In a recent article in the Washington Post, staff writer Anne Midgette disclosed a secret that many in the classical world have, but are afraid to confess. Namely, she doesn't like the music of Johannes Brahms all that much. Her examination of Brahms was prompted by a series of concerts in her area that included works by Brahms. Certainly Seattle is familiar with this as the Emerald City had several concerts in November 2007 with pianist Vladimir Feltsman featuring various works of the German Master. The question becomes, "Is Brahms worth all the attention?"
He certainly was at one point, and if you look at what gets performed in America, Brahms still ranks considerably high in what gets played. In fact, for the 2006-2007 concert season, Brahms was the winner for the composition with the most performances:
Top Ten most frequently performed works during the 2006-07 Season
Brahms, Johannes SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN D MAJOR, OP.73 (72)
Tchaikovsky, Piotr Ilyich SYMPHONY NO. 6 IN B MINOR, OP.74, (69)
Shostakovich, Dmitri SYMPHONY NO. 5, OP. 47 (66)
Brahms, Johannes SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN C MINOR, OP.68 (62)
Rimsky-Korsakov SCHEHEREZADE, OP. 35 (62)
Brahms, Johannes CONCERTO, VIOLIN, IN D MAJOR, OP.77 (62)
Beethoven, Ludwig Van SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN E-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 55 (58)
Brahms, Johannes CONCERTO, PIANO, NO. 1 IN D MINOR, OP.15 (54)
Berlioz, Hector SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE, OPUS 14 (52)
Beethoven, Ludwig Van SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN C MINOR, OPUS 67 (51)
In fact, what you see is that last season was a particularly good season for Brahms. Four of the top ten compositions were by him. It makes sense in a way: America has always been an extrememly conservative audience in general, and Brahms, along with Bach and Beethoven, were the holy trinity of musical excellence. But, then, you have articles like Ms. Midgette's. What gives?
I think it goes to a split that is well-exposed in this top ten listing. Some people like their classical music "opaque" and highly academic, even if heartfelt, and some like their music of the heart-on-sleeve vein. After all, Tchaikovsky's cry fest is number two on the list. As a person who has always preferred Tchaikovsky over Brahms, I like my music flashy and highly emotional. Certainly, pieces like Scheherazade, Shostakovich's music in general, and the Symphonie Fantastique attest to that preference in others as well. But, the intellecutal camp thrives on Brahms and Beethoven ( I think Beethoven blends both worlds and so is the greatest composer that ever lived), and they of course round out the list.
Appreciating the music of Brahms requires a great deal of patience, and a commitment to look for the emotion buried deep beneath the highly abstracted variations and modulations. If one must like Brahms, despite your emotional inclinations, I would recommend appreciating the small details. One of the first pieces I simply fell in love with was his Trio for piano, violin and horn. It is heartfelt in its slow movement, written in honor of his recently deceased mother, and active and thrilling in its finale. The unique sound of the horn doesn't hurt either. Orchestrally, nothing surpasses the beauty and airy quality of the Symphony No.2. It has wonderful themes and striking leaps that just lift your heart, especially in the first movement. The German Requiem, although completely academic in its execution, fugues everywhere, has moments of true emotion. There are also flashy showpieces, and pieces of lighthearted ebullience, like the fun Hungarian Dances. All you have to do is get through the piece. Sometimes, it's harder and sometimes it's easier.
The list shows that the heart trumps the head, even in its choice of Brahms. The second symphony is pure pastoral beauty, the first, intense drama. The violin concerto is a tour de force which also happens to employ catchy Hungarian rhythms, and the first piano concerto, though long, is highly dramatic, just like the first symphony. If you give Brahms a try, and you are okay with not liking everything of his, then there is lots to enjoy, even if you prefer to cry than think when listening to your music.