They shared the same birthday —May 7 — but that was about all. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Johannes Brahms simply understood, felt and composed music very differently, and judged each other’s work accordingly — sometimes positively, sometimes brutally.
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True, they voiced those differences mostly in private, and mostly before they actually got to know one another. Once they finally met face to face, they were more than civil — and even went out drinking together.
Tchaikovsky was far more an antagonist than Brahms. The Russian composer’s chief criticism of Brahms’ music was that it was too controlled and not emotional enough. In a letter to his patron in 1879, he wrote of Brahms’ violin concerto, “His music is not warmed by true feelings, there is no poetry in it, though it has great pretension to depth.”
As for Brahms, stories have long circulated that he fell asleep at a performance of a Tchaikovsky symphony. There’s no evidence that this actually happened, but it’s true that Brahms was often seen taking an afternoon snooze in the cafes of Vienna and was known to fall asleep at the table or theatre.
Composers are rarely members of a mutual admiration society, but Tchaikovsky’s concerns seem to focus more on style than on musicianship. “Hard as I try to respond to his music,” he adds, “I remain cold and hostile. It is a purely instinctive feeling.”
In his diary, he was even more explicit, calling Brahms a “giftless bastard,” and his work “self-inflated mediocrity.” But his opinion seems to have softened in 1887, shortly after being invited for Christmas dinner at the Leipzig home of a friend, where he was “astonished” to find Brahms at the table, as well.
Brahms was there to rehearse his Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 101, and Tchaikovsky sat through the whole piece and made no critical comment. Writing a friend about the evening, Tchaikovsky called Brahms “a very nice person, and not at all proud as I had imagined.”
It was a major breakthrough, and Tchaikovsky would spend six days in Leipzig, encountering Brahms several more times. He wrote home that the German composer did everything he could to be agreeable — but was far better as a drinking companion than as a conversationalist.
Brahms attended a rehearsal for the Leipzig premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No. 1, and expressed approval of the first movement, but strongly criticized the jovially childlike march (which to our ears points ahead to the sound world of the Nutcracker).
A year later, Tchaikovsky arrived in Hamburg to find Brahms there, planning to attend a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s new Fifth Symphony. Having heard the piece, Brahms told Tchaikovsky he approved of the first three movements but disliked the finale.
Honest criticism like this rarely upset Tchaikovsky — and, besides, he hadn’t liked any of Brahms’ symphonies, either.
“Brahms is very amiable,” he wrote to his brother. “After the rehearsal we had lunch together and drank well. He is a very sympathetic person and I like his integrity and simplicity.” Tchaikovsky even tried—unsuccessfully—to persuade Brahms to conduct in Moscow during the next season.
Brahms was the one contemporary who, both in output and stature, matched Tchaikovsky, and public comparisons were expected. But, in a somewhat endearing turnabout, the two rival composers grew to appreciate each other as individuals, if not always approving of each other’s music.
Would that more musical rivalries ended as well.