Commentary: Brahms? Boring? Why this beloved composer does not translate well to today’s generation

By Charlize Althea Garcia, March 5, 2024

Do you think Brahms is boring? I don’t … maybe.

Johannes Brahms, celebrated for his rich, expressive compositions, is one of the most important composers of the Romantic Period. His work is considered a successor of Beethoven, praised for his traditionality by critics and lauded for his simplicity by the masses.

But one opinion that I share with other classical music listeners is that Brahms is difficult. Various classical music forums and Reddit posts can be found with listeners sharing their unadulterated opinion aided with supportive comments that resemble a consoling support group.

There are many characteristics within his repertoire that can contribute to this idea. His use of range is limited, staying within what seems like a liminal space in tonality. His harmonies are dense. In his piano pieces, chords overwhelm the composition.

As I watched the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform his second piano concerto, it instigated an internal battle that challenged my ability to engage with the piece with my ears holding fortitude in the cello solo of the third movement. There were moments I could grasp and anchor a feeling to it, but it was soon taken away, leaving myself in a still, emotionless state. His work felt static and distant; I felt dissatisfied.

I yearned for a transparent opinion, but I mustered only implicit interpretations.

My disinterest worried me. I feared alienation of not liking a composer such as he, or worse, feeling alienated that I did not have the “intellectual” ears to comprehend his glory. I soon learn this feeling is a testament to this double-edged sword of a community and world.

It is known that Brahms is a conservative composer, tracing his work with past composers such as Beethoven, Schumann, Mozart and Hayden. It is also worth noting that during his time, music was becoming congruent with the upper social class. The referencing of ideas is synonymous to the assumption that the listener has absolute literacy of classical music.

So, is Brahms meant to be for a certain kind of demographic that most of this generation is not part of?

“Remorseless repetition” some suggest as a solution to the frustration of incomprehension. But who has the time? And more importantly, who has access to the environment nowadays?

The set of ears will always be a product of its time. The ears of today yearn for stories. They yearn for a comprehensible progression filled with grandiosity and obvious climax. Culturally, we are in a time in which there is a need for immediate retention with almost anything. We are impatient but not at the fault of our own. Brahms is not.

But what is timeless in art is the relationship between the creator and creation. It can be said that Brahms’ work inhabited a sadness in which the composer was subject to in his life. There can be a parallel made with this generation as gloom is a topic of normalcy embedded in everyday conversation and practice. We use music as a form of healing, to express our emotions.

Why does the disconnect linger?

In another light, Brahms may not have been demanding attention and emotional agency from the listener unlike other composers and artists of today. We might mistake his rigor to tradition as an act of provocation and his deluge of harmony and orchestration as excessive. But what if it was an invitation to a conversation and we are unable to accept because of the dress code? Are we to be forever ill-equipped? This communal inability, so long as it lasts, will change the trajectory of his legacy and the many composers that follow his liege.

The irony is that the rhetorical questions I ask within this piece is a parallel to his introspective agency in in his compositions. That even with frustration, Brahms can be referenced as he so willingly does in his work.

Brahms is Old English: acknowledged but seldom appreciated. Brahms is a pastiche, attempting to bring tradition into the present. Brahms is maybe not so boring.

Feature image courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

Verified by MonsterInsights