Where is Brahms?

March 13, 2013 at 07:11 PM · Where is Brahms?

I would enjoy reading comments on the blog entry,which is listed as a link below, regarding contemporary composers .


Replies (38)

March 13, 2013 at 07:20 PM · "The modern era has produced creative work by Stravinsky, Bartok, Copland etc. in the early twentieth century. Although skilled craftsmen, the compositions of Brahms, Bach and Beethoven remain at a level well above the modern era composers."

Please go further and define this 'level' you speak of.

March 13, 2013 at 08:18 PM · It is not only problem of classical music. The best compositions (from all mathematically possible eventualities) has been probably already written I am afraid.

Where is Beatles in pop music?

March 13, 2013 at 08:56 PM · Bohdan-- interesting comment! Schonberg thought the same thing one hundred years ago, but he found a new way via atonality. I think Arvo Part may be a living example of greatness, as well as Joan Tower, Philip Glass, Steve Reich (last two are both minimalists). The audible spectrum only has so many possible patterns, but musical greatness has not yet been exhausted.

March 13, 2013 at 09:04 PM · ... she may, of course, be composing for a saxophone or latin jazz... (as I see it) in Brahm's day what we call classical music was anything but and the cutting edge of musical innovation...

March 14, 2013 at 01:43 AM · We often say that the best was filtered out over time. While Brahms was quite famous in his time, Schubert was not. The same is true to a lesser extent for Bach and the like.

In our time, we have Adams, Glass, Carter, Part, Penderecki, Takemitsu, Ligeti, Henze, Gorecki...

I think part of why we're dissatisfied with modern music has more to do with the ideas that are being expressed than the skill of the composer. Doubtless these things will shift again.

March 14, 2013 at 06:15 AM · "(as I see it) in Brahm's day what we call classical music was anything but and the cutting edge of musical innovation"

Brahms represented the conservative tradition. In fact, he detested the camp that was the "cutting edge of musical innovation"--namely Wagner and his disciples.

However, the argument could be made that some cinematic scores by the likes of John Williams are in the conservative diatonic tradition and come the closest to a modern Brahms.

March 14, 2013 at 08:51 AM · Bohden, I've heard that argument before, and I disagree. It's like saying that all the great books have been written. After all, we have only 26 letters.

Cheers Carlo

March 14, 2013 at 09:23 AM · O.K., I will be glad to realize I am wrong one day.

It is interesting to think about, why literature is not facing the same problem as music is. I think fine art is facing the same problem too. Recently I have seen some quite interesting and nice paintings and sculptures. Unfortunately, they were almost always neo-something, in other words, although they were just recently finished, I was quite sure that I have already seen them twenty years ago or so…

Even the style that has no any value for me (hanged TV, splashed by red color, ilunined by violet lamp or so...) is getting to be "out of date"

However, I stil hope I am wrong whilst you are ringt and we can await new artworks and compositions :-)

March 14, 2013 at 10:58 AM · I'm not sure where Brahms is today, but he was in my local pub last night, singing bawdy songs.

March 14, 2013 at 01:48 PM · Thank you for your thoughts and insight. Your comments have created more food for thought. By the way, Peter's comment about seeing Brahms in a pub was hysterical and possibly accurate.

March 14, 2013 at 02:41 PM · Yes, and we had a quick run through of his second A major violin sonata using the pub honky tonk. It got us a free round of drinks.

March 14, 2013 at 02:50 PM · I've always beleived a good test for great music is its plasticity-- how well it stands up to multiple interpretations and repeat performances. Simpler, less interesting works tire and fatigue the listener more than complex ones. The Bach Partitas and Sonatas, for example can be interpreted many different ways and always fascinate us, no matter how many times we've heard it. Same is true for Beethoven symphonies, and Shostakovich. Perhaps less so for Vivaldi, Salieri, Satie. Brahms himself recognized his own limitations, citing Beethoven as a far greater musical genius. I'm taking bets that Gyorgy Ligeti's works will be performed and enjoyed 100 years from now.

March 14, 2013 at 04:47 PM · Scott: "Brahms represented the conservative tradition. In fact, he detested the camp that was the "cutting edge of musical innovation"--namely Wagner and his disciples."

