More Than A Feeling: Brahms talks about artistic beauty

Theodor Billroth was a successful surgeon, accomplished amateur musician, and a close friend of both Brahms and the influential critic Eduard Hanslick (see The Davidsbund of Prague.) Like Brahms, he was a German who emigrated to Vienna. He was interested in the relationship of science to art, and made this insightful comment: "It is one of the superficialities of our time to see in science and in art two opposites; imagination is the mother of both." However, some aspects of aesthetics eluded Billroth. He wrote a book on the psycho-physiology of music, in which he attempted to analyze the sensory experience of music. But as is typically the case when one focusses on the mechanical or sensory aspect of art, the aesthetic component veers into mysticism; Billroth suggested that there was an inborn "specific feeling for art" which enabled an individual to apprehend beauty in a particular work of art. (For more on Billroth, see "Theodor Billroth as Musician," from the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, May 1937)

Brahms knew that beauty is not "in the eye of the beholder," and had read Schiller's essays on how the emotions can be educated. When Billroth asked him to discuss what it is that makes a melody beautiful, Brahms attempted to set him straight, paradoxically through an analysis of a poem, Goethe's tiny, perfect "Wanderers Nachtlied."

Unfortunately, we do not have Brahms' explication of the Goethe poem in his own words. We must rely on notes taken by Billroth from the discussion. We provide below translations of the relevant correspondence, but first, an unrhymed translation of "Wanderers Nachtlied" -- in order to accurately render the meaning and the meter, the rhyme scheme has been sacrificed. Hopefully it can be seen (or "heard") by reading the original German:

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh;
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest Du
Kaum einen Hauch.
Die Vöglein schweigen im Walde.    
Warte nur, balde,
Ruhest Du auch.
Over all the summits
Is peace;
In all the treetops
Markest thou
Hardly a breath.
The birds are still in the forest.    
Wait a bit, soon, now,
Thou shalt rest, too.

September 16, 1893

Billroth to Brahms:

Dear friend!

You will hardly remember that we once spoke about the definition of "melody," and that I declared it to be impossible to put it in words; to me it appears even less possible to define whether a melody is lovely or unlovely, significant or vacuous, boring or interesting. You did not share my opinion, and instead you asked me to provide evidence and examples for this. -- Yesterday evening I heard a string quartet in A minor by Volkmann. The adagio, done entirely in the slow Beethovenian style, did not really please me, and soon became boring. Why is that, actually? Is it purely a matter of feeling? Or can the impression be attributed to specific things? -- I breathed a sigh of relief at the first melody in Schumann's "Märchenbildern" (piano, clarinet, viola), that later becomes quite dull. I came back to life for the first time with the following suite by Händel. -- Occasionally, in a different discussion, you have wanted to demonstrate to me why Beethoven's fugues, with a few exceptions, sound bad, and why Wagner's later mode of composition, despite its pretence of polyphony, is nonetheless not polyphonic.

May I interview you on these points? Maybe next Sunday forenoon at 10 o'clock, or if that doesn't suit you, on the following Sunday. In the evening my head is too tired for such subtle things. Naturally I come to you, for you have all expedients on hand, and this cannot be discussed without examples.

Please send a card with a few words as to if and when I may come. -- I have begun a little physio-psychological work on music which I undertook just as holiday hijinks; but the spirits which I conjured up now won't leave me alone. At the outset I had all sorts of thoughts about all sorts of musical things; now they have me.

Th. Billroth

September 19, 1893

From a letter from Billroth to his daughter Else:

"This morning I spent two highly interesting hours with Brahms. He spoke to me with great animation about the formation of melodies, and demonstrated the musical beauty of the Bach sarabandes. In these moments he can be so warm and amiable that one regrets that he is not always so."

Billroth added the following, on the same day, to a manuscript:


Sunday forenoon with Brahms. I wanted to hear from him about the formation of melodies, about the indicators of "beauty" in a melody. He countered with a Goethean poem:

"Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh;
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest Du
Kaum einen Hauch.
Die Vöglein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde,
Ruhest Du auch."

...and analyzed the same in an interesting way. The beauty and greatness of the overall. From the heavens over the summits down to the treetops of the forest. The silence as well in bustling nature; the allusion to sleep and the death of the person. Man as a part of nature, yet containing and assimilating all of nature in himself. Now the beauty of the form. The lovely cadences "Ist Ruh", "Spürest Du". The lovely interruption of the verse length-pattern in the sixth line, and then the return to shorter verses. The lovely sound of the rhymes, the "Hauch" that lies over the whole: one could not change one word, without destroying. The simplicity and brevity of the whole. For a similar analysis, Brahms employed some Sarabandes from the French suites by Bach. The organization of the whole, the soaring of the melody. Question and answer. The conclusions of the respective periods (cadences.) The contrary motion of the upper voice and the bass, toward and away from one another: the moment of truth for the lovely execution -- the harmonic. The half-cadences and the bold twists of a cadence to a dissonance, that leads to a distant key. The melodic/harmonic surprise, the clever rearrangement of chords in order to lessen a dissonance. The adroit return to the original key, mellower and harsher sounds, their combinations. Longer final cadences, longer excursions in distant keys. Lovely buildups for the return to the original key.

Then the leading of the inner voices, their grouping and behavior with respect to the bass and soprano. (For contrast: empty, ugly, simple-minded melodies, contorted motions. Bad-sounding or vacuous basses.)

With the repeats, variations, that with good composers are always heightened and more beautiful.

With the doubles, "veiling" of the melody.

"The more a work of art is chewed, the more flavorful it becomes."

It all confirmed the opinion that I had already developed. As to the final cause of whether something is poetically or musically beautiful, one can make no assertion, because it is a case of individual perception. Every analysis of a work of art with respect to its beauty is only understandable to those for whom a certain specific feeling for the art in question is inherent. One must have poetic sensibilities to feel poetry; the beauty of the expression is inseparable from the beauty of the sound of the verse, the structure of the verse, and this is a part of poetic technique -- the same with music. If, with the verse construction as well, much depends upon the feeling for motion (natural beauty), so it is the case with music to a much greater extent. Here is the kind of back and forth motion, as with a dance, a powerful factor in its beauty.

Brahms, in his explications of melodic and harmonic beauty, came back mostly to certain rules of composition. Technique and specific artistic beauty are bound inseparably.

From Billroth's notes, one may glean that Brahms patiently revealed how the structure of poem, down to the finest detail, serves as a vehicle for the overarching, unspoken idea, which is the true seat of the poem's beauty. Understanding the ironies, such as double meaning of "Ruh" (calm or rest/the peace of the grave,) leads one closer to the goal. But the point which Brahms, as a artist, would inevitably understand, is that beauty resides in an idea, not a "feeling." And in response to Billroth's quest to find musical beauty through the senses, Brahms directs him to read a poem, where there is no sensory experience whatsoever -- the beauty is apprehended solely by the mind.

Unfortunately, Billroth still managed to miss the point, which Brahms then drove home, a couple of months later, with a characteristic zinger. From a Postcard from Brahms to Billroth, November 20, 1893:

"Feeling is everything." All well and good at a religious examination -- said to a young maiden! What concerns us more at the moment, is what Goethe otherwise insistently preaches, in word and deed, also concerning art!

The material we have translated is taken from Billroth und Brahms im Briefwechsel, Urban and Schwarzenberg, Vienna 1935.

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