Brahms’s Tristan

To mention Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner in the same breath would have been verboten at a Wagner (or Brahms) Society meeting a century ago. Thankfully, times have changed. For many of us, Brahms and Wagner comprise the Janus face of late Romanticism, that era of opulent music separating the careers of Robert Schumann and Arnold Schoenberg. Aptly enough, Schoenberg deemed his own music a synthesis of Brahms and Wagner, thereby anticipating the modern view of the two composers. The personal relations between Brahms and Wagner are dauntingly complex, especially with regard to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In a November 5, 2005, lecture-recital given with mezzo-soprano D’Anna Fortunato for the Boston Wagner Society, I stressed that Tristan did more than influence Brahms’s composerly evolution: it inflicted upon him, so to speak, a Klingsorian wound.

Though secretive by nature, Brahms left behind him a Tristan paper trail in words and music, one that leads to and from his first encounter with the opera in 1862. That convoluted trail inspired the equally convoluted title of my program, “With Shuddering Delight: Brahms’s Tristan Syndrome.” By way of explanation, “With shuddering delight” is my translation of the German phrase “Mit schauderndem Entzücken.”1 These words were penned by Max Kalbeck, Brahms’s first major biographer, who used them to describe the composer’s initial reaction to Tristan. “Brahms’s Tristan Syndrome” is my own characterization of Brahms’s lifelong am-bivalence toward the opera, a condition rife with musical and psychological symptoms. To be sure, most composers born after 1830 were influenced in some way by Tristan. But the extent to which this work affected Brahms’s music and his self-image has been underplayed in musicological circles.

Brahms’s esteem for Wagner’s operas Tannhäuser and Meistersinger, above all, is amply documented; one even hears echoes of these op-eras in his symphonic and chamber works. And though he references Tristan in his music more often than any other Wagner opera, too many such allusions have escaped detection. Perhaps the elusiveness of the opera’s music is at fault here. Then again, Brahms himself may have thrown us off the scent, thanks to what has become his best-known remark on the subject: “If I look at the score of Tristan in the morning, I’m cross for the rest of the day.”2

Scholars of late-Romantic music concur that Brahms’s pronouncements on Wagner should be taken with a grain of salt, hence once must carefully retrace the paper trail to better understand “Brahms’s Tristan.” To this end, Ms. Fortunato and I performed several Tristan-flavored works of Brahms with comments on their relevance to the opera. These works were the Lieder “Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht,” op. 96/1; “Liebe und Frühling II,” op. 3/3; “Die Schale der Vergessenheit,” op. 46/3; “Mein wundes Herz,” op. 59/7; “Steig auf, geliebter Schatten,” op. 94/2; and the piano pieces Intermezzo, op. 118/1, and Intermezzo, op. 117/3. In these works, Brahms paraphrases the Prelude to Act I, the Love Duet of Act II, and the “Liebestod” music of Act III. Generally speaking, Brahms tailors Wagner’s harmonic system and “verse melody” to the constraints of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century formal models—what Wagner termed “absolute music.”

* * *

Wagner composed Tristan during the years 1856–1859 and rehearsed it in Vienna during the 1862 opera season. At this time, he charged his disciples, Peter Cornelius and Carl Tausig, to coach the principal roles. Both had made fast friends with Brahms, who was living in Vienna at the time, and invited him to the rehearsals. Writes Kalbeck:

Cornelius and Tausig were armed with score and piano reductions of Tristan und Isolde, their daily bread, which they shared with Brahms. Cornelius, on Wagner’s urging, rehearsed Dustmann and Destinn in the parts of Isolde and Brangäne, Tausig played the work from beginning to end at the piano, and Brahms listened with shuddering delight [mit schauderndem Entzücken].3

Brahms first met Wagner socially in 1864, who presented him, through Tausig’s hands, a fair copy of his own concert ending to the Tristan prelude.4 The same year, Brahms befriended Hermann Levi, Wagner’s conducting protégé, whom he was to tease in a letter of 1865, “Shall we not go to hear the triste Isolde?” (The German adjective trist translates as “desolate.”) Six years later Levi read in an-other missive from his friend, “We’re not yet through blabbering about Tristan, a glorious work we accept so tacitly and matter-of-factly.”5 Kalbeck then proceeded to record a visit Brahms made to Mathilde Wesendonck during the late 1860s, where he eyed the Tristan sketches “with a certain reverence” (mit einer gewissen Ehrfurcht).6 But in 1876, he made the aforementioned complaint to conductor George Henschel, “If I look at the score of Tristan in the morning, I’m cross for the rest of the day.” Shortly thereafter, Henschel noted in the German edition of his Personal Recollections:

