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Thread: Brahms and Bruckner - what's the difference?

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    Senior Member RogerWaters's Avatar
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    Default Brahms and Bruckner - what's the difference?

    Both major figures of the Romantic period, both employing classical forms - however obviously quite different to one another in what they express.

    I'm interested in how you would describe the differences in analytic terms ('syntax')? How did Bruckner's compositional style differ from Brahms, including large scale form, harmony, development.


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    Senior Member hammeredklavier's Avatar
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    Recently there has been a good discussion about Bruckner's style in:
    Mahler vs. Bruckner

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    It has often been said that Brahms was essentially a composer of chamber music (sometimes meant as criticism of his symphonies). Maybe a slight exaggeration but I think there is truth in it and it sets him apart not only from Bruckner but other contemporaries like Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. (They also wrote good chamber music but it was not there fundamental way of thinking.)

    Brahms also usually abhors demonstrative displays. There is an interchange of letters discussing the use of the harp in some piece and Brahms supposedly wrote that if a harp was to be used it should play along from the beginning, so it would not appear as a special effect at one passage (He nevertheless did exactly this in the Requiem (ii) at the passage "morning rain and evening rain" but maybe he was not as strict when he was younger, the Alphorn theme in the 1st seems also a fairly special effect). Maybe he also used the possibilities of valved brass sparingly because of this.

    The piano concertos are supposedly two of the hardest to play in the standard rep but they rarely sound "flashy". And it is even true in composition. Brahms wrote some very complex polyphonic pieces and even in lighter textures he is usually thinking in a contrapuntal way but he never wrote display pieces like the finales of Mozart's K 551, Beethoven's op.106 or Bruckner's 5th. It's usually hidden underneath, subtle, giving a frame and shape but rarely at the surface. Like the finales of his 4th symphony or the Haydn variations.

    The German poet and dramatist Schiller made in the late 18th century a distinction between "naive" and "sentimental" (sentimentalisch) poetry (or art in general). According to Schiller, almost anyone in his (or our) era was "sentimental" which for him means being acutely aware of both the history and maybe also theory of his art, reflect their position in history and present society etc. whereas in antiquity we have still naive poets, especially Homer who bring forth their art like nature brings forth flowers. (And of course it is a little sad that we cannot make art like this anymore etc.)

    If we allow degrees, Brahms is about the least naive composer we could imagine. Technically very capable, painstakingly selfcritical, extremely aware of history and his position, weighed down by the Greats of the past but also feeling the duty to continue the great heritage to the best of his abilities.

    Whereas Bruckner was comparably naive, if not to the extent often caricatured. Sure, he was also influenced by Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner and catholic church music but he didn't seem too burdened by that (although he probably was hampered by his non-musical personal quirks) didn't care much about the surroundings, just monomanically wrote his huge symphonies according to a rather strict scheme he rarely changed.
    He seems to achieve quite precisely what he wants whereas with Brahms one sometimes gets the impression of the sad sentimental artist who longs to write "naively" like Homer/Beethoven/Schubert but knows that it is impossible in his day and age and he has to do strive to emulate the past Greats but still do it differently.

    So this was a bit rambling and untechnical but I tried to get at some differences and characteristics.

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    Senior Member Fabulin's Avatar
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    Bruckner was protected from the social game of appearances by the innocence of his conviction that he wrote not for his own glory, but for the glory of God (and Wagner). Brahms didn't care too much about praising anything in particular, so he didn't see a reason to be flashy.

    We can hear a mirror of this contrast in the music of John Williams. Privately: a fan of Haydn and Brahms; his "personal" music is usually written for a soloist + orchestra, rather humble, not too flashy.


    But when the dramatic need calls for a dramatic effect, he can be like Bruckner:
    Last edited by Fabulin; Jul-12-2021 at 18:43.

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    Senior Member EdwardBast's Avatar
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    Jerry Seinfeld needed 15 letters to explain the difference between a sadist and a dentist ("better magazines") — I can do Brahms and Bruckner with fewer: taste and skill.

    Your frogs make me shudder with intolerable loathing and I shall be miserable for the rest of my life remembering them.
    — Mikhail Bulgakov, The Fatal Eggs

    When a true genius appears on the earth, you may know him by this sign, that all of the dunces are in confederacy against him.
    — Jonathan Swift

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    Bruckner is, generally speaking, a "symphonist" version of Richard Wagner, plus the influence of organ music and Beethoven's 9th on his mature works. Brahms uses music materials in a more economical way and he tries to put Classism and Romantism together. Brahms excelled at almost all genres in which he composed and seems to received more acclaims than Bruckner.

