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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Today is the birthday of composer Johannes Brahms. In his lifetime, he was compared with Beethoven, his predecessor, and Wagner, his contemporary and rival. But composer and writer Jan Swafford says Brahms was a different kind of genius.

(Soundbite of Brahms' "Third Symphony")

JAN SWAFFORD:

This exotic and unclassifiable music from Brahms' "Third Symphony" is an unforgettable intimation of--What? Melancholy? Yearning? Love? Like all Brahms' work, and like the man himself, this music is ultimately elusive, shrouded, mysterious. It doesn't grab us by the lapels, like the forthright dramas of Beethoven.

(Soundbite of unidentified Beethoven piece)

SWAFFORD: Brahms' music has always appeared closer to unspoken emotion, pure architecture with the composer hidden behind his edifices. That's why Brahms has been viewed as the great abstractionist of the late romantic age. He seemed to embody what was called pure music, beyond storytelling and beyond autobiography.

And that's what many in Brahms' time held against him. When he died in 1897, a Viennese critic dismissed his music this way: `Against the symphonic world ideas of Beethoven, Brahms' symphonies express only the private thoughts and private meanings of a talented man.' By then, the current model of the musical genius was, above all, Wagner, who with his operas proposed to redeem music, the arts, society itself. Brahms, said his critics, was not a world historical artist like Beethoven and Wagner.

(Soundbite of unidentified Brahms piece)

SWAFFORD: Brahms was a deeply private man, but he was by no means an otherwordly sort. He was hard-headed and commonsensical, great fun over a glass of beer, a connoisseur of the Gypsy music that was the jazz of his day. And he knew what was going on in the world. When General Custer met his fate at Little Big Horn, Brahms got his Viennese circle together to drink a toast to the Indians. In 1883, when Brahms looked at what was taking shape around him in Austria, he was horrified. He wrote his publisher, `I still think catastrophe is coming.'

Brahms could not have known what shape that catastrophe would take, but he knew what fueled it. `Anti-Semitism is madness,' he cried to Viennese friends in 1895. A decade later, Hitler would learn his anti-Semitism in Vienna.

An artist creates with his whole being, and human beings are not abstract. It's inevitable that Brahms' music would reflect his growing despair at the state of the world, including the state of music. We hear it in the great choral works of his later years, among them the funeral song "Nanie," which sets in music of limpid beauty Schiller's lines that begin `Even the beautiful must die.'

(Soundbite of "Nanie")

Chorus #1: (Singing in foreign language)

SWAFFORD: By the time of Brahms' "Gesang der Parzen," "Song of the Fates," it's as if beauty and hope have died. The music is tumultuous and foreboding in its setting of Goethe's text beginning, `Let the race of man fear the gods.'

(Soundbite of "Gezande Partzen")

Chorus #2: (Singing in foreign language)

SWAFFORD: Brahms' "Fourth Symphony," his last, is a monument to the highest musical craftsmanship. With typical self-deprecating irony, he said of the symphony, `Ah, once again, I've just thrown together a bunch of waltzes and polkas.' As usual, there was a point to Brahms' joke. Much of his "Fourth Symphony" is made of solemn and mournful dances.

(Soundbite of Brahms' "Fourth Symphony")

SWAFFORD: Conductor Felix Weingartner once said the finale of the "Fourth Symphony" felt to him like `an inexorable fate, implacably driving some great creation, an individual or a whole race, toward its downfall.'

(Soundbite of Brahms' "Fourth Symphony")

SWAFFORD: Brahms' "Fourth" is no simple abstraction, not simply the private thoughts of a talented man, but an elegy for the civilization he saw marching to catastrophe around him and a dark prophecy of the future. Surely part of Brahms' despair was that he didn't believe artists could save the world, no matter how much the world needed saving. His critics were right about that. Brahms had no world-shaking agenda. In the next century, though, as one world-shaking agenda after another in society and in art collapsed in confusion and violence, Brahms' music was never irrelevant, never stopped singing, as he intended it to, from one secret, private heart to another.

(Soundbite of unidentified Brahms piece)

LUDDEN: Jan Swafford is a composer and the author of a biography of Johannes Brahms, who was born on this day in 1833.

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