It’s time for a Music History 101 Blog! May marks the same birthday month for both Russian composer, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and German composer, Johannes Brahms. In honor of their shared birthdays on May 7th, we chose to feature this month’s Music History Blog on these two brilliant composers.

Tchaikovsky and Brahms basically understood and composed music very differently, and judged each other’s work accordingly – sometimes positively, sometimes harshly. After all, who doesn’t love to hear about a little drama? 😉

After researching their compositions and looking at their views on art and music, that rivalry isn’t much of a surprise after all. We hope you enjoy this brief history, courtesy of pianolit.com and capradio.org.

The two great composers met on January 1st, 1888, in a rehearsal of one of Brahms’ trios. Tchaikovsky wrote about the meeting and described how “Brahms was doing his best to be friendly”.

Brahms was a staunch conservative and classicist. He strongly believed in absolute music, a term that we use today to refer to music that finds its beauty primarily in form, structure, and complex relationships. Not that composers of such music wouldn’t care about lovely melodies or catchy tunes, but they would always surround them with a strong structure.

Pastimes Music History Blog - Brahms VS Tchaikovsky

Brahms

Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, believed much more in inspiration and that music should primarily express our emotions. In a letter to his lifelong patron and friend Nadezhda Von Meck, when asked if he had a specific program in mind while writing a symphony, he wrote that “music has far richer resources of expression and is a more subtle medium into which to translate the thousand shifting moments in the soul’s mood”.

Music has far richer resources of expression and is a more subtle medium into which to translate the thousand shifting moments in the soul's mood. - Tchaikovsky Click To Tweet
Pastimes Music History Blog - Brahms VS Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky

After looking through Brahms’ Violin Concerto, just a few years after its publication in 1878, Tchaikovsky wrote: “Brahms as a musical personality is antipathetic to me. I can’t abide him. No matter what he does, I remain unmoved and cold. This is an entirely instinctive reaction.” It was evident that Tchaikovsky was not impressed.

In his diary, Tchaikovsky wrote that: “It angers me that this conceited mediocrity is regarded as a genius. Brahms is a celebrity; I’m a nobody. And yet, without false modesty, I tell you that I consider myself superior to Brahms. So what would I say to him: If I’m an honest and truthful person, then I would have to tell him this: ‘Herr Brahms! I consider you to be a very untalented person, full of pretensions but utterly devoid of creative inspiration. I rate you very poorly and indeed I simply look down upon you.”

Although Brahms wasn’t quite as vocal about Tchaikovsky, he most likely shared similar views for the Russian composer. Brahms reportedly fell asleep during a rehearsal for Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony (although he also did that upon hearing the première of Liszt’s B minor Sonata).

But his opinion seems to have softened in 1887, shortly after being invited for Christmas dinner at the Leipzig home of a friend, where he was “astonished” to find Brahms at the table as well.

Pastimes Music History Blog - Brahms VS Tchaikovsky

Brahms was there to rehearse his Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 101, and Tchaikovsky sat through the whole piece and made no critical comment. Writing a friend about the evening, Tchaikovsky called Brahms “a very nice person, and not at all proud as I had imagined.”

It was a major breakthrough, and Tchaikovsky would spend six days in Leipzig, encountering Brahms several more times. He wrote home that the German composer did everything he could to be agreeable, but was far better as a drinking companion than as a conversationalist. Ha!

Brahms attended a rehearsal for the Leipzig premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No. 1, and expressed approval of the first movement, but strongly criticized the jovially childlike march (which to our ears points ahead to the sound world of the Nutcracker).

A year later, Tchaikovsky arrived in Hamburg to find Brahms there, planning to attend a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s new Fifth Symphony. Having heard the piece, Brahms told Tchaikovsky he approved of the first three movements but disliked the finale.

Honest criticism like this rarely upset Tchaikovsky – and, besides, he hadn’t liked any of Brahms’ symphonies, either.

Pastimes Music History Blog - Brahms VS Tchaikovsky

Photo illustration by Victor Forman; Images from David Erickson/ Flickr; kailingpiano, Pixabay

“Brahms is very amiable,” he wrote to his brother. “After the rehearsal we had lunch together and drank well. He is a very sympathetic person and I like his integrity and simplicity.” Tchaikovsky even tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Brahms to conduct in Moscow during the next season.

Brahms was the one contemporary who, both in output and stature, matched Tchaikovsky, and public comparisons were expected. But, in a somewhat endearing turnabout, the two rival composers grew to appreciate each other as individuals, if not always approving of each other’s music.

While their music was very different, both composers ended up creating a vast repertoire of masterpieces that have been inspiring and captivating audiences around the world ever since.

So, which one is your favorite? The Nutcracker is one of my fav compositions, so I have to go with Tchaikovsky. 🙂 Share your comments below!

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Music History 101 reviews selected musicians from periods of history that continue to influence today’s culture and taste. If you enjoyed the story, go ahead and share on your favorite social media! We’d be honored. Comments appreciated!

Psst! If there’s a musician or composer you’d like us to feature in our next Music History 101 blog, please email me at Jessica@pastimesinc.com. Thank you for your support!

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