Thursday 29 September 2016

Classical - Tchaikovsky and Brahms: divide of the great Romantics

George Hamilton

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Two of the great Romantics share this as their birthday. Johannes Brahms (right) was born on May 7, 1833. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (left) arrived exactly seven years later. Chalk and cheese. They made their mark through wonderful music, but they really couldn't have been more different. Tchaikovsky came from a distinctly middle-class background and had an air of nobility about him. Brahms was the son of a journeyman musician, who played horn and double bass for a living.

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Brahms grew up in Hamburg and was scribbling down musical ideas from an early age, but he was no child prodigy. He was taught piano from the age of seven. In his teens, he'd play in the bars down by the docks to help ease the family's finances.

Tchaikovsky was a sensitive child. He too started early on the piano, and came to love the music of Chopin in particular. But with few opportunities in Russia for a musical education, the family sent him off to the top boarding school in St Petersburg with a career in the civil service the likely outcome.

That was indeed what happened, and Tchaikovsky took up a position as a clerk in the Ministry of Justice. But music was his life, and when Russia's first conservatory opened in St Petersburg in 1862, Tchaikovsky resigned from the civil service to become part of the initial intake.

Brahms, meanwhile, had been off touring Europe. The folk music he discovered on his travels would become a key component among his influences.

Tchaikovsky, after graduation, moved to Moscow and taught at the newly established conservatory there. He was also writing, and by the mid 1870s had made his mark as a new and inventive addition to the scene. His famous Piano Concerto No 1 dates from this period.

The big break for Brahms came when a Hungarian virtuoso - Joseph Joachim, the top violinist of the time - recommended his music to Robert Schumann, who wasn't just another composer, but was also the publisher of an influential musical periodical.

Brahms became a close friend of Schumann and his wife Clara, and was her companion after Robert's death. There's no confirmation that they ever became a couple - Brahms remained single and burned all his correspondence before he died.

Tchaikovsky did marry but it was a disastrous experience, forcing him to confront the fact that he was homosexual. He wrote to his brother that he had finally begun to understand "that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature".

Musically, though both fall into the category of Romantic composers, they were on different sides - Brahms finding his outlet in the forms and structures perfected by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; Tchaikovsky striking out boldly in new directions.

And the Russian didn't have much time for the music of the older man. That much is clear following one of only two meetings they ever had.

It was at the home in Leipzig of Adolph Brodsky, the famous Russian violinist who is honoured in the name of a modern-day string quartet that mirrors the one he founded at the tail end of the 19th century.

Brodsky rated Brahms and had him perform one of his chamber pieces. Afterwards he asked Tchaikovsky what he thought of the music. The answer was stunning in its simplicity. "I didn't like it," was the reply.

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