“Brahms Not Bombast!”

My title is a trope on the Vietnam-era anti-war button “Brahms Not Bombs” that I wore in the early 1970s For me this message carried deep meaning. I hoped that those who saw it would join me in espousing the warmth of Brahms’s humanism rather than the aggressive heat of warfare and hate.

Certainly Brahms’s music has its many bold, assertive moments. But at the core of his art is a compassion – decried in the past and present as “sentimentalism” by those who don’t understand (“All those parallel thirds and sixths!”) – formed in the crucible of the tragedy of Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide in February 1854 (when Brahms was just twenty, his confinement to an asylum (with Brahms, the only visitor allowed, acting as go-between with his family), and his demise two years later. Throughout this horrible period, Brahms was a “stand-up guy,” caring for Robert’s grieving wife, Clara – with whom he was more than a little in love – and seven young children, helping in every way, from entertaining the kids by jumping over the second-floor bannister and landing on his feet below, to keeping up the Schumann’s household expense books, putting order to Schumann’s library, ushering some of Robert’s unpublished compositions into print, and completing a set of piano variations that Robert was trying to compose as he lost his sanity (Brahms’s op. 23). The toll it took on Brahms and the deepening of his soul it caused are on full display in his D-minor Piano Concerto, op. 15 (1854–59), its initial movement contrasting an horrifically wild and dissonant first theme with a warm, controlled, sad, but consoling second theme – all parallel thirds and sixths. The concerto’s Adagio in D major was meant as “a gentle portrait” of Clara, as he confessed to her, and at times the heart almost breaks as one listens to the music with knowledge of her circumstances. This is the Brahms for us to choose over bombs, the Brahms of the German Requiem, the Waltzes, op. 39, the Horn Trio, op. 40, and ever so many other works.



Children of Robert and Clara Schumann

Yet, in performance this Brahms is all too often masked by exaggeratedly loud dynamics – so often passages marked f are played ff – by over-pedaling in the piano pieces and emphasis of the right hand at the expenses of the rich basses, by string players clogging the texture with vertiginous vibrato, and by fast movements played too slowly and slow movements too fast. All of this leads listeners to experience Brahms’s carefully delineated textures as “heavy” and “turgid,” swollen, distended, congested, even tediously pompous. As David White has lamented, “hearing a modern orchestra play this music is like hearing it underwater.” My corrective warning – “Brahms Not Bombast” – is in order.

Brahms was all too aware of this insidious corruption of his music. When the young Jewish-French conductor Pierre Monteux, who loved Brahms’s music above all other German works, was playing viola in the Geloso Quartet – before he became a world-famous maestro – they performed a Brahms string quartet for the composer himself in Vienna. Brahms thanked them for playing with such lightness. “It takes the French to play my music properly,” he remarked. “The Germans all play it much too heavily.”

Geloso String Quartet with Edvard Grieg

Lack of tempo flexibility was also a serious problem. In 1878 he described his friend Hans Richter’s inflexible approach to tempo and phrasing in his First Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic as “recht mise,” “truly awful,” and walked out on one of his performances of this work’s Andante – “Heraus!” he grumbled to a friend sharing his box, seizing his companion by the shoulder and pushing him out of the hall.  On another occasion, reacting to Richter’s unbending performance of his music, Brahms told his disciple Richard Heuberger, “If my Symphony really were such an insipid thing, so grey and mezzoforte as Richter played it for the audience today, then they would be right to speak of ‘brooding Brahms.’” Of an anticipated rendition of the Passacaglia finale of the Fourth Symphony by Richter (whose performances were also under-rehearsed), Brahms remarked, “it will once again be drearily underplayed . . . and once more it’ll be said: it’s badly orchestrated etc. – in short, it’s all Brahms’s fault!’” But for Brahms, there were limits on modifications of tempo. He felt his friend, the brilliant pianist Hans von Bülow, took too much liberty when conducting his orchestral works, emphasizing every little detail, as if he were playing a piano piece, not orchestral music. “The so-called ‘elastic’ tempi is not a new invention,” he told the young singer-pianist-conductor Georg Henschel.  “Con discrezione should be added to that as to many other things.”

Forgive me if I go on at some length now about Brahms’s performance practices, especially for performers who might be interested. A guide for experiencing Brahms’s First Violin Sonata will follow this discourse.

