Monday, June 25, 2007

Essay for History of Western Civilization (Draft)

Understanding Brahms, Understanding Vienna

Reading Lateness and Brahms : Music and Culture in the Twilight of Viennese Liberalism.

Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1833, six years after Beethoven’s death, Johannes Brahms took on more traits of the classical style of Beethoven and Bach than that of his contemporaries such as Liszt and Wagner. His choral music has a strong presence of Renaissance and Baroque polyphony. Many would agree that the German Requiem, one of Brahms’ masterpieces, was inspired by the traditional polyphony of Handel. With profound knowledge and enthusiasm for early music, Brahms did not only supervised editions of works by C.P.E. Bach, W.F. Bach and François Couperin but also anonymously worked on an edition of Mozart's Requiem for the collected works and previously unpublished works by Schubert and Schumann.

Brahms, though later become a dominant figure in the realm of music in Vienna, especially in his last twenty years, was subject to the frequent attacks of Wagnerites for his “conservatism”, however, Brahms admired Wagner’s music and Liszt as a great pianist, even called himself ‘the best Wagnerite of all’. 1 He did, though, in 1960, publish a premature manifesto to protest the overwhelming prevalence of their music.2 As Helm put it: “in Vienna it seems to be even more difficult to reach reconciliation in music than in politics.”3

For most 20th century writers, Brahms’s final period of creativity did not begin until after the G Major String Quintet in 1890.4 Yet the late works of Brahms here refers to are roughly those composed after 1880, when he had consciously to “condense his thought and shed all superfluity”5. Among them are Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op. 98, widely acknowledged as his magnum opus, Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op. 102, his final work for the orchestra, Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major and No. 3 in D minor, Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115, which was considered by many the greatest chamber work of the 19th century, and the last piece he published, Vier ernste Gesänge Op. 121 (1896)6, which is “the profoundest music expressed with the sparsest sound”7.

Notley notes that an “experimental breakthrough into a new tonal world” sometimes sets artists’ late styles apart from their previous mature styles. On the other hand, artists have often broken new ground in their late works by turning increasingly to compositional procedures associated with the remote past. As a result, a late style “reveals itself in many instances through a certain emancipation from the general style of the time.” 8 Indeed, viewed from a wider perspective, the shift of style in the composer’s late works coincide with the dwindling liberalism and strengthening of anti-Semitism of the nineteenth century Vienna.9

  1. The Brahms Indentity

The starting point of this analysis is Brahms’ identity as a German composer, middle-class and relatively liberal. Despite the mainstream critics’ and music historians’ effort to “denationalize” Brahms music and project an image of an “absolute music without political or extra-musical connotations”, especially in the wake of World War II, the Germaneness in his music could not be concealed. The German Requiem, for instance, is one of the quintessential German works of music, and the Triumphlied is an “overtly nationalistic composition that was widely played all over Germany in the years after unification”.10

Max Kalbeck’s biography of Johannes Brahms records an incident in which Brahms defended a speech given by a young German Kaiser Wilhelm II against the criticism of his friend Josef Viktor Widmann, a liberal Swiss writer. The speech in question contains phrases such as “every stone would remain German even if it took the slaughter of eighteen army corps and 42 million Germans laid out in a row auf der Strecke, like animals killed in the hunt”. Considering the fact that Brahms had been, for most times, in agreement with his friend, who held so many liberal values, the reason of his defend for this young man could not be his “conservatism” as many early music-historians claimed but rather his sympathy for German nationalism.11 This social sentiment has been on a rise during the entire span of nineteenth century, particularly after the French occupation. Taylor recorded in his Course of German History that “ Those who looked to Francis I to liberate Germany from the French and to establish the Reich anew had a wider sentiment than merely hatred of the French. They had a conception, romantic indeed and muddled, of the old Germany with its flourishing Free Cities, with its ‘liberties’ and with its rich diversity, the Germany which had withered in the time of Luther and the Peasants’ Revolt. They were seeking to follow and to restore German tradition, and to redeem Germany not merely from foreign domination, but from the domination of foreign ideas.”12 Kalbeck observed a particularly strong sense of German superiority in the composer’s works in 1883. “Although it would become an untenable position by 1890, in 1883 a belief in the supremacy of German culture still had an unquestioned central place in Austrian Liberal ideology.”13

