Brahms and Priestley


Music is often used to depict works of art in other disciplines – Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune”, for instance, is a musical interpretation of a poem by Mallarmé; there are likewise many overtures or symphonic poems based on the plays of Shakespeare (Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet by Tchaikovsky, for example) and other writers. What is less common is a description of a musical work in words, other than in a technical analysis for specialists. Here is an extract from ‘Angel Pavement’, by J.B.Priestley:

“It was some time before he made much out of it. The Brahms of this symphony seemed a very gloomy, ponderous, rumbling sort of chap, who might now and then show a flash of temper or go in a corner and feel sorry for himself, but for the most part simply went on gloomily rumbling and grumbling. There were moments, however, when there came a sudden gush of melody, something infinitely tender swelling out of the strings or a ripple of laughter from the flutes and clarinets or a fine flare up by the whole orchestra, and for these moments Mr Smeeth waited, puzzled but excited, like a man catching a glimpse of some delectable strange valley through the swirling mists of a mountain side. As the symphony went on, he began to get the hang of it more and more, and these moments returned more frequently, until at last, in the final section, the great moment arrived and justified everything, the whole symphony concert.

“It began, this last part, with some muffled and doleful sounds from the brass instruments. He had heard some of those grim snatches of tune earlier on in the symphony, and now when they were repeated in this fashion they had a very queer effect on him, almost frightened him. It was as if all the workhouses and hospitals and cemeteries of North London had been flashed past his eyes. Those brass instruments didn’t think Smeeth had much of a chance. All the violins were sorry about it; they protested, they shook, they wept; but the horns and trumpets and trombones came back and blew them away. Then the whole orchestra became tumultuous, and one voice after another raised itself above the menacing din, cried in anger, cried in sorrow, and was lost again. There were queer little intervals, during one of which only the strings played, and they twanged and plucked instead of using their bows, and the twanging and plucking, quite soft and slow at first, got louder and faster until it seemed as if there was danger everywhere. Then, just when it seemed as if something was going to burst, the twanging and plucking was over, and the great mournful sounds came reeling out again, like doomed giants. After that the whole thing seemed to be slithering into hopelessness, as if Brahms had got stuck in a bog and the light was going. But then the great moment arrived. Brahms jumped clean out of his bog, set his foot on the hard road, and swept the orchestra and the fierce man and the three foreigners and Mr Smeeth and the whole Queen’s Hall along with him, in a noble stride. This was a great tune. Ta tum ta ta tum tum, ta tum ta-ta tum ta tum. He could have shouted at the splendour of it. The strings in a rich deep unison sweeping on, and you were ten feet high and had a thousand years to live. But in a minute or two it had gone, this glory of sound, and there was muddle and gloom, a sudden sweetness of violins, then harsh voices from the brass. Mr Smeeth had given it up, when back it came again, swelling his heart until it nearly choked him, and then it was lost once more and everything began to be put in its place and settled, abruptly, fiercely, as if old Brahms had made up his mind to stand no nonsense from anybody or anything under the sun. There, there, there there, There. It was done.”

It helps, of course, if you already know Brahms’ First Symphony when you read this, but I find it a very clear description of the progress of the piece from beginning to end.


  1. There are some very fine descriptions of musical pieces in Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, if my memory serves me well.

  2. And of course the famous description of Beethoven’s Fifth in Howards End.

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