Playing Brahms; A Primer by Fanny Davies

Introduction by Heidi Castleman

What better guide could we have in approaching the works of Brahms than Brahms himself?  Fanny Davies’ (1861-1934) invaluable commentary on a rehearsal of Brahms, Joachim and the cellist, Hausman, playing Brahms c minor Piano Trio offers us an important road map to understanding Brahms’ style.  Her article appeared following Sir Donald Tovey’s on the chamber music of Brahms in Cobbett’s Cyclopedia of Chamber Music, (Oxford University Press).

The excerpts presented below highlight key features of Brahms’ interpretation of his own music and provide us with our own personal guide to the world of Brahms.


From Fanny Davies:

“To attempt to put on paper a description of his playing is difficult.  One is dealing with a towering creative genius recreating his own creations.  Brahms’s manner of interpretation was free, very elastic and expansive; but the balance was always there – one felt the fundamental rhythms underlying the surface rhythms.  His phrasing was notable in lyric passages.  In these a strictly metronomic Brahms is as unthinkable as a fussy or hurried Brahms in passages which must be presented with adamantine rhythm.  Behind his often rugged, and almost sketchy playing, there never failed to appear that routined and definite school of technique without which he might sometimes have become almost a caricature of himself.  When Brahms played, one knew exactly what he intended to convey to his listeners: aspiration, wild fantastic flights, majestic calm, deep tenderness without sentimentality, delicate, wayward humor, sincerity, noble passion.  In his playing, as in his music and in his character, there was never a trace of sensuality.

His touch could be warm, deep, full, and broad in the fortes, and not hard even in the fortissimos; and his pianos, always of carrying power, could be as round and transparent as a dewdrop.  He had a wonderful legato.  He belonged to that racial school of playing which begins its phrases well, ends them well, leaves plenty of space between the end of one and the beginning of another, and yet joins them without any hiatus.  One could hear that he listened very intently to the inner harmonies, and of course he laid great stress on good basses.

Like Beethoven, he was most particular that his marks of expression (always as few as possible) should be the means of conveying the inner musical meaning.  The sign < > (hair pins) as used by Brahms, often occurs when he wishes to express great sincerity and warmth, applied not only to tone but to rhythm also.  He would linger not on one note alone, but on a whole idea, as if unable to tear himself away from its beauty.  He would prefer to lengthen a bar or phrase rather than spoil it by making up the time into a metronomic bar.”

“There is very much more to speak about, but what I have described is thoroughly typical of the style in which Brahms both conceived and performed his works.  There remains for me only to emphasize perhaps the most important essential in starting to reproduce a work of Brahms – and that is the tempo.  The tendency is usually to play the andantes too slowly, and the quick movements, scherzos, etc., too quickly.  All Brahms’s passages, if one can call them passages, are strings of gems, and that tempo which can best reveal these gems and help to characterize the detail at the same time as the outlines of a great work must be considered to be the right tempo.  There is no doubt that the same artist will take a different tempo at a different time of life.  The balance of dignity with detail comes with experience, but in gaining the one, the artist must not lose the other.  Artists are, of course, not only of different temperaments but of different schools of craft.  Therefore, one must not uphold one single and only way of arriving at a great goal, the aim being surely to arrive at conveying the highest message in any great work.  I heard Brahms say once, “Machen Sie es wie Sie wollen, machen Sie es nur schön’ (‘Do it how you like, but make it beautiful’).  After such words from the master himself, is there anything more for me to say?”

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One Response to “Playing Brahms; A Primer by Fanny Davies”

  1. Ed Klorman says:

    This description from Fanny Davies is remarkable and a must-read for any Brahms lover!

    To learn more about Brahms as a performing musician, I recommend a wonderful book entitled Performing Brahms, edited by Michael Musgrave and Bernard Sherman, which has some fascinating articles with many direct quotes from Brahms himself and from musicians who knew him. It also comes with a CD of historical recordings by musicians who knew Brahms personally (including the violinist Joseph Joachim and a number of wonderful pianists), and even a recording by Brahms himself.

    YouTube is also a treasure trove of historical recordings that can help complete our picture of the musical world Brahms lived in. Here are some recommended links (and you can read more about these musicians and recordings in Performing Brahms):

    FANNY DAVIES, PIANO (author of the essay Heidi posted and a student of Clara Schuman)
    *Schumann, Kinderszenen
    *Schumann Piano Concerto

    ILONA EIBENSCHÜTZ, PIANO (also a student of Clara Schumann and personal acquaintance of Brahms)
    *Brahms, Ballade in G minor, op. 118 no. 3
    *Brahms, Intermezzo in B-flat, op. 74 no. 4
    *Reminiscences of Brahms (1952 interview)

    JOSEPH JOACHIM, VIOLIN (recorded in 1903)
    *Bach, Adagio from Solo Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001
    *Joachim, Romance in C
    *Brahms, Hungarian Dance No. 2

    KARL KLINGLER, VIOLIN (Student of Joachim, Concermaster of the Berlin Phil, and leader of the Klingler Quartet)
    *Mozart, Andante cantabile from Duo No. 2 in B-flat, K. 424

    ADILA FACHIRI, VIOLIN (Joachim’s neice and prize pupil) and Donald Francis Tovey, Piano
    *Beethoven, Sonata in G Major, op. 96