Here are twelve observations on how Brahms and his friends performed his music, based on Brahms’s one recording, of the First Hungarian Dance, and remarks by those who heard Brahms play – including Georg Henschel and pianists Fanny Davies, Ilona Eiberschutz, Eugenie Schumann, and Artur Schnabel. These “rules” make it clear that the “Early Music Movement,” which has as its mission the recreation of historic performance styles, should not stop at 1750 or even 1830, but needs to extend all the way up to the early part of the 20th century, at least through the beginning of the First World War. The “Brahms style” deserves resurrecting as much as do the various Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical styles.

Let’s make a start –

  1. Fanny Davies, who studied with Clara Schumann and heard Brahms perform on numerous occasions, observed that his touch “could be warm, deep, full, and broadin the fortes, and not hard, even in the fortissimos; and his pianos, always of carrying power, could be as round and transparent as a dewdrop.” When he wanted a big sound, as for the start of the Maestoso of his Third Piano Trio, op. 101, which she heard him play in 1889, he did not hit or push the keys aggressively, but rather “lifted his energetic little arms high up and descended ‘plump’ in the first C minor chord . . . as if to say: ‘I mean THAT’” (Davies).  Try it that way sometime, using only relaxed, dropped weight, and hear how much more tone your piano puts out!
  2. Brahms delineated the inner harmoniesof his music – with what he called his “tenor thumbs” – and he loved strong bass lines.  “One could hear that he listened very intently to the inner harmonies, and of course he laid great stress on good basses” (Davies). Throughout her scores of the piano trios, Davies frequently wrote “good basses” and circled bass notes that Brahms stressed.  Inner harmonies project more clearly on the straight-strung pianos of the period, which have greater difference in color by register.
  3. Brahms’s phrasing was clear.  “He had a wonderful legato,” recalled Davies. “He belonged to that racial [sic] school of playing which begins its phrases well, ends them well, leaves plenty of space between the end of one and the beginning of another, and yet joins them without any hiatus.”
  4. Brahms’s tempos werenever metronomic. “Brahms’ manner of interpretation was free, very elastic and expansive; but the balance was always there – one felt the fundamental rhythms underlying the surface rhythms.  His phrasing was notable in lyric passages. In these a strictly metronomic Brahms is as unthinkable as a fussy or hurried Brahms in passages which must be presented with adamantine rhythm” (Davies).
  5. Softer, more lyrical passages could be played slower, louder ones faster. This is clear from the metronome markings Davies entered into her scores of Brahms works.  Most of these changes of pace were not indicated by Brahms. They were just part of the normal manner of playing and did not need special designations. (Indeed, Brahms worried that if he were to designate these changes, performers would make too much of them.)
  6. The longdiamond-shaped hairpin dynamic marking indicated a change in tempo as well as in dynamics. Fanny Davies wrote, “[This sign], as used by Brahms, often occurs when he wishes to express great sincerity and warmth, allied not only to tone but to rhythm also. He would linger not on one note alone, but on a whole idea, as if unable to tear himself away from its beauty. . . . Brahms would lengthen infinitesimally a whole bar, or even a whole phrase, rather than spoil its quietude by making it up into a strictly metronomic bar. This expansive elasticity ­– in contradistinction to a real rubato (of course depending upon the musical idea) – was one of the chief characteristics of Brahms’s interpretations.” Davies is describing the lingering-type hairpin.  In energetic passages diamond hairpins could indicate an accelerando.
  7. Sostenutoby Brahms actually means ‘slower tempo as though one could not get enough richness out of the sentence [i.e., phrase]’” – thus wrote Davies in the upper margin of one of her scores.
  8. Vibratowas reserved for use only as an ornament. Brahms’s favorite violinist, Joseph Joachim, stated this in his Violinschule, and one hears it on his recordings, as well as on those of other early 20th-century violinists. Ongoing richness was generated by the bow, as had been the practice since the early Baroque, rather than by vibrating on most notes.  Vibrato was reserved for the special purpose of enriching individual notes of expressive importance.  On a recent period-instrument recording of the Horn Trio with a natural horn, the violinist employs vibrato throughout, and the two instruments are totally mismatched. On the other hand, Aubrey Brain’s 1926 recording of the work on a single horn (E-flat) is joined by a violinist following Joachim’s example, and the match is quite perfect.  This is also true on the beautiful 2008 recording by Isabelle Faust (1704 Stradivarius violin), Teunis van der Zwart (1845 Lorenz natural horn), and Alexander Melnikov (1875 Bösendorfer) for Harmonia mundi.

