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Brahms, Beethoven, and a Reassessment of the Famous Footsteps

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2021


To speak of Brahms and Beethoven in the same breath is almost a cliché: Brahms was intimately conscious of Beethoven's music from early youth. This article describes the details of his youthful involvement, the compositions he had in his repertoire as well as those other works which had a powerful effect on his development. By age 20, Brahms was frequently compared to Beethoven by people who met him or heard him play. My interest is in the way he was influenced by Beethoven and the manner in which he eventually found his own voice.

The compositional history of his First Symphony provides the primary focus: its long gestation, and the alleged quote by Brahms given in Max Kalbeck's massive biography: ‘I'll never write a symphony, you have no idea what it feels like … to hear the footsteps of a giant behind one’. The reference is presumably to Beethoven, but there exists no corroborating evidence that Brahms ever said those words. They gained credence as one writer after another simply accepted Kalbeck's word. Yet substantial evidence exists that in writing his biography, Kalbeck distorted and even invented ‘facts’ when it suited his purposes, including a specific instance dealing with writing a symphony.

An alternative view of the symphony's long gestation is based on a view of Brahms's compositional history. He wrote for musical forces he knew at first hand, and only from 1872 to 1875 did he have command of an orchestra. Intriguingly, while fulfilling the contemporary accepted demands of a symphony after Beethoven, Brahms devised an unusual strategy for the final movement, the basis of its great success.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press.

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1 I am grateful to Michael Musgrave for alerting me to the fact that an earlier date for the starting point for the symphony (1855, for example) is nowhere verified (private conversation).

2 May, Florence, The Life of Brahms, 2nd rev. edn (London: William Reeves, 1948): 1: 61Google Scholar.

3 Avins, Styra, ‘The Young Brahms: Another View’, Newsletter of The American Brahms Society 9/2 (Autumn 1993): 5Google Scholar and May, The Life of Brahms, 1: 98–100.

4 Andreas Moser, ed., Johannes Brahms im Briefwechsel mit Joseph Joachim, Brahms Briefwechsel, vol. 5 (Berlin: Deutsche Brahms Gesellschaft, 1908, repr. Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1974): 88, trans. in Avins, Styra, Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997): 91Google Scholar. The year was 1848. A glowing review in the Hamburger Nachrichten of 27 March 1848 is almost as enthusiastic about Joachim as was Brahms. My thanks to Robert Eshbach for alerting me to it.

5 Berthold Litzmann, ed. Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms: Briefe aus den Jahren 1853–1896 (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1927): 1: 275, trans. Avins, Brahms: Life and Letters, 198.

6 For an extensive listing of Brahms's performances of Beethoven's piano music at this time see Renate and Kurt Hofmann, Johannes Brahms als Pianist und Dirigent (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 2006).

7 The tuning incident is told in virtually every biography, starting with May, The Life of Brahms, 99–100. It is confirmed by Brahms himself in his letter to Hermann Deiters [Ischl], 8 August 1880, Wilhelm Altmann, ed., Johannes Brahms inm Briefwechsel mit Karl Reinthaler, Max Bruch, Hermann Deiters, Friedrich Heimsoeth, Karl Reinecke, Ernst Rudorff, Bernhard and Luise Scholtz, Brahms Briefwechsel, vol. 3 (Berlin: Deutsche Brahms Gesellschaft, 1913), trans. in Avins, Brahms Life and Letters, 561.

8 Karl Bargheer, ‘Erinnerungen an Johannes Brahms in Detmold 1857–65’ (Lippische Landesbibliothek, Detmold. Unpublished). Also cited in Willi Schramm, Johannes Brahms in Detmold, Beiträge zur westfälischen Musikgeschichte 18; repr. of 1933 1st edn, newly edited and annotated by Richard Müller-Dombois (Hagen: Kommissionsverlag v.d. Linnepe, 1983): 31.

9 Musgrave, Michael, Brahms, A German Requiem (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996): 46Google Scholar.

10 ‘Als Clara ihm in Gegenwart von Brahms mitteilte, ihr Mann habe ihn oft als den zweiten Beethoven bezeichnet, entgegnete Gustav [von Diest, author of the memoir], sie möge den jungen Mann nicht so fürchterlich verwöhnen. Da habe Clara herzlich gelacht. Gustav: wer von uns allen konnte damals die einstige Gröβe von Brahms ahnen? Das Ehepaar Schumann hat es getan’. The Memoir is included in Walther von Diest, ‘Von Gustav den Glücklichen: Begegnungen mit Joachim und Brahms im Hause Schumann’, Brahms-Studien (Hamburg: Johannes-Brahms-Gesellschaft, 2002): 13: 114. The author is Gustav's great grandnephew.

