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

<i> 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."</i>

“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.

While self-absorbed to a fault, Brahms was notoriously tight-lipped about his innermost feelings. He was also severely critical of his own work, and from early in his career, he acted ruthlessly as a self-censor. Indeed, for every work of chamber music we have from him, there was at least one other that he wrote and destroyed because it didn’t satisfy him. Needless to say, he was quite careful about what he allowed to survive in the correspondence he received from others. Some of his biographers (Swafford mentions Florence May in particular) have been complicitous in allowing him to appear as he wanted the world to see him, failing to look beneath the veneer of crusty self-sufficiency and reined-in passion with which Brahms encased himself. To his credit, Swafford tries to go further and give us, as he puts it, “Brahms without beard,” a flesh-and-blood person rather than the plaster bust on a pedestal that the world has come to revere as one of the Three Bs.

For all that, Swafford respects the masks and mirrors through which Brahms, the “wanton” composer, saw himself and wanted others to see him. We learn about the Romantic in Brahms from the fact that he signed some of his music and correspondence “Young Kreisler” (identifying himself with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fictional hero), and about the romantic in him from the fact that he embedded thematic references to Clara Schumann and other important women in his music. The author makes no attempt to strip Brahms bare and shine a clinical light on his psyche but seeks instead to surround the known events of his life and creativity with appropriate context: physical, spiritual, intellectual and emotional. Despite some discursive passages in which the prose does not exactly take wing--at times there can be a Brahmsian density to the narrative, though at other times it unfolds with remarkable lyricism and sweep--the author’s consideration of this context is generally successful and worth the effort one must expend to get through it.

A great deal of the book is devoted to Brahms’ youth and early adulthood, which is important in understanding his personality. We do not get to 1876, the watershed year of the First Symphony, for 400 pages. The final 20 years of Brahms’ life, when he produced most of his best music, are covered in the book’s remaining third. Considering that this is not so much a study of Brahms’ music as a biography, such a trade-off, favoring a subject’s development over his maturity, seems acceptable.


One of the book’s most admirable features is the way it captures the Zeitgeist of imperial Vienna in the epoch of Franz Josef--the Vienna not only of schnitzels and Strauss waltzes but of Schnitzler and Freudian psychoses--to which Brahms was inexorably drawn by history and temperament. Vienna was where he settled in 1862, where he experienced his greatest triumphs and where he died. Vienna in the final decades of the 19th century was a fascinating milieu, and Swafford’s familiarity with the city and its aura pays off handsomely in the course of this study. He captures the ambivalence and complexity of Brahms’ environment, reminding us that music meant more here than anywhere else in the world, reminding us, too, that for Vienna, as for Brahms, one foot was planted in the past, the other pointed toward a future fraught with uncertainty, desolation and despair, the depth of which would become apparent by 1914.

The connection between Brahms and Vienna comes to the fore at the beginning and end of Swafford’s opus, resulting in some of the book’s most compelling writing. Few biographies begin more memorably than with this description of the last performance that Brahms would hear of his Symphony No. 4:

“The minor chords that drive the symphony to its end reeled to their final E minor shout, and the Viennese leaped to their feet. From audience and orchestra together a hysterical bellowing and clapping erupted, an ovation like none ever heard before in the Golden Hall. Hundreds of eyes rose past the golden caryatids to the balcony where the little figure stood erect in the director’s box. They cried out as if they were trying to bring him back to life, revive him and what he embodied, to them and to the world.

“Everyone in town had heard the rumor, but for most of the audience it was the first confirmation. Brahms was dying, they could see it all over him. He had risen to acknowledge the applause after each movement of this, his last symphony, and everyone had looked up with a shudder, and the grieving had built through the course of the stark, sorrowful work until this explosion at the end, Brahms stood in the box leaning on the balustrade with tears pouring down his face. For once he did not try to hide them.”

The changes in Brahms’ character in the months leading up to and after Robert Schumann’s death are also tellingly portrayed, as is the endless bickering between Brahms and Clara, who was as neurotic as she was talented.

Swafford had a muse of his own in much of the writing of this book, and it shows. The result is a biography that should serve well, at least until the bicentennial of Brahms’ birth some 35 years hence, and that, in tandem with Avins’ timely edition of the composer’s correspondence, makes us turn back to the music with renewed admiration and enthusiasm.