Vienna, 3 April 1897: ‘The entire musical world is plunged into deepest mourning: Johannes Brahms is no longer among the living. The most momentous absolute musician, the greatest symphonist of our age is gone. … There is no name for the sorrow that we, the Viennese, must now feel. Like Beethoven, Brahms was one of us, regardless of his foreign origins. His mortal body has been taken from us, only his genius will live on in the city in which he worked and created for the entire world…’
So ran the announcement of Brahms’s death in the Neues Wiener Abendblatt on the evening on which the composer, who was born in Hamburg, died in his apartment at Karlsgasse 4 opposite the baroque church designed by Fischer von Erlach. Today, 125 years after this death, this proclamation holds true – after all, Brahms is not exactly unheard of in Vienna. Proof of this can be found not least in the Brahms monument on Resselplatz, unveiled in 1908 opposite the Musikverein, which in turn holds the composer’s papers, including numerous manuscripts, letters and a large part of his library. In contrast, the polarised views of his person, which in his day found frequent expression in the Viennese press, have all but disappeared from contemporary narratives: o on the one hand the sober Protestant from the north, whose works were often met with complete incomprehension on the part of his contemporaries on account of their complexity, their serious and sombre traits, and on the other hand the disposition that prevailed in the ‘sunnier, more light-hearted, more comforting south, richer in tone and colour’ – as Carl Staubach wrote on 6 April 1897 in the Deutsches Volksblatt, not dissimilar to Hans Paumgartner’ in his column of 7 May 1893 in the Wiener Zeitung on the occasion of Brahms’s 60th birthday. What did remain was Brahms’s presence in the concert life of Vienna, as well as response of audiences to his works.
Brahms came to Vienna for the first time in 1862. Local audiences were given the chance to hear his Handel Variations op. 24 and the two Piano Quartets op. 25 and op. 26 – to mixed reactions – when Brahms performed in November of that year at the Musikverein with the Hellmesberger Quartet. In Vienna he met other prominent musicians and artists, forged life-long friendships, became director of the Wiener Singakademie and, following further visits to the metropolis on the Danube, he finally settled in Vienna in 1872, remaining here for the rest of his life. Being in Vienna also served as a catalyst for Brahms’s interest in the work of Franz Schubert, an interest which, over the course of his lifetime, would become a veritable preoccupation – he went so far as to term it a ‘very serious love of Schubert’. Performances by the pianist and conductor were often studded with Schubert’s compositions. He attributed his ‘finest hours’ during his first years in Vienna to ‘the unpublished works of Schubert’ – revealing the fascination of the manuscript collector for the material relic. Inspired by this artistic creativity, he orchestrated Schubert’s Lieder and composed his op. 39, ‘two books of short, innocent waltzes’ in ‘Schubert-like form’, as he informed the dedicatee of these pieces, Eduard Hanslick. When he resigned as director of the Wiener Singverein in 1875, a position taken up only two years previously, it was to focus almost exclusively on composition. It was in Vienna, along with several spa towns where Brahms liked to stay, that many of his major works were written and put to the test for the first time in front of a Viennese audience, for example parts of his German Requiem op. 45, his Second and Third Symphonies (op. 73 and op. 90) and the Tragic Overture op. 81. While many sympathetic commentators were able to reach large audiences through popular daily newspapers and magazines, for example the reviews by Wilhelm August Ambros, Eduard Hanslick and Max Kalbeck, there was no shortage of highly polemical pronouncements. But these debates were not limited to musical considerations.
Already during his lifetime, Brahms – as an important figure in artistic and public life – was instrumentalised by different groups who were in search of a mouthpiece for their own social and political standpoints and agendas. And this at a time when political polarisation was taking on ever greater dimensions.
Despite the many critical voices, the reception of Brahms’s work that emerged during his lifetime and in the decades after his death was remarkable in character, and this was not solely due to the Musikverein as an institution steeped in tradition. The Wiener Symphoniker can also boast a long and equally relevant tradition regarding their reception of Brahms. In the very first season of the Neues philharmonisches Orchester – the predecessor of the Wiener Symphoniker, which performed into the 1920s under the name Wiener Concertverein – the programme included the First Symphony op. 68 in c minor. The applause at the third Society of Music Friends concert on 14 February 1900 was so great, and the reviews so enthusiastic, that Ferdinand Löwe, the orchestra’s co-founder and first music director, was obliged to change the programme of the extraordinary concert on 27 February 1900 and repeat the symphony. As might be expected, Brahms’s later biographer, Max Kalbeck, praised the concert and the composition beyond all measure in the Neues Wiener Tagblatt; but reviewers from two other newspapers of very different political colours also surpassed themselves in their use of superlatives, namely in the Catholic and conservative Reichspost on 17 February 1900 and in the social democratic Arbeiter-Zeitung.
On 3 March 1900, after the repeat concert, the reviewer from the Arbeiter-Zeitung wrote: ‘No one had dared to hope for such an excellent, clear and inspired performance of the Brahms c minor symphony with so much drive and artistic freedom. … Löwe understands … how to bring out the bleak splendour of Brahms.’ Thanks to Löwe and the Wiener Symphoniker, not only Brahms’s symphonies but also a number of his choral works and concertos enjoyed considerable popularity among Viennese audiences at the beginning of the last century. This can be seen from the Popular Orchestra Concerts held in the Volksgarten and the Musikverein’s Golden Hall, which also offered ‘lighter fare’ in the form of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. Equally euphoric in tone are the reviews that followed the performance ‘of the truly great – from a contrapuntal standpoint’ Symphony no. 4 in e minor op. 98, which formed ‘the virtuosic highlight’ of the concert on 7 November 1900, as Fritz Gaigg von Bergheim reported it three days later in the Reichspost. Even the Double Concerto op. 102, a flop at its Viennese premiere, became a success on 3 December 1902 thanks to the Wiener Concertverein and Löwe. Today the orchestra can look back over this long Brahmsian tradition and build upon something that has shaped the collective cultural life of Vienna for over a century.
Vasiliki Papadopoulou PhD
Project leader of the Viennese Research Group working on the Complete Edition of Johannes Brahms at the Austrian Academy of Sciences