Brahms is a prickly composer – but a powerful one
As Radio 3 dedicates a week to the German composer many find difficult to love – but whose work was hair-raisingly modern
7:00AM BST 06 Oct 2014
Some composers we know are lovable, just because the whole world loves them. Think of Mozart or Tchaikovsky or Puccini. Brahms is different. In person, he was as prickly as a hedgehog. It’s no accident Brahms has the most famous beard in classical music. He needed it to give extra force to his frequent snorts of derision. “If there is anyone here I have failed to insult, I offer him my apologies,” said Brahms on one occasion, as he was leaving a party. “It becomes more and more difficult to love Brahms,” sighed one of his best friends, and many people would say the same about the music. Stravinsky described his music as “turgid and graceless”, and Thomas Adès sent him up in a hilarious orchestral parody called simply “Brahms”. Benjamin Britten said he played through his music every few years to remind himself how bad it was – and usually found it was worse. That’s why people who love Brahms hug him to their bosoms with a protective passion, knowing much of the world spurns their hero.
This shows the Brahms “problem” never goes away, which is why the BBC Radio 3 focus on his music next week is welcome. It includes some well-known pieces such as the Academic Festival Overture and Double Concerto, but also some of those deeply sad late piano works and the rarely heard Sacred Songs for chorus – which is where many Brahms-lovers feel the heart of his music really lies.
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