Sunday, 18 November 2012

Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry writing on Johannes Brahms

Hubert Parry (1848-1918) was not only a great composer; he was also an excellent musicologist. For example, his masterly book on Johann Sebastian Bach: the Story of the Development of a Great Personality (1909); still demands attention, in spite of its age. I was introduced to many composers in his once popular Studies of Great Composers (London, 1886/R) which I found for about 20p in a second hand bookshop. One of his smaller volumes was the Summary of the History and Development of Mediaeval and Modern European Music (London, Novello 1893, 2/1904).  I have chosen to post his paragraphs about Johannes Brahms. Brahms along with J.S. Bach was probably the two greatest influences on Hubert Parry.

It is important to recall the antipathy between the supporters of ‘programme’ music and ‘absolute’ music at this time.  Other factors of contention were the extent to which music could become more divorced from ‘classical’ key structures and move towards a highly coloured chromaticism and eventually atonality. Musical Structure also mattered a great deal. Did the symphony and sonata still have a place in musical endeavour, or was it the day of the tone-poem and the music-drama?  The two sides began to polarise during the 1850s with Brahms and Clara Schumann following in the footsteps of Mendelssohn. The opponents were based at Weimar and included Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. Parry was influenced by all the composer’s ‘mentioned above although his orchestral and chamber works are largely ‘absolute in their ethos. However his Prometheus Unbound and the overture Guillem de Cabestanh (1878) certainly owe much to Wagner.

The one great representative of the highest forms of instrumental music still living [1] is Johannes Brahms, born in 1833 in Hamburg. He was introduced to Schumann by Joachim in 1853, and Schumann at once saw how great were his musical gifts and character, and wrote an enthusiastic article in the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik (in 1853), proclaiming him to the world as the man music was waiting for. However, the austerity and sternness of his musical character caused the public to be very slow in recognising him, though he had for constant champions such great exponents as Madame Schumann and Joachim. Brahms has no sympathy with the methods of the modern music-drama, or with the theories of composers who attempt to apply those methods to instrumental music. He is at once a musical intellectualist and a man of powerful and concentrated feeling. He seems to judge instinctively that self-dependent music is artistically intelligible only on grounds of design and development; and he applies all the artistic resources which the long period of musical development has made possible to the expounding of his musical ideas in lofty and noble symphonies, and in splendid examples of all kinds of chamber music, such as Pianoforte Quintets and Quartets, Trios, String Quintets and Quartets, and other combinations of solo instruments. It must be confessed that his powers are so great that he still finds how to do something new and individual in the old forms of the sonata order. He did not attempt Symphonies till comparatively late in life, No. 1 in C minor, being Op. 68, and the date of its appearance 1876, though it was actually written much earlier. The second, in D, followed in 1877, and a third and fourth in F and E minor have followed in recent years, [2] as well as two fine and very difficult Concertos for pianoforte, and one Violin Concerto, and one double Concerto for violin and cello, and two Overtures.
His treatment of the orchestra is austere but powerful; as though he disdained the subtle seductions of colour, and used only such grave and almost neutral tints as befitted the self-contained dignity of his ideas. He obviously eschews programme even in pianoforte pieces; but his numerous Capriccios, Intermezzos, Ballades, and Rhapsodies are as full of genuine impulse as the best works of the programme composers, and are often very original in design. He is also one of the few great masters of the Variations form which is one that only the very greatest composers have excelled in and has produced superb examples for orchestra as well as for pianoforte.
Summary of the History and Development of Mediaeval and Modern European Music (London, Novello 1893, 2/1904) [with minor edits]


[1] Johannes Brahms died on 3 April 1897 – so was still only 60 when Parry’s book was first published.
[2] Symphony No.3 composed and f/p1883; Symphony No.4 1884-5 and f/p 1885..

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