Our book today is a modern masterpiece, Jan Swafford’s 1997 biography of Johannes Brahms. Whole lexicons of praise have already been heaped on this book from all quarters, and justly so: it’s a virtually form-perfect example of all that biography should be. It’s thick enough to do its mighty subject justice (Brahms had an unstintingly high opinion of himself; he would almost certainly have wanted to add a few hundred pages to Swafford’s 600-page total), it’s thoroughly grounded in primary documents and sources, and it’s unapologetically opinionated.
Opinions are one of the main things I look for in a biographer, and it can be a dreary search – 20th century conventions of scholarship were heavily infected with the dry heaves of academia shortly after the Second World War, and suddenly you could hardly open a big-press biography without barking your shin on phrases like “documents make it seem likely,” or “tax returns strongly indicate.” Swafford knows his subject too well to hedge his rhetorical bets in such a way.
Brahms was born into dire poverty in 1833, and toward the end of his life he began exercising a strict and inexcusable regimen on his personal papers, destroying everything he felt future biographers need not see. The first composition we have from him was done when he was 18 – a work easily complex enough to make it likely that he wrote many, many such before it. Despite his carefully-cultivated bluff exterior, Brahms had deep sensitivities. He himself often referred to his strained and chaotic childhood and youth as dark forces shaping his adult life, and we can well believe him (the readiness with which he accepted his fame, for instance, is no doubt connected to the fact that when he was a young composer and sent some scores to Schumann for comment, they were returned unopened).
It’s tricky material to navigate – it’s a big, broad, immensely powerful life, a figure who knew perfectly well that he was last of the great composers in the old classical style. Following his subject through the mountains of documentation at his disposal can’t have been easy for Swafford – and it was certainly rendered no easier by the fact that any biographer of Brahms (just like any friend of his, while he was alive) must spend half his time sheepishly apologizing for the man’s boorish behavior.
Swafford handles it all with complete assurance. After one hour of reading this book’s fluid, knowing prose, you forget that you’ve ever read a Brahms biography by anybody else. Swafford is every bit as wry and knowing on the peripherals of Brahms’ life and times as he is on the main topics. Here’s a priceless aside on what happened when Bruckner was allowed to view the exhumed skeleton of Beethoven prior to its re-burial in Vienna’s Central Cemetery:
He had to be forcibly removed. Beethoven’s bones may be decorated to this day by a lens from Bruckner’s spectacles, which fell out during the ruckus. He pulled the same stunt at Schubert’s exhumation, refusing to release the skull until they allowed him to place it in the coffin himself.
(“Part of what Brahms and others could never quite get over,” Swafford helpfully informs us, “was that Bruckner the composer of epic symphonies behaved, much of the time, like a nincompoop”)
And of Brahms’ notorious contemporary the tone is equally informal:
As far as Brahms was concerned most of Wagner’s writings, which presaged similar tracts from generations of artists to come, were so much self-serving gobbledygook.
Brahms struck up a friendship with Liszt in 1853 (it would eventually darken, as so many of Brahms’ friendships did) and lived in Vienna for more than thirty years (he would die there in 1897), working steadily, turning out one impeccably finished masterpiece after another. More than one critic has remarked on the fact that we have no imperfect works by Brahms – each piece is finished in a way only J.S. Bach’s works ever feel finished. His mighty Violin Concerto is a triumph of forbidding complexity, and his Variations on a Theme of Paganini seems almost tauntingly to call for a Paganini of the keyboards to even attempt it.
This technical ferocity was an exponent of Brahms’ musical philosophy, which fascinates Swafford throughout his book:
There lies important and dangerous advice for Brahms’s heir in the art. Perfection before beauty, he said – perfection meaning unassailable in logic and craft, beautiful implying expressive. In preaching that ideal to a protégé Brahms exaggerated for effect; he knew nothing his perfect. But for good or ill his words echoed through the next generation of composers, some of whom did exalt thematic and harmonic logic over expressiveness (Schoenberg and his pupils Berg and Webern were accused of that, usually wrongly. It could be argued that in lesser hands Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, which owed much to Brahms in logic and spirit, did prove amenable to pedantic elevation of logic over expressiveness.)
But there was more to it than cold method, as our biographer knows perfectly well:
Lyricism and emotion draw listeners into his music before they come to grips with the complexities – the sheer difficulty of absorbing his constant protean variation, his tonal deflections, his experiments with conventional forms. The middle-class audience loved the beauty and warmth of his music, not the logic. Surely Brahms understood that. Even if he made considerable demands on his listeners, even if he never coddled them in his big pieces, he still never forgot their feelings or his own. He made sure the warmth stayed in his work. But he would never admit it.
That warmth remained in his work and continued to invite them in (not all listeners were equally spellbound: in the 1890s the wonderfully acerbic Boston music critic Philip Hale urged a sign to be posted in the town’s new Symphony Hall saying, “Exit – in case of Brahms”) all through the composer’s life. Swafford is simply wonderful in conveying that life in all its complexity, and we’re never less than happy to have him along as our guide. Brahms was deathly afraid of seasickness, and he hated the very idea of being out of sight of land – so the orbit of his travels was comparatively narrow in comparison to the size of his fame in later life. But he kept performing for the public, and another biographer might be tempted to haul out the stock phrases of blasé praise. Swafford takes a much sharper, more insightful approach, seeking always to humanize his great subject:
From now on (after the late 1860s), as a pianist, he mainly performed his own music. Practicing bored him to distraction, and as he never tired of saying, concerts meant little to him anyway. The applause he enjoyed more than he was prepared to admit. While he generally remained competent at plowing through his own music, including the very difficult concertos, his own subtlety of touch at the keyboard gradually deteriorated to what Clara [Schumann, his shrewdest critic] bewailed as “thump, bang, and scrabble.” Still, for all that, he toured. By the 1870s he was collecting handsome fees, and his concerts not only provided income but an important means of spreading his work. Even if Brahms was not the ideal performer of his own music, as either pianist or conductor, he came up with marvelous readings sometimes, and in any case audiences showed up in force to have a look at him. So he claimed to hate performing and performed all the time, just as he hated writing letters and wrote them constantly.
“Time always treated Brahms kindly,” Swafford at one point tells us. Undeniably true, but fate has also been kind, giving him a biographer like this. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.