REALLY Not Bruckner: Johannes Brahms

Chorale will present a motet by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, Op. 29 no.1, on our March 16 concert.  Josef Rheinberger, whom I discussed last week, and whose Abendlied we will also perform, was a minor, regional composer who likely had no personal contact with Anton Bruckner (the composer upon whom our program focuses); Brahms, on the other hand, is a major figure in Western music, and his compositions, and ideas, must figure prominently in any discussion of Bruckner. By 1859, the “New German School,” whose principle figures included Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, and Hector Berlioz, had become a recognized and powerful entity. (Note that two of these three men are not even German!)  Both Bruckner and Brahms admired Wagner’s music, and Brahms admired Liszt as a pianist; but Brahms, along with his supporters Clara Schumann, Eduard Hanslick, and violinist Joseph Joachim, became increasingly disturbed over what they considered the excesses of Wagner’s music, while Bruckner was becoming increasingly identified with Wagner.

Concurrently, Brahms premiered his Piano Concerto in D Minor at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where he received a hostile reception from the audience–he was hissed off the stage–and from the press. This experience, rather than discouraging him, may have forced him to take a public stand in the debate over the future of German music. A manifesto signed by himself, Joachim, and others, published in Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo, states that “...the products of the leaders and students of the so-called New German School can only be condemned and deplored as contrary to the innermost essence of music.” This “innermost essence” for Brahms has to do with his preference for “absolute music”–music that stands on its own merit, without reference to a setting or literary allusion. He maintained a Classical sense of form and order in his works – in contrast to the opulence and irregularity of the music of many of his contemporaries. Thus, his admirers saw him as the champion of traditional forms and "pure music," who practiced “refinement of inspiration through craftsmanship.”

Brahms had studied and performed a number of J.S. Bach’s cantatas, and undoubtedly found in Bach’s work a prime example of “pure music.” He composed his motet Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, based on a sixteenth-century chorale by Paul Speratus, in July, 1860, soon after the publication of his manifesto. In doing so, he directly references Bach, who was an important symbol for nineteenth-century Germany, not only of musical tradition, but also of national pride and of cultural history. He composes his own version of a Bach “type”-- a harmonized statement of a pre-existent chorale tune, followed by a fugue in which not only the subject derives from the chorale tune, but a cantus firmus bass restates that tune, a procedure reminiscent of the opening chorus to Bach's Cantata #4, Christ lag in Todesbanden. The partner motet in Op. 29, Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz, is similarly based on a model taken directly from Bach.

Coming, as they do,Johannes Brahms directly on the heels of his manifesto, these motets seem to be Brahms’ challenge to the direction the New German School was taking. Subsequent to this period, Brahms is identified as the conserver of the old ways, while Bruckner is heard as the cacophonous voice of the future.  I find, surveying the literature available to me, that this dichotomy, and rivalry, exist to this day, with performers and critics alike taking one side or another in a controversy which should have died 150 years ago.

Interestingly enough, the two composers seem to have borne one another no ill will, and to have admired one another’s music; Bruckner even attended Brahms’ funeral. Brahms is known to have admired Wagner, and Bruckner to have admired Schumann, Brahms’ principle mentor.  After this one flirtation with polemic, Brahms put politics away and focused on composing music; Bruckner expressed nothing whatsoever about other composers, only commenting, about the critic Eduard Hanslick, "I guess Hanslick understands as little about Brahms as about Wagner, me, and others. And the Doctor Hanslick knows as much about counterpoint as a chimney sweep about astronomy."