Reviewed by Jonathan Koehler (Department of History, University of Rochester)
Published on H-German (October, 2005)
The Elusive Spirit of Johannes Brahms
Since the death of Johannes Brahms in 1897, the historical memory of this famous German composer has been shaped in large part in opposition to that of Richard Wagner. Many musicians, musicologists, and historians view the artistically and politically conservative Brahms as the consummate nineteenth-century German liberal whose music expressed his high ideals. Wagner, on the other hand, continues to be regarded in many of these same circles as an artistic and political radical, the exponent of a proto-fascist ideology whose innovations of the Tristan Chord and leitmotif unleashed the destructive furies of German nationalism and aided the rise of National Socialism.
Yet the story that Brahms and the German Spirit tells is much less about the convoluted relationship between these two musical and ideological rivals than it is about reclaiming an essential part of Brahms's character. Daniel Beller-McKenna challenges reductivist thinking about Brahms by examining the central role of religion and nationalism in the composer's work. Brahms appears to have left behind few letters or notes that could directly indicate the extent of his religious beliefs, but the marginalia in his voluminous collection of Bibles from his Hamburg study suggest that he was an avid, though attenuated, believer in Lutheran Christianity. In addition, Brahms, like many of his fellow German liberals after 1866, supported Bismarck's efforts to create a unified German nation-state. His political faith in the leadership of the Iron Chancellor complemented his faith in the German national religion.
Brahms's national, cultural, and religious identities thus form the central strands of Beller-McKenna's complex, multilayered argument about the relationship between German nationalism, German Protestantism, and the German language. The author's painstaking research in the Handschriftensammlung of the Wiener Stadt- und Landesbibliothek and the archive of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde reveals the particular resonance of language, faith, and Volk within the composer's work. (The author includes additional primary research on the website he has written for the book.) As Beller-McKenna demonstrates, the "apocalyptic paradigm," or that moment of "redemption and renewal" that occurred as a corollary to "sudden and violent events" (p. 78), shaped much of Brahms's music. Using the cornerstone of musicological analysis that associates concepts, ideas, and symbols with particular musical phrases and chord progressions, he examines Brahms's music for particular "reverberations of the nation" (p. 64). In three core chapters Beller-McKenna examines the millenarian humanism of Ein deutsches Requiem (1868), composed after the Austro-Prussian War; the Triumphlied (1871), written to commemorate the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War; and the "community-forming effects" of theFest- und Gedenksprüche, one of two sacred a cappella works begun during the Drei-Kaiser-Jahr of 1888. Biblical texts from Revelations 19, Deuteronomy 4, and Genesis 28, as Beller-McKenna contends, suffused all three pieces with a moral and spiritual intensity that reflected the characteristic "tendency of Germans" in the nineteenth century "to foresee the coming of a new Reich in millennial, apocalyptic terms" (p. 97).
There is much to recommend this book, including Beller-McKenna's careful archival research and his insightful analyses of Brahms's compositions. Yet one reads Brahms and the German Spirit with the sense that the world Brahms inhabited was much more richly textured than Beller-McKenna reveals. Despite the multiple layers of Beller-McKenna's argument, Brahms's political and cultural identities are too homogeneous and simplified in this account. For example, Beller-McKenna conflates Brahms's supposed cosmopolitanism with the exclusivist nationalism that gradually consumed much of the German body politic in the late nineteenth century (p. 56ff). Much of this assertion stems from the author's use of sources; he relies almost exclusively on critical and political theory to substantiate his argument. In addition, I found myself drawn into a historiographical time warp. Unlike Walter Frisch's recent German Modernism: Music and the Arts (2004), the endnotes of Brahms and the German Spirit contain no references to recent surveys or other monographs that could have helped the author to revise his perspective on the quintessential crisis of nineteenth-century liberalism. The historiographical basis for Beller-McKenna's argument lies, as the author states, in the "two signal studies on the origins of National Socialist ideology that appeared in the early 1960s": George Mosse's The Crisis of German Ideology (1964) and Fritz Stern's The Politics of Cultural Despair (1961). Although Beller-McKenna devotes his last chapter to the influences that shaped Brahms's legacy after his death, including the image of a humanitarian, cosmopolitan Brahms that emerged during the post-War, the author does not take particular pains to distance himself, as have most historians, from the backward-looking perspective that sees the roots of National Socialism in any expression of nineteenth-century German nationalism.
These difficulties could be largely solved by giving equal attention to the cultural and political context of Brahms's world. This study would, for example, have gained much by comparing Brahms's life and work to that of other nineteenth-century liberals. Brahms's important contributions to the body of German music are remarkable when one considers that nineteenth-century liberalism, as James Sheehan, Carl Schorske, and William McGrath (to name a few) have shown, is remembered less for inspiring lasting works of music, literature, or art, than the monuments it built to house them or the political reforms that enabled them. Indeed, Brahms shared many of the religious beliefs and political convictions that qualify him as a patriot in the cast of these liberal Honoratioren. Beller-McKenna's portrayal of the composer's religious beliefs and political convictions strikes a middle ground between the superlative feelings of German-ness held by Roger Chickering's liberals and Pieter Judson's study of Austro-German liberals who attempted to spread their values through political and cultural associations. Beller-McKenna, however, suggests that the Requiem, the Triumphlied, and the Fest- und Gedenksprüche are evidence of the composer's increasing national chauvinism. Could not Brahms's cultural nationalism just as plausibly be read as the story of how German liberals reconciled themselves to Bismarck's creation of a unified German state? Beller-McKenna writes, for example, that "Brahms's personal circumstances practically dictated a deep-seated patriotism and a particular dislike for modern France" (p. 144), but he assumes that the swell of post-1866 nationalism was innately catastrophic, self-destructive, and apocalyptic (p. 97). It would be helpful to know to what extent the defeat of Austria and the creation of Little Germany caused for Brahms, as for other many other liberals, a crisis of values. Could not the Requiem thus be interpreted as Brahms's commentary on how to achieve the rational state (p. 94)? The same questions exist for Beller-McKenna's interpretation of the Triumphlied and the Fest- und Gedenksprüche: does the "apocalyptic" quality of the compositions qualify as support for, or critique of, the political events they commemorate?
For such questions Beller-McKenna offers few answers. His failure to examine Brahms the liberal creates an important missed opportunity to fulfill his stated intention of bringing "the discussion of Brahms's music more closely into the context of late-nineteenth-century politics" (p. x). Though Brahms and the German Spirit is in many respects an admirable work, it demonstrates the difficulty of acquiring the tools necessary to command both musical and historical analysis. Because the author is a musicologist, his goal of examining the "extent to which [Brahms's] identity as a German affected his music" (p. 193) will likely leave the historian searching for more concrete answers.
. See <http://pubpages.unh.edu/%7Edbmk/bgs/index.htm > , accessed October 24, 2005.
. Walter Frisch, German Modernism: Music and the Arts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
. George Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964); Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961).
. See James J. Sheehan, Museums in the German Art World from the End of the Old Regime to the Rise of Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siécle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Vintage, 1981); William J. McGrath, Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).
. See Roger Chickering, We Men who Feel Most German: A Cultural Study of the Pan-German League, 1886-1914 (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1984); Pieter Judson, Exclusive Revolutionaries: Liberal Politics, Social Experience, and National Identity in the Austrian Empire, 1848-1914 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Jonathan Koehler. Review of Beller-McKenna, Daniel, Brahms and the German Spirit.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.