Being obsessive about Brahms

December 21, 2010 at 09:09 PM ·

In general, I am not a particularly obsessive person, not more than average. The only times one can notice it, is if I get some crazy scientific idea that I try to put down directly or some new musical piece that I can listen to several times in a day several days in a row. But the last three weeks, I have got an obsession so strong I have not experienced it before.

I have listened to Brahms A major piano quartet with Richter and Borodin quartet almost every day the last three weeks. (Now only once per day, which is a major improvement.) It is simply, as a drug. I get almost high from it, or some passages there, and I can't get enough of it. (Note: I don't drink alcohol or smoke, nor I take any type of drugs.)

Am I getting mad? Or is there something particular about this piece? Is the only salvation to play it? Has anybody else experienced this severe condition with any piece?

Posting the 2nd movement.

Replies (48)

December 21, 2010 at 09:27 PM ·

 Well you could be obsessed with illegal substances.... listen on!  



December 21, 2010 at 10:18 PM ·

I don't understand Brahms yet. Heck, I'm not even up to Mozart 201...

Teach me oh guru... (I'm dying to learn....)

December 21, 2010 at 10:20 PM ·

Holy C!  Its amazing... I think you've created a new adict, oh pusher-woman...

December 21, 2010 at 11:09 PM ·

Be careful not to listen to it too much, or you might find yourself losing interest in the work after a while.

December 21, 2010 at 11:12 PM ·

 Well I saw Anne-Sophie Mutter play all three Brahms sonatas, so I can understand your obsession with Brahms.  Have you listened to the b-minor Clarinet Quintet?  He has such a knack for writing lyrical, lush lines.  I know exactly what you mean!

December 21, 2010 at 11:37 PM ·

Wow, music-lovers don't get obsessed with particular pieces? The fact that you think that listening to a piece once or twice a day for a few weeks is an obsession makes me giggle; because if you're right, I need to go into full-blown music rehab. I listened to the entire Tchaikovsky concerto twice a day for about two years, once in the morning and once in the evening. I never got tired of it. Other pieces I have obsessed on range from Carly Comando's "Everyday" to Ravel's La Valse to the Lark Ascending to most of Cole Porter's works to Barber's cello sonata to Brahms's third violin sonata to most everything by Faure to Hallelujah Junction to my current obsession, Korngold's Marietta's Song from Die Tote Stadt. And that's only a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of pieces I've gorged myself on over the years. The pieces which I've obsessed on give me a great foundation for future analysis and appreciation, and I've never regretted my musical obsessions and addictions. If it doesn't harm anybody, why not? It does nothing but enrich my life with wonder and beauty, so I'm going to go for it.

December 21, 2010 at 11:51 PM ·


the piece by Brahms that did this to me was the sextet .   One of the most fantastic recordings ever is by the Amadeus with Pleeth and someone else........

Give that one a whirl.



December 22, 2010 at 12:08 AM ·

    You're quite normal, I'd say. A year or so ago I listened to the entire Mozart Requiem nearly every day for months on end (I effectively drove the family nuts). Most recently, for me, it's been the Beethoven "Ghost" piano trio and his Eroica symphony. One summer I listened to multiple movements a day of his cello sonata in A (with du Pre and Barenboim). Just to name some examples out of a long history of falling in and out of "addiction"...

Nope...not the least bit odd for us music lovers to fixate emotionally on pieces from time to time (or even constantly). It's in our wiring. Enjoy it.

December 22, 2010 at 12:27 AM ·

Seems like at least round here you are more than normal.

December 22, 2010 at 12:27 AM ·

Lena: it is indeed so beautiful... I have the same obsession for "A german Requiem" by Brahms...after so many years,I just cannot have enough of it...

December 22, 2010 at 12:38 AM ·

You're not going mad.  I'll go on a bender of sorts with certain pieces several days in a row.  In winter, I take the evening walks indoors -- just prop open two doors and go 'round and 'round for about 20 minutes through four rooms -- living room, front hall, den, and kitchen -- listening to music tracks on You Tube.

Now, some folks might think this is even kookier than what you're doing, but I guess that's another discussion altogether.

This is my second day this week of taking the evening walk with Meyerbeer's ballet "Les Patineurs" (The Skaters), from Act III of Le Prophète, playing on You Tube.  The two parts linked below add up to about 20 minutes.

