opened Tchaikovsky's eyes to the excellence of Brahms's music as a whole. Tchaikovsky had had very few opportunities of hearing it, and that was perhaps one reason why it affected him so little" .
However, even the performance of Brahms's Double Concerto at the Gewandhaus that very evening "failed to produce the slightest impression" on Tchaikovsky, as he confessed in the Autobiographical Account. Another passionate acolyte of Brahms whom Tchaikovsky met in Leipzig was Ethel Smyth, the English composer and future suffragette. She recalled in her memoirs how charmed she had been by Tchaikovsky's personality:
Even his detestation of Brahms's music failed to check my sympathy — and that I think is strong testimony to his charm! He would argue with me about Brahms by the hour, strum passages on the piano and ask if they were not hideous, declaring I must be under hypnotic influence, since to admire this awkward pedant did not square with what he was kind enough to call the soundness of my instinct on other points" .
As for Brahms's views on Tchaikovsky we know from the latter's Autobiographical Account that he liked the first movement of the Suite No. 1, but not the following ones, particularly the Marche Miniature. Although the tone in which Tchaikovsky discusses Brahms in this Autobiographical Account is much more friendly and respectful, something of his earlier resentment of the Brahms cult in Germany can be glimpsed in what he says about the concert he conducted in Hamburg on 20 January 1888 [N.S.] (at which Brahms was not present). Tchaikovsky observes ironically that the Tema con variazioni movement from his Suite No. 3 had not gone down so well with the audience because its "flashy instrumentation" was anathema to the good burghers of Brahms's native city.
This first meeting with Brahms clearly made Tchaikovsky reconsider some of his earlier statements, and in fact he even seems to have regretted that aggressive diary entry of 1886. But it did not change his attitude towards the music of his German contemporary, as is clear from two fascinating letters he wrote to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich in the autumn of 1888. Tchaikovsky goes as far as to describe Brahms as "a caricature of Beethoven", but at least he tells the Grand Duke (who apparently liked Brahms's music) that he intended to order the score of Ein deutsches Requiem so as to study it carefully.
Tchaikovsky met Brahms a second time in Hamburg on 12 March 1889 [N.S.], as part of his second concert tour to Western Europe as a conductor of his own works. Tchaikovsky had arrived in Hamburg on 11 March and was delighted to find out the next morning that Brahms was staying at the same hotel and that he had actually postponed his departure so as to attend Tchaikovsky's first rehearsal of the Fifth Symphony with the Philharmonic Orchestra. Brahms himself had come to his native city on 8 March in order to conduct his Fourth Symphony and the Akademische Festouvertüre as part of a concert the following day to mark the first anniversary of the death of Emperor Wilhelm I . He had been invited to take part in this concert by Hans von Bülow, and he may have heard about the forthcoming performance of Tchaikovsky's symphony from the latter or from his friend Theodor Avé-Lallemant, the symphony's dedicatee. In any case, Brahms prolonged his stay in Hamburg and attended Tchaikovsky's first rehearsal in the morning of 12 March. Afterwards the two composers had lunch together (and again drank rather too many bottles of wine, according to a letter which Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest that very evening). Nikolay Kashkin recalls in his memoirs how Tchaikovsky, back in Russia, would frequently reminisce on this second meeting with Brahms:
Brahms invited Tchaikovsky to lunch, treated him to a splendid meal, and during their friendly table-talk confessed outright that he didn't like the symphony at all. According to Tchaikovsky, this was said so sincerely and simply, that not only was he not offended by the harshness of this criticism, but in fact he even felt a greater sympathy for this forthright artist, whom he already respected greatly. Tchaikovsky in his turn spoke out with complete frankness, expressing his opinion of the compositional activities of his renowned interlocutor, and then they parted as great friends, though they were never to meet again .
In a letter which he sent to his publisher Jurgenson from Leipzig a few weeks earlier on 17 February/1 March 1889 (letter 3804), Tchaikovsky had reported on his success in persuading Massenet, Dvořák, and Klindworth to come to Moscow and conduct various symphony concerts during the 1889–90 winter season, and added that he hoped to add Brahms to this roster: "I shall now try to invite Brahms. Now that would be fantastic!" At the lunch which they had in Hamburg on 12 March, Tchaikovsky evidently seized the opportunity and in the name of the Russian Musical Society invited Brahms to come to Russia later that year. Brahms, however, turned down this offer to visit a new country .
