Johannes Brahms: Thematisches Bibliographisches Werkverzeichnis by Margit McCorkle
Here is a massive milestone, in dimensions (18x26x6 cm) as well as importance. It lies leagues beyond all previous Brahms catalogues such as the disappointing Da Capo updating (1973) of Simrock (1897). Few ordinary students will be able to afford it, but no serious Brahmsian can afford to be without it. Its 900 pages incorporate more than a million facts; not only incipits, forces, texts, dates and other details of composition, publication and performance, with description and location of all identifiable autographs for each of some 200 works in all authentic versions but also all available information about copyists’ manuscripts, corrected galleys, successive issues, arrangements and so on, together with analogous data on lost pieces, fragments and sketches, copies and collections, and doubtful attributions, as well as scholarly notes on Brahms and the Volkslied,. the repertory of his Hamburg ladies’ choir, and relevant excerpts from correspondence and commentators, all supplemented by a select but comprehensive bibliography. Even the composer himself, for all his notorious coolness about catalogues, especially of his own works, might well have warmed to this one, as a tribute and testimonial.
However, I find it far from flawless. As Otto Erich Deutsch ruefully observed, all works of reference should he published first in their second editions. A cursory inspection of this one disclosed two careless misprints (pp. xlix, lxiv). Both occur in the 30 pages of English text (i.e. the editorial prolegomena) which are poorly translated (for example such familiar expressions as “untimely” and “boundless” have been misconstrued) and indeed often merely paraphrased. Ten lines (p.xlviii, 15-24) seem to have been lost altogether. I sometimes found the German vocabulary, such as ”Besetzung” or “Muster”, far more familiar than the English equivalent (“ensemble specification” or “conflated paradigm”). The Allgemeines Namenverzeichnis is not general at all, but severely selective on some unexplained basis. Register III omits the name Thibaut and fails to record op.63 no.8 under Groth and op.17 no.4 under MacPherson (sic), who is implausibly alleged to have translated the poems of a mythological hero. Worst of all, In stiller Nacht WoO33 no.42 is wilfully excluded (p.553 etc) from the category of original works; but who ever heard anything less like a Volkslied, or indeed more like a Brahms song?
The latter genre, though it needed top research priority, is disappointingly treated here. Much excellent new work has been devoted to dating the lieder: but no comparable effort, so far as I can discern, has been made to delve into the (admittedly very hard) terrain of literary texts in search of identifiable sources. Perhaps there was some uncertainty about aims and methods. The English introduction stipulates only “publication date” (i.e of the poetic works), whereas the German specifies “Jahreszahl der Erstveröffentlichung” (i.e. of the actual lyric). As a result, the reader is repeatedly referred, in a parade of pointless pedantry, to a poem’s early appearance in obscure magazines and journals, despite the absence of any evidence that Brahms ever set eyes on them, let alone used them as a textual source. Even this otiose information is haphazard: thus it is supplied for Heine but not other poets (e.g. Mörike) and for some Heine lyrics but not others (e.g. op.96 no.1). It can be actively misleading. Why for example tell us that the poems of op.85 nos. 1 and 2, composed in May 1878, had been first published in Reisebilder (1826) and Rheinische Flora (1825) respectively, when we already infer that Brahms in fact found them, predictably enough, in the later Buch der Lieder? There. Incidentally, they are immediately followed by Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht, set as op.90 no. 1, dated “probably 1884”; but is that six-year time lag really probable?
In other instances a date or a terminus could solely have been supported or even supplied by closer bibliographical inquiry: thus a mere “nicht ermittelt” for the date of op.86 no. 4 is quite inadequate. All too often the central question of what book Brahms held in his hand has slipped out of focus and indeed out of sight. Thus we are unhelpfully told, 14 times, that he owned an undated copy of Goethe’s Werke; but the much more interesting information that he also owned, for example, Uhland’s Gedichte of 1839 and Eichendorff’s of 1843 is tiresomely omitted from the very pages where it would have been relevant and valuable. Several sourcebooks remain inexplicably unmentioned (e.g. for Platen at op. 32 nos. 1, 3 – 6, Geibel at op.85 no.5 and op.94 no.3, Hoffmann von Fallersleben at WoO 27), while some of those specified are dubious; thus the poem of op.54 was surely taken from Hölderlin Gedichte, not his Hyperion, a point on which Albert Dietrich’s letter (1898, p.65) is misquoted.
