It would have been a considerable surprise to critics and connoisseurs of the late 19th century to learn that by the time the 20th century was well underway, Johannes Brahms had become one of the most beloved composers of orchestral music. He has enjoyed that position ever since. There are perhaps two central reasons for his time’s coolness toward that side of his work. First, orchestral music was a comparatively sparse element in his output. Haydn wrote over a hundred symphonies, Mozart over 40, Beethoven nine, and Brahms four. Mozart wrote over 30 concertos, Beethoven seven, and Brahms four. Added to that were his two orchestral overtures, the Haydn Variations, two early serenades, and that’s it.

Moreover, listeners of his day tended to find Brahms’ orchestral music difficult and intellectual, too much for the common listener. Even Max Kalbeck, a member of Brahms’s intimate circle and eventually his biographer, felt that the symphonies lacked Beethoven’s popular touch and would never find a wide audience. In America, when Boston’s Symphony Hall opened in 1900, a local critic suggested the egresses should be marked, “Exit in Case of Brahms.”

There are in turn two aspects to our critic’s notorious brickbat. First, the bulk of the other orchestral works created during Brahms’ lifetime were conceived on the Wagner/Liszt side of the equation, meaning perfervid in expression and usually based on programmatic ideas — a story, a poem, a drama. It was Liszt who invented the orchestral tone poem founded on a literary theme (Les préludes, Faust Symphony). By the end of the century, that concept had expanded into the symphonic poems of Richard Strauss—Don Quixote, Also sprach Zarathustra, et al .— which were operatically decked out with images and events.

Brahms youngBrahms was not a mainstream romantic, and he resolutely avoided program music. A telling example is his Tragic Overture, firmly in the tradition of programmatic romantic overtures such as Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave, which is about a famous landmark in Scotland and begins with an evocation of ocean swells. In the Tragic Overture, Brahms did not inform us what particular tragedy he had in mind, if any. In other words, he wrote a high-romantic genre work that omitted a central element of that genre, which is storytelling and tone painting. In all his music, Brahms stayed true to classical forms going back through Beethoven to Mozart and Haydn, which we know under the names of sonata form, sonata-rondo, theme and variations, and so on — the old forms that Wagner and Liszt declared dead and buried. Brahms, Liszt wrote, represents “the posthumous party” in music.

For romantic audiences, program music offered lots of handles to get into a piece: drama, imagery, and emotion that goes for the jugular. Brahms offered few overt handles: no stated drama, no imagery, and shades of feeling often more delicate and subtle than the titanic or the heart-on-sleeve variety romantics craved (recall Liszt, Bruckner, and Tchaikovsky). Already in his lifetime, he was declared as, or deplored as, an abstractionist who united classical form with romantic expression. Whether in a song or a symphony, Brahms was more concerned with the over-all tone and its progress, and the effectiveness of the form, than in tone painting, or Wagner’s epic spine tinglings, or Bruckner’s paroxysms of brass. Meanwhile, there was Brahms’ use of what came to be called “developing variation,” which means that as soon as he presents an idea, he usually begins to toy with it, meditate on it, and develop it. He can’t simply say something and leave it alone, critics said. You can’t keep up with his incessant tinkering with ideas, his endless roaming through the keys.

So late 19th-century audiences called Brahms’ orchestral voice intellectual and forbidding and preferred his far more extensive body of chamber music, his Requiem, his stacks of light-classical items like the Hungarian Dances and Liebeslieder Waltzes. Make no mistake: in terms of career, Brahms had one about as successful as a composer ever has. It was his orchestral music that was the main sticking point. As an example, the exquisitely beautiful Violin Concerto never caught on in his lifetime.

Yet, as cultural historian Peter Gay noted, as soon as Brahms was in his grave, his orchestral reputation went in short order from forbidding to warm and fuzzy. What happened? How did the forbidding Brahms become a cherished part of the repertoire? Much of that process is unsearchable. I suspect, though, that some of it had to do with the spread of the German Requiem. In a way, the Requiem is a one-off, a unique work in Brahms’ output, but in any case, it was a decisive and permanent success, and anyone who hears this manifestly heartfelt and moving piece can understand that this is who Brahms was.

So via that and/or other routes, this understanding came to be applied to the supposedly abstract orchestral music. In other words, listeners began to understand its warmth, its subtle drama, its distinctive melodic and harmonic beauty — in short, its humanity. Despite his reputation even in his lifetime as an exponent of “pure” music, Brahms wrote out of his deepest feelings and experiences. For one example, he once wrote to Clara Schumann, whom he jilted after her husband Robert died, but who remained the love of his life: “All my music should say on it, ‘Really by Clara Schumann.’”

None of a composer’s journey is straightforward, and the development of Brahms’s orchestral work is a case in point. The kind of problem his music faced can be seen in the early reception of the First Piano Concerto. At its 1859 second performance, in conservative Leipzig with Brahms as soloist, when he rose for his bow at the end, he was hissed off the stage. To the extent that the public knew concertos, they were virtuosic and winning ones like those of Viotti, Paganini’s hyper-virtuosic outings, the elegant ones of Mozart, and the more robust ones of Beethoven—nothing like the tone of tragic alarm that begins the First, the concerto’s enormous proportions, its widely variegated ideas, and its singular integration of orchestra and soloist. It’s the first concerto that resembles a symphony during which a piano happens to be played most of the time. Here we see Brahms’s singular joining of tradition and innovation. He worshiped the giants of the past and stayed true to them, but he also took for granted that he was going to bring something new and individual to the history of which he was a part. In later years, he had the satisfaction of finding the First Concerto, this passionate outpouring of his youth, cheered wherever it was played.

