Brahms and Finding Authenticity


As we approach the end of another year, perhaps (as could be expected) it’s time for some reflection. Over Christmas I have been gifted a number of sets of classical recordings, which have been very welcome in my life. There is something about listening to a composer’s entire symphonic repertoire that really paints a picture of their unique view on the world, and having some time to sit down and listen has really given me a chance to think about where their music fits into mine.

Over my life, many composers and pieces have stood out to me. I had a CD very early on with a selection of works on it due to my interest in Rossini’s ‘William Tell Overture’ at about the age of 7. This CD also featured works by Beethoven, Mahler and Tchaikovsky - just to name a few. When I was studying for my music GCSE, I began to appreciate that each composer really had their own voice. I was taken in my the beauty of Mozart’s piano concertos, and then when I moved into A level study I began to appreciate Beethoven’s pure passion and unexpectedness and the satire and colour of Shostakovich. As I moved into studying for a music degree I began to really embrace and cherish the music of Tchaikovsky. However, amid all of this was one composer that I simply couldn’t bring myself to like, and that was Brahms.

Anybody who has been reading my blog for a while will know that I found Brahms to be difficult to listen to. I thought his music was generally quite boring and bland and had little to offer me. Perhaps it was simply a matter of taste, as I knew many people absolutely loved his music. I just couldn’t get on board. So, when I discovered that my youth orchestra was to play Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in a coming concert, I didn’t feel overly enthused. Indeed, for the first few hours of rehearsal, I found my concentration lapsing and my interest totally disappearing. And then, for some reason, something clicked.

For me, it’s always been the case that if I play and get to know a work by a specific composer I tend to enjoy it more (with a few exceptions), and this has never been more true than with this symphony. During the week of intensive rehearsals, I began to hear the uniqueness in Brahms’ musical ideas. His long melodic lines, in which a single bar only plays the smallest part in a greater whole, became apparent to me. It’s said that there’s a certain ‘Brahmsian’ way to play this music, in that every single note needs to have so much care, love and substance. From each important note comes micro-phrases which feed into longer phrases and ideas. Whole movements within whole symphonies have very definite journeys, and even all 4 of his symphonies when listened to back to back are heading somewhere. Brahms’ music became the kind of music to me where the more I listened, the more I got from it - a phenomenon I’m sure many people are familiar with.

Brahms’ knowledge of counterpoint, harmony and the intricate details of music theory allows his music (which is actually very traditional in its form) to really tackle the deepest parts of the human experience. Sometimes the harmony weaves chromatically around a long, developing melody line. Sometimes one instrument’s part fits so intricately with another’s without even being remotely similar. As a player, I found that I could view myself at the centre of and on the outskirts of the musical journey of the piece, sometimes at the same time. The great thing about all of this though is that once you’re aware of it, it has its effect. If you like, if you’re interested, you can go away and study the music and it would no doubt enhance your experience and appreciation of it - but this isn’t necessary to achieve the desired effect. Awareness is all that’s needed.

For too long I had been allowing music to simply wash over me, or I had been playing my part without much awareness of what else was going on or the actual purpose of what I was doing. Listening to and playing Brahms’ music entirely changed that. Not only did I achieve a great appreciation for the composer, but a new way of appreciating all music - simply by having an open mind to the music of Johannes Brahms. Through doing this, I was able to begin to appreciate new composers that I’d never really considered giving the time of day to before, such as Elgar and Bruckner. It’s ridiculous to think that without anybody telling me how, I had a new concept of beauty through simply listening to one composer’s music. That’s something truly powerful.

Much like Brahms’ symphonic music, life brings together long, developing threads and the individual’s perception of the world around them is what harmonises these threads together. This means the music is so deeply personal, and yet so widely resonant. It raises the question of what it is that resonates with us, that we might find so compelling. In my comparatively tiny life experience, I’ve found that what we resist is often what is most important and true to us in the end. Brahms’ music is one of those things as it has taught me to find beauty myself, rather than expect it to be handed to me on a plate. Doing so, I think, always results in the deepest sense of appreciation, one which has been ticking away in my own personal life ever since. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could look at themselves in the way Brahms’ music has taught me to look at music? To find beauty, meaning and direction at the centre of such complexity is surely something we can all learn from. In essence, to me Brahms’ music is about acceptance of some deep truth - it’s about authenticity. It feels everything genuinely. It feels everything genuinely. It feels everything genuinely. It feels everything genuinely.

Indeed, in hindsight I can see how this moment of appreciation for Brahms’ music has begun a journey of personal self-acceptance. As my musical appreciation has grown and developed, so has my self-appreciation and the decisions I’ve made in life have started to truly reflect that. Before I get too carried away, I want to point out that I’m very much aware of some people who absolutely love Brahms and perhaps seem to go a little bit overboard and almost worship him in their commentaries of his music, and I hope I’m not doing that. But I can see how people find such profoundness in his music. This music teaches the listener or the performer to love each note (each present moment) for what it is and how it fits into the bigger picture to the extent that just through the music an individual feels a new sense of acceptance and authenticity on such a complex level that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Surely this is one of the most profound things a person might experience?

Of course, for me, there are many composers that have played huge parts in my personal growth, but Brahms feels like a catalyst to a moment of very important realisation which has grown ever since. Brahms is only a small part of a larger whole - but what an important part he played.

Benjamin JacksonComment