Brahms: The Challenge of My Life


Throughout my musical life and personal history, I have encountered challenges at the moments that I needed to grow and expand both as an artist and as a person. However, Brahms, the pinnacle musical and artistic challenge of my life, represents a culmination of all the challenges I have already encountered. Although I have finally recorded all of Brahms’s solo piano pieces, it seems to me that his music – and the challenge of understanding the language of his work – is the place where I belong. 

As an artist, I have learned that I need the challenge of playing difficult pieces to develop my artistry. The most important composers who have had an influence on me have been Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and now Brahms. I would also include Beethoven although I do not feel as close to him – at least emotionally – as to the others. Each of these composers has had a different impact on me and each has contributed in their own ways to help me reach artistic maturity. Bach seems to inhabit a musical mind comparable to the universal God; he will live forever. Mozart seems like a dream; his music comes as a divine flow of ideas spontaneously organised into sounds. (As a young man, Brahms commented that Mozart wrote music like no other music.) Schubert composes marvellous music, sometimes an entire movement with very few tools, an obstinate rhythm, a pattern of modulations, and a melodic vein of ideas. His music can seem repetitive, but it takes you to paradise, as Igor Stravinsky observed. (In an interview, Stravinsky was asked, “Doesn’t Schubert’s music put you to sleep?” Stravinsky replied: “What does it matter, if, when I awake, it seems to me that I am in paradise?”) 

Beethoven is an innovator; his music comes right at you with its powerful force and its highly individual message. Beethoven is someone who tells you who he is, someone who dared to write the music he wanted at a time when many musicians were still in the service of princes. He is someone who will open music to the future. Brahms is an architect who summarises everything else. He expresses, builds, innovates, talks to you, and envelops you into his completeness. If he ever did speak to anyone about himself, he would say that he spoke through his music. 

I have found a lot of answers on my own in order to create my inherent way of playing. 

I spent my childhood during the Lebanese Civil War and learned to challenge myself in any situation. I had to insist to my parents that I wanted to learn music and I practised the piano under the bombings. My first piano teacher had taught me for barely a year before she fled to France. Later, I fled to the Lebanese mountains with my family and two piano books: the Bach Inventions and the Chopin Waltzes. There, I inherited the Chopin Polonaises from another escapee, a woman from the city who played the piano for her leisure. Chopin’s Polonaises were the first big set of pieces I learned, and a great challenge to tackle with less than one year of formal piano training. 

Later on, I found myself in France to pursue my piano studies. While in the process of selecting pieces for the Paris Conservatory entrance competition, my teacher realised that the more difficult the piece, the better I would play. I prepared a Scriabin étude and Chopin’s First Ballade and won the competition. But later on, instead of exploring bigger repertoire like other pianists in my class at the Paris Conservatory, my teachers directed me toward the limpid music of Mozart and Schubert. I became closely associated with them, performing it with a natural breath and phrasing. I apparently reminded my audiences and my teachers of pianist Clara Haskil and received the nickname of “Clara”. My repertoire at that time consisted mostly of Mozart, Schubert, some Bach and Chopin, and one early sonata by Beethoven. There was a tendency at that time to think that because I was a woman I had much less chance to pursue a career. There was also a strong emphasis on French composers; their writing was elegant and involved finger work in the French tradition of the great harpsichordists François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau. I performed the music of Debussy, Fauré, Dutilleux, Messiaen, as well as many other lesser known French composers, such as Guillaume Lekeu, Maurice Emmanuel and Gabriel Pierné. 

After arriving in the US, it took a few more years of study before I could finally reach out to the virtuoso music of Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff. I learned the latter’s Third Piano Concerto in five weeks for a performance with orchestra when I was still a student at Indiana University. Next, I studied Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. I had engagements with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, op. 73, “Emperor”, and Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. I played several works by Liszt in my concerts including his Piano Sonata in B minor and the 12 Transcendental Etudes as well as other arduous music like Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit or Balakirev’s Islamey. 

