Late Brahms is wonderfully crafted - which is why it's so dull

Craftsmanship can be dangerous for composers. It undermines Mendelssohn's claim to greatness. And it's become the curse of modern classical music

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet begins, writes his biographer Jan Swafford, with ‘a gentle, dying-away roulade that raises a veil of autumnal melancholy over the whole piece: the evanescent sweet-sadness of autumn, beautiful in its dying’.

This being late autumn, I listened to the quintet on Sunday to see if its ‘distillation of Brahmsian yearning’ still made an overwhelming impression on me. It did. I swear these are the most miserable 35 minutes in classical music.

One critic refers admiringly to the display of ‘every super-refined shade of silver-grey regret’. But that’s the problem. The ageing Brahms — obese, cantankerous, his spirits lowered by the deaths of friends and undiagnosed cancer — sets about depressing his audience with the precision of a genius (which he was). No sooner has the clarinet soared than it finds a clever way to snake down the stave, slithering through the elegant droopy twiddling of the strings. Every movement sounds much the same to me, but that’s a heresy that lovers of the work — and they are countless — think they can refute just by pointing at the score, where Brahms tweaks the counterpoint and crops the phrases so that there’s always something new happening.

And so the old boy gets away with forcing his mood on us, whereas when Mahler does it we wince at his self-pity. That’s fine if you’re into the heavy wistfulness of late Brahms chamber music. I loathe it, not just because it strikes me as spiritually empty but because the composer’s superlative craftsmanship ensures that every bar is drenched in despair. Nobody could describe the Clarinet Quintet as an uneven work.

Craftsmanship can be dangerous for musicians. Its relationship to inspiration is complicated. There are composers — Telemann, Rimsky-Korsakov, perhaps Richard Strauss — whose contrapuntal fluency or mastery of the orchestra fails to disguise thin material. There’s the sad case of Mendelssohn, of whom it’s been said that he was born a genius and died a fine composer. He was 16 when he wrote his incomparable Octet, after which his inspiration faded but his technical facility didn’t; the late Violin Concerto marks a return to form, but not to the form of the Octet — to my ears it’s tainted by that close relation of craftsmanship, good taste.

With Brahms, you’re venturing into difficult territory, not least because his devotees think anyone who criticises him must be tone-deaf or a secret fan of Karl Jenkins. They’re ruder in my experience than Wagnerians, who are used to hearing their idol being trashed. They insist that Brahms’s craftsmanship reached wondrous levels but was always at the service of increasingly subtle ideas. Moreover, he was a visionary — Schoenberg, no less, said his asymmetrical phrases made him ‘progressive’.

Maybe so, but it’s not the whole picture. The Second Piano Concerto is certainly innovative (e.g., four movements instead of three) but its close-knit subtlety makes it —heresy alert — more boring than its predecessor. The finale of the Fourth Symphony is a tightly argued passacaglia, a fact that surprises musicologists far more than it does audiences; I listen to it dutifully, whereas the blazing finale of the First has me on the edge of my seat. The craftsmanship of the Fourth never lets up, and the result is a work that — like the Clarinet Quintet — verges on monotony.

There’s a supremely professional evenness about late Brahms that, alas, really is prophetic. The cult of craftsmanship is the curse of modern classical music. Brahms can’t take all the blame for it; 20th-century composers didn’t want to ape his unsexy mannerisms — yet, without realising it, they inherited his cast of mind.

Schoenberg, who thought Brahms was such a pioneer, turned evenness into doctrine with his 12-tone technique. Tonal composers achieved dreary consistency by different means: there are symphonies by Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and dozens of lesser contemporaries in which uniformity of style can make you lose track of which movement you’re in. Minimalism? Don’t get me started. And nine out of ten 21st-century chamber and symphonic works are so ‘subtle’, however extreme their dynamics, that they’re unmemorable even if you’ve followed the composer’s conceited programme notes.

It’s at times like this that I yearn for Schumann or early Bruckner, who were so carried away by their ideas that they can sound like self-taught amateurs. They’d never get away with it today. Rough-hewn or untidy music is ‘unprofessional’ and might lose you a commission. And so concertgoers are condemned to yet more intricate ‘soundscapes’ that, for all their craftsmanship, are little more than management jargon set to music.