11 Helene von Vesque, Eine Glückliche: Hedwig von Holstein in ihren Briefen und Tagebuchblättern (Leipzig: Verlag von H. Haessel, 1901): 115.

12 ‘Wenn seine Musik überhaupt an irgend etwas erinnert, so ist es der späte Beethoven’. Albert Dietrich, Erinnerungen an Johannes Brahms in Briefen besonders aus seiner Jugendzeit (Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1898): 5.

13 ‘Ich saβ bei Tisch bei einem jungen Künstler, Johannes Brahms, ein groβartiges Genie, der sich wohl noch Bahn bald genug brechen wird, einstweilen wird er nur hier von den Damen vergöttert und von den Männern angestaunt – Unser Musikdirektor meint, es stecke ein zweiter Beethooven [!] in ihm – jedenfalls ist er eminent begabt und sein Spiel allein reiβt mit fort, es ist alles so gewaltige Kraft an ihm’. Letter quoted in Rudolf Kreutner, ‘… ich wäre hochbeglückt gewesen, auch meinerseits dem groβen Sohn Ihrer Stadt ein Zeichen höchster Verehrung geben zu können’ in Brahms-Studien (Hamburg: Johannes-Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1997): 11: 55–71.

14 See Kurt Hofmann, Die Bibliothek von Johannes Brahms: Bücher und Musikalienverzeichnis (Hamburg: Karl Dieter Wagner, 1974): 147–8.

15 Max Kalbeck, Johannes Brahms, 4th edn (Berlin: Deutsche Brahms Gesellschaft, 1908–21): 1: 165. Robert Pascall, in his ‘Brahms Underway to the First Symphony, a Hidden Story of Concept Development’, in Festschrift Otto Biba zum 60. Geburtstag, ed. Ingrid Fuchs (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 2006): 406, reproduces the sentence, with the attribution ‘Brahms to Hermann Levi, in the beginning of the 1870s’, suggesting without quite saying so that it occurs in a letter, and giving Kalbeck as the source. No such letter is known to me, nor catalogued in the Brahms-Briefwechsel-Verzeichnis at the Brahms-Institut an der Musikhochschule Lübeck.

16 Kalbeck, Johannes Brahms, 1: 339.

17 In Robert Pascall, ed., Brahms; Biographical, Documentary and Analytical Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983): 130.

18 Bargheer, ‘Erinnerungen an Johannes Brahms in Detmold 1857–1865’, n. 6. It is hardly to be imagined that Brahms was unaware that the six-movement work, with an Adagio twice as long as any other movement, and with two Minuets, had no claim to be a symphony. Bargheer's account has to refer to an occasion some time shortly after 8 December 1859. On that date, Brahms was busy, as he wrote to Joseph Joachim, ‘turn[ing] the First Serenade into a Symphony. I do see that it has a split personality [Zwittergestalt]’. Brahms to Joachim, Detmold, 8 December 1858 (recte: 1859), Brahms Briefwechsel 5: 226–7. In this letter Brahms asks Joachim to send him suitable music writing paper, 20–24-stave and 16- or 14-stave, as he cannot get decent paper in Detmold.

19 Musgrave, Michael, ‘Frei aber Einsam: A Reconsideration’, 19th-Century Music 3/3 (1980): 251–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Michael Musgrave, ‘Brahms and Kalbeck. Eine miβverstandene Beziehung?’, in Brahms-Kongress Wien 1983: Kongressbericht, ed. Susanne Antonicek and Otto Biba (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1988): 397–404.

21 The von Beckeraths – Rudolph (1833–1888), Alwin (1849–1930), and Laura (1840–1920) – were friends in whose company Brahms felt unusually at ease. They belonged to a circle of wealthy Mennonite vintners, businessmen and silk manufacturers centred in Krefeld, and were highly accomplished amateur musicians. Willy von Beckerath (1868–1938), the artist whose drawings of Brahms are among the most famous in the composer's iconography, was the son of Laura and Rudolf. Rudolf von der Leyen (1851–1910) was a nephew of Rudolf von Beckerath and brother-in-law of Alwin Von Beckerath. Heinz von Beckerath (1876–1940), mentioned in the next paragraph, was Alwin's son.

