Brahms: biographical, documentary and analytical studies

Editor: Robert Pascall; 212 pp. Cambridge University Press.



This symposium costs an average £2 per twenty-page essay, each by a noted specialist. Most are good value, and one is outstanding. At first glance it all looks quite like old times, with such familiar topics as cultural background, choral music, symphonies and Mozart influence. But the five detailed analytical studies, plus the editor’s own expertise on music-editing, confirm that this is high technology for advanced students. As the preface puts it, the contributors are taking “routes into genetic intertextuality”. The music-loving public can only wish them luck as it waves them goodbye.

   So austere an approach exacts equally severe standards of scholarly accuracy and objectivity. Michael Musgrave offers a timely and often perceptive account of Brahms’s eclectic absorption in contemporary science, philosophy, art and literature; but we ought not to be told that “A. W. Schlegel’s Lachrymus” is “significant” when it is in fact non-existent. Again, David Osmond-Smith has much that is fresh and rewarding to say about the Fourth Symphony; but he need not inflate his personal feelings into universal rules of composition and then rebuke Schumann for failing to follow them. George Bozarth rightly refers to the risks of reading Brahms’s emotional frustrations into the Lieder; but too much of his own offering is just his own opinion (dull and wrong, in my opinion) of Max Kalbeck’s opinion of the poetry and music of “Vorüber”.

   So the new routes are not without their stumbles and pitfalls; and their new directions deliberately by-pass familiar views. Quite right, too, though much will be missed. Thus Arnold Whittall’s acute analyses of those powerful sermons, the Vier ernste Gesänge, hardly mention their texts save to say they are “sacred” (though apparently not to him). In a Schenkerian sense these songs are seen to be essentially without words, as if they were really the Four Serious Vocalises. At the same time there are compensatory gains. James Webster no doubt speaks for his fellow analysts in owning that his schematic interpretations of the Tragic Overture “will seem inadequate, even bizarre, to some readers”; and this acknowledgment that musical dissections are every bit as subjective as verbal descriptions is well worth recording and applauding. But I think that many of Dr Webster’s readers will find him illuminating, even revelatory. He even achieves a convincing correlation between the lay-out of the overture's individual features and its expression of sadness. The latter suggests to me that its opening theme may embody a motto in every sense, with the acronymic connotations of F A E, “frei aber einsam”. On any analysis there is no doubt that the inward aspect of Brahms the chess-player, punster and musical encipherer in the Schumann tradition is especially amenable and propitious to intellectual reappraisal even when, as in Jonathan Dunsby’s ingenious ascriptions of thematic unity to the Fantasien Op. 116, its results are more speculative than verifiable. Brahms is rightly seen, therefore, in his 150th anniversary year, as both the culmination of an old era and the inauguration of a new one.

   The German school is best equipped to instruct us on that historical perspective, an assignment effectively fulfilled by Imogen Fellinger on the undeniably formative Mozart influence, and by Siegfried Kross on the symphonies, including their Schumann affinities. Virginia Hancock writes well on what Brahms absorbed from early choral music, Italian as well as German, into his own. It is good to learn that the supposedly lost Missa canonica of c1856 has surfaced in time for first performance in Vienna this May. Its already known “Benedictus”, duly cited as the first of some seventy well-reproduced music examples and plates, looks especially interesting in its thematic and textual links with the First Piano Concerto.

   Last, and best, there is the editor’s own essay on Brahms and the definitive text, which itself deploys some well-nigh definitive criteria and expertise. I trust the sponsors of the planned Neue Gesamtausgabe  will take due note of this outstanding scholarship, the more impressive in my view for being directed to a practical end, as well as for demonstrating the far from well-documented fact that the logical is a necessary component of the musicological. I have to add though that Robert Pascall is better on Brahms’s editorial blue-pencilling than his own. Clarity begins at home; and  the text of this symposium needed better translation in places (eg, Brahms “conceiving from the piano”) and sterner discipline throughout for such lazy phrases as “A different question to arise from speculating about the unity of this collection is the nature of the unity of its elements” and so forth. A bibliography would have been useful; of course all the Max Kalbeck references should have been included in the index, which is generally too selective; there are one or two small but tiresome errors.


Times Literary Supplement, June 1983  © the estate of eric sams