Joseph Joachim
  1. A pair of small diamond-shaped hairpinsover a single note or small group of notes denotes an expressive emphasis such as vibrato on a pitch or arpeggiation of a chord, a continuation of Baroque practice.
  2. String players used portamenti– various types of slides between notes – as ornaments.  Portamenti are apparent on recordings of Brahms’s solo, chamber and orchestral music as ornaments (not just “sloppy playing”) all the way through the 1940s. When Joachim recorded the Bourrée from Bach’s Partita in B minor, he used no portimenti, but his recording of his own Romance in C major is full of portamenti.
  3. Like generations of keyboard players before him, back into the Baroque period, Brahms rolled chordsto emphasize particular harmonies and broaden climaxes and cadences. Only rarely did he write these in, but contemporary testimony attests that he used them.
  4. Teachers nowadays forbid what they call limping, that is, playing the left-hand’s bass line slightly before the right hand melodic line. Yet Brahms himself used this expressive devise when making an impromptu Edison recording of his Hungarian Dance No. 1 in 1889, and all recordings by members of his circle employ this means to open a phrase with feeling, express poignant hesitancy, or achieve an overarching climax in a music sentence.

Through the 1870s, Brahms was still performing on straight-strung pianos,, so there was somewhat more color change by register than on a modern Steinway. Some Viennese pianos had leather-covered hammers, which caused an initial “chif” and gave the notes more clarity and forcefulness of attack than modern pianos. The few Hamburg and American Steinways that Brahms praised in his later years may have had harder felt hammer surfaces than modern American Steinways, creating a clearer attack. Viennese pianos had faster decay of sound than do modern pianos, allowing the sound to “breathe.”  The decay on the Erards Brahms played in the 1860s was quite a bit slower, but still shorter than that of our modern instruments.

 Straight- vs. cross-strung grand pianos

In 2003 I published an essay on performing Brahms à la Brahms, and over the years I’ve coached a number of student groups in Seattle and Boston in playing the C-minor Trio the way Fanny Davies heard Brahms perform it in September 1890. This topic came back into focus for me this past week, as I prepared for the two-day residency at the Skagit Early Keyboard Museum (SEKM) of violinist Tekla Cunningham, well known to many of you as a chamber musician and concertmaster of the orchestra of Pacific MusicWorks, and pianist Sheila Weidendorf. Our exploration was how to perform Brahms’s three violin sonatas in the manner that the composer would have played them with Joseph Joachim. Our grand pianos were an 1869 Érard, like Brahms used in 1865, 1868, and 1874, and an 1867 Chickering from Boston, once owned by the last governor of the Washington territory. SEKM’s regular technician, Todd Loomis, improved the actions of the Chickering for this residency. So this week I thought I’d share with you the Sonata No. 1 in G major, op. 78, using the best recording so far on period instruments: Isabelle Faust (1704 Stradivarius violin) and Alexander Melnikov (1875 Bösendorfer grand piano), released by Harmonia mundi in 2008.  Faust follows Joachim’s guidance concerning use of vibrato as an ornament, but, unfortunately, employs few expressive portamento, nor does Melnikov explore the possibilities of rolling chords to increase intensity.

Clara Schumann deeply identified with the G-major Violin Sonata, composed in Pörtschach am Wörthersee during the summers of 1878 and 1879, at the same time as the D-major Violin Concerto, op. 77. On July 10, 1879, she wrote to Brahms:

I must send you a line to tell you how deeply moved I am by your sonata. I received it today and of course played it through at once, and had to cry my heart out afterwards for joy over it. You can imagine how delighted I was when after the first delicate enchanting movement, and the second, I again came across in the third my own so rapturously beloved melody, with this exquisite eighth-note motion! I say my own, because I don’t believe there is a single person who can experience this melody as blissful and melancholy as I do. After all the beauties that preceded, then this movement! My pen is feeble but my heart is full and yearns towards you in gratitude.

Franz von Lenbach Clara Schumann

Brahms took the melody for the finale that Clara felt as “my own” from his song Regenlied (Rain Song), the third of his Acht Lieder und Gesänge, op. 59, composed in the spring of 1873, on verses by the north German poet Klaus Groth. The song offers a “flood of childhood memories awakened by a summer rain” and a description of “the accompanying sadness” over the loss of a child’s capacity for wonder,” as Lucien Stark has summarized it. The companion song Nachklang (Lingering Sound), op. 59 no. 4, setting another poem by Klaus Groth about raindrops, opens with the same melody but develops quite differently. Brahms sent autograph manuscripts of both songs to Clara for her birthday on September 13, 1873.

