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I could never write a biography. Too much painstaking research is required, too much digging, too much sifting and ordering of information. In other words, too much work (Dear Reader, I am lazy.) There is also something about historical research that discomforts me. As illustration, I will relate something I remember from my career in the film business. On a few occasions, I was obliged to spend half a day or so in a film archive, sifting through reels of forgotten footage, looking for clips to flesh out whichever project I was currently engaged on. I would invariably come away from such a session feeling depressed. Somehow those images, belonging so clearly to a previous age, spoke of events half forgotten, of hopes not fulfilled, of lives now ended.
I also have to concede that the twentieth century, of which I am very much a child, is one steeped in blood and misery: the cataclysmic wars, the disasters of Fascism and Communism, the genocides, the epidemics and famines. No wonder that Solzhenitsyn labelled it the “Century of the Caveman.” People I have been very close to had family who were murdered, humiliated, and oppressed. So I find myself a keen anticipator of the future rather than a rosy-eyed dweller on the past.
Biography, of necessity, does deal with the past. Despite that, it is still a literary form that I enjoy, particularly biographies of composers. Over the years, I have read substantial works on Purcell, Beethoven, Britten, Ravel, and Sondheim. There is a drawback, though: reading such books is a slow process because at every turn I feel the need to re-listen to the particular piece of music being discussed.
Jan Swafford’s biography of Johannes Brahms is a model of its kind. Brahms was one of the last great tunesmiths before the twentieth century came in, with its fondness for dissonance, atonality, and the primacy of rhythm. The First and Fourth symphonies, the Violin Concerto, the Piano Quintet, and the Clarinet Quintet are, perhaps, the standout compositions in a career that encompassed practically every musical form except opera. Let us be clear: no biography can ever explain genius. But what a good biography can do is provide context – family, social, economic, and historical factors that steered a particular life in a certain direction. Swafford does this very well. There are good sections on Vienna, Brahms’s adopted home, and its middle-class bourgeoisie who were his main audience; on the slow decline of Austria as an imperial power and the rise of Prussia; on how Romanticism replaced the Classical period in literature and music. Swafford’s achievement is all the greater because Brahms was so private and secretive a person. He was careful to burn all his letters, even demanding the return of those he had sent to others. He did likewise with his scores. Apart from the finished work, every version of a piece was consigned to the stove. Thus, unlike Beethoven, who left copious notes and sketches, and unlike Mozart, for whom there is a comprehensive trail of correspondence, Brahms left precious little written record of his compositional thought processes.
Even so, Swafford manages to supply plenty of detail to flesh out our understanding of Brahms as a man and composer. We learn that he became infatuated with a series of talented young women but always shied away from intimacy with them. He didn’t care at all for money, allowing Clara Schumann to invest his earnings on his behalf in German stocks and shares. He could be cutting and blunt in conversation but cared deeply for, and supported generously, his family, friends, and neophyte composers.
All through the book, obviously, is music. Classicism gave way to Romanticism, and the Romantic movement itself divided into two distinct strands: the New Germans, led by Liszt and Wagner, who wanted to throw off all the old constraints and forge a new universal art that cross-fertilized music with literary, pictorial, and other cultural forms; and the more conservative faction, led by Mendelssohn and Schumann, whose passionate musical utterances were nonetheless contained within well-established structures. Brahms was unashamedly a member of the second group. The two factions were mutually antagonistic, frequently slagging each other off in the music journals of the day. Brahms, for the most part, remained above the fray, and he always had a genuine respect for Wagner’s huge music dramas. The mid-nineteenth century was fully cognisant of the previous achievements of the ‘giants’ – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert; but Brahms, diligent musician that he was, went further back in his enthusiasms, studying and bringing to light the contrapuntal genius of Bach, Buxtehude, and even Palestrina.
No account of Brahms’s life can omit his long-held love for Clara Schumann, wife of his mentor, Robert, who died tragically after a severe mental breakdown. Wisely, as there is no hard evidence either way, Swafford declines to assert that they were ever actually lovers, but he comprehensively describes how, for all of his adult life, Brahms and Clara loved each other emotionally, intellectually, and musically. She was his senior by fourteen years and always – even at times when the relationship was strained – championed his music.
Swafford, himself a composer, provides very detailed analysis of some of the more significant pieces of Brahms’s output. If you are neither musician nor musicologist, I suspect such passages might be ones you will want to skim through. To musicians, I am sure, they are hugely illuminating.
I have two quibbles with the book. Concerning the relevant merits of Brahms’s and Wagner’s music, at one point Swafford claims that in his First Symphony, Brahms had achieved as much as Wagner did in the whole Ring Cycle. To someone like me, who loves the work of both composers, that is too one-sided a claim, and somewhat insulting. The second is a detail concerning Brahms’s youth in Hamburg. It is well known that in his early teens Brahms spent at least a year playing piano in low dockside establishments full of sailors and prostitutes. Swafford asserts, with no direct evidence, that he was molested by people from each group. It is a possible explanation for Brahms the man’s sexual proclivities during his long life as a bachelor, but for me it is conjecture – a too forceful joining up of the dots.
Despite those minor caveats, this is a book to treasure, one which I will refer back to frequently as I listen to this great composer’s music.
Brahms: A Biography
By Jan Swafford
753 pages. Vintage Books