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Book Review

Brahms Among Friends

Brahms Among Friends by Berry

Listening, Performance,
and the Rhetoric of Allusion

Paul Berry
Oxford University Press, 2014
(AMS Studies in Music)
Bibliography, musical examples
Acid-free paper, 389 pages
ISBN-10: 0199982643
ISBN-13: 978-0199982646
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Berry's exacting research and insightful analysis offers the scholar and Brahms devotee deepened understanding of both Brahms and some of his music, including personal and musical connections with various close friends. Some of his conclusions are speculative, but he is careful to distinguish speculations from facts. The last part of his subtitle gives the best indication of what Berry is about here. On a number of occasions Brahms quoted himself or others in ways that would invoke meaningful recollections by those for whom the work was particularly intended. On one occasion he evidently went too far, arguably verging on plagiarism, costing him a friendship with a sensitive but lesser and insecure composer.

On another occasion, Brahms made use of music by Robert Schumann, but transforming the expressive force of his own music in a way which might well have caused pain to Clara Schumann, had Brahms drawn attention to what he had done, so that Clara was able to play the work with pleasure instead.

Close – even exhaustive – examination of several case studies, is made meaningful by biographical background of Brahms, Clara Schumann, Agathe von Siebold (a soprano with whom Brahms was briefly engaged), Julius Stockhausen (singer, composer and conductor), Elizabeth and Heinrich von Herzogenberg (the latter a composer) and others.

Musical works considered include three lullabies, Brahms' First Violin Sonata, Intermezzo, op 116 #6, and others. Berry quotes and interprets poems by – among others – Goethe, Rückert, Clemens Brentano, Theodor Fontane, and Johann Gottfried Herder (his translation of a French country lyric) all of which Brahms set to music.

There is much for the general reader here, requiring, however, considerable patience and close attention to Berry's analysis; frankly, the same is true for the specialized reader also; Berry sometimes goes into what some may find excruciating detail in his consideration. However, his writing is always clear and to the point.

Strongly recommended, with the cautions mentioned.

Copyright © 2015 by R. James Tobin.