The British Reception of Brahms

English music critics were mainly negative about Brahms until at least the 1880s. As far as I can surmise, the abiding strong preference for Mendelssohn was a precipitating factor, which made them see even Schumann as too romantic. Therefore it was not a good thing that Brahms was a protegé of Schumann. In 1871 a London reviewer referred to Brahms as “‘a new light’ in Germany and a pupil of Robert Schumann”—a description outdated by about fifteen years. The reviewer cautiously deferred to others who had enjoyed the Brahms A major Piano Quartet, Op. 26, but also quoted an authority who had deemed it “not easily understood at a first hearing.”1John Bull, 27 May 1871: 364.

But the British love for Joachim complicated this view, since he relentlessly championed Brahms. On the occasion of his performance of the Violin Concerto on the London Popular Concert of 25 February 1884, the Times commented that the Brahms Concerto ”is so difficult and so ungrateful that few artists besides Herr Joachim care to meddle with it, and even he does not always succeed in making the public share his enthusiasm for the work.”2The Times, 26 February 1884 p. 8. As late as 1907 a London reviewer observed, on the occasion of the performance of the Brahms complete chamber music under the auspices of the Joachim Quartet Concert series:

Whether the large attendance was entirely due to a love of Brahms’s music is open to question; one is inclined to think that the personality of Dr. Joachim had a good deal to do with it.”3Monthly Musical Record (1907):17.

On the other hand, the Musical Standard claimed:

The interest taken in these Brahms Concerts has proved yet again how the music of this great master, which was only a few years ago considered eccentric and involved, has become a household word among us.4JOACHIM COMMITTEE CONCERTS. The Musical standard; Dec 15, 1906; 26, 676; British Periodicals pg. 373.

In any case, the stakes had changed enough by that time that Brahms was a viable option for those who didn’t like Wagner or “the moderns.” This is clear, for instance, in the book The Promenade Ticket by A.H. Sidgwick from 1914. This account of a season of the Proms is in the form of letters. The premise is that several young concertgoers write down their thoughts for the donor of the season ticket, who is from an older generation. The main character, Nigel, loves Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert, but has reservations about Brahms. His cousin Rhoda, on the other hand, groups Brahms with the classics and calls him as a “gentleman,” as opposed to Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Strauss:

The Promenade Ticket, p. 53.

After hearing the Brahms Third Symphony, Nigel writes:

Am I wrong, or is there some mystic bond uniting Brahms with school-girls? Whenever I hear one of the master’s works I am surrounded by phalanxes of white muslin enveloping young English womanhood in a state of rapt ecstasy. Is Brahms taught in girl-schools, or forbidden by the authorities, or what? I must ask Henry, who is sure to have some ingenious explanation.5The Promenade Ticket, p. 107.

The Shinner Quartet (the first all-female quartet in Britain, wearing white muslin)

Henry, who is the champion of the “moderns,” responds:

The Promenade Ticket, p. 126.

Nigel seems to agree; he contrasts the audiences at the Proms, who respond whole-heartedly if sometimes inappropriately, to the hushed atmosphere at

particularly refined and select Brahms recitals, resulting from a uniform high pressure of moral principle.  There you feel that the silence is mainly due to intellectual detachment, good manners, and perhaps some natural reaction from the excessive amount of conversation which the Higher Life demands.6The Promenade Ticket, p. 30.

By the way, I think this book is utterly charming. It was well reviewed and went through a second edition in the 1920s. The author, Arthur Hugh Sidgwick (2 October 1882-17 September 1917) was the son of an Oxford Don, the ancient Greek scholar Arthur Sidgwick, and the nephew of the Cambridge Professor of Moral Philology Henry Sidgwick. He was a graduate of Winchester and Balliol College, with double first class honors in Mathematics and Classics. He worked as the Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary to the Board of Education and was kept in that position for the first two years of the war. He received a commission in 1916 and reached the rank of Captain in the Royal Garrison Artillery before he was killed at Ypres at age 35.7This information is from the blog “The Skipper’s War” It’s such a shame he wasn’t able to write more– there is a book of Walking Essays (1912) and a book of poems that was published posthumously, Jones’s Wedding. This book’s descriptions of music are similar to Tovey’s in that they are not very technical and focus on explaining what makes the work special. Sidgwick’s accounts, in my opinion, are more direct, unhampered by obscure allusions, and written with both enthusiasm and a sense of humor. His character Nigel has some wonderful thoughts about the Schubert Unfinished Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony, and several Beethoven symphonies. His two friends Henry, the sophisticate, and J.R. Harrison, the cheerful philistine, set him off well. The latter refers to “the long adjustable trumpets,” and is mystified at the timpani player’s behavior:

J.R.H. also finds “what I have heard of Brahms is awfully good, especially the Brandenburg Concerto,” but draws the line at Strauss:

The Promenade Ticket, p. 64.(The Chocolate Soldier is an operetta by Oscar Straus from 1908.)

By consulting the BBC website that has the programs for all the Proms seasons, I was able to determine that the season under discussion was from 1913, the year before the book was published. The concerts didn’t all occur on the days indicated, and the pieces do not always match the program, so there is some artistic license involved. But I would speculate that Sidgwick really did have his friends review the concerts they attended, and used their accounts as the basis for what the different characters in the book express. One of the characters is a proponent of folk song and Sidgwick’s real brother Frank authored at least one article on English folk song.

There were several premieres (meaning first performance in Britain) during the 1913 season that are not mentioned in the book: Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Images No. 2 by Debussy, the orchestral version of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, Dohnányi’s Suite in F# Minor, op. 19, Glazunov’s First Piano Concerto, and the final scene from Strauss’s Salome. Strauss was well represented that season with several tone poems; Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Sibelius were also popular that year. Many concerts were dedicated to excerpts from Wagner operas.

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