Performing Brahms: reading between the lines of the notation

The Dome, Bramall Music Building
Arts and Law, Research
Wednesday 23rd November 2016 (13:00)
Download the date to your calendar (.ics file)

  • Music Colloquium series 2016-2017

Speaker: Clive Brown (University of Leeds)

Venue: The Dome, Bramall Music Building (3rd Floor)


Brahms' scores appear to provide detailed information for the performance of his music. Clara Schumann’s pupil Fanny Davies remarked that “he was most particular that his marks of expression (always as few as possible) should be the means of conveying the inner musical meaning.” In fact, Brahms often removed instructions from his manuscripts during the process of publication, especially relating to tempo modification, apparently concerned not to encourage exaggeration. Richard Barth, whose chamber ensemble was coached by Brahms, observed: “If one knows Brahms’ ways, one has to admit that probably no composer marked things as precisely as he, and that, for those who understand how to read it, everything that leads to the right conception [...] is in fact indicated.”  Writing in about 1920, however, Barth regretted that people had already lost respect for the “incontrovertible tradition” of performing Brahms’ music, which he considered essential “if a performance that is faithful to its content is to be achieved.”  It is clear that Brahms’ notation, taken literally, or realised according to currently prevailing conventions, does not provide adequate information for performing it in a way that would have satisfied the composer’s expectations. As Barth, Joseph Joachim (his teacher in the 1860s), and many other 19th-century German musicians recognised, a fine performance required the executants to be able to "read between the lines". This talk will examine some of the ways in which conventional modern approaches to Brahms' music fail to recognise the subliminal messages in his notation and how, potentially, a scholarly edition might help to convey the composer's expectations to contemporary performers.


Clive Brown, Neal Peres Da Costa and Kate Bennett Wadsworth Performing Johannes Brahms’ Chamber Music (Bärenreiter, 2015).

Performing 19th-century chamber music: the yawning chasm between contemporary practice and historical evidence’  Early Music xxxviii (2010),  476-480.

Rediscovering the language of Classical and Romantic performanceEarly Music  41 (2013), 72-74.