Brahms did not stay in Hamburg for Tchaikovsky's actual concert on 15 March 1889 [N.S.], at which the composer conducted what was only the second performance of his Fifth Symphony outside Russia after its performance in Prague on 30 November 1888 [N.S.]. Surprisingly, perhaps, in Brahms's native city the Fifth Symphony was received enthusiastically by the public, whereas its premiere in Saint Petersburg the previous year had not been particularly successful.
The two composers did not meet again, although in September 1889 Tchaikovsky's German publisher Daniel Rahter met Brahms in Hamburg, where the latter had come to receive the freedom of his native city, and this is what he reported to Tchaikovsky in Russia: "His [Brahms's] first words were: 'Where is Tchaikovsky and how is he?' He then asked me to give you his kind regards" . Again, this friendly gesture did not cause Tchaikovsky to warm to Brahms's music, and it may have been on one of his last two visits to the Hanseatic city in January 1892 and September 1893 that he made the following remarks which the Hamburg-based critic Josef Sittard recalled in his obituary of Tchaikovsky: "In Wagner, for all his appreciation of his towering talent, he saw the downfall of pure musical taste, and in Brahms, the 'mathematician of sounds', as he once described him to me, he approved only of his outstanding ability for thematic development. 'He has no inspiration, no feeling', he cried when I tried to take the part of Brahms" .
General Reflections on Johannes Brahms
Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.
In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles
- TH 268 — Tchaikovsky argues that Brahms had failed to live up to the great hopes that Schumann and all musical Germany had placed on him, since he was no more than a "mediocre composer", who borrowed his ideas mainly from Mendelssohn and Schumann; nevertheless he praises some parts of the String Sextet No. 1.
- TH 316 — in his fascinating account of his conducting tour to Western Europe in 1888, Tchaikovsky sets forth in great detail his views on Brahms, whom he had met in Leipzig for the first time on 1 January 1888 [N.S.], and whose character impressed him very favourably (Chapter V); Brahms's music, however, still failed to move him, in contrast to that of Grieg, whom Tchaikovsky was also to meet on that remarkable day; reflects on the cult of Brahms in Germany and how it was caused by the conservative German public's need for a hero in the classical mould whom they could oppose to Wagnerism (Chapter XI); Tchaikovsky concludes that "in default of a true genius" to succeed Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann, the earnest-minded Brahms was better than nothing!
In Tchaikovsky's Letters
- Letter 661 to Nadezhda von Meck, 26 November/8 December 1877, from Vienna, in which Tchaikovsky first discusses his impressions of a performance of Wagner's Die Walküre:
Yesterday Kotek and I studied the new symphony [No. 1] by Brahms, a composer who in Germany is praised to the skies. I do not understand his charm. In my view [his music is] dark, cold, and full of pretensions to depth without real depth. On the whole it does seem to me that in terms of music Germany is in decline. I think it's now the Frenchmen who are coming on centre-stage [… Tchaikovsky makes some admiring remarks about Delibes' ballet Sylvia and Bizet's Carmen…] In Germany, though, we're seeing a steep decline. Wagner is the great representative of this period of decadence.
- Letter 705 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 December 1877/5 January 1878, in which Tchaikovsky first discusses at length his views on the state of music in Russia, with some very critical remarks about the members of the "Mighty Handful" (except for Rimsky-Korsakov):
There you have my frank opinion about these gentlemen. What a lamentable sight! So many talents, from which, with the exception of Korsakov, it is difficult to expect anything serious. Isn't that the case with everything in Russia, though? Huge strength, which some fateful Plevna prevents from stepping out into the open field and fighting as one should. Still, this strength is clearly there. Musorgsky, for all his music's ugliness, does speak to us in a new language. It may not be beautiful, but it is fresh. And that is why we can hope that Russia will one day produce a whole pleiad of powerful talents, who will open up new paths for art. Our ugliness is at any rate better than the wretched feebleness, camouflaged as serious music, which we find in Brahms and suchlike Germans. They're played out for good and all….