In addition, many recent writers have brought the middle-class status of Brahms into the limelight. Tibor Kneif is one of them. He emphasizes that Brahms was a ‘middle-class in the nineteenth-century sense,’ that being the only century ‘truly dominated by the middle class.’” 14 Christian Martin Schmidt also notes that “his habits as artist and as private individual exemplified middle-class virtues, and he observes three topoi in Brahms reception: chamber music composer, Classical or last Classical composer, academic composer”.15 The fact that Brahms stressed “the artistic and “logical” working out of musical ideas - themes and motives” is seem by many writers as a connection with his “middle-class attitudes, in particular the Protestant work ethic that Max Weber described.”16

  1. Liberalism

Brahms is often portrayed as the great “conservative” figure of 19th century music, indeed perhaps of the classical music in general. It’s an image that somehow goes with that big bushy Prussian beard that he’s often photographed with later in his later life. From time to time there are arguments about just how “conservative” Brahms was, but if he is indeed so backward looking as some said he was, then that beg the question why he is so extraordinarily influential. Take for example the Variations on a theme of Haydn (aka. The St Anthony Choral), Brahms’ first four piece for four orchestra and one of the most influential piece of work, it effectively created a new music genre, which is that kind of self-standing, self-sufficient set of orchestral variation. If you look at famous orchestral variations since Brahms, Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, you could argue they wouldn’t have been possible without Brahms’ pioneering example on the forefront.

Indeed, “conservative” is not a so conclusive term in understanding the music of Brahms, “the motivic-thematic elaboration, chamber style, and reflective aesthetic experience associated with his music were linked more generally with Liberal intellectual elitism.”17 To understand this, one must bring into study the social and economical context of the composer’s time.

Austrian Liberals, like other nineteenth-century European Liberals, believed in “progress and each individual’s right to self-fulfillment and in their espousal of scientific methods and laissez-faire economics. And like other European Liberals, many Liberals in Austria overlooked the fact that most of the population neither benefited from the economic system nor enjoyed the privilege of self-realization, a shortsightedness that would contribute greatly to Liberalism’s undoing.”18

During the 19th century, especially after the fall of Napoleon, the economic circumstances had changed the musician’s way of living: “Industrialization and urban expansion generated voluntary civic associations of socially prominent amateurs and listeners that functioned as patrons. And at the same time a marketplace for music developed. The purchase of sheet music and instruments, and the development of an extensive network of music making in the home paralleled the formation of voluntary social clubs and organizations. These phenomena indicate the development of a public sphere for music somewhat independent of traditional state, church, and aristocratic patronage.”19 The music career of Brahms more or less followed this social pattern: he expected that “his employment would be dependent on aristocratic patronage. But after 1860, he earned his living as an employee of voluntary civic groups such as the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. After 1875, Brahms was able to live well purely from concert fees and the sale of printed editions of his music, without patronage in the sense of Beethoven's experience or regular employment by an organization.” So we can see from Brahms’ works “some indication of the shift in the economic and civic character of music”.20

During the summer of 1983, only a few months after Wagner’s death, Brahms begun his writing of the A Major Violin Sonata and the Third Symphony. One can distinctively hear a reference to music by Wagner in these works, perhaps a tribute to this music great: the symphony to Tannhäuser and the sonata to Die Meistersinger. Those months were “unusually eventful in Vienna. While the anti-Liberal politician Schönerer unveiled the uncompromising racial cast of the Germanic worldview he embraced, mainstream Liberals expressed their outrage in the Neue Freie Presse about concessions to the empire’s Slavs.”21

With the escalating political crisis in Vienna, along with Bruckner’s emergence as musical rival, the fifty-year-old Brahms increasingly devoted himself to “chamber music ideal”.22 In 1986 from November to December, Brahms premiered his two cello sonatas, A major Violin Sonata and C minor Piano Trio in selected major European cities. The deliberate arrangement of such performances could be seen as an attempt for his listeners to pick up the stylistic change in these works.

