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Tchaikovsky and Brahms: A Tale of Two Frenemies

Tchaikovsky and Brahms

May 7 marks the birth of two of the greatest figures of 19th century music, Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) and Pyotr IlyichTchaikovksy (1840 – 1893). Born seven years apart and members of the same profession, these men could not have been more dissimilar. Tchaikovsky was Russian, of noble birth, soft-spoken, and shy. Brahms was German, born into poverty, exuberant, and crass. They also were not fond of each other’s music. Brahms fell asleep during a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and Tchaikovsky did not mince words when expressing his distaste for the German composer’s music. In his diary, he described Brahms as a “giftless bastard.” It would seem, then, that these two titans of music would surely not get along at all if they were ever to meet.

On New Year’s Day in 1887, Tchaikovsky was invited to the home of the great Russian violinist, Adolph Brodsky, who had famously premiered his “unplayable” Violin Concerto in D Major. Brodsky knew that his friend was incredibly shy, so he did not mention that there would be other guests attending dinner that evening. Upon the composer’s arrival, he noticed that there was a rehearsal occurring inside. After entering the salon, he saw the short, stout, and scruffy figure of Johannes Brahms, who warmly greeted his esteemed colleague. Tchaikovsky sat and listened to the rehearsal. As the music ended, Brahms waited expectantly for the former’s approval. None was given. Instead, the two hardly spoke a word until dinner. The awkward silence was finally broken by the arrival of another guest, the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg. He accompanied his wife, Nina, as she sang his music, much to everyone’s pleasure. At dinner, Grieg sat between Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and kept the conversation lively and the libations flowing.

By the end of the evening, Brahms and Tchaikovsky were getting along splendidly. They even decided to spend another night drinking together before the trip was over. However, this newfound bonhomie never changed Tchaikovsky's feelings about Brahms’ music. Upon leaving the Brodsky’s dinner party, he was asked whether he enjoyed what he heard during the Brahms rehearsal. “Don’t be angry with me, my dear friend,” he answered, “but I did not like it.”

To learn more about the life and work of Tchaikovsky and Brahms, check out these items from your local library:

Tchaikovsky: His Life & Music by Jeremy Siepmann

Acclaimed music writer, Jeremy Siepmann, follows Tchaikovsky's development as man and composer, and sets out the experiences—the personal joys and sorrows as well as the broader cultural forces—that formed him and made him one of the most widely-loved composers in classical music. Included are two CDs of carefully chosen Tchaikovsky pieces. Readers also gain access to an exclusive website that offers new essays, the musical works in full, and more. This revolutionary biography utilizes traditional and new media to provide a uniquely rounded portrait of the composer and his music.

Swan Lake

Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake remains a ballet favorite and a powerful star vehicle for the prima ballerina who must dance the roles of two characters, the "white swan" Odette and the “black swan” Odile, good and evil. Swan Lake has been recorded many times by celebrated conductors and their orchestras. On this recording, the Philadelphia Orchestra is led by the great Wolfgang Sawallisch.

Piano Concertos

The combination of Tchaikovsky, Elisabeth Leonskaja, and Kurt Masur equals a wonderful musical experience. The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music rightly praised this recording as one of the best, stating that, “Leonskaja is a splendid Tchaikovskian and she finds a sympathetic partner in Kurt Masur. Their account of the elusive Second Piano Concerto is very fine, weighty, expansive and compelling. The finale is forceful in its exuberance; powerful and exciting...The Third Concerto follows on with equal success, and offers brilliant playing with plenty of zest and ardour from soloist and orchestra alike.”

Serenade for Strings

The first violinist of this wonderful recording wrote that, "Tchaikovsky's Serenade is one of the most exciting pieces a chamber orchestra can perform. The composer's genius is evident here not only in his incredibly beautiful melodies, but also in his amazing sense of orchestration, giving the impression to listeners and players alike that we are hearing a full symphony orchestra." This album is not to be missed!

Johannes Brahms: A Biography by Jan Swafford

Writing with passionate clarity that perfectly matches the genius of Brahms, Jan Swafford traces the emotional wellsprings of this secretive man's music without trivializing art into mere autobiography. A composer himself, Swafford understands and lucidly conveys Brahms's unique position in musical history: beloved by many, emulated by few, the triumphant yet melancholy heir of a tradition coming to an end in his lifetime.

Symphonies 1 & 2

Brahms took twenty-one years to complete his First Symphony, struggling under the weight of expectation as the worthy successor to Beethoven, who was renowned for his mastery of the form. Though this may have hindered Brahms's speed, the result was worth waiting for and the influence of Beethoven within this heroic work is undeniable. His Second Symphony was completed in just a few months and the overall mood is one of pastoral lyricism. This CD captures the impassioned live performances of both symphonies conducted by the London Philharmonic Orchestra's principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski.

Piano Concertos 1 & 2

Hélène Grimaud turns her thrilling, deeply personal brand of music-making to Brahms's first and second Piano Concertos. Her playing is sensitive, graceful, and commanding without ever feeling forced. Of particular interest here is the recording of the second concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic who are on fire under the baton of the electrifying Andris Nelsons, one of today's most exciting young interpreters of the Romantic repertoire.

A German Requiem

The sheer craftsmanship and elegance of Mariss Jansons’ approach perfectly aligns with Brahms’ lyrical but always highly intelligent Romanticism. Jansons never goes to extremes, of tempo or dynamic, but then Brahms never calls for them. Instead, the focus is always on creating flow and line, but within clearly delineated and elegantly proportioned structures. And, his moderation aside, there is always drama in Jansons’ Brahms, and never any feeling that his sophistication is diminishing the emotional experience.

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