This sentence needs an explanation, since it could easily be taken to mean that “Tris-tan,” in contrast to the ‘not always pleas-ant’ Ring of the Nibelung, had pleased Brahms very much, so much indeed that it made him cross out of envy. We know from personal experience that Brahms, though warmly acknowledging the many musical beauties of the work, had a par-ticular dislike for Tristan, and as for envy, he never envied anyone. In Wagner he admired, above all, the magnitude of his intentions and the energy in carrying them out.7

Finally, we come to an 1888 diary entry by Brahms’s pupil Richard Heuberger. When the subject of Tristan arose during a conversation, Brahms conceded admiration for the Act II duet but dismissed the rest of the opera as “intolerable.” He said, “I still cannot bring myself to enjoy the work as a whole.” Heuberger, interestingly, summarized the exchange as follows: “Any one, who knows Brahms’s manner [of speaking], knows that he occasionally made degrading remarks about Wagner compositions he [otherwise] held in very high es-teem.”8 What Heuberger didn’t say, however, is that Brahms similarly degraded his own works, the monumental ones in particular. (Concerning the Second Piano Concerto, op. 83, he remarked, “It contains a tiny wisp of a scherzo.”)

Two big questions remain. First, why would Brahms have “warmly acknowledged the beauties of a work for which he had a particular dislike?” And second, had his outward scorn for the op-era concealed a deep-seated reverence, if not envy, toward it? These questions broach the pathology of Brahms’s Tristan Syndrome.

For starters, we can discount the idea that the Tristan Syndrome embodied a personal animus toward Wagner. Yes, the two men were embroiled in a war of words fought mostly by their respective partisans.9 But this never kept Brahms from declaring himself “the best of Wagnerians” and from defending to the death other Wagner operas, above all Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.10 Why the Tristan Syndrome? Tristan, I submit, became for Brahms a Zerrspiegel, a distorting mirror of their complementary artistic missions. Brahms accepted this complementarity, with some trepidation, perhaps. But Wagner rejected it, at least externally (see n. 9).

To put this thesis in historical context, let us revisit Brahms’s early song “Liebe und Frühling II,” op. 3, no. 3. When this and the others of op. 3 were first published in 1854, the Wagnerian disciple Louis Köhler wrote of them:

Brahms, to quote Schumann, is he who shall artistically synthesize the spirit of his time. . . . His music contains many hidden beauties . . . that must be refined like those of our age, before it can again be set on its proper path [Bahn]. Whether or not the path is “new” is unimportant. Every age either seeks its path or has al-ready found it. When the proper path is found, however, it cannot help but be a new one.11

Köhler is punning, of course, on “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths), Schumann’s 1853 essay touting the young Brahms as a sort of musical messiah. Truth to tell, Brahms had walked several new paths before finding his own, paths that would diverge markedly from Schumann’s. The path taken in “Liebe und Frühling II” approached Tristan’s more closely than that of any work he’d com-posed before 1860. But he may have deemed this path too remote, given that the song has but few stylistic successors. (“Die Schale der Vergessenheit,” op. 46, no. 3, is the strongest candidate for this honor.) At the same time, he could never have ignored so life-changing a work as Tristan. Richard Specht, another of Brahms’s biographer, wrote in this regard:

The drama Brahms thought most disagreeable was Tristan, perhaps only be-cause he may have stood shudderingly and regretfully before a work that showed him wither he might himself have gone, had he yielded unresistingly to the magic of romantic and erotic intoxications instead of incarcerating the hotly urging febrile voices in the prison of form, by an effort of pitiless willpower . . . a prison from which it is true, they would escape again and again … per-haps to his secret, melancholy joy.12

Though Specht’s transparent portrayal of Brahms as Tannhäuser borders on caricature, he is clearly onto something. Unquestionably, Tristan had struck its chord in the receptive mind of the young Brahms. After immersing himself in the opera during the 1860s, he had divined its potential significance for “absolute music,” both despite and be-cause of his formalist aesthetic. As mentioned earlier, “absolute music” is Wagner’s own coinage, denoting symphony, chamber music, and art song—in short, music whose expression was beholden to its internal structure, rather than to external associations suggested by the composer. This formulation masks a rich irony to be unpacked presently.

