on Brahms


Occasional Writings
January 24, 1997

To: Helen Wallace, BBC Music Magazine Jan 24 1997

Here is the piece on Brahms as requested. I’m not sure of the title. It would depend on the context and what other pieces you are running.

I remember that I found it very reassuring when I discovered Percy Grainger’s antipathy to the works of the classical “masters” Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. I had previously thought, along with many other pieces of received cultural wisdom, that the status of such composers could not possibly be questioned. In view of my dislike for the music of Brahms however I was touched to learn that Britten, apparently, used to spend one day a year playing Brahms at the piano just to remind himself what a bad composer Brahms was. There is, for example, a particular musical sound in Brahms which John White used to call “that development noise,” a phenomenon which is found not only in development sections in the symphonies, but throughout his music as a whole. It is the study of this which has sent too many composers down a blind alley and which fertilised a good deal of British music in the first seventy years or so of this century.

If Eric Sams’ researches into the nature of Robert Schumann’s illness are correct, then perhaps one of the greatest lieder composers, through his wife Clara, could be held indirectly and partially responsible for Brahms’ turgidity on account of Clara’s refusal to move into a fully intimate relationship with Brahms after Schumann’s death.

My rejection of the music of Brahms does not mean, of course, that I dislike everything he wrote: just as Jonathan Swift could say that he hated all judges but enjoyed the company of Judge So-and-So. In a similar spirit there are moments in Brahms which I do like, but they never last as long as a whole piece. I have no wish to suggest to others what line they should take on Brahms: my position with regard to Brahms is similar to that of Marcel Duchamp’s to art. Duchamp wanted to kill art – not for everyone but just for himself.

Gavin Bryars