I have realised that, as a pianist, playing must feel free and natural so that music flows out of me as a language without any obstacles. When Brahms knocked on my door ten years ago now, I knew it was going to be the greatest challenge of all. I was barely aware of his music, but I knew it was difficult, and I knew it was going to be very demanding. I had always looked up to Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto as my own personal Himalayan mountain, the summit of all other piano concertos. What started to matter then was understanding, and being able to play his music as easily and naturally as I played Mozart and Schubert. It may seem strange to think of Brahms in this way because it may not be easy to imagine that the music of Brahms can be as simple and natural as the music of Mozart or Schubert. I came to the conclusion that if I performed Mozart or Schubert with such spontaneity then I could also apply that mindset to the music of Brahms. Once I began this challenge, I had to conquer all of Brahms’s music in its every aspect, musically and technically. I thoroughly studied how I could perform it easily and breathe spontaneously through the phrasing of themes in a natural way. 

It is rare for a woman to play Brahms. I have heard my colleagues complain of the physical demands, the big chords, and more. That a petite woman like me is able to play Brahms and be attracted to his music may be surprising. But, when I started to record his music seven years ago, I knew this journey would be limitless. 

I am convinced there is a psychological barrier between our understanding of Brahms and what history has left us. He was quickly defined as the successor of Beethoven and hailed loudly as such by Robert Schumann. In October 1853, in the Leipzig magazine New Journal for Music, Schumann wrote an article titled “Neue Bahnen” (“New Paths”), in which he described the young Brahms by comparing him to Minerva, a kind of fullyformed, “fully armed” composer sprung from the head of Jupiter (perhaps a reference to Beethoven, by way of completing his Greek mythology-based analogy). Schumann wrote: “Sitting at the piano, he began to explore most wonderful regions. We were drawn into more and more magical circles by his playing, full of genius, which made of the piano and orchestra of lamenting and jubilant voices. There were sonatas, or rather veiled symphonies; songs whose poetry might be understood without words; piano pieces both of a demoniac nature and of the most graceful form; sonatas for piano and violin; string quartettes, each so different from every other that they seemed to flow from many different sources” (translated by David Stybr, as posted on The Classical Music Guide Forums: []). Most composers of course could not avoid the impact Beethoven had on music, including Schumann himself. But with this article, Schumann muddled Brahms’s legacy as a Beethoven inheritor. 

To aggravate the matter, Brahms was a private man and disliked revealing or explaining anything about his music. He never talked about his compositional process to anyone, save for one exception. In 1896, just four months before his death, Brahms spoke for about three hours with his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), and American music critic Arthur M. Abell (1868-1958). Per Brahms’s request (according to Abell), the conversation was not published until 50 years after Brahms’s death. In this conversation, transcribed into an interview and included in his book Talks With Great Composers (1955), Abell quotes Brahms claiming that his Violin Concerto would not enter the standard violin repertoire until 50 years after his death: “I know that the violin concerto will find its real place, but it will take at least five decades, and it is much the same with my symphonies, piano concertos and many other works. No, I must insist on the fifty-year postponement” (163). Abell also quotes Brahms’s explanations of the sources of his creativity and inspiration, a process that Brahms describes as a kind of direct communing with God. After first realising that he is one with the Creator, Brahms makes a direct appeal to God and asks, “whence, wherefore, whither [woher, warum, wohin]?” (28). Then he describes a particular kind of sensation coming upon him – vibrations that “assume the forms of distinct mental images” – and then Brahms falls into “a semi-trance condition”, in which ideas begin to flow: “Straightaway the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God, and not only do I see distinct themes in my mind’s eye, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies and orchestration. Measure by measure, the finished product is revealed to me when I am in those rare, inspired moods, as they were to Tartini when he composed his greatest work, the Devil’s Trill Sonata. I have to be in a semi-trance condition to get such results, a condition when the conscious mind is in temporary abeyance and the subconscious is in control, for it is through the subconscious mind, which is part of Omnipotence, that the inspiration comes. I have to be careful, however, not to lose consciousness, otherwise the ideas fade away” (29). 

Brahms never spoke to anyone about composing, including his closest friends (throughout Abell’s transcription of their conversation, Joseph Joachim frequently mentions how glad he is to learn about Brahms’s process because he had never heard Brahms explain his method of working). This is in complete opposition to Mozart, who beautifully explains his gift in a letter to a friend; or Beethoven who left behind many sketches showing his process in creating a new work. Schubert opened the door to his friends while he was in the middle of writing music, but of course was too distracted to entertain so they would leave him alone. 