My parents had this music in their collection, and I got to know it very well as a small kid.  I hadn't heard it for a long time between then and this year.  So you can imagine what an appetite I have for it on finally re-hearing it -- and, oh, how this music brings back the nice childhood memories.

Here you go: Part 1 and Part 2.

December 22, 2010 at 03:36 AM ·

I know about these various obsessions. I was especially obsessed with Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor. The first movement is one of the most wonderfully organized works ever written. Have a listen to it and also the first movement of his first piano trio in b major (one of the most beautiful themes ever written).

December 22, 2010 at 04:33 AM ·

"the Amadeus with Pleeth and someone else"

Cecil Aronowitz?

The sextets are transcendent!  So are the quintets.


December 22, 2010 at 05:04 AM ·

 B minor Clarinet Quartet!  


........................... love it. 

December 22, 2010 at 08:02 AM ·

Nothing strange about that at all. At least in this place. In fact I'd go as far to say that you're abnormally normal. (note to self - sample some Brahms if you think you're tough enough. I'm sure I can handle it - after all I've been doing Beethoven for a couple of years now)

December 22, 2010 at 08:44 AM ·

Julian: so where do you start?  If you are going to play Brahms, whats the entry, not to play a piece (his dances are rathe open) but to begin the journey to understand his more complex work like the quartets (where I want to go...)?

December 22, 2010 at 10:02 AM ·

When I was young I had an affair with the Concerto. It was quite a trip.

December 22, 2010 at 11:38 AM ·

Interesting too - have you ever heard a (young) prodigy play Brahms?

December 22, 2010 at 12:05 PM ·

 It's not just the music commonly mentioned on this site.  People in other music genres obsess just as as much – Beatles, Sinatra, Presley, to mention the obvious –  to the extent sometimes that they cannot listen to other than their chosen artist;  people who watch the same film dozens if not literally hundreds of times; people who re-read books many times (admittedly, sometimes you need to do this in order to tease out and understand what the author is saying) ... the list goes on.

It's part of the human condition.

December 22, 2010 at 01:13 PM ·

While I happen to worship Brahms above all others, the A Major piano quartet is beyond description....and the poco adagio is so atypical yet lovely....I've played it tons of times for reasonably well-exposed musicians, without preamble.....Few can estimate the composer....the piano part is so unique....the 1st movt. is pure Brahms but....well....getting back to your concerns about obsessing:  Ain't it Wonderful to bop around with a huge grin as some lovely audio tale spins on in your abstract ?? 

December 22, 2010 at 02:56 PM ·

 I thought of contributing a list of pieces I've been obsessed by, and realized it would be waaaaaay too long for me to create. But it's safe to say that 50% of the classical music I listen to creates that "OMG I'm in love I must have it I must have it" feeling. Maybe 70%.

This week's obsession:

Dvorak's "Klid". Cesar Franck's Symphony in D-minor, 2nd movement (and his "Panis Angelicum" sung on a Christmas CD I've got). Beethoven violin concerto (particularly the 2nd movement).

You're right, Lena. It's like a drug. I'd swear listening to these alters my blood chemistry. 

December 22, 2010 at 04:29 PM ·

"I vant to be taken up in your Brahms'....

December 22, 2010 at 05:02 PM ·

As a clinical psychologist, I guess I need to weigh in here (Hopefully, I won't be too over-verbose and thereby demonstrate what the subject is).

OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is considered a "pathology" in my field. However, it is also recognized by developmental psychologists that what we call obsessive compulsiveness is a characteristic of normal development in very young children. It is the way we all learn to master our impulses and the environment and learn new skills.

It is an extremely important strength that most people carry with them into adulthood. Who, after all, does not on occasion think about things over and over, or continually re-live in their minds the same experiences or interactions, or "practice" saying certain things or doing certain things?

That being the case, it is logical to assume that most people who gravitate towards music (and in particular, classical music) will put this obsessive compulsive quality to work in learning and in re-experiencing the emotionality and excitement of music. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it is very difficult to become even a good amateur musician without practicing obsessively and compulsively.

Therefore, you don't have to apologize for it. I can recall lulling myself to sleep as a child by hearing in my own auditory memory every note of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. And I would learn pieces by listening to the recordings over and over. It wasn't a chore; it was an act of love. I've taken pride in that facility all my life, and I think all of you can do the same.

Happy holidays and happy new year.

