Last night I started the bio of Brahms I bought to read this summer.

Jan Swafford, the author, is a composer and a musician. He has also written a bio of Charles Ives that sounds pretty interesting.

He tells about his first connection with Brahms’ music. He played trombone in his high school band. The melody of one piece in particular struck him as very beautiful. After the band was done rehearsing and performing the piece, the melody stayed with him for months. Then it finally faded.

His mother dragged him to a Leonard Bernstein concert. On the bill was Copland and Brahms 1st. symphony. When the orchestra arrived at the melody in the last movement of this symphony, Swafford was overwhelmed.

It seems to be both his epiphany/Brahms moment and epiphany/musician/composer moment.

I think it’s cool when people figure this sort of thing out about themselves. I like that Swafford is so enthusiastic (and can write good sentences).

I do wonder about his need (in the introduction) to pit the depth of Brahms against pop music: “After that concert I became not only a devotee of Bernstein and Copland and Brahms. I also discovered what it means to be in love with music. Music and I have had a stormy and frustrating union since, but the love endures. From that night I becaqme a musician, and before long a composer. The wistful, piercing melancholy that overwhelmed me when I listened to Brahms and a good deal of other classical music — a depth of feeling pop music has never approached — only abated a little when I began writing music.”

(N.B. Yes, that’s Paul Simon next to Bernstein.)

I find this startling in a composer. So many composers (myself included) do not think categorically like this. Yesterday I was talking to Jonathon Fegel about genres. We were trying to nail down what Jazz actually is. We failed. We also agreed it wasn’t important.

This morning, I got up and made coffee and played through the second theme of the Brahms Capriccio I had been playing last night (I like to go from a bio to the actual playing of the music…. am playing a Haydn bio sometime soon, also).

This is actually the theme:

(The circled notes don’t mean anything in particular. They were just there in the graphic I found. Sorry it’s blurry at this size.)

I was struck by the fact that while I often love Brahms primary themes, it is often his secondary themes that grab my imagination.

As I was making breakfast for my lovely wife, I put on BBC symphony recording I have (Andrew Davis, conductor) of the Brahms Fourth symphony. When it reached the secondary theme, I realized how much I like this theme as well and also that it is a Tango!


Dang pop music. I’m sure Swafford probably has strong feelings about the superiority of classical music. Interestingly, you don’t have to read much of Bernstein’s commentary before you find that this great composer did not think categorically. And judging from Copland’s work (he attempted to write blues), he didn’t either.

This is Copland. Heh.

But I decided I would like to read a Brahms bio by an enthusiast, even if they dismiss much of the music I find meaningful in a secondary clause in the intro. Heh.

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