Notes 59.2 (2002) 333-337
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A Brahms Reader. By Michael Musgrave. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. [xviii, 344 p. ISBN 0-300-0684-2. $40 (hbk.); ISBN 0-300-00199-0. $19 (pbk.).] Illustrations, index.
Michael Musgrave's A Brahms Reader is a collection of personal musings on various aspects of the life, career, and music of Johannes Brahms, by a distinguished scholar who knows the scope and range of Brahms's music possibly better than anyone alive. Musgrave is the author of the most widely circulated book on the subject (The Music of Brahms [Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985]), the editor of several of [End Page 333] Cambridge University's specialized books on the composer, as well as a volume in their Music Handbook series (A German Requiem [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996]). Having worked and lived with Brahms's music over the course of decades, Musgrave has developed special interest in certain areas, and these form the structure of the book under consideration here: "Brahms the Man," "Brahms the Composer," "Brahms the Performer," "Brahms the Music Scholar and Student of the Arts," "The Social Brahms: Friendship and Travel," and "Brahms in Perspective." Under these wide-ranging headings, divided into many subdivisions, Musgrave is free to organize his thoughts and draw on his own considerable insights, previous biographies, reminiscences of some of Brahms's friends, published writings of other composers (Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Charles Villiers Stanford, Edward Elgar, Igor Stravinsky), newspaper reviews and other critical writings, and personal letters, all expertly translated where necessary. The book is, therefore, in part a biography and in part a series of essays on his work. The strength of this format is that it allows Musgrave to explore aspects of Brahms's life which are often neglected in the biographies, particularly his career as a performing musician (both as pianist and conductor), his career as a music scholar, the history of the reception of his music, and his place in music today. The danger of this format is that the biographical material comes in large part from the available literature on Brahms, an approach that can be full of pitfalls. Lacking primary documents, Musgrave quite rightly attempts to verify the validity of his sources by cross-checking one with another (p. x). He does not always succeed, however, as when he relies on Walter Niemann to describe what Niemann perceives to be Brahms's basic North German traits. The biographer writes as though he had firsthand knowledge, but there is no evidence that their paths ever crossed (he was forty-three years younger than Brahms and lived in Leipzig from his twenty-second year). Here is Musgrave quoting Niemann: "As so often happens, the older Brahms grew the more noticeable his innate Hamburg Low German traits became, even in his way of speaking, curt, abrupt, sharp emphasis on the first syllables.... He was utterly lacking in eloquence—another Low German trait—and he spoke his own words with the greatest difficulty...." (p. 6). Niemann provides no source for this description (Walter Niemann, Brahms [Berlin: Schuster & Loeffler, 1920; trans. Catherine Alison Phillips, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929], 175), and I know of no corroboration by other writers except by those who quote Niemann. This biography, with its emphasis on North German traits, was written at a period following World War I, when a premium was placed on reassertion of supposedly German traits and Germany's role in music. What Niemann writes about Brahms may well have been inspired more by the nationalism of the time than by any basis in fact.
Although Musgrave is concerned with Brahms's formative years (a chapter subdivision is entitled "Upbringing and Education: Family Life"), he sketches rather than explores Brahms's childhood and family relations. The most contentious aspect of this period, regarding the nature of his income-producing work once he left school, is dealt with only in a footnote (p. 17 n. 65). While the most telling sources—the family letters —are only partially available, excerpts of many letters to Brahms by his mother and siblings...