Brahms, Bruckner and critics

At the end of the nineteenth century, everyone in the world who cared about modern German music (who were a lot more than just Germans) got into a free for all about the relative merits of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. Anton Bruckner, a rather timid symphonist, got caught in the middle. After all, Brahms wrote no operas and Wagner wrote no symphonies. Bruckner, who wrote symphonies and liked Wagner’s operas found himself an easy target for people who disliked Wagner.

It took a generation after the chief antagonists died before anyone could publicly admit to liking both Brahms and Wagner. I’m not sure the controversy has completely died. I remember hearing about a poll some 50 years ago to find the American public’s ten favorite and ten least favorite composers. Beethoven was the favorite. Schoenberg was the least favorite. Wagner wound up as number two on both lists! Some people today passionately love Bruckner, but he is not in the same league as either Wagner or Brahms.

I got to thinking about this as I thumbed through Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective. Slonimsky’s whole point in compiling it was to highlight “non-acceptance of the unfamiliar.” That is, he believed that composers with anything new to say always attracted the ire of critics who didn’t want to expand their own horizons. Later generations, he thought, always catch on. If that were the case, Schoenberg should be quite popular by now.

But so what if Slonimsky turned not not to be a very good prophet in predicting musical taste of the future? I predict his writings will remain delightfully entertaining as long as anyone cares about reading about music at all.

With that in mind, late nineteenth-century critics exercised no restraint when it came to expressing their dislikes. It’s not that modern critics don’t occasionally indulge in attacks on personalities, but the older critics had a style never again to be equalled.

None of the critics below can be accused of “non-acceptance of the unfamiliar.” I am choosing only German-language critics to make sure of that. They all embraced the unfamiliar, so long as it didn’t sound like the other guy’s unfamiliar.

Critical assaults on Brahms

Hugo Wolf, pro-Wagner critic and noted composer of Lieder, Salonblatt, Vienna, March 23, 1884.

The second number was Brahms’ Piano Concerto in B-flat major, played by the composer himself. Whoever can swallow this concerto with appetite can calmly await a famine; it is to be assumed that he enjoys an enviable digestion, and in time of famine will be able to get along sp end idly on the nutritive equivalent of window glass, cork stoppers, stove pipes, and the like.

Hugo Wolf, Salonblatt, Vienna, December 13, 1884.

Brahms’ Tragic Overture strongly reminds of of the appearances of ghosts in Shakespeare’s dramas, who frighten the murderer by their presence w hill they remain invisible to those present. We do not know which hero Brahms has murdered in his Tragic Overture. Let us assume that Brahms is Macbeth, and the Tragic Overture is the murder embodied in the g host of Banquo, whom he murders with the very first down bows, which fall like axe blows.

Critical assaults on Bruckner

Eduard Hanslick, the leading partisan of Brahms, Neue Freie Presse, Vienna, December 23, 1892

Interminable, disorganized, and violent, Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony stretches out into a hideous length. . . It is not impossible that the future belongs to this nightmarish hangover style, a future which we therefore do not envy.

Max Kalbeck, a friend of both Brahms and Hanslick, Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung, February 13, 1883

The puzzles that Bruckner presents to us are tim. . . The tonal ghosts are altogether too mad: it is as though a pack of wolves met on Walpurgis Night, such stamping and roaring, raging and screaming goes wildly on. If the future can relish such a chaotic piece of music, with sounds echoing from a hundred cliffs, we which that future to be far away from us.

Gustav D√∂mke, Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung,March 22, 1886. I don’t know who he was, but I’ll be he liked Brahms, too!

We recoil in horror before this rotting odor, which rushes into out nostrils from the disharmonies of this putrefactive counterpoint. His imagination is so incurably sick and warped that anything like regularity in chord progressions and period structure simply do not exist for him. Bruckner composes like a drunkard!

Despite all of this critical bile, there seems not to have been the bitter personal animosity between Brahms and Bruckner as there was between, say, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Brahms attended Bruckner’s funeral.


The illustrations are both public domain, Brahms is represented in a photograph dated 1889 and Bruckner in an oil painting by Franz Antoine ca. 1896.


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