Yes, but it was all classical instruments with classical roots - apples and oranges if you like.

Classical music now is to modern music more like chalk and cheese ;) :)

March 14, 2013 at 04:53 PM · Evan I see your point, but I think you are missing the 'forever' factor "Simpler, less interesting works tire and fatigue the listener more than complex ones."

ITs not about complexity - if it was we would all be hankering after post-modern music and complexity for complexities sake (I'm taking the word litterally though I would guess you did not mean it strictly so).

Using violin concerto world as an example, the timeless classics are not really the complex ones but those that have a reasonable mixture of recognizable themes and what I would like to term emotional complexity - which can be very simple indeed.

March 14, 2013 at 07:53 PM · Yes, Elise, emotional complexity is a good way of thinking about it. Its not the dissonance that makes music complex-- some very slow, expressive melodies can be deceiving in its complexity. Many of the slower movements by Bach can be interpreted in a variety of ways, with different artistic messages, hence it is "complex". Ravel's Bolero however cannot. There is one meaning, one message, it's all good because we all "know" what its supposed to be. Not a lot of room for interpretation, so its "simple".

Like literature and visual arts, if it's predictable and unmaliable in meaning, it has less artistic value, but still may be a good intro piece for those of us discovering art for the first time.

Another idea to ponder: Serial composers vary immensely in depth and meaning. Schonberg is profound in his messages, yet Alban Berg is much simpler. Shonberg is far more aware of dynamics, rythm and phrasing (more complex), wheras Berg abondons all to chance (simpler).

March 14, 2013 at 10:38 PM · then we are on the same papyrus (I would say page, but papyrus with its nuances of fibers is emotionally more complex...).... :)

Its a fascinating topic. For me Brahms is way more complex than Beethoven - which probably means I'm really not ready for Beethoven I guess - but for simple complexity Brahms is the ticket...

March 15, 2013 at 12:46 AM · John, he would have written all of Shostakovich's output. The question then becomes, what would S. have written?

I wonder if that is the excuse that Lloyd-Webber used for pinching everybody else's melodies?

Cheers Carlo

March 15, 2013 at 01:39 AM · Everyone pinched melodies - if not from other composers then from folk tunes. Someone still did not get credit for them (though sometimes they made an effort by calling it 'gypsy dance' etc).

March 15, 2013 at 01:57 AM · This is an interesting thread. I wonder if we should consider whether classical music has become steadily much harder to write because the expectation is that your creations must be "beyond" everything that has come before. Suppose you write something in the classical style (think Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven). Even if the melodies and other aspects of the writing are as good as something Mozart might have written, it won't be taken seriously. On the other hand if it was a newly-discovered work of Mozart, everyone would think it was heavenly and very important and it would be analyzed to death and performed world-wide hundreds of times a year.

John Williams was mentioned and I think his orchestral works are great but notice they are typically played at "pops" concerts and never afforded the respect of symphonies even of lesser-known composers of the past.

One also could ask whether music and the visual arts, having broken through some very important barriers especially in the early part of the 20th century, have run out of aesthetically pleasing options at their frontiers? I don't know about any of you but I like music to sound good.

Finally the other dimension of the true greats (Bach, Mozart, etc.) is the quantity of their output. I think when you answer the question of how they cranked out so MUCH stuff you will have the answer to the quality as well. Maybe it had something to do with how they were paid for their work. Even someone fairly prolific like Gustav Holst -- can you name one thing he wrote besides "The Planets"?

March 15, 2013 at 03:15 AM · "Suppose you write something in the classical style (think Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven). Even if the melodies and other aspects of the writing are as good as something Mozart might have written, it won't be taken seriously."

Arvo Part did just that and succeeded! A little nip and tuck, a twist here tweek there, and PRESTO! Renaissance revisited, but...its different enough to be original. This is not your father's Max Reger LP-- it's powerful stuff, and rather modern flavor.

March 15, 2013 at 01:04 PM ·

John Williams was mentioned and I think his orchestral works are great but notice they are typically played at "pops" concerts and never afforded the respect of symphonies even of lesser-known composers of the past.

Good point. But the jury is still out. Korngold, Waxman, et alia have gained "legitamacy" for their film scores over time. Williams probably will, too.