22 The memoirs are Rudolf von der Leyen, Johannes Brahms als Mensch und Freund: nach persönlichen Erinnerungen, (Düsseldorf and Leipzig: Karl Robert Langwiesche, 1905): 96–8; Richard Barth, ‘Mein Lebensgeschichte’, in Johannes Brahms in den Erinnerungen von Richard Barth, ed. Kurt Hofmann (Hamburg: J. Schuberth & Co., 1979): 62–5. Barth (1850–1925) was a student of Joachim and eventual director of the Philharmonic Concerts and Choral Society in Hamburg; Karl Piening, ‘Johannes Brahms’ letztes Pfingstfest’, Bremen Weser-Zeitung, 6 April 1933, repr. in Klaus Reinhardt, Ein Meininger Musiker an der Seite von Brahms und Reger: Das Wirken des Cellisten und Dirigenten Karl Theodor Piening (1867–1942) (Hannover: Jan Reinhardt, 1991), trans. Josef Eisinger, ‘The Last Whitsuntide of Johannes Brahms’, included in Avins, Styra, ‘Brahms's Last Whitsuntide: A Memoir by Karl Theodor Piening with a Modern Appreciation’, The American Brahms Society Newsletter, 26/2 (Fall 2008): 1–4Google Scholar. Piening was solo cellist and, toward the end of its existence, music director of the Meiningen Court Orchestra; Gustav Ophüls (1866–1926), Erinnerungen an Johannes Brahms: Ein Beitrag aus dem Kreis seiner rheinischen Freunde (Berlin: Deutsch Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1921; repr. Munich: Langwiesche-Brand, 1983): 9–31. The young attorney's memoir includes now-famous snapshots taken during the course of the weekend; Heinz von Beckerath, ‘Erinnerungen an Johannes Brahms und seine Krefelder Freunden’, Die Heimat 28 (1958): 81–3, trans. Josef Eisinger, introduced and annotated by Styra Avins, ‘Remembering Johannes Brahms: Brahms and His Krefeld Friends’, in Brahms and His World, ed. Walter Frisch and Kevin Karnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009): 349–80. Beckerath drew not only on the account of his father, Alwin von Beckerath, but on his own, as he was a teen-age boy at the time and present for the occasion; Max Kalbeck, Johannes Brahms, 4 vols (Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1903–1914): 4: 436–7.

23 Wife of Julius Cornet, tenor and Intendant of the Stadt-Theater in Hamburg. She was known as a soprano of unusual brilliance and wide compass, and Berlioz called her a true artist: ‘I was impressed by her performance as the Queen of the Night.’ See David Cairns, The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz (New York: Knopf, 2002): 324. Cornet was a friend of Eduard Marxsen and knew the boy Brahms. She took part in the programme organized by his father to benefit the education of the 10-year-old.

24 ‘Der letzte Brief der Mutter’, in Kurt Hofmann, Johannes Brahms und Hamburg, 2nd modified edn, (Reinbek: Dialog Verlag, 1986): 21, trans. in Avins, Brahms: Life and Letters, 314. The letter provides indisputable proof that Brahms had cello lessons. Decades later, during a visit to the renowned cellist Julius Klengel (1859–1933), Brahms mentioned his cello studies, saying he had progressed to the sonatas of Bernhard Romberg. For the complicated history of his mother's letter, which was suppressed until 1986, see Avins, Brahms: Life and Letters, 311.

25 Kurt Stephensen, Brahms in seiner Familie: Der Briefwechsel (Hamburg: Hauswedell, 1973): 222.

26 August Lindner, 1820–1876. His cello concerto, Op. 34 in E minor of 1860, gives ample evidence of his cellistic facility.

27 See Brahms Briefwechsel 5 for the entire group. For the correspondence with J.O. Grimm, see Richard Barth, ed., Brahms im Briefwechsel mit J. O. Grimm, Brahms Briefwechsel 4 (Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1912), 51–2, 55, 98.

28 Opportunity to study scores occurred primarily at the home of Theodor Avé-Lallement, a leading Hamburg musician and supporter of the young Brahms; in the Schumann family library; and at the Lippische Landesbibliothek in Detmold during his three sojourns there (end of September to end of December, 1857–59). He also scoured second-hand music stores for old music he could buy. Even as a young man Brahms was familiar with the theoretical and pedagogical treatises of Johann Philipp Kirnberger, David Kellner, Johann Matheson, F.W. Marpurg, and C.P.E Bach, the leading writers of the past century. See Alfred Orel, Johannes Brahms’ Musikbibliothek, included in Kurt Hofmann, Die Bibliothek von Johannes Brahms (Hamburg: Karl Dieter Wagner, 1974): 146–66.

