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 time.

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.

Posted by permission of the translator ~ © 1986

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