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Tucson Weekly Bravo for Brahms

On the 100th anniversary of his death, a new, anecdotal biography celebrates the composer's life.

By Christine Wald-Hopkins

Johannes Brahms: A Biography, by Jan Swafford (Alfred A. Knopf). Cloth, $35.

JANUARY 20, 1998:  BURIED IN THIS book amid a collection of formal portraits of the mature Brahms, Clara Schumann, Johann Strauss, Brahms' sitting room and a caricature of a shabby "Saint Brahms," is a silhouette of the composer.

It's a full-height, action representation of the stout musician: Set outdoors, his shadow's in profile in coat and hat, his long hair creeping over his collar, longer beard and ever-present cigar pointing the way. Brahms' head is high, his hands clasped behind him, and his left leg is raised mid-stride. It's a vigorous, determined posture (Brahms is off to eat and drink at his favorite Viennese restaurant), and it's a lot like this biography itself: energetic, focused, portraying external detail of the subject, and decidedly full-bodied (700 pages' worth).

Harvard and Yale School of Music-educated biographer Jan Swafford, recognized by the National Book Critics Circle and PEN/Winship for his Charles Ives biography, is himself a composer. He is also the author of The Vintage Guide to Classical Music and a commentator on NPR's Performance Today, facts that are good news to the lay reader of this musician's biography: While trained in the arcanum of composition theory, Swafford is experienced in the practice of communicating with the popular audience--as popular as an audience for classical music can be.

Central to Swafford's argument is Brahms' conservative historical position of Classical composer in the era giving rise to the Modernist movement--both dogged by the conventions of the Beethoven-Mozart tradition and bedeviled by the New German production of contemporaries Liszt and Wagner. Compelling in this account is how theoretical differences are borne out in personal relations; in friends falling out, and the personal politics of who-dines-with-whom.

This gossip-loving reader's attention was piqued but not glutted by details of Brahms' personal life. Careful to draw details from documentable sources, and scrupulous not to presume motives but to draw objective, supportable inferences, Swafford presents his subject with his own sort of Classical reserve. The son of a common Hamburg couple, blessed by genius, helped by fate and the good will of strangers, Brahms lived long enough to enjoy recognition, become renowned for blustery bachelorhood, and fear for what would follow him.

His father was a street musician and self-styled buffoon. Brahms began his musical career as a teenager playing in sailors' bars and bawdy houses. At age 20, slender, blond, and still speaking in a high, preadolescent voice, he knocked on the door of the redoubtable Robert and Clara Schumann. When Robert Schumann heard Johannes play, he ecstatically dubbed the young musician the heir of Beethoven and the "Messiah of music," and he was thus marked--for good or for ill--for life.

Swafford conducts the reader chronologically through Brahms' life, with this gifted, hopeful, beardless Hamburg musician as an underlying theme. Constant, as well, are the presence and influence of the Schumann family: Composer Robert is approaching the end of his emotional and creative life, and pianist Clara is at the height of her performing career when Brahms enters their lives; the complications of love affairs consummated or not do not poison their professional relationship. Swafford's depiction of Clara's life--with as many as 10 pregnancies, a brood of youngsters parceled out to servants and boarding schools as she gave up to 200 concerts a year throughout Europe--is a study in its own right of 19th-century womanhood.

Musicologist Swafford interweaves discussions of Brahms' artistic development with his personal life. He traces Brahms' early Romantic Hamburg leanings, with cabalistic, personal musical lines (the name "Clara," for example, rendered into tonal representation) through his Classical, Viennese break from the subjective to the formal in relation to his friends, his public reception, and his contemporaries and rivals.

Swafford discusses Brahms' composition technique throughout--including examples in musical script. For the non-reader of music, this could be off-putting, but it's minimal; his use of technical terms is limited and you can skip paragraphs and still get the gist; and I think Swafford has successfully bridged the gap between professional and amateur.

Implicit in this study is the notion that Brahms wrote for the German bourgeoisie--for the 19th-century middle class, but one that had been trained to listen to music in a manner unknown to audiences today. Swafford suggests that (in addition to the recording industry's CD symphony-in-every-player phenomenon) the New German school that ushered in Modernism, led by Liszt and Wagner, actually released the audience from the composer-audience compact: In destroying predictable form and replacing it with musical narrative, they allowed the audience to sink into music appreciation mushiness and intellectual laziness.

Swafford might stretch his point a bit in the Epilogue. On the 100th anniversary of Brahms' death, in light of the horrors that grew out of German nationalism spurred by New German musical zeal, the "betrayals of this century by one epochal agenda" (for "opera and art and humanity"), in the postmodern dissonance and incoherence of form, he calls up the craft and technique of Brahms to serve as a model to impose an order on cultural chaos. Can't quite see that, myself. But I enjoyed the time out of it the book allowed, imagining belly and cigar out, left foot raised, the Clara theme developing into a symphonic movement as one strides toward dinner and Rhine wine.

Swafford's biography is sympathetic but restrained, musically informative, comprehensive but very readable.


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