- Letter 794 to Nadezhda von Meck, 19/31 March 1878, from Clarens, in which Tchaikovsky explains why during his visits to the great music cities of Europe he was reluctant to pay visits to famous composers and musicians with a view to them promoting his works outside Russia:
Lord! How many humiliations you've got to put up with, how much feigned respect and affection you've got to show these folks, indeed what indescribable sufferings your pride has to endure in order to secure the attention of these gentlemen! I'll give you an example. Let's say I want to make myself famous in Vienna. In Vienna Brahms is regarded as the top dog. So that means that in order to consolidate my position in the Viennese musical world I would have to call on Brahms. Brahms is a celebrity; I'm a nobody. And yet, without false modesty, I tell you that I consider myself superior to Brahms. So what would I say to him? If I'm an honest and truthful person, then I would have to tell him this: 'Herr Brahms! I consider you to be a very untalented person, full of pretensions but utterly devoid of creative inspiration. I rate you very poorly and indeed I simply look down upon you. But I need your services, and that's why I've come to you.' If, on the other hand, I'm dishonest and mendacious, then I would tell him quite the opposite. I can do neither the one nor the other.
- Letter 807 to Sergey Taneyev, 4/16 April 1878, in which Tchaikovsky gives his former student some helpful criticism on his (unfinished) second symphony in B-flat minor, but also tells him that he shouldn't allow himself to be discouraged by the fact that it hadn't gone down well with the orchestra players during a rehearsal:
In order for a musician to know which parts are of paramount importance and which ones should remain in the background, several rehearsals are necessary. I mean, I wonder what people would say if the first movement of, let us say, Brahms's symphony [No. 1] were played just once at a rehearsal? Who could possibly like it? And yet this symphony caused a great sensation across all Germany.
- Letter 1083 to Nadezhda von Meck, 26 January/7 February 1879, in which Tchaikovsky talks about the encouragement he had received from Hans von Bülow:
In general Bülow is someone who gets carried away very easily, but it is said that his enthusiasms do not last long. Some of his remarks [about me] are very strange. In one of his letters he told me that in his view there were five composers on whose shoulders rested the future of music, and these five were the following: Raff, Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Rheinberger, and me. It was very flattering to find myself in the company of the first three, but being put next to Rheinberger — that really astonished me! What could he possibly have found in Rheinberger's music? I am not a great fan of Raff or Brahms (indeed I do not like the latter at all; I just respect him), or even of Saint-Saëns, but still these are big shots, whereas Rheinberger is an absolute nonentity.
Brahms's [Violin] Concerto appealed to me just as little as everything else he has written. He is of course a great musician and even a master, but [in his works] there is more mastery than inspiration. Lots of preparations as it were for something, lots of hints that something is going to appear very soon and enchant you, but nothing does come out of it all, except for boredom. His music is not warmed by genuine feeling; it has no poetry; what it has instead is enormous pretension to depth. However, in this depth there is nothing — it's just empty space. For example, let us take the opening of the concerto. It is beautiful as the introduction to something; it is like a splendid pedestal for a column, but the actual column is missing, and, instead, what comes immediately after one pedestal is simply another pedestal. I don't know whether I'm adequately expressing my thoughts, or rather the feeling which Brahms's music instils in me. What I'm trying to get at is that he never actually says anything, and if he does, then he fails to say it completely. His music consists of skilfully pasted-together fragments of something. The overall design lacks distinctiveness, colour, and life. However, I think that quite apart from all these specific criticisms I should above all say that Brahms, as a musical personality, is simply antipathetic to me — I can't stand him. No matter how much he tries, I always remain cold and hostile. This is a purely instinctive reaction.
- Letter 2791 to Nadezhda von Meck, 11/23 October 1885, replying to a letter in which his benefactress had written that symphonic music as a pure form of art was valued higher than opera, and that he himself would be admired by future generations for his symphonic works rather than his operas:
As for the higher significance of symphonic and chamber music in comparison to opera, I would like to add the following. Abstaining from the writing of operas is a kind of heroism in its way, and in our times we do have such a hero — namely, Brahms. In a recent article of his Cui observed quite rightly that as a man and artist who pursues only the highest goals, Brahms is worthy of respect and amazement. Unfortunately, his creative gift is poor and does not match the wide scope of his aspirations. All the same, he is a hero. There is no such heroism in me, and the stage, with all its tinsel, still continues to attract me .