29 Brahms Briefwechsel 4: 51–2.

30 Brahms Briefwechsel 4: 55.

31 Brahms Briefwechsel 4: 97–8.

32 Brahms Briefwechsel 5: 46.

33 Brahms Briefwechsel 5: 58.

34 Litzmann, Berthold, ed. Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms. Briefe, vol. 1 (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1927): 76Google Scholar.

35 Brahms Briefwechsel 5: 180–81

36 Brahms Briefwechsel 5: 188–91.

37 Quoted in Avins, Brahms: Life and Letters, 410.

38 Johannes Brahms in Briefwechsel mit Hermann Levi, Friedrich Gernsheim, sowie den Familien Hecht und Fellinger, ed. Leopold Schmidt, Brahms Briefwechsel 7 (Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1910): 1–202. The holograph letters, as well as microfilm copies, are held in the Gertrude Whittall Foundation Collection, ML30.8d.B7, Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Except for rare details of punctuation, they are virtually identical to the published transcriptions. Levi's letters to Brahms have recently been published again, transcribed anew directly from the holographs. See Dieter Steil, Wie freue ich mich auf das Orchester! Briefe des Dirigenten Hermann Levi, (Cologne: Verlag Dohr, 2015). Steil's transcriptions confirm the earlier publication of 1910.

39 See among others, Siegfried Kross, ‘Von der 1. zur 2. Symphonie: Brahms’ kompositorische Probleme im Jahre 1876/77’, Brahms-Studien (Hamburg: Johannes-Brahmns-Gesellschaft, 2005): 14.

40 Frisch, Walter, Brahms: The Four Symphonies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002): 7–10Google Scholar, and Fifield, Christopher, The German Symphony between Beethoven and Brahms: The Fall and Rise of a Genre (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015)Google Scholar.

41 Fifield, The German Symphony between Beethoven and Brahms, 82.

42 Gottfried Wilhelm Fink (1783–1846), editor of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung from 1828–41. His was an editorial voice that carried weight. The words here are quoted from his ‘Symphonien’, in Encyclopädie der gesammten musikalischen Wissenschaften der Tonkunst, ed. Gustav Schilling (Stuttgart, 1838), as cited in Walter Frisch's ‘Echt Symphonisch’, in Brahms Studies 2, ed. David Brodbeck (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998): 115.

43 Two seminal works describe the revision: Robert Pascall, Brahms's First Symphony Andante – the Initial Performing Version: Commentary and Realization (Nottingham: University of Nottingham, 1992): 1–19, with 22 pages of music (realization for orchestra); and Fritjof Haas, ‘Die Erstfassung des langsamen Satzes der ersten Sinfonie von Johannes Brahms’, Die Musikforschung 36/4 (October–December 1983): 200–211 (includes piano realization).

44 For two useful and differing discussions of the formal complexities of the Finale see Brodbeck, David, Brahms Symphony No. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997): 63–78Google Scholar, and Frisch, Brahms: The Four Symphonies, 58–65. An equally informative discussion is offered by Brinkmann, Reinhold, Late Idyll: The Second Symphony of Johannes Brahms (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995): 34–45Google Scholar.

45 See Gelbart, Matthew, ‘Nation, Folk, and Music History in the Finale of Brahms's First Symphony’, Nineteenth Century Studies 23 (2009): 5785Google Scholar, a seminal paper on the topic. There are other points of view bearing on nationalistic impulses in the First Symphony; my thanks to Barry Wiener for sharing with me his as-yet-unpublished paper ‘Brahms and Ossian: Compositional Sources and Political Symbolism in the First Symphony’. Brinkmann postulates a quite different alternative strategy by Brahms, but agrees he was not emulating, but differentiating himself, from Beethoven. See Brinkmann, Late Idyll, 205–26.

46 Richard Pohl, Musikalisches Wochenblatt (Leipzig), 17 November 1876/VII (dateline: 10 November): 5–6.

47 ‘Gross angelegt, in den breitesten Dimensionen kunstvoll ausgeführt, einheitlich und gehaltvoll in der Stimmung, stets nobel im Ausdruck, geistreich im Gedankengang.’ Pohl, Musikalisches Wochenblatt 17 November 1876/VII (dateline: 10 November): 5.

48 A German Requiem, Op. 45; Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53; Shicksalslied, Op.54; Triumphlied, Op. 55; Haydn Variations for Orchestra, Op. 56a. See Hofmann, Johannes Brahms als Pianist und Dirigent, 130, 134, 137–8, 141, 142–4, 146, 148–9, 151, 155. These pages cover concerts from 1872 to 1875 and include performances of his works not only with the Gesellschaft Orchestra, but with others as well. See also the volume ‘Register der von Brahms aufgefürten Werke’, 383–99.