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Brahms Without Beard

JOHANNES BRAHMS: Life and Letters. By Styra Avins . Oxford University Press: 880 pp., $45 : JOHANNES BRAHMS: A Biography. By Jan Swafford . Alfred A. Knopf: 704 pp., $35

January 11, 1998|TED LIBBEY | Ted Libbey is the author of "The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection" and the forthcoming "NPR Encyclopedia of Classical Music." He is heard every week on National Public Radio's "Performance Today."

"To me, it seems quite obvious that the real Brahms is nothing more than a sentimental voluptuary with a wonderful ear," wrote a feisty young music critic named George Bernard Shaw a little more than a century ago. "He is the most wanton of composers. . . . Only his wantonness is not vicious; it is that of a great baby . . . rather tiresomely addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and making a prolonged and intolerable noise."

Johannes Brahms was still alive when Shaw delivered that diatribe in the June 21, 1893, issue of The World. Even then, Shaw well knew that his was not the majority opinion of Brahms, neither with the critics nor among listeners at large. It would have astonished him nonetheless had anyone suggested that 40 years later, to mark the centennial of Brahms' birth, an eminent Viennese composer might deliver a radio address hailing Brahms as the agent of "great innovations in musical language." That composer, who knew a thing or two himself about dressing up as someone else, was Arnold Schoenberg. In 1947, to mark the 50th anniversary of Brahms' death, he reiterated his claim in English in an essay entitled "Brahms the Progressive."

So who was Brahms? Voluptuary or innovator? A posturer or a progressive? Now, with the centennial of his death, two weighty new additions to the rapidly growing body of Brahmsiana in English offer much for amateurs and experts alike to ponder. Somewhat surprisingly, Styra Avins' "Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters" is the first comprehensive collection of the letters of Brahms to appear in English (most of the composer's correspondence has been available in German for 75 years). The 564 letters Avins has included in her selection are well chosen from the thousands Brahms wrote and received during the course of his life. Amply foot-noted, with context supplied by a running commentary from Avins, they allow us to eavesdrop as Brahms, his friends and associates discourse on everything from the mundane necessities of business to the meanings of music and life. All of Brahms' missives to Robert Schumann are included, along with more than 100 of the letters he wrote to Schumann's wife, Clara--the most important of all the women in Brahms' life--though only two of the numerous letters she sent him are proffered.

There are many gems here, including the celebrated letter Brahms wrote in December of 1877 to Simrock, his publisher, about a promising young Bohemian named Antonin Dvorak and a lovely one written by Dvorak to Simrock six years later alerting the publisher to the beauties of Brahms' newly finished Third Symphony. There is much to be gleaned from what Avins has selected, such as the number of string instruments Brahms had in mind for his symphonies (14 first and 14 second violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos and five double basses) and the fact that he wrote his horn parts for natural horn because he preferred its sound, even though he didn't expect to hear it when his pieces were played. Those who seek to be on more intimate terms with Brahms and his circle, including performers who don't read German, will find much to pore over in this collection. And it should keep program annotators happy for a long time to come.

The other half of the literary payoff to the Brahms centennial year is a new biography from the American writer Jan Swafford, whose previous achievements include "The Vintage Guide to Classical Music" and an excellent biography of Charles Ives. In the book's introduction, Swafford tells us that it was a performance of Brahms' First Symphony by Leonard Bernstein and a touring New York Philharmonic in his home town of Chattanooga, Tenn., that got him started on a lifetime's devotion to music. The affection he obviously still harbors for the composer and his music can be felt on every page of this meticulous portrait, a labor of love as well as an important addition to the Brahms bibliography.

Swafford has thoroughly mined the existing literature, both scholarly and popular, and has managed to weave it into his narrative in a seamless fashion. He draws heavily upon the correspondence of Brahms and Clara Schumann, collected 70 years ago by Berthold Litzmann, and relies, as one must, on the long-standard works of Max Kalbeck and Karl Geiringer for much of his anecdotal material. But he has also sifted through a great deal, if not all, of the scholarship of the last 25 years and presents useful musicological insights from analyses by Malcolm MacDonald, Walter Frisch and the late Carl Dahlhaus. Swafford's treatment includes a smattering of musical examples, though nothing in the book is beyond the reach of the layman: Technical terms and formal concepts, when they are discussed, are explained clearly and concisely in the body of the text.

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