As Timothy Judd notes, Groth’s poem Regenlied offers “a wistful remembrance of the dreams and sense of awe experienced in childhood” and Nachklang “returns to the same thematic material,” but now equating raindrops with tears. “In both songs, the piano evokes the patter of gently falling rain. Notice the way the three-note dotted rhythm motive that opens the song is echoed, ominously, in the piano.”

Here is a performance of Regenlied in concert by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Tamás Vásáry, as well as the text of Regenlied and a translation by Richard Stokes:


Walle, Regen, walle nieder,
Wecke mir die Träume wieder,
Die ich in der Kindheit träumte,
Wenn das Nass im Sande schäumte!Wenn die matte Sommerschwüle
Lässig stritt mit frischer Kühle,
Und die blanken Blätter tauten
Und die Saaten dunkler blauten,Welche Wonne, in dem Fliessen
Dann zu stehn mit nackten Füssen!
An dem Grase hinzustreifen
Und den Schaum mit Händen greifen,

Oder mit den heissen Wangen
Kalte Tropfen aufzufangen,
Und den neu erwachten Düften
Seine Kinderbrust zu lüften!

Wie die Kelche, die da troffen,
Stand die Seele atmend offen,
Wie die Blumen, düftetrunken,
In dem Himmelstau versunken.

Schauernd kühlte jeder Tropfen
Tief bis an des Herzens Klopfen,
Und der Schöpfung heilig Weben
Drang bis ins verborgne Leben. —

Walle, Regen, walle nieder,
Wecke meine alten Lieder,
Die wir in der Türe sangen,
Wenn die Tropfen draussen klangen!

Möchte ihnen wieder lauschen,
Ihrem süssen, feuchten Rauschen,
Meine Seele sanft betauen
Mit dem frommen Kindergrauen.

Cascade, rain, cascade down,
Wake for me those dreams again,
That I dreamed in childhood,
When water foamed on the sand!When oppressive summer heat
Contended idly with cool freshness,
And shiny leaves dripped with dew
And crops turned a darker blue,How blissful then it was to stand
With naked feet in the flow!
Or to brush against the grass
Or grasp the foam in both hands,

Or to catch the cold drops
On my glowing cheeks,
And to bare my boyish breast
To fresh-awakened scents!

Like the dripping chalices,
My breathing soul stood open,
Like the flowers drunk with fragrance,
Drowned in heaven’s dew.

Each shuddering drop seeped through
And cooled my beating heart,
And creation’s sacred weaving
Penetrated our secret lives. —

Cascade, rain, cascade down,
Wake in me those old songs
That we sang in the doorway
When outside the drops resounded!

I’d love again to listen
To their sweet, moist murmuring,
And softly bedew my soul
With innocent childlike awe.

Translation copyright by Richard Stokes, author of The Book of Lieder, published by Faber, provided courtesy of Oxford Lieder (www.oxfordlieder.co.uk)

While the sonata’s opening Vivace ma non troppo is in 6-4 time, the marking out of the bars by two piano chords and the violin’s upbeat (anacrusis) entries create the feeling of a waltz – a musical topos often found in Brahms’s instrumental music. Soon the dance starts to swirl, climaxing at bars 11–20 in dense, multi-level complexes of Brahms’s favorite neo-Baroque rhythmic device, the hemiola (which, in its simplest manifestation, is a shifting from the prevailing two groups of three beat to three groups of two beats just before the end of a section: 1 2 3 | 1 2 3 | 1 2 | 1 2 | 1 2 | 1 2 3).

The movement is cast in sonata form, with two contrasting but related themes and their variations in the EXPOSITION, a DEVELOPMENT that caries these themes into distant keys, including A-flat major (the Neapolitan key), then return for a RECAPITULATION of the keys in the home key of G major, rounded out by a CODA on the first theme that reaches a large climax.

Early in February 1879 Brahms sent to Clara the first twenty-four bars of the second movement, Adagio, with a short note inscribed on the back:

When you play what is written on the other side very slowly, it will tell you perhaps more clearly than I otherwise could how affectionately I am thinking of you and Felix – even of his violin, which, though, is likely silent.