In about 1890, when the modernism first swept through Vienna, accompanied by the movement toward mass democracy and the decline of classic middleclass-Liberal culture, both supporters and critics of Liberalism in the city’s music circles at the time agreed that Brahms had little to do with the new but rather, he embodied the waning culture.23 After his comeback from the premature retirement after his Op. 111, Brahms brought to us ever great chamber works such as the B minor Clarinet Quintet and a number of fine keyboard works. Some of these works have been described as “cradle songs of his sorrow”, reflecting a deep and lasting contemplation of a century past, an era fell. To say this is “sorrow” is not as good as saying it is “gravity” that gives his late works its historical and musical weight. However, from “the perspective of Göllerich, like Köhler, Pohl, and Vogel, a late style in Brahms’s oeuvre could never mean culmination, but rather only a falling-off; the very concept of late style had become politicized”24.

  1. Jewish Renaissance

When Nietzsche, the great philosopher whose era was exactly parallel to Brahms’, was asked: “For what should Europe be thankful to the Jews?”, he replied:

“For a lot, for good and bad, and most of all for that one thing that is simultaneously of the worst and the best: for the great moral style, for the awe-fulness and majesty of the absolute demands, of the absolute interpretations, for the whole romanticism and sublimity of the moral dubiousness. Thus, Europe should be grateful for precisely the most attractive, treacherous and exquisite part of this kaleidoscope of colors and seduction to life, in whose afterglow the heavens– the evening heavens – of our European culture shimmer today, or, perhaps, are shimmering out. We artistes among the observers and philosophers are, well, grateful to the Jews for that.”25

With the Emperor, King of Hungary, pledging to a liberal constitution, a parliament and freedom of the press, the 1984 Revolution in Austria-Hungary ended making way for a Jewish Renaissance, especially after the achievement of fully equal civil and legal rights in the Fundamental Laws of December 1867 and the inter-confessional Settlement (Ausgleich) of 1868.

Weinzierl notes that: “in the last decades of the nineteenth century, liberalism, secularism, capitalism, urbanization, nationalism, socialism, the Christian-Social movement and anti-Semitism were the predominant, in part mutually conflicting developments. That the Jews, after centuries of exclusion from Christian society, could succeed now, in this tumultuous time, in developing their own bourgeoisie and cultural ascendancy in Vienna is one of the most fascinating phenomena in all of Jewish history.”

Indeed, in the turn of the century, Jews became predominant in all aspects of Vienna society. Figures like Julius Tandler, Emil Zuckerkandl, Ernst Fuchs, Josef Breuer, Carl Sternberg, Julius Schnitzler, Ludwig W. von Mauthner, Ernst Löwenstein, Robert Bárány, Otto Loewi, David Gruby, Josef Halbans, Adam Politzer, Viktor E. Frankl and Leopold Freund brought fame to Vienna’s Medical School; not to mention prominent Jewish psychologists Sigmund Freud and his pupil Alfred Adler lead psychoanalysis to a brand new world. Arthur Schnitzler, Franz Kafka, Stefan Zweig and Felix Salten reigned the literature world; they had come from different corners of the empire to Vienna and achieved their artistic breakthrough. So did philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Martin Buber, and later Josef Popper-Linkeus. Most noteworthy is perhaps Jews’ contribution to music and theater: composers such as Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schönberg, Egon Wellesz, Erich Korngold and Alexander Zemlinsky were very influential in classical music, as were Oscar Straus, Emmerich Kalmán, Leo Fall and Edmund Eysler in the realm of operetta. 26

