Brahms is a prickly composer – but a powerful one

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The Brahms problem never goes away

As Radio 3 dedicates a week to the German composer many find difficult to love – but whose work was hair-raisingly modern.

Ivan Hewett writes: Some composers we know are lovable, just because the whole world loves them. Think of Mozart or Tchaikovsky or Puccini. Brahms is different. In person, he was as prickly as a hedgehog. It’s no accident Brahms has the most famous beard in classical music. He needed it to give extra force to his frequent snorts of derision. “If there is anyone here I have failed to insult, I offer him my apologies,” said Brahms on one occasion, as he was leaving a party. “It becomes more and more difficult to love Brahms,” sighed one of his best friends, and many people would say the same about the music. Stravinsky described his music as “turgid and graceless”, and Thomas Adès sent him up in a hilarious orchestral parody called simply “Brahms”. Benjamin Britten said he played through his music every few years to remind himself how bad it was – and usually found it was worse. That’s why people who love Brahms hug him to their bosoms with a protective passion, knowing much of the world spurns their hero.

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