“Shuddering Delight”: Brahms’s Tristan

Nowadays, many see Wagner and Brahms as the supreme gods of late German Romanticism. Between 1859 and 1950, however, their respective worshipers faced off in a “culture war,” which began as Hegelian-tinted journalism and ended as fascist propaganda. This controversy symbolized the central question of nineteenth-century music, namely, who would be Beethoven’s rightful heir, Wagner or Brahms? Although this concern rings hollow today, 150 years ago it was focal for cultured Europeans. Aptly enough, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony marked the battle line separating the Wagnerians from the Brahmins, as R. H. Schauffler dubbed them. Wagnerians, echoing their idol’s Art-Work of the Future, glorified the Ninth Symphony as the oracle of Wagner’s “universal” music drama. Brahmins, in contrast, viewed the Ninth more as a towering monument of “absolute” music—the symphonies, chamber music, and Lieder that Eduard Hanslick characterized as “tone-animated” forms. Hanslick asserted that Beethoven’s torch would pass not to Wagner and his confrères Liszt and Berlioz but to Mendelssohn, Schumann, and above all Brahms.

As for the two gods themselves, they expended greater effort absorbing rather than slandering each other’s music, doing so with profound, if unmatched, reverence. (Brahms was more generous in this regard.) During the years 1862–1864, the two crossed paths in Vienna, Brahms appearing to help copy parts for a concert of Wagner’s music. Afterward, however, their contact diminished to a sparse exchange of letters. Brahms scholar Styra Avins ascribes the change to Wagner’s jealousy: In 1865 Mathilde Wesendonck, having shut Wagner out of her life, decided to bestow her philanthropy on Brahms. To his credit, however, Wagner acknowledged the younger man’s gifts before and after the fact. Jan Swafford, another Brahms scholar, opines that Wagner paraphrased a segment of Brahms’s Piano Sonata, op. 5, in Sachs’s monologue (Act 2, scene 3, of Meistersinger) after hearing him play it at an 1863 recital (see Ex. 1a and 1b). (Is Sachs/Wagner singing of Walther/Brahms here?)

Moreover, the following year, when Brahms performed his Variations on a Theme of Handel, op. 24, Wagner lauded the work for “showing what may be done with old forms when someone comes along who knows how to use them.” Finally, Wagner in 1875 rewarded Brahms (for his returning a manuscript of the “Venusberg” music mistakenly presented as a gift) with a score of Das Rheingold. Wagner’s inscription in the score exposes his admiration for Brahms’s craftsmanship: “it might not be uninteresting to perceive . . . how I managed to construct all kinds of musical thematic material upon the stage set which is here established. In that sense, it could be that perhaps Rheingold might be accorded your kind attention.”

Brahms had always venerated Wagner as a musical dramatist, going so far as to quote Opera and Drama in his literary diary. And though he found Rheingold and Götterdämmerung ponderous, he gushed at the mention of Meistersinger.

Examples 1a (top) and 1b

Proclaiming himself the “best of Wagnerians,” he defended Wagner against hasty criticism. Chiding his biographer Richard Specht in this regard, he asked, “Do you take me to be too dull to have been enchanted as anyone else by the joyousness and sublimity of Die Meister-singer? Or dishonest enough to conceal my view that I consider a few bars of this work more valuable than all the operas written since?” Indeed, the opening bars of Brahms’s Violin Sonata, op. 100, echo those of Walther’s “Preislied.”

Examples 2a and 2b

Brahms’s feelings toward Tristan und Isolde, nonetheless, have puzzled scholars more than the Tristan chord itself. His best-known remark on the subject was recorded in 1876 by the singer-conductor Georg Henschel: “If I look at it [the Tristan score] in the morning, I am cross for the rest of the day.” Contrast this with biographer Max Kalbeck’s report that the younger Brahms experienced “shuddering delight” (schauderndes Entzücken) upon hearing the first rehearsals of the opera in 1862. Further inconsistencies abound in his correspondence with Wag-ner’s protégé Hermann Levi. Brahms quips in 1865, “Shall we not go to hear the triste [German for “dismal”) Isolde?” But six years later he writes, “We’re not through chatting about Tristan, a glorious work we accept so tacitly, so glibly.” And the paper trail stretches well into the 1880s.

A close study of Brahms’s music reveals that Tristan colors his music more than any other Wagner opera and is therefore a key to Brahms’s complex style. Scholars have long discerned references to Tannhäuser in the Third Symphony,

op. 90, and to Meistersinger (see above), but they continue to mismeasure the shadow of Tristan in his other music. To remedy this deficiency, mezzo-soprano D’Anna Fortunato and I will perform several of Brahms’s Tristan works on a Boston Wagner Society program slated for November 2005 (see the back page for details). Of these, the clearest example is the 1872 song “Mein wundes Herz,” op. 59, no. 7.

Examples 3a and 3b

Here we see that the song’s prelude reworks the opening phrase of Tristan, which comprises the initial “Grief” motive (compare Wagner’s A-F-E-D# with Brahms’s C-A-F#-E-D#, upper “line” of the piano right hand) and the “Yearning” motive, famously supported by the Tristan chord (compare Wagner’s G#-A-A#-B with Brahms’s D#-E-E#-F#). Brahms foregrounds his own Tristan chord, m. 5, by marking it sf within the forte dynamic. Even without dissecting the lattice of Tristan motives present in ms. 1–5, one senses the opera’s unmistakable presence here. “Mein wundes Herz” and comparable works, moreover, set a precedent for later composers, since they integrate the harmonic syntax of Tristan within the formalism of “absolute” music. In 1907 Alban Berg integrated the triadic and quartal (“fourth” interval) elements of the Tristan chord so deftly within the classical schema of his Piano Sonata, op. 1, as to make that chord embody the climactic impact of the two elements at the exact center of the work.

In sum, Brahms’s “shuddering delight” pro-phesied a lifelong (and era-long) struggle to reconcile, pace Nietzsche/Schoenberg, the Dionysian and Apollonian sides of post-Beethovenian music. The same tension, of course, motivated the now-antiquated feud between the Wagnerians and the Brahmins. As I will demonstrate in the upcoming program, much can be gained by listening to Brahms with a Wagnerian ear and vice versa.

Ira Braus

Ira Braus, a musicologist and a member of the Boston Wagner Society, teaches at the Hartt School in Hartford, Connecticut.