The Music Plays On — Brahms and Tchaikovsky

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Piotr Tchaikovsky/Johannes Brahms

We just finished celebrating the birthday of two composers who are loved the world over. As May 7 passes us by every year, it always comes as a little shock that these two were born on the same day, Brahms in 1833, and Tchaikovsky in 1840. Not only because they’re so famous, but because they famously didn’t like each other’s music! Tchaikovsky, particularly, had very harsh things to say about Brahms. “A giftless bastard,” Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary about Brahms, 1886

This all changed, however, when they finally had the opportunity to meet each other at the house of the violinist, Adolph Brodsky, in Leipzig on January 1, 1888. Here’s an account from Anna Brodsky, the wife of the famed violinist:

Tchaikovsky and Brahms had never met before. It would be difficult to find two men more unlike. Tchaikovsky, a nobleman by birth, had something elegant and refined in his whole bearing and the greatest courtesy of manner. Brahms with his short, rather square figure and powerful head, was an image of strength and energy; he was an avowed foe to all so-called ‘good manners’. His expression was often slightly sarcastic. When A. B. introduced them, Tchaikovsky said, in his soft melodious voice: ‘Do I not disturb you?’

‘Not in the least,’ was Brahms’s reply, with his peculiar hoarseness. ‘But why are you going to hear this? It is not at all interesting.’

Tchaikovsky sat down and listened attentively. The personality of Brahms, as he later told us, impressed him very favourably, but he was not pleased with the music. When the trio was over I noticed that Tchaikovsky seemed uneasy. It would have been natural that he should say something, but he was not at all the man to pay unmeaning compliments. The situation might have become difficult, but at that moment the door was flung open, and in came our dear friends — Grieg and his wife, bringing, as they always did, a kind of sunshine with them…”

What astounds me about this is that we usually read about this first meeting between the two without hearing that Edvard Grieg was also there that evening! Anna further reflects:

I can see Brahms now taking hold of a dish of strawberry jam, and saying he would have it all for himself and no one else should get any. It was more like a children’s party than a gathering of great composers. My husband had this feeling so strongly that, when dinner was over and our guests still remained around the table smoking cigars and drinking coffee, he brought a conjuror’s chest — a Christmas present to my little nephew — and began to perform tricks. All our guests were amused, and Brahms especially, who demanded from A. B. the explanation of each trick as soon as it was performed…

They would meet again for lunch on March 12, 1889 in Hamburg while they were both of tour. Brahms delayed his departure so as to hear the first rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony №5 that morning. Tchaikovsky’s friend, Nicolay Kashkin, would later recall,

Brahms invited Tchaikovsky to lunch, treated him to a splendid meal, and during their friendly table-talk confessed outright that he didn’t like the symphony at all. According to Tchaikovsky, this was said so sincerely and simply, that not only was he not offended by the harshness of this criticism, but in fact he even felt a greater sympathy for this forthright artist, whom he already respected greatly. Tchaikovsky in his turn spoke out with complete frankness, expressing his opinion of the compositional activities of his renowned interlocutor, and then they parted as great friends, though they were never to meet again

So, it seems as though they ended their lives as colleagues who, at the very least, greatly respected each other.

The fact is, their music is very dissimilar and it’s not surprising that their artistic personae didn’t mesh at all. Here are similar forms of music written by both composers at about the same time that prove this point.

Tchaikovsky String Quartet №2 1874

Brahms String Quartet №3 1875

Tchaikovsky Symphony №3 1875

Brahms Symphony №1 1876

Tchaikovsky Symphony №4 1877

Brahms Symphony №2 1877

Tchaikovsky Grand Piano Sonata in G 1878

Brahms Klavierstücke op 76 1878

Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A Minor, 1882

Brahms Piano Trio №2, 1882

Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony, 1885

Brahms Symphony №4, 1885

Written by

Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

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