Johannes Brahms by Ivor Keys

Christopher Helm (London, 1989)


Much of this book is admirable; but I found it flawed by a minor defect of form and a major one of content. All Brahms's works are mentioned and most are discussed; but the comments often appear on two or more pages, because the book's two halves (narra­tive and catalogue) overlap. In the resulting arrangement of (a) life and works and (b) works, the latter often sound lifeless in comparison. This is all the more regrettable because the biographical exegesis as such is so exemplary. The day-to-day life story has never been better told. At times it tends, because of the restricted existence it describes, to be a mere recital of recitals. But there are many original comments and insights, throughout; and the dauntingly copious material has been exceptionally well processed and thoughtfully presented, with 120 music examples and eight pages of photographs.

   What is missing is the human personality of the music, for example in that consummate masterpiece op.52. Not only is there no hint here of its expressive eroticism except in the title Leibeslieder, which is one of some twenty misprints; despite three cross-referenced index entries, it is not mentioned at all save to say that its singers are optional, which they are not. All such musical content has been careful­ly emptied out. We are left with form and structure, identified by what Ivor Keys grandly calls “the ear”, meaning his own ear. I wish to add my eye. So would Brahms, who always described his music in visual or literary terms, never as pure sound-patterns. He knew that he spoke from the heart to the imagination; he specified that he used the language of Schumann. I respectfully agree with him. But Keys actually claims to know far better than Brahms on such scores (pp.13, 71) and so forfeits my confidence, and all like-minded readership.

   We could all have accepted and appreciated the analytical commentary as such, had it not been thus presented as a confrontation with the composer himself. As it is, we can only conclude that it is Keys, not Brahms, who fails to fit the musical facts. The modern academic vantage-point of a different century, milieu and language overlooks the evidence. Its German is shaky (thus “streichen” means “delete”, not “buffet”, p.27); its basic premises lack philosophical underpinning. There is no trace of any argued aesthetic. It is solely on grounds of assumption and assertion that both Brahms and his friend and biographer Max Kalbeck are rebuked for misrepresenting the music. Indeed, Kalbeck is in effect called a liar for telling the world about the “Frei Aber Froh” acronym theme F-A­F. The only support offered for that grave charge is that “Michael Musgrave has voiced severe doubts”. This may not instantly strike everyone as the ultimate refutation, least of all those who take the trouble to read what Musgrave actually says, notably that there is no means of challenging Kalbeck's testimony. Nor is there any discernible reason for doing so except the powerful personal preconviction of knowing better than Brahms and his circle.

   But it is fair to offer a specific test-case. In the opening of the D minor piano concerto op.15 a tragic figure is poised to leap, at the sound of a drum-roll, as a shudder of trills runs through the entire orchestra. So Kalbeck, in his old-fashioned Romantic way, passed on to posterity what Joachim in turn had told him, prima facie from personal knowledge and in good faith; the music expresses and indeed depicts the trauma of Schumann's attempted suicide. Such despairing musical plunges into the cold Rhine cut no ice with Ivor Keys, who dismisses the idea as mere imagination. But what if this and all such music actually is Brahms's imagination, which the professor rejects in favour of his own lack of it? Hands up all those who feel that the really vital point to make about those opening bars is that “the work begins with a unison D for one bar after which 23 bars elapse, and with them the whole first theme, before a chord of D minor makes an appearance.” This book's commentary and catalogue are for that class of readers.    


The Musical Times, Mar. 1990 (p. 146-47) © the estate of eric sams