Classical Tyro

A Beginner's Guide to Great Music

Brahms and Tchaikovsky: A Lesson for All of Us


Two icons of classical music were born on May 7 — Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

In addition to sharing a birthdate, Brahms and Tchaikovsky shared a traditionalist approach to composing music that had their contemporaries placing them on the same side during the
Romantic “wars” of the late 1800s. They were both viewed by their defenders as standing in opposition to the "art of the future" coming from Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner.

Brahms and Tchaikovsky were also united by history in offering a lesson in how to separate "the person" from "the work." Although Brahms and Tchaikovsky had much in common as composers and liked each other personally, neither one liked the music of the other.

Tchaikovsky, especially, seemed to detest the music that Brahms composed.

“The other day I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It irritates me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius.... Brahms is a chaos of utterly empty dried-up tripe.” (1866)

“Brahms is a celebrity; I’m a nobody. And yet, without false modesty, I tell you that I consider myself superior to Brahms. So what would I say to him: If I’m an honest and truthful person, then I would have to tell him this: ‘Herr Brahms! I consider you to be a very untalented person, full of pretensions but utterly devoid of creative inspiration. I rate you very poorly and indeed I simply look down upon you.'" (1878)

Brahms' view of Tchaikovsky’s music was not as vitriolic, but was nevertheless critical. Brahms disliked Tchaikovsky’s
Orchestral Suite No. 1, except the first movement. History also provides a story stemming from Brahms’ attendance of a dress rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony that, if true, provides evidence of Brahms’ indifference to Tchaikovsky’s music. According to legend, Brahms slept through the entire rehearsal. Legend or not (it may have been nothing more than a symptom of Brahms’ sleep apnea), it is true that Brahms later told Tchaikovsky he did not like the symphony.

In spite of these differences both men seemed to enjoy the company of the other.

They met only twice. The first time was in January 1888 when Tchaikovsky was on a tour of western Europe and attended a rehearsal of Brahms’
Piano Trio No. 3 in Leipzig. Tchaikovsky expected to meet a “conceited” celebrity, a man who was certain to behave with pomposity and arrogance. Instead, Brahms treated Tchaikovsky with warmth and kindness. In a letter to his publisher, Tchaikovsky expressed genuine admiration for Brahms, admiration that may have been enhanced by the alcohol they shared at a party after the rehearsal.

Photo of Brahms
Johannes Brahms

“I’ve been on the booze with Brahms. He is tremendously nice — not at all proud as I’d expected, but remarkably straightforward and entirely without arrogance. He has a very cheerful disposition, and I must say that the hours I spent in his company have left me with nothing but the pleasantest memories."

They met again the following year in Hamburg when Tchaikovsky toured western Europe a second time. After a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, the same rehearsal that may have put Brahms to sleep, the two men shared a meal. As they sat together, Brahms provided harsh criticism of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s symphony. In turn, Tchaikovsky confessed his aversion to Brahms’ compositional style. In spite of the mutually disparaging remarks, the two men seemed to have enjoyed each other’s company and parted as friends. Tchaikovsky even invited Brahms to visit him in Russia, a trip Brahms was never able to make.

Photo of Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky

Is all this a contradiction? How could two men admire each other so much on a personal level, yet have such a low opinion of the other’s creative output? For me, their story is a great lesson in how to separate a person’s character from their productive work.

The same lesson can be found in looking at the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two men who were hostile political opponents in the early years of United States history. Twice they ran against each other for president in bitterly contested elections, with Adams winning in 1796 and Jefferson in 1800. After Jefferson’s presidency ended, however, the two began a written correspondence in which they demonstrated a genuine admiration for each other in spite of their political and philosophical differences.

As a U.S. history teacher, I often used the Adams-Jefferson story to demonstrate how political and philosophical differences do not require us to demonize our opponents. It is possible, as I liked to tell students, not to sanction the product of someone’s public work and yet still enjoy their company socially — to like them as a person. I suppose the opposite is also true. We might approve of someone’s public work but not like them as a person.

Brahms and Tchaikovsky can be used to teach the same lesson.

Adams and Jefferson both died on the same day — July 4, 1826. Brahms and Tchaikovsky were both born on the same date — May 7. The stories of both friendships can by used as lessons in how human beings might live together, and even like each other, in spite of their differences.


Brahms, Symphony No. 1, Simon Rattle conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker


Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 4, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony




© 2011 James L. Smith (originally posted on SonataForm.blogspot.com)

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