My grandmother once was talking to me about composers she liked. She brought up the three Bs. She loved Bach and Beethoven, but was not too keen on Brahms. Nor was I. I will admit that I never really tried very hard. I listened to the first two symphonies, and I wasn’t terribly impressed. I heard an orchestra play one of the serenades, and was incredibly bored. The music never really impressed me, or moved me. There weren’t any really distinctive moments that stuck with me. It felt like very little was happening, and it was taking a long time for it to happen. But then I tried again.
A couple weeks ago I undertook the daunting, task of listening to all 104 Haydn symphonies. As of writing, I have listened to 41, so getting close to half way. I think this has helped my better appreciate Brahms. Also, over this last summer, I began to listen more intently to the music of Bach. I had always approached the Romantic period through the back door you might say: in relation to the 20th century, where my love of “classical” music began. Working backwards from my favorite composer Shostakovich, there is Mahler (and his contemporaries, Strauss and Bruckner), Wagner (and Liszt), Berlioz and then back to Beethoven. I’m more interested in the more “avant-garde” romanticism, but as a composer and musician, I know it is important to have a strong historical grounding in all musical trends. I had completely neglected Brahms. I was perhaps biased by the fact in my readings on these composers, Brahms was cast as an adversary.
So why bother listening to something you “don’t like?” I only have so many hours in my life so why spend it listening to music I’m not fond of? Again, because of historical perspective and knowledge. Also I am a voracious learner, so I will take any chance to learn or broaden my knowledge (thus the 104 Haydn symphonies). I decided over this long weekend to get the scores to the Brahms symphonies and listen.
My main reaction to the music was that it was beautiful. The richness and color of the harmonies really attracted me. Having a better understanding of classical form, I was able to appreciate the formal mastery. The orchestration, though not revolutionary, or particularly colorful, was clear and very effective for the musical material. I can say that I very much enjoyed listening, and the music warrants more listenings. Brahms deserves that place next to the two giants of western music. Maybe I can try to convince my grandma.