December 22, 2010 at 05:30 PM ·

I do this all the time, but I do not deny that I am an obsessive (but harmless) person.  I call these pieces my music muses.  The last one I got enmeshed with was the last movement of the Brahms G major sonata.  It's interesting that so many people responding on this thread get obsessed with Brahms, because for the longest time, he was one composer I just couldn't get into.  I also find that his music is something that a lot of my friends just don't enjoy that much.  It's almost as if you have to unlock a code, and once you do, his music is unquenchably good. 

December 22, 2010 at 05:49 PM ·

Hi, Emily. In one of Tovey's essays, he says something about the uniqueness of Brahms. I can't get my hands on the exact quote (which is more eloquent that I can ever be), but I think I can paraphrase it.

Tovey said that he has never heard a truly satisfactory performance of anything by Brahms. He says that this is because the Brahms musical world is so uniquely personal and elusive that no one has ever quite captured its essence.

If he's right (and I think he is), then it is this enigmatic quality that keeps drawing us into the music. But no matter how many times we hear it, it's not quite enough because we don't quite "get it." We become like Captain Ahab obsessed with catching the great while whale, but in this case the result isn't a disaster, it is the opening of a door to a deep and satisfying emotional world.

December 22, 2010 at 06:18 PM ·

One characteristic I notice about Brahms is that his music doesn't lapse into triteness or predictability -- at least for me. I have far more appetite for his material than I do for the old warhorses that keep coming up in pops concerts and film soundtracks.

I don't doubt one reason for this is that Brahms worked very hard over his material before going public with it -- just as Beethoven did before him -- refining, chiseling, patting things into shape -- a really self-critical artist.

Jeremy's mention of Brahms's 1st symphony, 1st movement, definitely resonates with me. The composer definitely holds my interest through the remaining movements as well. Ditto for the piano trio. The 2nd symphony was the Brahms work that I first heard as a kid. Then I was curious -- what else did this guy write? I learned his other symphonies in this order: 3rd, 4th, 1st.

I've already commented on my early impressions of the 2nd -- more childhood memories -- see Laurie's blog titled "Listening Anew," 3rd reply from end.

December 22, 2010 at 08:35 PM ·

 Wow! Thanks for all your responses. Now I will try to respond some, even if my IQ is heavily reduced from the pretty high fever I have today (38.8 C)..

@Elise: My recommendation is the following.

1) Try Itzhak Perlman on Brahms d minor sonata and Anne-Sophie Mutter for the A major and G major. When you feel like you love the pieces, move on to:

2) Brahms piano quintet f minor (I skipped this step)

3) Brahms g minor piano quartet.

4) Brahms c minor piano quartet.

5) Brahms A major piano quartet.

I have heard prodigies playing the violin concerto, but never a single sonata. Fact is, that for instance the A major sonata is insanely musically I think it might be why they never play this until they are more mature!

December 22, 2010 at 08:37 PM ·

 @ Emily: well, the first 10 days I was listening to the piano quartet perhaps 4 times daily :) The thing is, that when one also has limited time to listen, it might feel very close-minded not listening to anything else! :)

December 22, 2010 at 08:41 PM ·

 @ Buri: thanks for the idea! I will listen to it today already, before going to bed. Brahms never stops surprising me...

December 22, 2010 at 08:42 PM ·

 @ Michael: I will try to, definitely! Brahms is the most lyrical composer ever walking on this planet. 

December 22, 2010 at 08:43 PM ·

 @ Marc: I am slightly superstitious when it comes to Requiems, but I might make an exception and try it out. Seems like very many people are crazed about it!

December 22, 2010 at 08:49 PM ·

 @ Peter: yeah, this is a very special quartet...I think the others in my piano quartet still think I am a bit crazy from teh grin I have when listening to the piece :) It looks like its the least popular of the piano quartets, so far...

December 22, 2010 at 08:50 PM ·

 @ Emily: the last movement of the G major sonata is wonderful! I was once also obsessive over it. I am kind of crazed also about the last movement of the A major sonata, they are a bit similar...

December 22, 2010 at 10:04 PM ·

It's probably not normal :-) but useful for musicians.  Some of the scarier pieces I don't think can be mastered without being obsessed by them.

December 22, 2010 at 11:17 PM ·

Lena, I know!  I can't listen to it or play it without getting choked up.