I think it's a good thing. As Mr. Armstrong said, "There's only two ways to sum up music; either it's good or bad. If it's good, you don't mess about it, you just enjoy it."

March 15, 2013 at 04:28 PM · When we consider the far greater complexity and (yes!) sophistication of so many of the greatest 20th and 21st century composers, then the question you've raised becomes almost meaningless. Add to that the fact that almost every major composer of the "modern" era has literally invented his (or her)own personal musical language, whereas the three B's had the advantage of "speaking"in a standardized "language," already highly developed, generally understood and widely accepted.

I love the three B's, and a great many of their contemporaries as well, but I find the work of many "modern" composers more challenging and therefore these are the ones I find myself listening to the most. Of course, the great exception, I must say, is Bach, who never ceases to astonish me, in just about every single piece he ever wrote.

March 15, 2013 at 06:55 PM · Regarding the 3 Bs "standardized language"-- Bach was late Baroque, Beethoven was classical and Brahms was romantic, with 200 years of musical development in between! The gradual march towards polytonality and eventual atonality was at a time when European artists sought something different. Even then, the post-Brahms era of late romantic composers had much in common with eachother . Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and in France--Debussy, Ravel, etc, explored the emotional, impressionistic side of musical language as their culture learned to embrace freedom of expression. Artists and musicians often embrace the cultural ideals foisted upon them, with a few dissenting voices (Shostakovich) daring to rebel. It's not their language that differs, but their personal message that identifies the artist.

March 15, 2013 at 08:03 PM · Sorry, but I can't help responding to the bit about Shostakovich. Of all 20th century composer, HE is your choice for rebel? I admire Shostakovich as much as anyone, but as far as his musical language is concerned, it was clearly grounded on that of predecessors, especially Prokofiev. And as far as politics is concerned, throughout his lifetime he was generally seen as a loyal subject of the Soviet system, terrified of crossing Stalin. While it's true that he often wrote music for himself rather than the system, I'd hardly characterize that as rebellion.

Many 20th century composers were far more radical and far more subversive and yes, far more original. While Ravel based his language on Debussy, Debussy seems to have created his out of whole cloth. Same with the mature Stravinsky, and also, of course, Schoenberg, not to mention Bartok and even Hindemith, at least in his younger years.

As for the three B's, Bach was heavily influenced by predecessors, such as Vivaldi, Buxtehude, etc., Beethove, of course by Mozart and Haydn, and Brahms by Beethoven and, of course, Schubert. While all three were very original in their own way, they were also able to draw on a fully formed language ready made for their purposes, which was NOT true of Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, etc. Not to mention Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Xenakis, etc.

March 15, 2013 at 09:10 PM · if creating a new language is the criterion of originality then Shakespeare would be inferior to ee cumings...

I think you have to look at what they did within the constraints of the time and thier predecessors...

March 15, 2013 at 09:24 PM · Victor, i totally disagree with your view and find it impoverishing. there are two ways historical events are connected to each other, syntagmatically and paradigmatically. neither is necessarily better than the other. development of form and language is itself a form of originality and historical 'ruptures' owe much to events that led to that rupture...which is to say, syntagms and paradigms (in musical developments, scientific thought...all areas of knowledge and creativity) are part of the same dialect.

also, you yourself might not see connections that relate debussy's, for instance, to other forms of music that infuenced his music such as russian and asian. so this is evidence of your limitations (And mine..not the composers') so, you might say...well, the originality of debussy is that he brought different infuences together and different modes (pentatonic, whole tone..etc) in a manner that was new. but then again, you do not acknowledge this in the music of bach and beethoven as well as others...is that an educated evaluation or is just how it appears to you?

no, i believe what you say no scholar would ever imagine thinking. it is not reasonable. the history of music is not the history of emblematic ruptures each standing seperately to be canonized. it is the progress of harmony and the morphosis of musical forms that allows musicians to signify to each other and to the learned audience throughout the history of music. how can you insinuate that bach and beethoven , mozart schubert palestrina etc etc did not present remarkable develoments that are way more significant than simply creating a musical esperanto for the sake of it? it seems to me that music is geological, it is built on strata of developments...and what you say about someone founding a new language (musical or otherwise) by him or herself is simplistic and incorrect. even esperanto is based on other languages...