Felix Schumann, named after Felix Mendelssohn, was the youngest child of Robert and Clara Schumann, born in June 1854, four months after his father attempted to commit suicide by jumping into the Rhine. Felix, who never knew a home without sadness amidst joys (Clara only wore black), was the most artistic of the Schumann boys. He played the violin and wrote poems, three of which his godfather Brahms set to music. Tragically, Felix contracted tuberculosis and was gravely ill when he and his mother received Brahms’s manuscript. He died shortly thereafter, only in his twenty-fourth year. It may not be coincidence that this opening section is twenty-four bars long, and that the following section, which Brahms omitted from the manuscript he sent to Clara, is a funeral march. (Judging from the symbols he entered at the end of the manuscript to indicate the first chord that would follow, Brahms may already have composed the march.)

Felix Schumann

The overall form of the second movement is:

A (a b a) | B (funeral march) | Var of A | CODA (Var of B – Var of A).

The A sections are in E-flat major, the Baroque key of the Trinity, appropriate for a piece of music concerning his godson Felix, while the B section funeral march is in e-flat minor. Yet when the march returns in the CODA, pp, it is cast in a radiant E-flat major, which is maintained until the end. By separating out the dotted rhythm in the final bars, Brahms seems to be referencing Beethoven’s Les Adieux Sonata, singing “Le-be-wohl” to his godson.  (While Beethoven’s motive somberly moves downwards, Brahms’s twice rises hopefully. To close, the piano again moves upwards, to its highest notes, while the violin sighs downwards.)

Clara Schumann’s second letter to Brahms about the sonata, penned on July 26, 1879, provides a good listening guide to the work’s “best moments,” including how the last and first movements are related motivically:

I am now writing to say that I have tried the sonata with [Hugo] Heermann. We were so glad of the opportunity that we went into the work quite thoroughly. The way you have blended all the motives together strikes me as wonderful.  How charming the dreamy accompaniment of the last [movement] sounds at the beginning of the first [movement].  It is as if the spirit of the whole piece were wafted to one’s ears at the very opening. I find the general character of the sonata most enlivening. The grace and warmth of the melodies, and the masterly way you treat all the motives, captivate one’s heart and soul from the first to the last note. What heavenly passages there are in it, not to mention the beauty of some of the pedal points! And the ascent in the last movement of the first melody where it finally returns and rises and falls full of sadness and yearning!  For such feelings, sound alone, and not words, are adequate. . . . My thanks for all the joy you have given me.  Many people may be better able to speak about these things I am, but no one can feel them more deeply than I do. The deepest and most tender chords of my heart vibrate at the sound of such music.

The last movement is laid out in rondo form:

A | B | retransition on A | A | reference to mvt. 2, instead of C | retransition on A | A | reference to mvt. 2, then dotted rhythm.

In this movement “we get a sense of the same underlying anxiety and melancholy that was present in the song Regenlied, yet the coda offers a new quiet transcendence and release” (Judd). The key words of the poem for the pianist to remember are light “rain drops” for the dotted figure and, for the running eight-notes, the “sweet, moist murmuring” of the droplets that “softly bedew my soul.” As noted in the diagram, in the middle of the movement and at the end appear warm returns of the second movement, as if to bid one final, sad farewell to the young Felix.


Vivace ma non troppo 00:00 – Adagio 10:18 – Allegro molto moderato 17:55

In Brahms’s day, whether this sonata was better suited for public or domestic use was a matter of debate. Brahms’s himself claimed “the Sonata is even less suited to the public than I am,” and after hearing it in a Hauskonzert, the Viennese surgeon and Brahms advocate Theodor Billroth wrote to the music critic Eduard Hanslick, “As much as I am happy to hear it in my home, I cannot for the moment imagine it being played in the concert hall; the feelings are too delicate, too true and warm, the intimacy too heartfelt for the public.”  It is telling that Brahms instructed his publisher Fritz Simrock to donate his 1000 Reichsthaler honorarium from the sonata – anonymously (“a gift from X. Y. Z.”) – to a fund to assist Clara Schumann and her family.[1]

Today’s missive – the sixty-second since the beginning of the pandemic – is the last for this year, as I begin a summer break that will see us establishing a second residence – in a little condo in Seattle’s Belltown district – enjoying city life as it reopens, and finishing our plans for next season’s concerts of Musique du Jour Presents!  I’ll also be working on my three scholarly projects – a little book on early pianos in Ireland, a big book on music and culture in late 19th-century Boston, and a volume of hitherto unpublished letters written by my favorite mid-20th-century avant-garde singer, Cathy Berberian.  Busy, busy . . . as always!