M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1990
Malcom MacDonald’s biography about Johannes Brahms stems from the interpretation of the German composer as a tormented and innovative Romantic, an image in marked contast with that of the “last of the Classics” prevailed in the previous decades. Brahms is considered here as the “first of the moderns”, the herald of «the progress in the direction towards an unrestricted musical language», as Schoenberg wrote in his controversial article Brahms the Progressive.
To bolster his theory, MacDonald explores in-depth Brahms’s life and music. Each chapter focused on Brahms’s personal events is followed by a chapter on the works he composed in the corresponding period – a strict but not perfectly balanced division as Brahms’s middle and final years are narrated in two short chapters, while music is far more widely discussed. This does not mean that MacDonald has treated Brahms’s life perfunctorily: on the contrary, concision allows to focus on the crucial events of Brahms’s life, as his relationship with Clara Schumann, and to sketch the composer’s habits and character without idle gossip.
Obviously a narration of this kind excludes many details, but MacDonald resorts to the composer’s letters and to his contemporaries’ (friends, young fellow composers and even opponents) accounts to show us the man “in action”. Moreover, MacDonald’s own annotations are so sharp and intelligent that Brahms’s portrait seems to be complete despite the few pieces of information. This miracle is clearly made possible by the wise choice of sources and by their even wiser use.
Music is far more detailed. As MacDonald himself states, his purpose is to offer an overview on every work composed by Brahms, something he does with the generous display of many examples of musical scores. This ambitious purpose is successfully achieved, but – again – it obliges to make a choice. The works are usually divided into genres and examined within those macro chapters, with just few exceptions (as for the Deutsche Requiem), so than they are briefly though meticulously analysed.
It is impossible to give an exhaustive description of a specific work, but this is not MacDonald’s intention as he prefers to give us a handy manual (“handy” despite its five hundred pages) where to find information about all Brahms’s works rather than to privilege the most significant part of his catalogue. This part is written with technical terminology, but the addition of reasons of composition and other episodes sometimes lightens the burden for a reader who is not trained in music.
Brahms is a complete, well researched biography. A curious reader or a scholar will have the need to search elsewhere for more information on specific aspects of the German composer’ life and music, but MacDonald’s book remains an excellent starting point and a reliable, not negligible source.