The Music of Johannes Brahms by Bernard Jacobson



A brief introduction and some potted biography are followed by seven short chapters on Brahms and musical history, rhythmic invention, polyphony, symphonic thought, instrumental colour, word-­setting and musical flavour. There are nine well­chosen illustrations, some critical biblio-, disco- and scorography, and some rather uncritical chronology (e.g. on the songs) though in general the work-list analysed by date and genre offers a useful and interesting conspectus.

     The book belongs to a series on the sound world of the great composers. Hence no doubt the excess of exemplification over exposition. More points seem to be illustrated in music than are actually made in words. The latter are not substantially more than in some BBC Music Guides, still selling at 50p. Exploring the sound world means not only listening with the eyes but paying through the nose.

     There is some compensation. The style is fluent and persuasive, the content is perceptive, and the tone is agreeably partisan. But as a guide lo beauties and merits (the declared goal) the book seems rather misrouted. A typical excerpt is “The second half is first telescoped in diminution into what sounds like a new theme, and then extended into yet another one in combination with a pizzicato viola figure [gener­ously exemplified] which is  itself a foreshortened transformation of the movement's opening theme”. Such texts serve mainly for preaching to the converted. The technical devices thus verbally described offer no clear criterion for greatness; indeed for some notable critics they furnished proof positive of pettiness. Nor (despite the claim on p.15) are such matters as influences any more objective, let alone evaluative. In music, one man's significant resemblance is another man's trifling coincidence; thus the supposed affinities with Haydn (p.32) and Mozart (p.34) strike me as parallels only in the sense of not meeting at any real point. And, speaking of objectivity, what is the evidence for suggesting that Brahms destroyed all his unpublished manuscripts in 1897, or was made fatally ill by the death of Clara Schumann, or may not have used the pseudonym G. W. Marks, or thought his first 82 opus numbers unworthy of dedication to Marxsen, or set Wenzig in Von ewiger Liebe, and so forth?

     In short, this is the very book for you if - but only if - you like verbal maps of the sound world, if you think of music as essentially a sound- or record-Ding an sich, and if you can read music fluently but are not very familiar with Brahms. But if, like Brahms himself (and, in one or two unguarded moments, Mr Jacobson) you think of music as a means to the end of expressing emotive life, then you may well feel that this approach puts the score before the heart.     



The Musical Times, Sept. 1977 (p. 727) © the estate of eric sams, 1977