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  • Hamish Redux

    Yes, you may have a point in that early Brahms is more striking than the later stuff (if I could keep just one symphony I think I’d take the 2nd or 3rd, as it happens, together with the 1st piano concerto). Becoming too conventional is always a danger if you become a national treasure.

    However, I can’t go along with your slurs on Sibelius and Vaughan Williams. Sib 4 and VW 4, 5 and 6 are as heterogenous and original as you’ll ever find outside the classical Haydn/Beethoven symphony.

  • Robert Rawson

    What a very strange piece of writing (I’ll save your strange comment about Telemann for another time). ‘The cult of craftsmanship is the curse of modern classical music’—if modern (or other) classical music suffers from anything it isn’t because there is too much craftsmanship. In which work, by the way, does Schumann ever sound like a ‘self-taught amateur’? If you want to argue that Brahms’ conservatism is itself a bad thing, go ahead and do so, but I’m struggling to identify a central argument in your piece. If late Brahms is dull, it surely can’t be because it is too well crafted, but rather because it is poorly crafted. If it’s poorly crafted, tell us why you think so.

    • Sue Smith

      As a piece of casuistry the article isn’t worth your questions.

  • Stuart Taylor

    I’ve been trying to find something uplifting about this article, but I’m afraid it’s just too well crafted.

    • Sue Smith


      • Well, it is *late* Damian Thompson.

        • I have to go with the great man on this (Damian, not Eccles). However, I would include most of Mozart (outwith the later piano concerti) as being samey and making me lose my track.

  • zugzwang

    I would recommend getting out of bed on the right side. The Clarinet Quintet has always been controversial. Some early critics found it diffuse and self-indulgent. Yet it is a wonderful work, the contrast between the surface lyricism and the muscular craftsmanship (which you seem not to like) redeems it from being either diffuse or monotonous. The Fourth symphony is endlessly fascinating, whereas repeated exposure to the First does eventually show one where the seams are, not to its advantage. The Fourth was repudiated by the group of friends to whom Brahms played it on his return from the the country, but a success with audiences and musical analysts equally, though for different reasons (to paraphrase Mozart, the former are drawn to it without necessarily knowing why). Brahms’s craftsmanship has neither the triteness of much Mendelssohn (sadly, I agree with the put-down) nor the aridity of the 20th century. You have to be more tired than the world-weary Brahms not to hear that.

  • Dukeofplazatoro

    As an organist my views will be more skewed towards the organ works, but the Chorale Preludes of Brahms, which were some of the last things he wrote are sublimely beautiful, all different in character and in no way dull.

    And do you really think the second piano concerto is boring?

  • trace9

    So when Brahms ain’t Liszt he’s better missed. Goddit.

  • tolpuddle1

    Late-Brahms isn’t boring – but it is unbearably sad and poignant. The most painful part of it being the resignation, the acceptance (which can be a vice, not a virtue).

    Presumably this is all connected with Brahms’s loss of his Christian faith, though he seems to have moved back towards or to Christianity in his last year or so.

  • Herman_U_Tick

    For me, each of Brahms’ symphonies is more polished than its predecessor
    yet the First is my favourite for its conviction and passion even if it is a bit
    untidy here and there.

  • King Zog

    Dull? The late piano pieces are highly experimental, full of ambiguity and disruption – particularly in their rhythmic profile.

  • King Zog

    Damian Thompson belongs to the largest ethnic minorty in this country… The Philstines.

  • Neil Saunders

    Stick to what you know about, Damian. This obviously does not include Brahms.

  • Sean L

    If a thing, whatever it might be, is *wonderfully* crafted, how can it at the same time be *dull*? Makes no sense at all. As for Brahms 4th, an absolute barnstormer mate.

  • merlinbenko

    To say Brahms 2nd piano concerto is boring is such a ridiculous comment to make, and shows you have no musical judgement or appreciation whatsoever. Let me know what music you do enjoy and find interesting and I’ll make sure I avoid it at all costs. Just because the passacaglia at the end of the fourth symphony is not the most exhilarating doesn’t mean you need to write an article belittling a large portion of his wonderful later music, at the same time dismissing craftsmanship. You might as well also dismiss the entire output of Beethoven and Bach.

  • Innit Bruv

    Stick to Rossini. Late Brahms is not for every Tom,D*ck or Harry.
    The late piano works, the B flat Piano Concerto and the E minor
    Symphony are all masterpieces.