March 16, 2013 at 02:31 AM · It's not my intention to take anything away from Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, who were certainly not only great composers but great innovators as well. But if you want to bring Esperanto into it, then certainly the common practice language of the 18th and 19th centuries was far more of an Esperanto than the varied languages we find in so many 20th century works. While not really a "universal" language, as is so often said, the musical language they drew on was and still is widely accepted and understood.

I remember my first exposure to the Alban Berg Double Concerto, written in the very new (at the time) language of the Schoenberg school. It made no sense to me at all, but at the same time I was fascinated. So I listened to the recording over and over again until I practically had it memorized. And at a certain point, it began to make sense to me and I discovered a fantastically rich new world of musical relationships, possibilities and emotions I had never before even imagined.

This has happened to me many times since, in works by Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartok, Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Elliott Carter, and many others. But in each case I discovered not only a new work but a new way of thinking about music that I found truly challenging, meaningful, and yes, very moving. So I think it unfair to imply that the music of the 20th century is somehow inferior to what came before.

As for the 21st century, I think it may be too early to say, but I see no reason to assume that great composers living today will have anything less to offer than in the past.

March 16, 2013 at 03:47 PM · I think Brahms was used in the original post as just an representative of the whole.

"I was told once that all the music possible had been written already. I asked what Mozart would have composed if he had not died so young"

We already have the answer in many composers who appeared after Mozart:




I'm of the school that, skeptically, tends to believe that the style of music most of us went into this business for-diatonic, common-practice style from 1650-1900, is essentially dead. You can only do so many chord progressions and melodies. There is little more to be done with it, although a very few, such as Samuel Barber, were able to keep it on life support. There were a few composers that were able to synthesize something else, like Gershwin and Copland.

March 17, 2013 at 03:41 PM · Much as I admire Scott's perceptive views, we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Diatonic (melodic) classical music isn't dead, but it has been abandoned. This topic comes up frequently on vcom and other forums, and many posters happily bash modern music and composers but essentially suffer from the same problems the composers face in that they can't offer any alternatives.

I am not certain where the attitude comes from that there's nothing wrong with modern music, but rather it's the audiences that are at fault for not accepting everything that comes along, as if they ever did.

Robert's three rules of composition are hereby given for whatever ire they may arouse among composers and players:

1. People love a beautiful melody

2. People have always loved a beautiful melody

3. People are always going to love a beautiful melody

It's absolutely idiotic to maintain that all the beautiful melodies have been written, and that all the great chord progressions have already been used, etc., so let's glean amongst the discards of previous composers to see if we can find anything at all to build on. It's exactly like saying that no writers should attempt to write anything new because all the great plots are already known and previous writers have used up all the words.

March 17, 2013 at 03:52 PM · "Diatonic (melodic) classical music isn't dead, but it has been abandoned."


It isn't dead. In fact, it's become institutionalized. Where it has become dead is in academia, the home of many "serious" composers--they're not "allowed" to write in a romantic style. What's interesting is how 12-tone and other rejected systems still live, but only in the Academy. Romantic, melodic music still lives, most notably in the cinema.

March 17, 2013 at 09:22 PM · How's this, John?-- :-)

We can answer the question by a process of subtraction.

We know that music consists of three components, melody, harmony, and rhythm. Now, I for one would think it odd if I saw many people leaving the concert hall and humming the snare drum part, so that eliminates the rhythm.

And they can't hum the harmony because, by itself, the harmony could just as easily be a melody-- in other words, you'd need to hum the melody at the same time. A bit of a dicey proposition, but there are probably at least a few out there who could hum the harmony and whistle the melody simultaneously, although we might wish they wouldn't.

That eliminates the harmony, and so what is left must be the melody, right? I mean, the numbers work out, so it's got to be!

March 17, 2013 at 10:45 PM · There is no Brahms today because no one is interested in being a Brahms. Instead, everyone is interested in being original, in avoiding an actual melody (Heaven forbid if a series of notes starts to sound like a real melody), in discounting everything that has been done in the past, in creating a new formula, in creating noises that either no one has ever heard before or are sounds not usually considered as "music" (such as rush hour traffic), in creating something that has deep philosophical or symbolic significance, or that just sounds lousy (as opposed to sounding like music).

