Brahms and Bruckner as Artistic Antipodes

Studies in Musical Semantics

by Constantin Floros (Author)
©2015 Monographs 311 Pages


In the last third of the 19th century Brahms and Bruckner were regarded as antipodes. Is this perception really true to the historical reality or had their contemporaries overestimated the «dimension of their distance», as argued later? Both wrote autonomously conceived music, both held on to traditional forms, and both rejected program music. To find an answer to this question, part I tries to elucidate Brahms’ relation to Bruckner in its biographic, historical, artistic and art-theoretical aspects. At the center of the second part, whose subject is Brahms’ early work, is the question whether Brahms was indeed an autonomously working composer. The topic of the third part is a taboo of Bruckner research: Bruckner’s relation to program music.
«The second and third part of the study achieve new insights. With a consistent analysis of biographic data and, simultaneously, a careful scrutiny of musical facts (increased experience in assessing the music of the 19th century), Floros gains convincing interpretations.»
(Friedrich Heller about the German edition of the book)
«The book is the result of Floros’s intensive study of Mahler, during which he found hitherto undiscovered clues to the interpretation of Brahms’s and Bruckner’s work. Most of the borrowings discussed confirm differences between the two composers in both ideologies and musical heritage. Long thought to be ‘absolute’ music, Bruckner’s compositions carry significant semantic meaning when the composer desired.» (Musical Borrowing)

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Part One: Brahms and Bruckner: A Radical Historical, Art-Theoretical and Artistic Contrast
  • I. Aspects and Issues
  • II. Art and Personality
  • III. The Conflict
  • IV. Art-Theoretical Controversies
  • 1. Zukunftsmusik vs. Absolute Music
  • 2. Heteronomic vs. Autonomic Aesthetics
  • 3. Apologetics of Invention vs. Apotheosis of Execution
  • 4. Progressivism vs. Traditionalism
  • V. On Historical Classification
  • VI. Parallelisms and Antitheses
  • VII. The Relation to Historicism
  • VIII. “Heirs” of Beethoven
  • 1. A Common Model: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
  • 2. About the Middle Movements of Brahms’ and Bruckner’s Symphonies
  • IX. Parallelisms and Antitheses Once More
  • X. Richard Wagner
  • Part Two: The Unknown Brahms
  • XI. Brahms: An Autonomous Composer?
  • XII. “Young Kreisler”
  • 1. Documentation
  • 2. Brahms’ Identification with E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Chrysostomus-Kreisler
  • XIII. Schumann’s Essay “Neue Bahnen”: A New Interpretation
  • 1. Genetic Documents
  • 2. “Johannes as the True Apostle”: the Essay as a Messianic Prophecy
  • 3. The Essay as Lehrbrief for the “Young Kreisler”
  • 4. “A Secret Alliance of Kindred Spirits”: The Essay as Musico-Political Manifest
  • XIV. Schumann and Brahms: Brahms’ Schumann Variations (op. 9) and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze 123
  • 1. Biographic Backgrounds: “The Portentous Days: Clara, Aurora, Eusebius”
  • 2. Schumann as a Technical Model
  • 3. Schumann as a Spiritual Model: Brahms-Kreisler and Eusebius-Florestan. The Relation between the Variations and the Davidsbündlertänze
  • XV. The Piano Variations Op. 23: A Monument to Robert Schumann
  • XVI. “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini”: On the “Mass quotation” in the Adagio of the Piano Concerto op. 15
  • XVII. A Special Kind of Father-Son Relationship
  • Part Three: The Unknown Bruckner
  • XVIII. Bruckner – “the most Absolute of Absolute Musicians”?
  • XIX. Bruckner and the Program Symphony
  • 1. Relations to Liszt
  • 2. Relations to Berlioz
  • XX. On Bruckner Exegesis: The “Tone Symbol of the Cross” (Liszt)
  • XXI. The Program of the “Romantic” Symphony
  • 1. Bruckner’s Explanations, Especially in the Letter to Paul Heyse
  • 2. Bruckner’s Conception of the “Romantic.” Affinity with Lohengrin
  • 3. The Program Particulars and the Music
  • 4. Conclusion
  • XXII. The Program of the Eighth Symphony: Musical Semantics and Historical Contexts
  • 1. The Letter to Weingartner (1891) and Stradal’s Account (1886)
  • 2. The Program of the First Movement and the Dutchman’s Aria
  • 3. The “German Michel” (Scherzo)
  • 4. The Adagio and Joseph Schalk’s Commentary (1892)
  • 5. Finale
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • Selective Bibliography
  • 1. General
  • 2. Literature about Brahms
  • 3. Literature about Bruckner
  • 4. Literature about Brahms and Bruckner
  • 5. Literature about Clara und Robert Schumann
  • Register of Works


Every age, it is said, interprets the art works of the past in a new way. If one tries to pinpoint the meaning of this adage, one may find that the art works of the past are frequently judged by categories that were developed for the evaluation of contemporary art. Every period has its preferences and aversions: inevitably the current evaluative system is made the basis of judging the art of the past.

