Audiobook Review: Brahms–His Life And Music

Brahms–His Life And Music, by Robert Greenberg

As the second Great Course I have listened to and reviewed so far, and there will likely be plenty where that came from to come [1], there is a comfort in seeing something that is already familiar–namely a collection of 8 45 minute lectures that are delivered by an immensely passionate and knowledgeable professor, in this case a professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, who clearly has a love of Brahms as a composer.  Being a person who is greatly fond of what is termed classical music from several periods [2], and being fond of Brahms himself, I was greatly pleased to be able to understand his life better, even though, as the professor says, Brahms is among the least known of composers, and that which is known about his life is exceptionally superficial, such as accounts of him being a cranky and irascible fellow who made serious music and smoked a lot of cigars.  Obviously, a man who composed the sort of well-beloved music that Brahms did surely had more going on than just a few odd personality quirks, and so I looked forward to finding out about him, and this collection delivered what I was looking for, and a lot that I was not looking for but which was compelling nonetheless.

The contents of this book, mostly chronologically organized, present 6 hours of lecture material in 8 cds that are finely balanced between the life and music of famed 19th century German composer Johannes Brahms.  This collection of lectures manages to include a great deal of music from Brahms and, despite the fact that Brahms was so paranoid about his personal life that he burned virtually all of his letters in order to deny to posterity a look into his private emotional life and also destroyed his unpublished manuscripts, so that there was no treasure trove of back catalog material for others to look at after his death, manages to include a lot of detail about his life as well.  The lectures themselves are structured in order, beginning from the notable fact that we hardly know J.B., a look at his traumatic childhood as a musician in the brothels of Hamburg, his productive time with the Schumanns, which included an awkward and intense and frustrated passion between J.B. and Mrs. Schumann, one of many awkward and frustrated passions in Brahm’s life, apparently, his vagabond years, his coming into maturity as a composer, his mastery of difficult forms like the piano and strong concerto and sonata form, his move into symphonies despite the tramp of giants, and his long and productive goodbye.  The author includes many excerpts from songs that one wants to hear in whole, and has insightful comments to make about their playfulness and Brahm’s characteristic balance between the strict and disciplined forms of baroque and classical composition and the emotional warmth of 19th century romanticism.

As a romanticist myself with a strong appreciation for classical rigor and form, I found perhaps too much to relate to when it came to Brahms.  Like many creative people, Brahms’ background and emotional life can be considered immensely complicated and unpleasant.  He came from a dysfunctional family, the child of an itinerant musician in Hamburg who faced child abuse as a slightly effeminate musician in the brothels of Hamburg, which appears to have given him a lasting horror at sexual intimacy.  While his mentor Schumann went mad, he had a frustrated love for Schumann’s wife, and later, while in his thirties, had a lengthy passion for one of their teenage daughters.  He never married, and apparently dealt with his physical needs by consorting with prostitutes, although he once was engaged to an attractive soprano but broke the engagement in a fit of insecurity after negative reception to an early concerto, feeling in insupportable to require encouragement and support from a partner.  He was a person of fairly rigid and inflexible routines, and generally indifferent to material wealth and possessions despite a childhood of intense poverty and privation.  He was also someone who hid a rather tender and vulnerable heart behind a gruff and irascible exterior, a celebrity composer who valued his privacy, a compositional conservative who was simultaneously a political liberal, and a friend of Jews, and an enemy to the anti-Semitic cult of Wagner.  He was, in short, the sort of person I could identify with, and a reminder of the private torment that often produces great art.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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