Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner were two Titans of music during the 19th Century. Brahms leaned towards the traditional whereas Wagner was more radical in his approach.
Brahms took his inspiration from earlier masters such as Mozart and Schubert. His music is always of the highest quality and exceedingly polished. The same is true of the music of Richard Wagner, however, Wagner’s music was set more for program than was Brahms’. Nevertheless both men demonstrated great understanding of music and how to make it a reality. Brahms wanted to expand on the Classical Concept given to us by Mozart and Haydn. It took him years before he finally wrote his first symphony, which is considered the greatest first symphony ever written and is popularly called “Beethoven’s 10th”. The sonata form was always adhered to in his music and very carefully developed; there is never any discord present in his music.
Wagner’s music on the other hand is radical from the start. Often his music is long and ponderous with an inclination towards discord. The prelude to Act I of Tristan und Isolde is so complexly written that even today it is not certain what key it is written in. Wagner did not work with the 12 tone scale but he did push music to its limits. Since Wagner essentially only wrote operas he wanted to keep his audience focused on the drama, so he employed what is known as the “leitmotiv” as a musical theme to each character and subject of his operas. This was most fully carried out in the famous “Ring” cycle (Der Ring Des Niebelungen) which is a series of four operas written so as to be heard four consecutive days in a row. It take about 15 house to sit through the entire work! The music in the cycle is radical at every point because Wagner uses music almost like motion picture scores or sound tracks giving the audience more than they can handle. The greatest criticism that Wagner suffers is the length of his operas and the lack of stage action.
Further adding to the controversy of Wagner’s music was his personal life style which is unlike anyone other composer before him. He would get involved in scandalous affairs and never could balance his checkbook. It took the funds of King Ludwig II of Bavaria to finance his production of Tristan and pay-off his creditors.
Brahms on the other hand was never controversial and got along with everyone. His music is much like his personal life style, which was polite and refined. He was very close to Sarah Schumann the wife of the famous composer Robert Schumann and did much to promote her musical ability as a first rank pianist.
Despite the differences between these two men they have given us today a rich legacy of music that the world plays again and again to our pleasure. We are fortunate to be the heirs of such greatness.