The advanced instrumental music of the 19th century, for example, is full of extra-musical intentions. Yet since the 1920’s, it is preferentially regarded as autonomously conceived music. Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler are generally referred to as masters of absolute music. The fact that in their instrumental works they frequently set out from extra-musical conceptions is ignored or minimized.

To understand this paradoxical state of affairs in its full range, one has to realize that the ideal by which a large part of the New Music of the 1920’s and 1930’s oriented itself was that of absolute music. In connection with the spread of an “anti-romantic” frame of mind, the one-time ideal of a poeticized instrumental music was from ca. 1920 on dismissed as an anachronism, typical only of the late 19th century. The term “program music” in many cases became a synonym for obsolete, “inferior” or even “bad” music. In view of this we can understand the tendency of many critics to keep the works of Beethoven, Schumann, Bruckner and Mahler free of the taint of the programmatic and to regard even Liszt’s program music as “music as such,” regardless of their explicit programs.

The aesthetics of autonomy, highly controversial in the 19th century, enjoyed veritable triumphs in the 20th. That largely accounts for the fact that even today many musicians, musicologists and lovers of music value autonomously conceived compositions more highly than any music inspired by anything extra-musical.

Exemplary of what has been said is the history of the assessment of Brahms and Bruckner. In the last third of the 19th century Brahms and Bruckner were regarded as antipodes. Some fifty years ago, by contrast, the view began to emerge in highly reputable publications that their ← 9 | 10 → contemporaries had overestimated the “dimension of their distance.” The general accord in the musical endeavors of both composers, it was argued, was not to be missed: both wrote autonomously conceived music, both held on to traditional forms, and both rejected program music.

Are these perceptions really true to the historical reality? The present study seeks an answer to this question. Part One tries to elucidate Brahms’ relation to Bruckner in its biographic, historical, artistic and art-theoretical aspects. At the center of the second part, whose subject is Brahms’ early work, is the question whether Brahms is indeed an autonomously working composer. The topic of the third part is a taboo of Bruckner research: Bruckner’s relation to program music.

The book came into being parallel to my work on Gustav Mahler and the Symphony of the 19th Century and forms a complement to it. It is based on the principle of intertextuality and on the method of semantic analysis, which I developed in the 1960’s and demonstrated on numerous musical works. Both the Archive of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna and the Music Collection of the Austrian National Library provided valuable material for my investigations, as did the publishing house Breitkopf & Härtel and the musicological publishing firm of the International Bruckner Society. My thanks for support of various kinds are due to Professor Otto Biba, Hofrat Professor Franz Grasberger, the Archive of the Bruckner Society, Ms. Lieselotte Sievers of Breitkopf & Härtel, Ms. Isolde Fedderies of Peter Lang, and my friend Professor Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch of Indiana University, who has meticulously translated a number of my works and often provided impulses and suggestions. The collaboration with him was again a joy because of the questions he asked and his many constructive comments.

The subject of Brahms and Bruckner has occupied me at least since 1974. After several decades, I produced two fairly extensive monographs about the two composers, which appeared in German in 1997 and 2004, respectively, and in English translation in 2010 and 2011 (Johannes Brahms. “Free but Alone.” A Life for a Poetic Music and Anton Bruckner. The Man and the Work, both published by Peter Lang). I want to emphasize that the two monographs do not overlap in any way in content with the present volume. The present English translation has also been ← 10 | 11 → materially expanded from the German original by the addition of two new chapters, about Brahms’ Piano Variations op. 23 and about his relations with his father Johann Jakob.

Constantin Floros, January 2015 ← 11 | 12 →


← 12 | 13 →

Part One
Brahms and Bruckner: A Radical Historical, Art-Theoretical and Artistic Contrast

“Since the biographies of both men are now before us, let us briefly go through and juxtapose the differences between them.” Plutarch, Βίοι παράλληλοι (comparison of Agesilaos and Pompey)

“For just as Plutarch in his biographies weighs and compares every great man against a second great one, so the reader holds every great character of a biography quietly next to a second great one (namely his own) and takes note of what results.” Jean Paul, Leben des Quintus Fixlein ← 13 | 14 →


← 14 | 15 →

I.   Aspects and Issues

“Whoever, in the Steyrer Zeitung of April 6, dragged the pedal point in Brahms’ Requiem into the critical discourse? I am not a pedal-point pusher and care nothing for it. Pedal point is no stroke of genius, merely a means to an end.” Bruckner to Franz Bayer,
April 22, 1893.1

Since no study of the arts can do without the comparative method, we don’t have to ask why it is sensible and indeed necessary to study contemporary artists, poets, writers and composers comparatively. Certainly the method of the “double portrait” has long been in profitable use, especially in art history and literary criticism. The most productive confrontations are those that are based on historical contrasts.

