The Music of Brahms by Michael Musgrave

 Routledge and Kegan Paul (London, 1989)


This volume stands second in the new series called Companions to the Great Composers (the first is reviewed by John Warrack, above) designed to provide “thorough, up-to-date studies of the music". Biography is avowedly avoided, on the ground that "what is most interesting about a composer is what is contained in his work". Yet each such study is intended to appeal to the interested layman as well as the music student. "Up-to-date" in this context seems to entail adherence to the doctrine propounded by Wimsatt and Beardsley about literature some forty years ago: if the artist's intentions or personality are expressed in the works, we can find them there, and if not they are irrelevant. But such austere dogmas are endlessly disputable; and their unreserved acceptance is confined in practice to a priestly caste of professionals. The laity, ie, everyone else, is by definition interested in art for its manifestation of human interests and qualities, including those of the artist; analysis without biography is likely seem in every sense lifeless not only to the lay music-lover but to most musicians. I fear therefore that the editorial aims as defined may prove self-defeating. One of them is also utterly untrue. The back cover's amazing claim that "the language is not technical" is just one of those cover stories. In fact, as any reader (except apparently the publisher's reader) will instantly notice, the language is remorselessly technical, not to say technological, on every page. This is a structuralist handbook, devoted to such formal concepts as the integration, unity and synthesis of patterns, models and proportions among the rhythmic or harmonic drives or tensions of basic gestural motivic units, complete with cadential augmentatims, axiomatic relations to the submediant, and so forth.

   As such, I do not see how it could be bettered. Its own structure is admirably coherent, with introduction, exegesis in chronological or opus-number order, and a concise coda of reappraisal. Brahms, so far from remaining the isolated reactionary epigone derisively dismissed by Bernard Shaw ("his Requiem is patiently borne only by the corpse") is now reclassified as the direct forerunner of Schoenberg in thematic process and formal unity, and of Stravinsky in rhythmic technique. It is certainly heartening to see a measure of justice done to Brahms's towering intellect, long unperceived or underrated. Better still, Michael Musgrave has undertaken much deep and original excavation in his chosen field, uncovering new strata of textual interconnection not only within individual works but among the oeuvre as a whole and its relation to other composers and eras of musical history. Add the clear and copious music examples, and the handy work-list, calendar and bibliography, and the result is a valuable textbook for actual or potential teachers and students at university- level for as long as the current aesthetic assumptions last.

   Its extra-curricular appeal would have been much enhanced by; occasional further hints that Brahms's music can even be enjoyable. as well as meaningfully emotive and expressive in the quasi-verbal Schumann style of sonorous symbolism. Instead, we are offered highly percep­tive but also narrowly specialized commentary on works that might have been called A German Synthesis, Four Serious Structures and the like. Musgrave the musical analyst is not at home in the world of words. and this must be something of a handicap in any mode of book-making. Predictably, the vocal works come off worst. The sheer brain-power of those intellectual masterpieces the Liebeslieder-Walzer, for example, goes unmentioned if not unnoticed. Poetry and poetic content are rarely given their full due: thus the text of "Von ewiger Liebe" is twice misattributed to Joseph Wenzig, and the strict Sapphic stanza form is disapprovingly stigma­tized as "very irregular”. In general the English style is cramped and quirky. Already on the second page, a part in a venture serves as a focus for a rift; on the third, Brahms's shy confession to Widmann gauchely rendered as “When I still had the urge I was unable to offer a woman what would have been the right thing”; and so throughout. In sum, here is an admirable analytical companion for all who favour that austere approach; but despite the publishers' claims I doubt whether they are offering the general public what would have been the right thing.   


Times Literary Supplement, Mar. 1986 © the estate of eric sams