Musical Meaning for the Few: Instances of Private Reception in the Music of Brahms

How to Cite

Parmer, D. R. (2007). Musical Meaning for the Few: Instances of Private Reception in the Music of Brahms. Current Musicology, (83).


The received view of Brahms as a champion of “absolute” music has dominated the scholarly reception of his compositional output for over a century, and with good reason. Except in a few early works, Brahms rarely published his instrumental music with any of the suggestive clues that his contemporaries used in their program music, while his preference for the apparently more classical genres, forms, and procedures seems to distance him from the overtly progressive tendencies of Romanticism that eschewed reliance on classical conventions. What transpired in purely musical terms also was evident in the written word, both that of Brahms and of others. In what follows, I steer a middle ground by arguing that Brahms’s music has a double reception history: within his circle of intimates, Brahms often transmitted suggestive, even programmatic, clues but in the public sphere, he refrained from stipulating any such clues whatsoever, thereby distancing the same music from the more openly specified extramusical associations that characterized program music in the latter half of the nineteenth century. What emerges in this compromise is a hitherto unacknowledged species of music that exists simultaneously in two contrary ways: as program music for those to whom Brahms stipulated suggestive titles, poetic mottoes, or actual literary texts; as “abstract” or “absolute” music for everyone else.