cover of book

Brahms and the German Spirit
by Daniel Beller-McKenna
Harvard University Press, 2004
Cloth: 978-0-674-01318-6
Library of Congress Classification ML410.B8B42 2004
Dewey Decimal Classification 780.92


The music of Johannes Brahms is deeply colored, Daniel Beller-McKenna shows, by nineteenth-century German nationalism and by Lutheran religion. Focusing on the composer's choral works, the author offers new insight on the cultural grounding for Brahms's music.

Music historians have been reluctant to address Brahms's Germanness, wary perhaps of fascist implications. Beller-McKenna counters this tendency; by giving an account of the intertwining of nationalism, politics, and religion that underlies major works, he restores Brahms to his place in nineteenth-century German culture. The author explores Brahms's interest in the folk element in old church music; the intense national pride expressed in works such as the Triumphlied; the ways Luther's Bible and Lutheranism are reflected in Brahms's music; and the composer's ideas about nation building. The final chapter looks at Brahms's nationalistic image as employed by the National Socialists, 1933-1945, and as witnessed earlier in the century (including the complication of rumors that Brahms was Jewish).

In comparison to the overtly nationalist element in Wagner's music, the German elements in Brahms's style have been easy to overlook. This nuanced study uncovers those nationalistic elements, enriching our understanding both of Brahms's art and of German culture.

From the Introduction Our modern concept of Johannes Brahms as a composer owes much to Arnold Schoenberg's essay "Brahms the Progressive" . . . Brahms, as we have come to know him through Schoenberg, is a harbinger of modernism . . . We are disinclined to appreciate the extent to which Brahms's identity as a German (both to himself and to his audience) affected his music, and the degree to which that German identity was integrally connected to religious issues . . . We prefer to see Brahms as a representative of the good and noble in German musical art in distinction to Wagner, whose ideology dovetails too neatly with -- and was so eagerly embraced along with his music by -- the National Socialists. The critical tradition has found no better way to salvage Brahms the German than to downplay his Germanness, but in doing so, we risk losing sight of the spirituality and nationalism that his music conveys.
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