Brahms of course is not Jewish; he is, rather, a baptized Lutheran, despite the fact that he had never attended church and had consciously distant himself from the accepted belief.27 But he’s close connection with the Jews could not be so easily oversighted. Daniel Spitzer, a Jewish journalist resident in Vienna, wrote about his conversations with Brahms in Ischl, a favorite summer retreat for Vienna’s upper middle class and Brahms’s choice for the final eight summers of his life (1889-96 ). This place alone was closely associated with the city’s Jews.28 Notably Spitzer knew Brahms quite well since they used to dine regularly along with three other Jews, Julius Epstein, Anton Door, and Eduard Hanslick. He wrote, not without satire, about Brahms’s love of “humor and wit” and especially of the “splendid anecdotes in which Jews aptly made fun of their own weaknesses” but which they no longer felt free to tell because the stories would provide the anti-Semites with their “sharpest weapons.” 29

  1. Anti-Semitism in Late Nineteenth Century Vienna

Parallel to the Jewish Renaissance in Austral is the development of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism rooted as a political idea in the Austro-Hungarian empire during the 1848 Revolution and gathered strength due to the financial crisis of the early 1870s, specifically the stock exchange crash of 1873. Hayes notes “anti-Semitism was a strong force, as it was in Austria-Hungary, especially in Vienna”30 because the city saw a rapid increase in the Jewish population, a result of immigration from the east of the Dual Monarchy:31 During the 1881-84 period, pogroms swept southern Russia, mass Jewish emigration began. And in 1885, 10,000 Russian Jews, refugees of 1881-1884 pogroms were expulsed from Germany.

The most immediate link between politics and music in late nineteenth-century Vienna were drawn by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Wagnerism. In the late 1870s, Schönerer assessed one’s anti-Liberalism by analyzing the degree of rebellion one has against his older generation and came up with a political style called the “sharper key,” aiming to escalate people’s excitements rather than intellect. “Populism, cultural anti-Semitism, and jingoistic pride in German culture— like that of Liberals, but more extreme— all bolstered and in part inspired by Wagner’s legacy, formed the foundation of their program.”32 And as the historian Steven Beller notes that in the declining days of Liberalism, “anyone could be discredited by being associated with the Jews,” and that Liberals were the usual targets. 33 Remarkably, “the deliberate arousal of anti-Semitic feelings became the most potent tool in the fight to dislodge the Liberals from power.”34

In Vienna, the most distinctive sign of anti-Semitism was the election of Mayor Karl Lueger shortly after the death of Brahms in 1897. Lueger founded and led the anti-Semitic Christian Social Party and took political power from the German Liberals. As far as his contribution to the city’s development is considered, he was largely accepted as an “outstanding” good major, however, he was known for his anti-Semitism and is seen by Hitler as an inspiration for his venomous hatred toward Jews.

In his autobiographical account of his Nazism political ideology, Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote about his impression of Vienna under Lueger and his Christian Social Party, explicitly noting its role in forming his own extreme anti-Semitism: “I did not yet so much as suspect the existence of a systematic opposition to Jews…Then I came to Vienna…I did not see Jews, despite the fact that Vienna already counted two hundred thousand of them among two million people at this time... In any case, I slowly came to know from these causes about the man and the movement which determined Vienna's destiny at that time: Dr. Karl Lueger and the Christian Social Party…When I came to Vienna, I stood opposed to both. The man and his movement seemed "reactionary" in my eyes. My common sense of justice, however, moderated this judgment in proportion to the opportunity I received to get to know the man and his work. Slowly, my just judgment grew into unabashed admiration. Today I see the man, even more than before, as the greatest German mayor of all times.”35

Unlike Hitler, Karl Lueger didn’t exactly inspire anti-Semitism in the public, nor in his successors such as Ignaz Seipel, Engelbert Dollfuss and Kurt Schuschnigg, all right-wing leaders of the Austrian first republic in 1918-1933. But he did serve as an important role model in the harsh, combative, unrelenting approach towards ideological political opponents, especially socialists, which ultimately “proved to be highly detrimental to the cohesion of the Austrian first republic as a whole”.36

