Brahms's music still thrives thanks to his drive to express the most radical ideas within strictly established disciplines
Aimez-vous Brahms? Answers to Françoise Sagan's question are more equivocal than they once were. Brahms's music is still greatly venerated and regularly played – by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Bernard Haitink at the Proms tonight and tomorrow, for ex–ample. Loving the works of Brahms, though, seems a different matter. Other composers – like Mozart and Mahler – have passionate followers. But Brahms? Brahms seems to inspire more admiration than passion. The era when Brahms was the third titan in music's "Three Bs" is long gone too. Partly, that's because the view that Bach provided the platform on which Beethoven built, thus paving the way for Brahms, classic and Romantic all in one, is over. Yet Brahms's music still thrives, rather like the sturdy but inspired Victorian town halls where his symphonies are so often played. Indeed, as Stephen Johnson argues in this year's Proms guide, Brahms's huge interest in early music as well as his emotional expressiveness – all that wonderful chamber music – makes him almost postmodern. Brahms's lifelong quest to express his strongest and most radical musical ideas within the strict disciplines of established forms gives his works huge creative charge. The balance between tradition and innovation is an enduring conundrum not just in the arts but in religion, politics and social evolution. It's at the heart of Brahms too. We may aspire to have Bach's mastery or Beethoven's inspiration. But Brahms is often closer to who we really are.
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