We can assume that Brahms had no interest in any of the above.

"There are still so many beautiful things to be said in C Major." - Sergei Prokofiev.

"Nobody writes in C Major anymore. C Major is dead as a doornail. The only people who still like C Major are audiences, and what do they know?" - Acadomie Von Compost



March 18, 2013 at 02:03 AM · Melody is a moving target. Tchaikovsky's violin concerto, which contains some of the most beautiful melodies ever written-- was described by critics as "barbarously terrible", as the "wildest Russian nihilism" (notes from the back of my LP album, Ricci/Sargent on London LLP172).

On the other hand, a well performed Schonberg--Serenade op 24 conducted by Metropolous will leave you singing and toe tapping for days-- and this, a true atonal serial composition!!!

What we define as a "melody" is not a fixed entity, but a reflection of our mood and our cultural times.

March 18, 2013 at 05:06 PM · Sandy, you said, "There is no Brahms today because no one is interested in being a Brahms."

And yet every one of us wants to be Heifetz! LOL

I wonder if the secret to originality and artistry in composition, at least in part, is to avoid listening too much or studying too closely.

Has our collective creativity been dulled by the availability of every song, symphony, sonata, recorded by often several different artists, to be played in the comfort of our living rooms? Have we literally analyzed Bach to death?

What did Brahms hear? Did he listen to all of Mozart's symphonies and violin concertos multiple times? Did he have the scores to all of Bach's organ works available in his local or nearby university library, or a phone call away from a publisher at a tempting price?

Brahms was certainly educated, but perhaps just well enough, that with his undeniable talent he grasped the forms of music and recognized the possibilities and he was able to reach forward without being fettered to the past or beholden to his predecessors.

March 18, 2013 at 05:07 PM · The Harvard Dictionary starts with "a coherent succession of pitches." Other important characteristics include points of emphasis, contour, and the recycling of characteristic motives.

March 19, 2013 at 12:40 AM · John-- we need not have a definition of melody any more than we would need a definition of "food" in order to eat, or "air" in order to breathe. We recognize it when it touches us. Of course, a melody consists of sounds, pitches, rythm, but your desire to call something a melody or someone elses opinion of whether they would also call it a meoldy is not important. Consider this: a musician from China enjoying traditional Chinese music on an erhu recognizes a melody that you may not. It is in part culturally defined.

I interpret the original post referring to Brahms as having a certain quality, mood and/or musical imagery associated with traditional 19th century European classical music. He probably would also enjoy Sibelius, and Ralph Vaughan Williams as they also share a relaxed tonal, outdoorsey sound. The post shares his enthusiasm for the mood created by such works, yet I do not sense theory and analysis are as important in his quest for finding musical depth.

March 19, 2013 at 07:45 AM · John, are you sure that harmony isn't the skeleton, and melody the muscle?

March 19, 2013 at 12:03 PM · Haven't read every word so far, but it seems to me that one or two aspects may not have been touched on. When we say "where is Brahms today" we should also ask ourselves how many Brahms' were there EVER? Or JS Bachs, or Mozarts, or Beethovens? But then in what may have been touched on, we can ask whether there was something about the period of common practice that lent itself to producing a Bach, Mozart or Brahms.

Certainly, every great artist is unique. I have an uncle who is a scientist as well as a serious music lover. He told me that as much as great scientists are to be admired and given their due, they are all actually uncovering what is already there - that if Newton and Einstein hadn't made their discoveries, sooner or later someone else would have, because these principles are there to be discovered. Not so with the Eroica Symphony.

A great composer belongs to the ages and transcends his time, style and mileu. Yet he is not completely free of it either. Bach to me, is the Shakespeare of music. (Or maybe it's the other way around!) But he was also a composer of the late Baroque period, and just maybe that style particularly suited him. Whether we all believe in reincarnation or not, for arguments sake let's imagine that Bach had reincarnated to our time and was also drawn to composing - would we recognize (if he became well-known enough) that we had another Bach on our hands? Mozart occasionally wrote things that were a throwback to the earlier Baroque style - his c minor fugue comes to mind. But his best work seems to be in the classical mold. So it seems to me that it's talent first and foremost. But the particular soil that the particular talent best flourishes in matters as well.

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