Sander, I never hear a performance of Brahms that strikes me as perfect once I've played it myself because every phrase means something so specific to me that I can't hear it in my mind any other way.  My accompanist and I really bonded this fall while discussing the meaning and coming to an agreement on the interpretation of each phrase.  I always feel a bit exposed when performing it, as if I'm sharing something very intimate. 

Clara Schumann claimed ownership of the last movement of the G major sonata, writing, "I say 'my' because I do not believe that anyone feels the rapture and sadness of it as I do..."

And this is what makes Brahms great, this ability he had to connect with people at their deepest most personal level, so that they feel a sense of ownership when experiencing his work.

December 23, 2010 at 03:50 PM ·

 I like that last bit, Emily.  I said this in a blog, but I will say it again.  Hearing ASM perform Brahms live was an out-of-this-world experience.  The recording doesn't do justice to what you experience live!

December 23, 2010 at 04:03 PM ·

 That is a very interesting point. For instance, I loved Anne-Sophie Mutter in the Brahms A major sonata until I worked on it myself during a longer time. After that, I could not listen to her version any longer, I felt disturbed by many things she did...I guess I got pretty narcissistic about my own interpretation :-)



December 23, 2010 at 04:27 PM ·

We need a new topic on 'owning pieces' Lena, seems your thing and I can surely relate to it.

Pretty weird though to work on  a piece and then find yourself yelling at a recording  by some superstar that they are playing wrong!  But maybe you don't really know any piece of music until you get to that point....

December 23, 2010 at 07:46 PM ·

@ Elise: it might also be my bad taste, why I cannot like ASM after learning the piece!


So the conclusion I got from this discussion thread, is so far that Brahms is the most God like composer :)

December 24, 2010 at 12:51 AM ·

 It's like Hilary Hahn said.  What we do is interpret, like how two different actors interpret a line of Shakespeare.  Is either "wrong" or "right"?  

December 24, 2010 at 11:56 PM ·

I found the Virgil Thompson quote about Brahms:

"It is a strange anomaly that although Brahms's symphonic music is extremely popular (in some years it tops even that of Beethoven for frequency of performance), almost nobody's rendition of it is thoroughly satisfactory. How to discern the rhythm that underlies its slow and energetic passages, to make these sound in any given piece as if they are all parts of the same piece, is one of the unsolved problems in music. Certainly the meditative ones require to be read as inward rather than as extrovert sentiment. And certainly the animated ones and the passages of broad eloquence, such as the codas and finales, tempt any conductor to make oratory of them. But alternations of introversion and extraversion do not make a unity in the reading of anything, and there is no reason to suppose that so experienced and consecrated a musician as Brahms was basically incoherent in thought. It is far more likely that his exact poetic temper, being profoundly personal, escapes us."
- Virgil Thompson (November 12, 1944)

December 25, 2010 at 12:57 AM ·

Ah, you have pinpointed exactly why he and I get along so well.

January 6, 2011 at 03:58 AM ·

It happens to me all the time.

January 6, 2011 at 05:08 AM ·

I think several people have hit the nail on the head without realizing just how close to the truth they are.  Obsession with a piece of music is a love affair -- literally.  Research on the effect of romantic love on the brain shows it's a lot like being addicted to cocaine.

January 6, 2011 at 08:42 AM ·

As a cliche from the 80's "I'll second that emotion".  Somewhere between the ages of 2 and 5 I became obsessed with a vinyl copy of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and probably drove everyone crazy by my playig it over and over and over on my little turntable.  I'm not sure, but I can only guess that it was a precursor to the type of passion and obsession you feel.  It's not illegal or immoral or fattening.  It's how we love and learn (ummm without a member of the designated gender present).  Enjoy the infatuation!

January 6, 2011 at 10:16 AM ·

I read these posts and must admit to some jealousy.  I don't get the same passion for hearing specific music pieces that I read above.  Least not in that way.  I may, however, get something very similar by playing them, rather than listening?  Perhaps thats is the underlying force that driving my violin obsession.  The feel of the music coming out of my body-instrument union. 

There really are relationship paralells there! 

January 15, 2011 at 04:59 PM ·

Dear violinists,

My world is destroyed. The Youtube video of Brahms and Borodin has stopped working, and gets stuck on minute 1:36.

January 15, 2011 at 05:47 PM ·

When that happens, try moving the little circle in the line that shows how far along the video is (sorry, don't know the technical term) just a little tiny bit to the right. If you need to, click play again. The video should load from this new spot.

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