The Russian Brahms

I was fortunate to grow up living close to a library that had a very extensive CD collection of classical music. Every so often this library would put on sale those discs from their catalogue that hadn’t been checked out in some time, and it was at one of these sales that I ended up buying about a dozen discs of music by Alexander Glazunov. I must confess that I didn’t listen to any of these recordings very much in the years that followed, but I do remember very clearly that my main motivation in buying those seldom-played and slightly scruffy-looking discs was because I had taken as a seal of approval a description of Glazunov as “the Russian Brahms” that I had read somewhere. Having recently spent a little time surveying Glazunov’s works I had planned to write something about the appropriateness – or not – of the label “the Russian Brahms” that had been in the back of my mind for so long. However when I searched for this term – attempting to trace where I might first have read it – I was surprised to get results of this description not only for Glazunov, but also Sergei Taneyev, Nikolai Medtner, and Paul Juon.

I found this cluster of composers sharing the same kind of surrogate description intriguing. It’s true that there are certain composers whose names are signifiers in the broader cultural lexicon. Read an article about a prodigiously talented youngster who plays an instrument and also composes and you can bet that “the next Mozart” will find its way into the copy. Beethoven is the wild-haired and irascible genius; Wagner the purveyor of lengthy operas with women in horned helmets. But when addressing an audience who has some familiarity of classical music, what does Brahms signify? Jan Swafford – in his 1999 biography – set out his desire to examine “Brahms without the beard”. This acknowledges that Brahms’ facial hair has become symbolically interwoven with the attitudes and assumptions about his personality and his music, and perhaps also the way in which Brahms represents the cultural distance of a bygone age when compared to his (beardless) Viennese successors like Mahler, Schönberg, Berg, and Webern.  

Ironically this later group of composers might be just as open to accusations of “beardishness” if this were taken to mean a kind of rigorous, learned application of theory and form to their compositional process. In Brahms’ case, however, I imagine that it carries a suggestion of anachronism in his study and mastery of counterpoint, not only from Bach, but also earlier masters of polyphony. This is certainly the kind of “Russian Brahms” that Taneyev is: his work, indeed his life, seems orientated around an obsessive study of counterpoint that is not only demonstrated through composition, but also his vast treatise Convertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style. This two-volume behemoth was the codification of an extensive teaching career at the Moscow Conservatory where his students included both Medtner and Juon. Taneyev was of the opinion that Russian music would be developed – as he believed it had been in Western Europe – by the reimagining of native folk material through the (one presumes supranational) techniques and forms of abstract composition. The results of this endeavour can be heard in symphonies, concerti, and a plethora of chamber music written by Taneyev and his former students. In compositional genres and technique, then, we might call any of these composers “the Russian Brahms”, though it would be important to recognize that – some “Hungarian” colour aside – Brahms is not particularly concerned with searching in folk music for the raw materials to put through his compositional factory.

Perhaps the label of “the Russian Brahms” is more fitting in a looser sense by capturing the idea of a composer who, through the use of traditional techniques, forms, and genres is set against the prevailing “modern” preoccupations of other composers: who is somewhat lost to the changing world around them. That might capture something of the way that the label is used for Glazunov, whose death in 1936 was perhaps most shocking in the revelation that he had, until recently, still been alive. Though there are some superficial similarities, I find that Glazunov’s prolific compositional output, unhampered as it is by much self-doubt or criticism, makes him the antithesis of the kind of composer Brahms was. Perhaps the label “the Russian Brahms”, then, is nothing more than a pat description intended to lead someone into their own exploration of the composer, as it did for me. I certainly don’t find it unjustified to want to link together our knowledge and appreciation of different composers and their music. It does, though, provoke some interesting questions about what we mean by a name – or a beard.