- Letter 3440 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 21 December 1887/2 January 1888, from Leipzig (it is worth comparing this almost 'telegraphic' letter with the much calmer retrospective account given in TH 316) :
[On 19/31 December 1887] At 3 o'clock in the afternoon I set off [from Berlin] for Leipzig. At the station I was met by Brodsky and Ziloti, together with two of my fans. The hotels wonderful. I had dinner at Brodsky's house. He had a Christmas tree set up. His wife and her sister are two enchantingly kind Russian women, and I was on the verge of crying all the time. The next day in the morning I went for a walk (it was their New Year's Day), and then Ziloti and I went to have lunch at Brodsky's house. They were just rehearsing a new trio by Brahms, and Brahms himself was playing the piano. Brahms is a ruddy short man with a large paunch. He treated me very kindly. Then we all had lunch. Brahms is a frightful tippler. There was also the enchantingly nice Grieg. In the evening there was a Gewandhaus concert at which Joachim and Hausmann played a new concerto by Brahms for their two instruments, with Brahms himself conducting. I was sitting in the grand director's box and got to meet so many different people that there's no way of naming them all. The directors told me that my rehearsal was scheduled for the following day. It's just impossible to describe my sufferings both that evening and indeed all this time. If it weren't for Brodsky and Ziloti I should die. Last night was dreadful. The rehearsal took place this morning. Reinecke solemnly introduced me to the orchestra. I gave a short speech in German. The rehearsal finally did turn out well. The orchestra is beyond all praise. I've been seeing Brahms (who sat through the rehearsal) a lot both yesterday and today; it feels awkward for both of us, as we don't like one another, though I must say that he is trying awfully hard to be friendly. Grieg is enchanting. I had lunch at Ziloti's house. In the evening there was chamber music [at Brodsky's house]. A new trio by Brahms. Boring. I'm frightfully exhausted.
- Letter 3439 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky and his wife Praskovya, 21 December 1887/2 January 1888, from Leipzig:
I've met an incredibly large number of people here. Amongst these Brahms and Grieg stand out in particular. Brahms is a pot-bellied boozer, together with whom I got myself pretty drunk yesterday at Brodsky's house. Grieg is an uncommonly nice man of my age.
- Letter 3442 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 24 December 1887/5 January 1888, from Leipzig, in which Tchaikovsky describes how the previous day's rehearsal for his concert had been very successful and what had happened afterwards:
I went on the booze with Brahms — he's awfully fond of drinking, you know; he's a very nice person and not at all as proud as I had imagined. But it was Grieg who won me over completely. He has an enchantingly attractive character, as does his wife. Reinecke is terribly kind...
Modya, my dear fellow, again I'm so happy that I can rest for a bit and collect my thoughts. The last days in Hamburg [4/16–10/22 January] and my one day in Berlin [11/23 January] were awful. In Berlin I heard a work by a new German genius, Richard Strauss. Bülow is fussing over him just as he once did over Brahms and others. I don't think there has ever been a more outrageously talentless person, yet quite full of pretensions, as this [Richard Strauss]. [...] Magdeburg has turned out to be a wonderful, even magnificent city. As usual, the hotel here is marvellous; today I'm going to the opera. The programme for the concert in Berlin [due to take place on 27 January/8 February] has been altered following the advice of Bülow, Wolff, and others. They literally insisted that I shouldn't perform Francesca. They're probably right. I have learnt a lot over the last few days; I've understood many things that weren't clear to me before. It's just it would take too long to write about all this. The needs of the German concert-going public are not at all the same as those in our country. I've now understood why they worship Brahms, although my opinion about him hasn't changed one bit. If I had found this out earlier, perhaps I might even have written differently. Remind me when I get back home to tell you all about my meeting with old Avé-Lallemant, who moved me profoundly.
