The last wave

If you have any desire to learn about the life of Brahms, let me highly recommend Jan Swafford's recent bio. This is a fascinating and extremely well-written piece of history...Swafford combines detailed storytelling with accessible musical analysis and a unique and compelling perspective on the context of Brahms life...in art, history, politics and the mechanics of culture. It is remarkable to think about how much the world changed in Brahms lifetime--at his birth, the 'rediscovery' of Bach was still in its infancy. At his death in 1896, Mahler had already penned his second symphony and Schoenberg was already writing. As Swafford eloquently describes, Brahms at this point was not so much a 'throwback' (his voice and genius were too distinct for that) but representative of a sort of historical road not taken--what history and art might have been had the passions and upheavals of the 20th century not broken so violently with the past.

Brahms, like most great artists, was a master of synthesis, of creating new meaning and unique beauty by pulling together disparate strains of thought, technique and history. That quality in his art perhaps explains his popularity during his own lifetime, when liberal 19th century Europe in a sense embodied this outlook on life. Unfortunately for Brahms' immediate legacy, and perhaps the Western world at large, this sort of hero was not what the 20th century had in mind. Instead of the synthesizer, the mediator, the modest individual, the 20th century would praise the artistic hero which Wagner championed during Brahms' own lifetime: the 'absolute' artist, uncompromising, transformative, contemptuous of all pre-existing codes and morality--a religion unto himself.

The tragedy of the book is that Brahms later years bore witness to the crumbling of his social and artistic world. Swafford records Brahms' response to the proto-fascism and virulent antisemitism which was beginning to flower in his last years as dumbfounded. While Brahms could not have known the depths to which Europe would ultimately sink, Swafford suggests he dreaded the future for the sort of art and culture he championed and exemplified.


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