Both Pyotr Tchaikovsky (in 1840) and Johannes Brahms (in 1833) were born on May 7. That little coincidence didn’t help endear Brahms or his music to Tchaikovsky, however, as the Russian called the German a “conceited mediocrity” and “a giftless bastard.” But then one day, the two men met at a dinner and had drinks together.
“I have played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms,” wrote Tchaikovsky in his diary in 1886. “What a giftless bastard!”
Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky had a lot to say about Brahms’ music—all bad. Johannes Brahms, for his part, didn’t seem to much enjoy Tchaikovsky’s music, either. He attended a rehearsal for Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and fell asleep. Although the two composers share a birthday — May 7, with Brahms, born in 1833, being seven years older—they illustrate opposite poles of the composing spectrum. Brahms was the great classicist, building vast symphonies and concertos with intricate musical logic; Tchaikovsky was the heart-on-sleeve emotionalist, as colorful as Brahms was sober.
“It angers me that this conceited mediocrity is regarded as a genius,” Tchaikovsky continued in his diary. The quotes could fill a book. Some of his dislike seems to be envy of Brahms’ success. “Brahms is a celebrity; I’m a nobody. And yet, without false modesty, I tell you that I consider myself superior to Brahms. So what would I say to him: If I’m an honest and truthful person, then I would have to tell him this: ‘Herr Brahms! I consider you to be a very untalented person, full of pretensions but utterly devoid of creative inspiration. I rate you very poorly and indeed I simply look down upon you.’ “
But it was really the Germanic music style he hated. About Wagner, the Russian wrote, “After the last notes of Gotterdammerung I felt as though I had been let out of prison.” Tchaikovsky’s idea of music was simply different: color, melody, grace, direct, simple emotion. Brahms was interested in something else. “Brahms, as a musical personality, is simply antipathetic to me—I can’t stand him. No matter how much he tries, I always remain cold and hostile. This is purely instinctive reaction,” Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter.
Of course, Tchaikovsky wasn’t the only one who failed to appreciate the charms of the German. One writer said, “Art is long and life is short; here is evidently the explanation of a Brahms symphony.” And composer Benjamin Britten complained, “It’s not bad Brahms I mind, it’s good Brahms I can’t stand.” Needless to say, this is no longer the majority opinion, as Brahms and his music are almost universally loved by those who care about classical music. One critic explained: “Tchaikovsky’s music sounds better than it is; Brahms’ music is better than it sounds.”
But Brahms’ violin concerto was a particular target for Tchaikovsky, perhaps because he had written his own concerto, which had been very poorly received (it is also now accepted as a masterpiece). “Brahms’ concerto appealed to me as little as everything else he has written,” Tchaikovsky wrote in 1880 to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck. “Lots of preparations as it were for something, lots of hints that something is going to appear very soon and enchant you, but nothing does come out of it all, except for boredom.” Later in the letter comes the most famous quotation about Brahms: “It is like a splendid pedestal for a column, but the actual column is missing, and instead, what comes immediately after one pedestal is simply another pedestal.”
So, it comes as a surprise that when the two composers actually met each other, they got along very well. They met on New Year’s Day, 1888, when violinist Adolph Brodsky was rehearsing a Brahms trio. Brodsky had premiered Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and both composers were invited to dinner after the rehearsal. Tchaikovsky entered the room while the music was still playing, and after dinner, they drank together and got along famously. Brahms was doing his best to be friendly, Tchaikovsky noted, and the Russian composer found he actually liked the German, who was so different in character. Tchaikovsky was elegant and smoked fine cigarettes; Brahms was a German burger, smelled of old man and tweed, and smoked cigars, with the ash falling in his beard.
Brahms was known for his tart tongue. Once when he attended a rehearsal of one of his string quartets, he afterwards told the violist, “I liked the tempos, especially yours.” But Brahms was genial that night at Brodsky’s home, and they drank rather a lot. They met at least one more time and spent that night drinking as well. “Brahms is quite a tippler,” Tchaikovsky wrote back to Russia. Yet, the fact they could get on well together never changed his opinion of Brahms’ music. As he left the house that night after the dinner with the Brodskys, Anna Brodsky asked him if he liked what he had heard during the rehearsal.
“Don’t be angry with me, my dear friend,” he answered, “but I did not like it.”
Republished with gracious permission from Mr. Nilsen’s personal website.
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