I posted on here before about learning to compose, after hearing some classical music that moved me enormously.

I have been researching many of the famous composers from all over the world; Brahms has particularly enlightened me.

Whilst researching and listening to Johannes Brahms, his Wikipedia page states the following:

While many contemporaries found his music too academic, his contribution and craftsmanship have been admired by subsequent figures

What does 'too academic' mean in this circumstance? Initially (after taking piano lessons for just over a month now) I would have said this was a good thing, was it not?

Thank you

  • 3
    I feel like this could be a better fit at music fans or even ELU. It's possible that "academic" in this case means "of the academy", implying Brahms sounds like he's still in school, in terms of his composing. – Todd Wilcox Oct 24 '17 at 13:17
  • 3
    Or his Academic Festival Overture :-0 – Carl Witthoft Oct 24 '17 at 14:16
  • That sentence on Wikipedia should be marked [citation needed]. – 200_success Oct 24 '17 at 21:48
  • 1
    Brahms was well versed in the music of his forebears, having spent many years as a conductor in addition to his work as a composer. His works show signs of that education—and thus may seem somewhat "rigid" in architecture and style. – aeismail Oct 24 '17 at 23:22
  • 2
    "Academic" as applied to composition could mean a number of things: (1) over-concerned with following the conventional rules of composition, or (2) appealing to musicologists rather than to the general public. It could mean too innovative, or not innovative enough. It's unclear to me what the cited passage is intended to mean. – Michael Kay Oct 25 '17 at 12:03

The famous critic Hanslick put it like this concerning the first movement of the fourth symphony:

Den ganzen Satz über hatte ich die Empfindung, als ob ich von zwei schrecklich geistreichen Leuten durchgeprügelt würde.

My translation:

For the whole movement I had the impression of getting a good thrashing by two awfully intellectually stimulating guys.

I interpret it as: There is no doubt that Brahms is a master of composition well versed in numerous subjects. But it often requires some intellectual effort on the listener's side to appreciate that quality, while the works of other composers may simply catch you, whether you like it or not.

  • 1
    Thanks. This is very helpful. What I can't understand though, he is regarded as one of the greats. He belongs to the 3 Bs. If his work didn't catch a majority of people why is he so highly regarded? Was it his high level of academia that I guess people just admired enormously? – cmp Oct 24 '17 at 15:27
  • 7
    @cmp Society changes. The Wikipedia quote more-or-less implies that he wasn't mainstream in his own time; and that "popular" sentiment has since changed. – jpaugh Oct 24 '17 at 16:29
  • 2
    @cmp - Brahms was enormously popular in his time. . If his work didn't catch a majority of people why is he so highly regarded - where did you get that notion? He had stern critics and also artistic enemies (The Wagnerians ) But also countless advocates and 'fans' - he was immensely successful, in great demand as a composer, teacher and conductor. He was born to poor parents but he died a very rich man, although he never took money from patrons and never held a "real job" except for a short period of time. He lived entirely on the proceeds of his music in its various forms. – Stinkfoot Oct 24 '17 at 22:18
  • 4
    @jpaugh - He was not only appreciated by later generations - that's utter nonsense. His name was engraved on the ceiling of a great concert hall together with Bach and Beethoven - (thus the 3 B's) during his own lifetime and he was one the most important musical leaders (perhaps the most important) of his time. Brahms merely had to say a good word about a young composer and his career was virtually "made". His most important "discovery" was Dvorák. Brahms recommended him for an endowment and that launched his career. The wiki entry is rubbish. – Stinkfoot Oct 24 '17 at 22:26
  • 1
    @ToddWilcox I think it was a misspelling of "thrashing." I've seen "a good thrashing" before, essentially in the sense of to be beaten/whipped or (metaphorically) bested. OTOH, just about anything can have a sexual connotation, so I don't know why you'd bother to mention that. – jpaugh Oct 25 '17 at 16:32

Brahms was interested in counterpoint which many considered to be rooted in traditions of the past (think species counterpoint and Fux) and other formal aspects of composition. Other composers like Liszt wanted to explore new frontiers in music, were less concerned about conforming to the ways of the past, and interested in the emotional impact of music.

This is broad overview. Take a look at this wiki page for a more detailed overview. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_the_Romantics

A far as the phrase 'too academic' is concerned, consider that mastering the techniques of the past requires lots of study. Brahms could be considered academic in that sense. Liszt was not learning from past treatises. He invented his own new style. His creativity was not such a studied approach. Study the past, invent the future.

  • What is counterpoint? I have just looked online but being a beginner most of the content just went over my head. – cmp Oct 25 '17 at 1:28
  • 2
    +1 for "Brahms could be considered academic in that sense" -But Other composers...wanted to explore new frontiers in music, were less concerned :contention about Musical structure, the limits of chromatic harmony, and program music versus absolute music (from your wiki source) is IMO a more accurate. To imply that Brahms was more concerned with form than creativity and content (to paraphrase your contention) is a misunderstanding/mis-characterization. Brahms, like Bach and Beethoven before him, was a great innovator within the traditional forms which he generally dealt with. – Stinkfoot Oct 25 '17 at 1:33
  • 1
    @cmp - If you are just a beginner, I'd advise not to pay much attention to what critics have to say. (And perhaps never to pay much attention...) and particularly not to wikipedia, which can be grossly inaccurate or extremely biased to the POV that particular writer wants to advance. Feel free to enjoy Brahms, as millions of others have, for the last 150 years or so. – Stinkfoot Oct 25 '17 at 3:17
  • 1
    @cmp : If you want a good book to get started with, try this one: It's a broad survey - an easy read, not very technical at all, and he says nice things about everyone. Listen to the samples he suggests (they're all online free of charge) and discover what you yourself enjoy - that's what it's all about: Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music – Stinkfoot Oct 25 '17 at 3:19
  • 1
    @cmp Most Western music is made up of several separate parts that play at the same time. For example, the left hand and right hand parts of a simple piano piece. In a homophonic piece (many hymn tunes, for example), one part is the tune and the others are accompanying parts that make chords with the tune in order to harmonize it. In counterpoint (e.g., a Palestrina motet or some of the Bach chorales), each one of the parts is a tune in its own right, and these tunes are cleverly set off against one another to make a musically pleasing whole. – John Gowers Oct 25 '17 at 12:02

Contrived. Missing the forest for the trees. Following all the rules but not appealing in its overall æsthetics.

Frankly, this is the kind of verdict I easily arrive at looking at, say, "Faust" part 2 by Goethe. Ugh.

Where Brahms tries diving into mythology, he likewise can become a bit arbitrary and tedious. And his concerti aren't really impressing me all that much (I think I read someone declare that his violin concerto as not being written for but against the violin). But that's not the bulk of his work, and much of his vocal work is simply stunning and really a class of its own.

  • 2
    +1 But that's not the bulk of his work - Brahms covered all the traditional forms as matter of course, but IMO his chamber music, songs and short pieces - the Hungarian dances, the waltzes are where he excelled. Most people are unaware of how much/many of Brahms's songs and dances have become so well known and popular to be the point of being symbolic and even cliché. – Stinkfoot Oct 25 '17 at 1:41

The criticism was that Brahms wrote rather stolid music, as if he was crafting a harmony exercise or constructing a fugue for a Doctorate qualification. Other descriptions could include 'heavy', 'Germanic'...

Bach can be criticised for writing 'sewing machine' music. It just keeps going on (and on)...

Plenty of modern (at the time) composers have been described as 'just making noise'.

Can you see what aspects of Bach, Brahms, Stravinsky etc. may have attracted such opinions? Can you also see many positive aspects in their music? Yes? Good!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.