Much of Brahms’ music is bad and ugly music, dead music; it is a counterfeit and not the true and perfect image of life indeed; and it should be buried or cremated at the earliest opportunity. But much of it is wonderfully beautiful—almost but never quite as beautiful as the great men at their best. There are passages in the Tragic overture that any composer might be proud to have written. If the opening of the D symphony is thin, unreal, an attempt at pastoral gaiety which has resulted merely in lack of character, at anyrate the second theme is delightful; if the opening of the slow movement is also twaddle, there are pleasant passages later on; the dainty allegretto is as fresh and fragrant as a wild rose; and the finale, though void of significance, is full of an energy rare in Brahms. Then there are many of the songs in which Brahms’ astonishing felicity of phrase, and his astounding trick of finding expression for an emotion when the emotion has been given to him, enable him almost to work miracles. And it must be remembered that all his music is irreproachable from the technical point of view. Brahms is certainly with Bach, Mozart, and Wagner in point of musicianship: in fact, these four might be called the greatest masters of sheer music who have lived. A Brahms score is as wonderful as a Wagner score; from beginning to end there is not a misplaced note nor a trace of weakness; and one stands amazed before the consummate workmanship of the thing. The only difference between the Wagner score and the Brahms score is, that while the former is always alive, always the product of a fervent inner life, the latter is sometimes alive too, but more frequently as dead as a door-mat, the product of extreme facility and (I must suppose) an extraordinary inherited musical instinct divorced from exalted thought and feeling. The difference may be felt when you compare a Brahms and a Tschaikowsky symphony. Although in his later years Tschaikowsky acquired a mastery of the technique of music, and succeeded in keeping his scores clear and clean, he never arrived at anything approaching Brahms’ certainty of touch, and neither his scoring nor his counterpoint has Brahms’ perfection of workmanship. Yet one listens to Tschaikowksy, for the present at least, with intense pleasure, and wants to listen again. I have yet to meet anyone who pretends to have received any intense pleasure from a Brahms symphony.
Brahms is dead; the old floods of adulation will no longer be poured forth by the master’s disciples; neither will the enemies his friends made for him have any reason to depreciate his music; and ultimately it will be possible to form a fair, unbiassed judgment on him. This is a mere casual utterance, by the way.