Of course none of this might matter all that much, even at £95.31 a copy, if Brahms’s texts have only a tangential bearing on his art. No doubt, too, any catalogue must by definition be heavily weighted towards the works and comparatively light on the life. Yet his whole oeuvre is massively vocal and verbal; its choice and treatment of poetry are often manifestly self-expressive; the sources are significant. So. for some commentators, are certain quasi-verbal ideas which are arguably integral to the music, into which for example Brahms incorporated (according to his confidant Max Kalbeck) the meaningful motto-theme F-A -F standing for “frei aber froh”, from the Ballade op. 10 no.2 onwards, or the name A-G-A(T)-H-E in the Sextet op. 36 and (to judge from its incipit here) the four-part Romance op.44 no.10. There are no rational grounds for doubting or disparaging the use of such devices. which are entirely typical of Brahms; yet hardly a hint of them emerges from these pages. Similarly we learn that the Piano Quartet op.60 had a prevailing “Werther mood”; but what this might mean, or how it may be manifested, remains an unmentionable mystery. We are referred, it is true, to various volumes of biography or correspondence; but the Verzeichnis itself offers a much smaller selection from the relevant documentation than many a miniature score. It strikes me as strange that the “important facts . . . about the circumstances of composition” which this catalogue avowedly aims to provide (p.lxi) should so often exclude well-known comments, including those of Brahms himself, on matters that would surely have scented to him not just important but vital to his innermost musical being, such as his love and veneration for Robert and Clara Schumann.
Such omissions, in my view, adversely affect the declared purpose of this compilation, and hence reduce its compass as a musicological instrument. First. they distort the dating. Thus insofar as the First Piano Concerto, the First Symphony and the Requiem, for example, are composed of personally expressive thematic material, each is in its inception an early work, dating (as the New Grove work-list rightly records) from 1854, 1855 and 1857 respectively, indeed the Requiem may well contain ideas from 1851. Instead, this Verzeichnis relegates the relevant facts to the status of foot notes, and allocates those works to 1856-7, 1862-76 and 1866. This approach seems not only dubious in itself but internally inconsistent; if music consists of its notes, not just its name, the Requiem too had a long gestation.
Even its title was inherited. In spite of what is said here (p. 171), the presence of the otherwise unprecedented phrase “Ein deutsches Requiem” in a Schumann notebook to which Brahms had prolonged access is unlikely to be a mere coincidence; in this instance as in man others the testimony of Kalbeck is, I believe, undervalued. So are the modern scientific techniques of paper studies, including watermarks, ink-types, rastral data and graphology. The reservations about such evidence expressed on p.lvi have already been refuted, it seems to me, by the impressively meticulous work of George Bozarth for this very catalogue (see e.g. Music Review, xliv (1983), 208-22).Finally there must he something amiss with a methodology that juxtaposes, as equally dubious works, the pot-pourri Souvenirs de la Russie, which has several facts and arguments in favour of its authenticity, and an A major trio which has none at all. Purchasers of this comprehensive catalogue are surely entitled to some adjudication on such points. We can all sit silent on the fence, free of charge.
Such strictures, it is fair to add, apply only to the comparatively small proportion of the text that I have been able to check in detail. For all I know, the rest is entirely above reproach; other users may well find it faultless in its coverage of their own special interests. No-one will dispute that it is required reading, and an impressive achievement in international collaboration as well as musical scholarship.
The Musical Times, Jul. 1985 (p. 406-407) © the estate of eric sams