- Letter 3675 to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, 21 September/3 October 1888, in which Tchaikovsky first makes some very interesting observations about Beethoven's late string quartets:
However, although I am willing to defend Beethoven from those who accuse him of long-windedness, I must confess that post-Beethovenian music presents us with frequent examples of excessiveness and verbosity, reaching a point where it becomes remplissage [French: 'padding']. This composer of genius, who liked to express himself in a sweeping, majestic, strong, and even sharp manner, had a lot in common with Michelangelo. In the same way that, say, Abbé [sic] Bernini flooded Rome with sculptures in which he tried to imitate Michelangelo's style, despite lacking the latter's genius so that he really just reduced almost to the level of caricature what strikes us as so powerful and imposing in his prototype, so in the realm of music Beethoven's style has often been copied to the point of excess, and it still is. I mean, isn't Brahms, at bottom, just a caricature of Beethoven? Isn't all this pretension to depth, power, and strength loathsome when the content he pours into the Beethovenian mould is lamentable and insignificant? Even in Wagner (whose genius, by the way, is indisputable), wherever he overreaches himself, that is essentially a product of Beethoven's spirit.
With regard to Brahms I do not quite agree with Your Highness. In the music of this master (for his mastery can of course not be denied) there is something dry and cold which repels my heart. He has very little melodic inventiveness; his musical thoughts are never spoken out to their conclusion; no sooner has one heard a suggestion of a melodic form that can be easily appreciated, than the latter has already sunk into a whirlpool of meaningless harmonic progressions and modulations. It's just as if this composer had deliberately set himself the task of being unintelligible; what he does is precisely to tease and irritate one's musical feeling. He does not wish to satisfy the latter's needs, he is afraid to speak in a language that reaches the heart. His depth isn't real — elle est voulue [French: 'it is assumed, artificial'] — he seems to have decided once and for all that it is necessary to be profound, and it is true that he has a semblance of depth, but only a semblance. His profundity is empty. One can't say that Brahms's music is feeble and insignificant. His style is always elevated; he never chases after outward effects, he is never banal; everything in him is serious and noble, but the most important thing is missing — beauty. It is impossible not to respect Brahms; one cannot fail to bow before the chaste purity of his aspirations; one cannot but marvel at his steadfastness and proud refusal to make the least concession to triumphant Wagnerism, but it is difficult to like him. In my case at any rate, no matter how much I've tried, I simply haven't been able to. By the way, I should, though, make the following reservation: namely, that some of Brahms's works from his early period (for example, his string sextet in B♭ major) do appeal to me infinitely more than his later ones, especially the symphonies, which seem to me incredibly boring and colourless. If it is disagreeable to Your Highness that I have expressed my dislike of Brahms's music in such sharp terms, then pray forgive me. Many Brahmsians (amongst them Bülow) have been telling me that one day I will see the light and begin to appreciate the beauties of his music, which to me are now unattainable, and that is not impossible, since there really have been such cases. Brahms's Deutsches Requiem I hardly know at all. I shall order a copy of the score and set about studying it. Who knows, perhaps there will indeed be a drastic change in my attitude to Brahms?
- Letter 3812 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 28 February/12 March 1889, from Hamburg, where Tchaikovsky was to conduct the first performance of his Fifth Symphony in Germany (on 3/15 March):
I have been here since yesterday evening. Today was the first rehearsal. Brahms stayed a whole extra day so as to hear the symphony and was very kind. After the rehearsal we went for lunch together and had a bit of a drinking-spree. He is very nice, and I like his frankness and simplicity. The Finale didn't go down well either with him or with the musicians, but the main thing is that I myself now find it terribly repulsive.
- Letter 3818 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 5/17 March 1889, from Hannover, in which Tchaikovsky describes how successful the performance of the Fifth Symphony in Hamburg had been, and how he had grown fond of it again:
I don't remember, Modya, if I wrote to you from Hamburg? Did I tell you that Brahms stayed a whole extra day just for the sake of my symphony, that he sat through the whole rehearsal and spoke very approvingly of the symphony (not all of it, though), and that we caroused together etc.?