Apropos of Brahms’s Tristan Syndrome, we note further that his creative dialogue with the opera went mostly unnoticed during the late nineteenth century, by supporters and detractors alike. His main supporter, the vociferously anti-Wagnerian Eduard Hanslick, would have been horrified at the very notion of “Brahms’s Tristan.” As for the Wagnerians, they persisted in spurning Brahms for merely being “Schumann’s protégé,” never asking whether he viewed himself as such. (He credited Schumann mostly for teaching him chess.) At the end of the day, the “conservative” Brahms, whose grasp of Tristan equaled that of any contemporary save Wagner himself, had appropriated the opera for his own music and, ironically, for the music of the future.

And what of Wagner’s notion of absolute music? Let us return again to the year 1854, when he wrote to Franz Liszt that Tristan was his “most full-blooded musical conception.” Wagner, remember, had been reading the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher who dreamed of a music so universal as to transcend the particularity of words. Wagner’s pronouncement to Liszt implies that Tristan had in fact transcended opera as he or anyone else had defined it. In this regard, Brahms scholar Raymond Knapp dares us to imagine

Isolde’s death as either credible—or, in its way triumphant—without the music. Just as Wagner used Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to argue the inadequacy of “absolute” music, the absolutists could argue that Tristan und Isolde proves their case, showing that the music escapes, or at least transcends, the restrictions of life, realism, and poetic denotation; . . . the music of Tristan established its superiority to and its independence from poetry, drama, and human action.13

Around 1878, Wagner published an essay in which he revived a youthful ambition to write symphonies.14 Whether Brahms had read this piece, Heuberger logged his teacher’s response to subsequent news that several German orchestras had programmed an early Wagner symphony for the 1887 concert season. According to Heuberger, Brahms placed Wagner, the symphonist, far below Mendelssohn, who himself discouraged Wagner in such endeavors. And for good reason, said Brahms: the work, which he also ranked below the symphonies of one Reissiger, could never have predicted Wagner’s future greatness.15 All this, Brahms probably thought, after Wagner had preached the inferiority of absolute music!

Tristan mirrored for Brahms a fearful symmetry between Wagner and himself, an antithetical complementarity. This phrase, admittedly convoluted, conjures up the big question of nineteenth-century musical aesthetics: Was Beethoven’s legacy fulfilled in opera or in absolute music? Not only had Tristan blurred such distinctions, even for Wagner him-self, we realize in hindsight that few nineteenth-century musicians were able to fathom how a composer such as Brahms might have brewed an elixir to transmute Wagnerian opera into absolute music. So, for one as deeply reflective as he, it is no surprise that a glance at the Tristan score (Zerrspiegel?) would have made him cross for the rest of the day. Henschel got it right, saying that Brahms did not envy Wagner. He neither wished to be Wagner nor to usurp his hard-won glory. Rather, he deplored Wagner’s misprision of his mu-sic, even when it discoursed pointedly and constructively with Wagner’s own. This would have bothered him more than the petty politics of the “New” versus the “Old” Germans.

Attraction and repulsion, deconstruction and reconstruction, doubt and affirmation—these were the symptoms of Brahms’s Tristan syndrome. Whatever Brahms may have said of Tristan, it helped steer him toward the “supreme expression of his age,” as Schumann had rightly predicted. By assimilating Tristan, Brahms infused absolute music with just the ambiguity needed to refresh its forms, which by 1830 had be-come the endangered species of European art music. To quote Jan Swafford, “Brahms perceived Wagner as upholding essentially the same principles as his own.”16 Indeed, the study of such principles will further illuminate the complex discourse between these towering figures of late German Romanticism.

1. Max Kalbeck, Johannes Brahms, 4 vols. (Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1921), 2:68-69.

2. Personal Recollections of Johannes Brahms, Some of the Letters to and Pages from a Journal Kept by George Henschel (Boston: Richard G. Badger/Gorham Press, 1907), 42.