Brahms’s extensive knowledge of all music that came to exist before him, from the baroque period to his time, can somewhat explain his position in music history as a tipping point between the Romantic era and modern time. He opens new paths to modern composers but remains a deeply expressive composer. In his essay on Brahms, which Schoenberg adapted from a lecture that he originally gave in February 1933 in honour of Brahms’s 100th birthday, “Brahms the Progressive” (1947), Arnold Schoenberg explains how Brahms took aspects of form and structure to their utmost achievements: “It is the purpose of this essay to prove that Brahms, the classicist, the academician, was a great innovator in the realm of musical language, that, in fact, he was a great progressive” (56, Style and Idea). The immensity of Brahms’s work is very similar to the impact of J. S. Bach’s music. Just as Bach attained the highest levels of artistic capacity with counterpoint and fugue, Brahms (like Bach) may claim an eternal aspect to his art. The music of Brahms can sound very complicated at first, but it is also distinctive for its sumptuous beauty and striking power. This music is beautiful not only because it is so well crafted, but also because Brahms has a unique gift to tap into gorgeous concepts with tremendous inspiration. He developed his compositional technique to such perfection that his music has an unlimited richness and universal span. No matter how many times you listen to it, it will still open new insights. No matter how many times you study it, you will always uncover new things that bring deep fulfillment, in the same way that Bach is constantly rediscovered and re-recorded. 

Brahms’s music is some of the most formidable for the piano. The conception of his works is often symphonic and requires an important involvement from the pianist. In certain instances, the complex structure makes it difficult to grasp the whole image. In order to make it accessible to the public, the performer must completely understand the meaning behind the notes and transform it into a comprehensive performance. One must also become acquainted with the lesser-known works to attain a complete picture of the composer. Working this way, from the ground up in a sense, will help the pianist understand the language of Brahms. If you are one of those who has been initiated into his world, Brahms’s music will slowly unfold its splendour and capture you entirely. You will be engulfed in an extraordinary adventure, emotionally, musically and artistically. This is all due to the several layers of texture found in his works as well as to certain intangible and spiritual components which would be the splendid contours of his personality. 

Since becoming deeply immersed in Brahms’s music, an undertaking that has taken the better part of the past few years, I have gained such a clear image of Brahms and his music. But for many people, not only the average listener but performers and composers alike, certain aspects of his music still remain unconquerable and, in some ways, his music remains mysterious. I believe it may take a number of years, or the work of future performers or artists, to fully comprehend and appreciate the enduring impact of this composer. Indeed, for performers, part of the problem may be that it takes such deep musicianship to play his music. And although Brahms is German (like Beethoven) and shares a similar sense of organisation with Beethoven, Brahms is so much more lyrical and romantic, and his use of counterpoint feels very natural. Performers, and listeners too, sometimes wear their confusion or misperceptions about Brahms like a mask in front of their eyes; they cannot see who Brahms truly is. I hope that future performers will not fear Brahms because they think his work is too difficult or complicated. And while I cannot predict the levels of Brahms’s immortality, I share Brahms’s certainty in the endurance of his ideas. Maybe like his own prediction about his violin concerto becoming a repertoire standard 50 years after his death, it may take another 100 years, or 200 years, for Brahms to truly seep into the collective subconscious. 

Brahms is my life’s challenge; but, at the same time, being an artist is an ongoing process. I renew my journey with a daily and constant search to improve my knowledge of his music. Currently, I’m studying his Second Symphony, but I am also playing the music of composers other than Brahms. I find that sometimes it is better to step away from my main focus for a time and then return to it so that something new will emerge. I am continually searching for new perspectives on Brahms. I would like to conquer all his music, including his lieder, all of his chamber music, and his symphonies. I am also working on a project to perform his concertos in 2024. I have transcribed the Organ Chorales for the piano, but I would like to sit at the organ and perform Brahms’s difficult but exquisite masterpiece, the Organ Fugue in A-flat minor. I’m continuing my quest, but it’s not yet fully finished. By playing his music, by expressing the feelings and thoughts of his musical language, by rising to the challenge of this work, I ultimately hope people will feel that the music of Brahms is closer to them than it seems.

With grateful thanks to Jacqueline Kharouf, for her invaluable editorial contribution to this article.

Photo by John Nation

See this article in the Piano Journal.