The subject of Brahms and Bruckner implies such a historical contrast. Unlike the antitheses Palestrina-Di Lasso, or Bach-Handel, which are artistic ones but do not involve any personal rivalry, the relation of Brahms to Bruckner is determined by an antagonistic element that is a historical fact. Brahms and Bruckner were opponents, antipodes, rivals already during their lifetime. Their historical relation reminds one of the polarity between Gluck and Piccini or the antagonism between Schönberg and Stravinsky.

Like Gluck and Piccini of yore, Brahms and Bruckner were involved in contentions that cannot be ignored in any annalistic historiography of the last third of the 19th century. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, the dispute about Brahms and Bruckner was something that agitated composers, publicists, writers on music and men of letters. It was only after ca. 1920 that the apologetic engagement pro and contra Brahms and Bruckner gave way to a sober, distanced way of looking, which pushed the antagonistic element into the background and sought to apprehend the uniqueness of each composer.

In view of the historical background of the contrast, and considering how different Brahms’ music appears from that of Bruckner’s even to a mere listener, it must seem at least curious that the very attractive subject “Brahms and Bruckner” has so far been the object of only one remarkable special study by Werner F. Korte2 – though one has to add that many biographies and essays about Bruckner and Brahms do touch on the relation to ← 15 | 16 → the respective antagonist. Here one might mention especially the Bruckner study by Alfred Orel,3 the first to attempt a stylistic comparison of Bruckner and Brahms.

If one makes an effort to collect the various views on our subject from the rather voluminous Brahms and Bruckner literature, one will soon notice that the picture that musicology has painted of the relation between the two antipodes in many respects exhibits firm contours. All commentators emphasize the strong personal contrast. At the latest since Alfred Orel, Brahms is regarded as the prototype of the “reflective” artist, Bruckner as representative of “naïve” art, of the “pure musician.” Likewise since Orel, Brahms appears to many “as the consciously conservative artist, Bruckner as the consciously progressive one.” Although such leading composers as Arnold Schönberg4 and Anton Webern5 have emphatically pointed to progressive traits in Brahms’ work, Brahms is widely regarded as the “classic of Romanticism.”6

There is uniform agreement on yet another, very important point: Brahms and Bruckner, the antipodes, are uniformly classified as masters of absolute music. Numerous critics never tire of asserting that the work of both men should be understood solely as “music as such.” A selection of representative judgments may illustrate the point. In 1898, Julius Spengel proclaimed that “no composer since Beethoven” had “made music so utterly without ‘program’” as Brahms. “Brahms,” Stengel said, “stands on the ground of absolute music and in this respect is wholly distant from the most modern efforts of our newest.”7 In 1909, Felix Weingartner expressed the view that Brahms was “the most ‘absolute’ musician among the newer masters.”8 Victor Urbantschitsch found in 1927 that

Brahms remained all his life true to absolute music; even where his instrumental music has been instigated by something extra-musical (e.g., in op. 15, op. 81), he withholds the program and wants the listener to be impacted only by the music as such. The formal problems of the time, regarding the use of the sonata scheme for tone-poetic purposes, thus did not exist as such for him as an absolute musician. As a great creative artist with classicist ideals he thereby stood outside the currents of the time, the time of the ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ and of program music.9

As late as 1961, Hans Gal10 spoke of the “uncompromisingly absolute character” of Brahms’ music. ← 16 | 17 →

Hans Merian, in turn, opined about Bruckner, in 1902, that he, like Brahms, based himself exclusively on “absolute music.”11 Fritz Volbach thought in 1909 that Bruckner, “with his classical tendency of the symphonic form,” and “as ‘absolute’ musician of strictest observance,” represented “more nearly a contrast to Wagner.”12 Robert Haas wrote in 1934 that Bruckner, “as the strongest proclaimer of a truly absolute music,” was misunderstood by those “who championed just that music as well as by the Wagner party, which could approach his works only via the inevitable programmatic interpretation.”13 And Peter Raabe thought in 1944 that Bruckner had been “the absolutest of all absolute musicians.”14


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
romantische Klaviermusik symphonische Programmmusik musikalische Romantik
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 311 pp., 7 b/w ill., 42 graphs

Biographical notes

Constantin Floros (Author)

Constantin Floros is professor emeritus of Musicology at the University of Hamburg. Among his monographs are volumes on the origin of Gregorian neumes, about Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, the Symphony of the 19th Century, Alban Berg and György Ligeti. Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch is professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington (IND.). He has translated several books by Constantin Floros.


Title: Brahms and Bruckner as Artistic Antipodes
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314 pages