3. Kalbeck, Johannes Brahms. Luisa Dustmann premiered Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer in 1870. Her friendship with the composer is detailed in Jan Swafford, Brahms: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1997), 235, 257, 354, 378. On 20 November 1862, Cornelius entered in his diary (translation): “Tausig compliments Brahms on one of his works (Quartet). . . . Strange, that we are more for Brahms than [are] most others.” See Ausgewählte Briefe nebst Tagebuchblättern und Gelegenheitsgedichten, hsg. Carl Maria Cornelius, 2 Bd. (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1904), 1: 683–84. Brahms reciprocated by dedicating to Tausig his Paganini Variations, op. 35.

4. See Karl Geiringer, “Wagner and Brahms, with Unpublished Letters,” Musical Quarterly 22 (1936): 178–89.

5. “Über Tristan werden wir mit dem Schwatz-en nicht fertig, und dies herrliche Werk nehmen wir so stillschweigend, so ganz selbstverständlich hin.” In Leopold Schmidt, hsg., Johannes Brahms im Briefwechsel mit Hermann Levi, Friedrich Gernsheim, sowie die den Familien Hecht und Fellinger (Berlin: Verlag der Deutschen Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1910), 82–83.

6. Kalbeck, Brahms, 2:225.

7. Personal Recollections by Henschel.

8. “Es wird niemand wundern, der Brahms’s Art und Weise kennt, daß er gelegentlich abfällige Bemerkungen über Werke Wagners, die er sehr hoch-hielt, machte.” This and the preceding comments are found in Richard Heuberger, Erinnerungen an Johannes Brahms, Tagenotizen aus den Jahren 1875–1897 erstmals vollständig herausgegeben von Kurt Hofmann. 2 überarbeitete und vermehrte Auflage (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1976), 39.

9. Wagner himself praised Brahms’s Händel Variations, op. 24, for showing “what may be still done in the old forms when someone comes along who knows how to use them.” See Jan Swafford, Brahms: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1997), 267. He also wrote the following dedication to Brahms in a score of Das Rheingold, June 26, 1875: “it might perhaps not be uninteresting to perceive, in following the subsequent scores of the Ring of the Nibelung, how I managed to construct all kinds of thematic material. . . . In that sense, it could be that perhaps Rheingold, in particular, might be accorded your kind attention.” See Styra Avins, Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, selected and annotated by Styra Avins, trans. Josef Eisinger and Styra Avins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 478. Last, Wagner wrote to Hans von Wolzogen on February 22, 1882, that an article in Bayreuther Blätter by one Ludwig Schemann had struck him with a “superficial thought,” namely, “the tragedy of Brahms, who—in spite of his wealth of ideas—always remains tedious.” See Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, trans. and ed. Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), 920.

10. The “best of Wagnerians” quotation appears in Albert Dietrich and J. V. Wid-mann, Recollections of Johannes Brahms, trans. Dora Hecht (London, 1899), 143. Concerning Meistersinger, Richard Specht recalls Brahms’s asking him, “Do you take me to be too dull to have been as enchanted as anyone else by the joyousness and sublimity of the Die Meistersinger? Or dishonest enough to conceal my view that I consider a few bars of this work as of more value than all the operas written since?” See Specht, Johannes Brahms, trans. Eric Blom (London: J. M. Dent, 1930), 262. By now, it is generally agreed that Brahms quotes Walther’s Preislied in the first subject of his Violin Sonata, op. 100. One sees, moreover, how Brahms would have relished the self-satirizing Tristan quotation in Meistersinger (Act III, Sc. 4) where Sachs rebuffs Eva’s advances: “My child, of Tristan and Isolde I know a sad story: Hans Sachs was clever and wanted nothing of King Mark’s fate.”

11. Köhler, “Johannes Brahms und seine sechs ersten Werke,” Signale für die musi-kalische Welt 12 (1854): 149.

12. Specht, Johannes Brahms, 263–64.

13. Raymond Knapp, Brahms and the Challenge of the Symphony (New York: Pendragon Press, 1997), 275–76.

14. Curt von Westernhagen discusses this essay in his Wagner: Biography, trans. Mary Whitall (Cambrige: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 589–90.

15. Richard Heuberger, Erinnerungen an Johannes Brahms, Tagenotizen aus den Jahren 1875–1897 erstmals vollständig herausgegeben von Kurt Hofmann. 2 überarbeitete und vermehrte Auflage (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1976), 34.

16. Swafford, Brahms, 508.

–Ira Braus