This Week in Music History: Brahms and Tchaikovsky were born (1833/1840)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

This week? Brahms and Tchaikovsky had much in common—not least a shared birthday—but the two giants of 19th-century music lived very separate lives. That is, until a “drinking binge” on Christmas Day, 1887, finally brought them together…

On May 7, 1840, in the small Russian town of Votkinsk, a boy, Pyotr Ilyich, was born to the wealthy Tchaikovsky family. Some 1,700 miles away (2,750 km), the young Johannes Brahms was celebrating his seventh birthday in Hamburg.

Young Tchaikovsky (left) and Brahms (right) with matching comb overs
Young Tchaikovsky (left) and Brahms (right) with matching comb overs

It’s one of music history’s weird coincidences that these two giants of 19th-century music shared a birthday—even though they would have given the date different names. Russia still used the “old style” Julian Calendar, so Tchaikovsky would have called his own birthday April 25.

Perhaps they would also have denied they had much in common. True, both became leading composers, and these days often even share a program—as in the concert in this article, which features the Verbier Festival Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, with Martha Argerich, and Brahms’s First Symphony. But, as representatives of differing musical styles and traditions, they kept each other at a certain distance. Perhaps Brahms, as the First Symphony testifies, felt closer to Beethoven, even though his distinguished German predecessor was long dead. “A caricature of Beethoven,” Tchaikovsky called Brahms at one point.

Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820
Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.

“Yesterday [the violinist Josef] Kotek and I studied the new symphony [No. 1] by Brahms, a composer who in Germany is praised to the skies,” wrote Tchaikovsky to his patron Nadezhda von Meck in December 1877. “I do not understand his charm. In my view [the music] is dark, cold, and full of pretensions to depth without real depth.” Cold? Judge for yourself.

Tchaikovsky returned to the theme a few months later, explaining to Von Meck why he had avoided meeting such figures as Brahms during a recent European tour:

Let’s say I want to make myself famous in Vienna. In Vienna Brahms is regarded as the top dog… Brahms is a celebrity; I’m a nobody. And yet, without false modesty, I tell you that I consider myself superior to Brahms. So what would I say to him? If I’m an honest and truthful person, then I would have to tell him this: “Herr Brahms! I consider you to be a very untalented person, full of pretensions but utterly devoid of creative inspiration. I rate you very poorly and indeed I simply look down upon you.”

Portrait of Edvard Grieg, 1888 – a composer whom Tchaikovsky considered "enchantingly nice."
Portrait of Edvard Grieg, 1888 – a composer whom Tchaikovsky considered “enchantingly nice.”

Unsurprisingly, Tchaikovsky did not in fact say that when the two composers eventually met, some ten years later. The pair were in Leipzig, in the company of violinist Adolf Brodsky and a certain Edvard Grieg. Tchaikovsky wrote about the encounter at length:

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Brahms is of short stature, with an imposing portliness and a most likeable appearance. His comely head, almost like that of an old man, reminds one of a benign, handsome elderly Russian priest’s head… Brahms has a very homely manner, without any arrogance whatsoever; he has a jovial temperament, and the few hours which I spent in his company have left me with very pleasant memories.

The account goes on, though, to explain that, “however much I have wished it were otherwise, I have never been able to like his music and never shall be.”

Omitted from this formal account is the “drinking binge” that the two composers went on, according to Tchaikovsky’s letter to his brother Modest. They clearly found they had something in common—if not musical, then liquid.

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