BRAHMS AND THE CRISIS OF OUR TIME
Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler's recording of Brahms' Fourth
Symphony is one of the greatest performances ever recorded. This little essay
gives us insights into how the Maestro understood Brahms, and this may be
the first English translation.
Wilhelm Furtwängler, 1934
Precisely with great artists we frequently observe, that from midlife on,
they begin to change their posture toward their environment and their own
art. Should there exist in their youth a full accord between the demands
of the environment and those of the self, and be their art in this period
as much "modern" as an expression of their personality, it shall be different
in later maturity. With holding-one's-own and making-one's-point, with the
conquest of the world commences at the same time the detachment from it,
and therewith reflection upon the truest and deepest requirements of one's
own nature. And so the way is cleared for the most personal and most universal,
that such men have to say. It is the same if we cast our eyes on Goethe or
Rembrandt, on Bach or Beethoven. Linked thereto is a growing estrangement
with respect to the environment, an isolation, an outgrowing of one's own
Brahms, too, in his way, underwent such a development. If he was, in the
first decades of his effectiveness, in which he laid his claim to fame, a
thoroughly "contemporary musician," who spoke the language of his time, he
detached himself later more and more from his immediate present. Precisely
the most mature later works, around the Fourth Symphony, or the Double Concerto,
were rejected at their first appearance, and what is more, by his friends
in part. The publisher of a Brahms biography writes openly of the "flop"
of the Double Concerto in Vienna, that he attended in his time: "Where did
we have our ears in those days!"
The contrast of Brahms to his time expressed itself above all, in that he,
in keeping with his nature, did not grow, like Beethoven, more expansive
in his maturity, but rather on the contrary ever more austere, calm, terse
and concentrated; but his era, for its part, going from the giant productions
of the Wagnerian music-dramas, pressed on to the mammoth forms and enlargement
on the tonal language of Strauss, Mahler, Reger etc. This epoch too has since
faded; but the quiet battle of the Brahmsian music with the spirit of the
times is still not finished today. That has its own special basis.
Brahms remarked occasionally, that music history would one day assign him
a place similar to that of Cherubini. This pronouncement, skeptical,
doubly-intended like most Brahmsian pronouncements, has naturally been
misunderstood. He wanted thereby not to make an assertion about himself -
that the shy, introverted man never did during his lifetime - but rather
he wanted thereby to characterize "music history," that is, what was taught
and promoted as music history in his time and remains in many respects up
to the present: a discipline for which the development of the material as
such ( around the rhythm, harmony etc. ) and at the same time along with
it the various directions, trends, or influences are considered to be the
actual content of music history, but the persons who carry them forward
are appraised more in their capacity as exponents of such trends than as
personalities in their own right.
And for this music-history Brahms is not far from right, to assign
himself a Cherubini-like place. A function in the sense of "progress," the
music of his later years did not fulfill. With respect to the disintegrating
Tristan-harmony, to the first beginnings of later polytonality etc. stood
he, that ever had the purely musical universal-form in view, in opposition.
There is little difference between the harmony of Brahms around the 90th
year and that of Schubert in the 20th year of the same century. But nonetheless
the comparison with Cherubini is false. And herewith we come to that, which
makes the case of Brahms meaningful for us today, which imparts to him nothing
short of the most immediate topicality.
Brahms is the first great musician, in whose case historical meaning and
meaning as an artistic personality no longer coincide: that this was so,
was not his fault, but rather that of his epoch. The loftiest formal creations
of Beethoven had been born out of Beethoven's time, in so far as they employed
the language and expressive possibilities of this time. The aspirations of
Beethoven, as timeless and pregnant with the future as they may have been,
were nonetheless in correspondence with the aspirations of the time; Beethoven
was "borne by his time." The most audacious and thorough-going works of Wagner
themselves attest not only to the vehement humanity of their creator, but
to the aspirations and possibilities of their epoch. He was, as much as he
then wished to perceive himself in contrast to his time, nonetheless its
expression. With Beethoven, with Wagner, as well as with later ones, like
Strauss, Reger, Debussy, Stravinsky - personal aspirations and the aspirations
of the times coincide.
With Brahms, and for the first time with him, these aspirations part company.
And this was not because Brahms were not deeply a man of his times, but rather
because the material/musical possibilities of his time went other ways, that
did not suffice the quality of his aspirations. He is the first, that
as artist and creator was greater than his musical-historical function.
He is hence the first, that had to defend himself, in order to remain what
he was - what for his predecessors through Wagner, borne by the favor of
the times, fell into their laps as a matter of course. Thus he became the
first, that had to confront his times in his heart of hearts, only to be
able to do consciously what to earlier generations was self-evident:
to make the human being the focus of all art and artistic practice
- the human being, who is ever new and yet ever the same. For not the development
of the material - harmony, rhythm etc. - is the soul of history, but rather
the will to expression of those, who avail themselves of this material. Not
the degree of "audacity," the newness of what is said from the
developmental-historical standpoint, but rather the degree of inner necessity,
the humanity, the expressive power is the measure of an artwork's meaning.
So Brahms underwent, as the first, the crisis of the times, in that he did
not stick fast to them as their object, but rather pitted himself against
them. To speak here of Reaction, is false; he was a modern man and remained
so lifelong. As well, where he did not relinquish the unity of all that is
human, yes - as we see today - precisely in this especially.
So his art remained austere and human. He was capable of remaining thoroughly
simple, thoroughly natural and yet entirely himself. His art attained - as
that of the last German musician next to Wagner - world-importance, although
or precisely because it was fully German and outside of that, uncompromising.
He has become today, in a number of countries, one of the most-performed
composers. Like himself, he knew how to keep his art free and untouched by
the crisis, that has afflicted the European spiritual life for about 50 years,
and that expresses itself above all through the profound alienation between
audience and creative musician. A crisis, that must be overcome, if
an active musical life is to survive.