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    Senior Member MatthewWeflen's Avatar
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    I'd say the difference is about 40 minutes.

    edit: I kid. I enjoy both. It seems to me that Brahms is more classically structured in terms of introducing, developing, and recapitulating a theme (despite being firmly in the romantic mode). Bruckner seems to follow themes in a more repetitive, intensity-building sort of way. Bruckner seems to be more ecstatic, in a religious/spiritual sense, where Brahms is more intellectual. But in terms of symphonies, duration certainly is a difference as well.
    Last edited by MatthewWeflen; Jul-13-2021 at 06:52.

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    Senior Member RogerWaters's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by EdwardBast View Post
    Jerry Seinfeld needed 15 letters to explain the difference between a sadist and a dentist ("better magazines") — I can do Brahms and Bruckner with fewer: taste and skill.
    What was different composition techniques did they employ?

    I prefer Bruckner over Brahms, but that's not what this thread is intended to be about.

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    Senior Member SONNET CLV's Avatar
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    Brahms and Bruckner - what's the difference?


    Though both names start with a B (as in Bang!), Bruckner has two more letters in the spelling of his name than does Brahms. Bruckner also has a few more symphonies than does Brahms.

    That said, both merit hearing.

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    Senior Member Ethereality's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bruckner Anton View Post
    Brahms excelled at almost all genres in which he composed and seems to received more acclaims than Bruckner.
    Though this part isn't a difference between the two, it's a subjective opinion/appeal.

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    Earlier recordings of the Brahms piano concertos tend to be quite flashy and probably illustrate the original way of playing them (Horowitz + Rubinstein, even Backhaus, pre-1950).
    Last edited by joen_cph; Jul-13-2021 at 07:12.

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    Bruckner was repetitive, while Brahms developed his material more.

    Bruckner relied to a great deal on his brass-heavy orchestration to achieve his effects; Brahms didn't.

    Brahms was more versatile, even when only considering symphonies. Bruckner used the same structure each time for his symphonies-- his template was Schubert's Great C Major Symphony.

    And finally, Brahms wrote better finales whilst Bruckner wrote better slow movements.

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    Quote Originally Posted by joen_cph View Post
    Earlier recordings of the Brahms piano concertos tend to be quite flashy and probably illustrate the original way of playing them (Horowitz + Rubinstein, even Backhaus, pre-1950).
    One can play them faster, but the very music is different and will never become as flashy as Liszt or Saint-Saens. Similiarly for the symphonic structure and scale of these concertos.

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    Quote Originally Posted by MatthewWeflen View Post
    I'd say the difference is about 40 minutes.
    More like 20-25 min. Bruckner's 5th and 8th can last over 80 min (but can also be done in about 70), but the others are around 55-65 min while Brahms' symphonies (except for the somewhat shorter 3rd) are 40-45 min (Giulini brought 1 and 2 to 50-55 min).

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    Senior Member tdc's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kreisler jr View Post
    The German poet and dramatist Schiller made in the late 18th century a distinction between "naive" and "sentimental" (sentimentalisch) poetry (or art in general). According to Schiller, almost anyone in his (or our) era was "sentimental" which for him means being acutely aware of both the history and maybe also theory of his art, reflect their position in history and present society etc. whereas in antiquity we have still naive poets, especially Homer who bring forth their art like nature brings forth flowers. (And of course it is a little sad that we cannot make art like this anymore etc.)
    An interesting idea, though in much early music up through the baroque, the music does not sound naive to me, (though it can vary on the composer, Handel sounds relatively 'naive' compared to J.S. Bach, Frescobaldi, or Purcell). This naiveté seems to be a feature of classical era music, indeed the composers you listed as examples further down your post as 'naive' were classical. Perhaps in music these things are cyclical. Rosen suggests the classical era in music was actually neo-classical in the sense of being influenced by ancient Greek art, but representing it in a somewhat idealistic and artificial way.

    As far as Bruckner his music does not sound particularly naive to me, though that may be applied to him as a person to a degree. Some aspects of Bruckner's approach to structure are relatively simplistic, but that does not create an aural effect of naiveté to me. Of course I think Brahms is not particularly naive either, but his drawing on classicism does at times perhaps leave a hint of it here and there.

    Perhaps Schiller's definition differs somewhat from mine, as a kind of acute awareness of the past, or being prolific in an un self conscious way. I'm just referring to what I hear in the music.
    Last edited by tdc; Jul-13-2021 at 11:03.

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