  1. Conclusion

In 1889, same year that Van Gogh painted his renowned Sunflowers, Mahler’s 1st Symphony and Strauss’ Don Juan marked the dawning of musical modernism. This doesn’t mean, however, that the classical sense in Brahms music is thereon tossed away or forgotten. On the contrary, Brahms has enjoyed ever more popularity. By studying the social setting of the nineteenth-century Vienna, especially the parallel development of dwindling liberalism and rise of anti-Semitism, one is able to understand the late works of Johannes Brahms from a new light. And vice versa, by exploring the profoundness in his later chamber music, comparing that to the Wagnerian sentiments, one could gain an understanding of the state of affairs of liberals and Jews in that society.


  1. Notley, Margaret Anne. Lateness and Brahms : Music and Culture in the Twilight of Viennese Liberalism. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2006.

  2. Hayes Hayes, Paul (Editor). Themes in Modern European History, 1890-1945. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1992.

  3. Golomb, Jacob J. (Editor). Nietzsche and Jewish Culture. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1997.

  4. Taylor, A.J.P. Course of German History. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 2001.

  5. Nietzsche, Friedrich et al., “Völker und Vaterländer” Kritische Studienausgabe (KSA), ed. Giorgio Coli and Mazzino Montimari (Berlin: de Gruyter, 198), vol. 5, p. 192. From Golomb, Jacob J.(Editor). Nietzsche and Jewish Culture. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1997. p 115-116

  6. Avins, Styra. "Brahms, Johannes" The Oxford Companion to Music. Ed. Alison Latham. Oxford University Press, 2002. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.

  7. Avins, Styra. “Review: Brahms and the German Spirit. By Daniel Beller-McKenna” Music and Letters, Vol. 87, No. 1

  8. Beller, Steven. Vienna and the Jews 1867-1938: A Cultural History New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989

  9. Samson, Jim(Editor). Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2001. p 21

  10. Steinberg, Michael. For the Love of Music : Invitations to Listening. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2006.

  11. Garland, H., & Garland, M. (1997). The Oxford Companion to German Literature. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press.

  12. Hitler, Adolf, “The Discovery of Antisemitism in Vienna” Mein Kampf. 14th ed., Munich, 1932. Translated by Richard S. Levy.

  13. Daverio, John. Crossing Paths : Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2002.

  14. Frisch, Walter. German Modernism : Music and the Arts. Ewing, NJ, USA: University of California Press, 2005.

  15. Niembller, K.W. "Spatstilaspekte," Festschrift Arno Forchert zum 60. Geburtstag, ed. Gerhard Allroggen and Detlef Altenburg Kassel, 1986

  16. Weinzierl, Erika. “The Jewish Middle Class in Vienna in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries” Center for Austrian Studies (CAS) University of Vienna October 2003

  17. Jacobsen, Christiane. “Brahms— Ein bürgerlicher Künstler,” in Johannes Brahms: Leben und Werk, ed. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1983

  18. Botstein, Leon. “Art and the State: The Case of Music”, The Musical Quarterly published on January 1, 2005 Musical Quarterly 88

  19. Paillard, Bertita, et al. “Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner in the Franco-German War of 1870” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Jul., 1949),

  20. Lewin, David. Studies in Music with Text. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2006.

  21. Helm, Theodor. Deutsche Zeitung, 13 April 1889.

  22. Schmidt, C. M. Johannes Brahms und seine Zeit, 2nd ed. Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1998, 56- 64 and 163. via Notley, Margaret Anne. Lateness and Brahms : Music and Culture in the Twilight of Viennese Liberalism. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2006. p 7.

  23. "List of Compositions by Johannes Brahms." and "Karl Lueger." Wikipedia. 15 June 2007

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