Brahms spoke of the influence of the cliffs and crags of Rügen on his First Symphony. The Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, 1918, Caspar David Friedrich, Museum Oskar Reinhart am Stadtgarten, Winterthur, Switzerland

Brahms spoke of the influence of the cliffs and crags of Rügen on his First Symphony. The Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, 1918, Caspar David Friedrich, Museum Oskar Reinhart am Stadtgarten, Winterthur, Switzerland

Surprisingly for so private a man, he often spoke of the inspiration of a piece: the cliffs and crags of Rügen, which became part of the craggy First Symphony; the summery pleasures of Pörtschach, where he said “the melodies are so thick you have to avoid stepping on them,” and which helped inspire the pastoral Second Symphony. The Second Piano Concerto seems to have been sparked by the Italian countryside, on his first vacation there.

This not to say that all Brahms’ music is autobiography or self-reflection. Some of a composer’s most productive inspirations come from the simple fascination of a musical idea, or from the stimulus of a performer. Joseph Joachim inspired the Violin Concerto, Clara Schumann much of the piano music, clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld the late clarinet works. For most composers, a generous commission is one of the best inspirations. Except, startlingly, Brahms never accepted a commission for a work. He wrote what he wanted when he wanted. Mozart and Beethoven, who largely wrote on commission, would have found that incomprehensible. But Brahms could afford to follow his muse wherever she led. His Hungarian Dances and Liebeslieder Waltzes were flying off the shelves. He wrote A German Requiem with thousands of amateur choirs in mind. His lullaby, written for an old love on the birth of her first child, was soon being sung around the world. He did not receive royalties for performances, but his publisher was very generous to his star composer.

He wrote so much, in so many directions. In the end, though, when we think of Brahms, we are apt to think of the symphonies first. They can stand for stages in his life. The First’s tumultuous opening movement was drafted in 1862, when Brahms was 29; only later did he add its searing, fateful introduction. Clearly, he knew that movement was powerful, worth saving, but writing three more movements that equaled to it, with a finale that was even more intense, was a problem he wrestled with for some 15 years more.

He finally finished the First shortly after his famous cry in a letter: “I’ll never write a symphony! You have no idea how the likes of me feels with the tramp of a giant like him behind you!” “Him,” of course, being Beethoven. The First Symphony is marked by Beethoven through and through: the progress from darkness at the beginning to light in the finale echoes Beethoven’s Fifth; the chorale theme of Brahms’ finale recalls Beethoven’s Ninth. When somebody pointed out the latter resemblance, Brahms snapped, “Any jackass can see that!” He meant that any discerning person could see that the piece is also unmistakably his, the chorale theme in his own heart-piercing expressive world, the traditional forms handled with enormous freedom and imagination. The relatively sunny — with some dark clouds — Second Symphony is Brahms’ equally individual response to, among other things, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

Some have called the Third Symphony the first one where he escaped the model of Beethoven and stamped the genre definitively with his own personality, from its towering and anguished moments to the meltingly lyrical ones, the treatment of form so original that the underlying traditional models seem close to dissolution: for one example, the recapitulation and development of the second movement’s mysterious chorale theme is reserved for the finale. Finally came Brahms’s late farewell to symphonies in the dark-toned Fourth, in which his backward-looking viewpoint joined with his unique voice comes to rest in the elegiac finale, laid out in the baroque form of the chaconne.

So in this Chicago Symphony Orchestra series, we see Brahms as a composer of symphonies from early to late. Despite the resistance he found to his symphonies, their influence on composers was still pervasive and historic. While he was working on the First, the genre was actually verging on moribund, never having regained the heights Beethoven brought it to. From the First to the Fourth symphonies, Brahms virtually revived the genre, paving the way for generations of symphonists to come: Mahler, Sibelius, and a long list beyond.

A bluff and forbidding surface hiding, but sometimes revealing great passion, suffering, tenderness, and generosity—that captures something of Brahms in his person and in his art, and the singular way he can reach out and touch us. In the 19th century, Wagner and his fellows proclaimed artists to be the true spiritual and even political leaders of society, and music the most “world-historical” of the arts. Wagner set out to redeem, according to his lights, German civilization, and through it, Western civilization.

Brahms believed that it was not the job of art to try and save the world—no matter how much he knew the world needed saving at the end of the 19th century, when the West was gearing up for catastrophe. For Brahms, music was a private matter, a communication from one individual to another. For him, that was enough for art to aspire to. I think that is how his music works on us: heart to heart.

Jan Swafford is a composer, musicologist and author of Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Johannes Brahms: a Biography, Charles Ives: A Life With Music and The Vintage Guide to Classical Music.

TOP: A rose adorns a bust of Brahms at his grave in the Zentralfiredhof cemetery grounds in Vienna. | Photo: Wikimedia