- Letter 3832a to Ethel Smyth, 30 March/11 April 1889, from London, where Tchaikovsky had just conducted a concert at the Saint James's Hall:
About a month ago I saw Mr Brodsky and his dear wife, and it goes without saying that we talked a lot about you. In Hamburg I spent a whole day in the company of your Idol… JOHANNES BRAHMS!!! He was delightful towards me. He is a very agreeable man, even though my appreciation of his talent does not quite tally with yours…
In Tchaikovsky's Diaries
- Diary entry for 9/21 October 1886, Maydanovo:
"[Laroche and I] played that scoundrel Brahms. What an ungifted s[wine]! It angers me that this conceited mediocrity is regarded as a genius. Why, in comparison with him Raff is a giant, not to mention Rubinstein, who, when all is said and done, still is an outstanding and living human being. Whereas that Brahms is just some chaotic and utterly empty wasteland .
In Tchaikovsky's Interviews
- TH 324 — in which Tchaikovsky is asked, amongst other things, about his views on the state of music in Western Europe; first he talks about Wagner and the overwhelming influence which he had exerted on his contemporaries:
True, [after Wagner's death] there is in Germany one highly respected and esteemed composer: Brahms, but the cult of Brahms is more like a way of protesting against the excesses and extremes of Wagnerism. For all his mastery, for all the purity and earnestness of his endeavours, Brahms can hardly be said to have made an eternal and precious contribution to the treasure-house of German music.
Views on Specific Works by Johannes Brahms
Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.
In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles
- Double Concerto in A minor, Op. 102 (1887) — TH 316
- Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101 (1887) — TH 316
- String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18 (1862) — TH 268
In Tchaikovsky's Letters
- Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (1868) — Letter 3655 to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, 2/14 October 1888 (quoted above)
- String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18 (1862) — Letter 3685 to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, 2/14 October 1888 (quoted above)
- Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) — Letter 661 to Nadezhda von Meck, 26 November/8 December 1877 (quoted above)
- Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 (1878) — Letter 1427 to Nadezhda von Meck, 16/28 February–28 February/1 March 1880 (quoted above)
Notes and References
- online, but the relevant section on Tchaikovsky is also included in (1993), pp. 138–142. (1904), pp. 160–162. Her memoirs are available
- (1904). Also in (1993), p. 140.
- (1997), pp. 171–172. See also (2006), pp. 63–64.
- From a letter which Bülow wrote from Russia to his second wife Marie on 6/18 January 1885, quoted in (1998), pp. 363.
- Cui's review is quoted in (1998), p. 364.
- (1954), p. 158.
- These diary entries are to be found in Laroche played through, but since the Fourth was premiered in 1885 it is not improbable that they would have chosen to study this recent work. (1993), pp. 100–101. They are also quoted in (1940), p. 389. The entries do not make it clear which Brahms symphony Tchaikovsky and
- Diary entry for 20 September/2 October 1887. See (1993), p. 180. Again, it is not specified which symphony they played.
- (1904). Also in (1993), p. 140.
- (1919). Here quoted from David Brown, (1993), p. 190.
- (2006), p. 74.
- (1954), p. 172–173.
- See (1997), p. 268.
- Letter from Daniel Rahter to Tchaikovsky, September-December 1889 (it has not been possible to establish the exact date, but the letter was written in Saint Petersburg). First published in (2001), p. 95. Also quoted (2006), p. 79.
- Josef Sittard's obituary of Tchaikovsky appeared in the 7 November 1893 [N.S.] issue of the Hamburgischer Correspondent. It is reprinted in full in (2006), p. 150.
- Plevna (Pleven) was a Turkish garrison in Romania which during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 held out against several assaults by the Russian and Romanian forces, leading to heavy casualties on the Russian side until the fortress was finally captured on 10 December 1877 [N.S.] .
- Tchaikovsky had just started work on The Enchantress at the time.
- In Chapter XI of TH 316, written a few months after his letter, Tchaikovsky does set down his sudden insight into why Brahms was held in such great esteem in Germany. When Tchaikovsky says that "if I had found this out earlier, perhaps I might even have written differently" he is probably referring to his diary entry for 9/21 October 1886 (quoted further down) in which he had used some rather strong expletives about Brahms. At the concert in the German capital on 8 February 1888 [N.S.], when Tchaikovsky conducted the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra, Francesca da Rimini was indeed replaced by the festival overture The Year 1812.
- See (1993), p. 101.