Brahms and Dvořák were both great composers of the 19th century, but why pair them together in a concert? Read on to learn more about the relationship between Brahms and Dvořák ahead of the Houston Symphony’s concert of Brahms Piano Concerto & Dvořák Symphony No. 8 March 10–12.
The relationship between mentor and mentee is a tale as old as time, and Classical Music has some of the most legendary partnerships; Vivaldi and J.S. Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, Copland and Bernstein, and the Schumanns and Brahms to name a few. Many people know of the Schumann-Brahms relationship that helped immensely in cultivating the latter’s career as a composer. But, many forget that Brahms returned the favor, something considered out of character for Brahms.
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) was a highly influential composer, pianist, and conductor of the Romantic era and, during his lifetime, was recognized as one of the leading voices in his field. He was highly regarded for his musical talent and knowledge, especially his technical skill, musical sensitivity, and innovative approach to composition. Despite this, Brahms was a very critical person and had no pupils of his own in the formal sense, which is why his mentorship of Antonín Dvořák is one of Brahms’s most notable contributions to the musical world.
In 1875, he begrudgingly sat on the jury of the Austrian State Stipendium alongside music critic Eduard Hanslick and Director of the Imperial Opera Johann Herbeck. This composition competition awarded financial support to talented composers in need within the Habsburg Empire. Though many aspirational composers submitted works, it was a young Antonín Dvořák, who submitted 15 pieces including two symphonies, several overtures, and a song cycle, that impressed Brahms the most. With Brahms’s “rhythmically tricky Hungarian Dances” as his claim to fame, it is no wonder he became so interested in Dvořák’s “seemingly unlimited inventiveness of … melodic materials, uncanny sense of time and duration and the dazzling sense of musical lines.” Dvořák was awarded the stipend that year and two more times afterwards.
It was not until 1877, however, with the encouragement of Eduard Hanslick, that Dvořák wrote to Brahms, and their relationship began. In his first letter, Dvořák exaggerated his love for Brahms’s music to establish a mentorship. During a time when German musical criticism meant everything and German music dominated the industry, being recognized by the German-speaking community was imperative to gaining recognition. Brahms, being of German descent, was a supportive and encouraging mentor to Dvořák, offering guidance and advice on his compositions. He was particularly impressed with Dvořák’s natural musical talent and encouraged him to continue developing a unique style of his own. He even served as Dvořák’s copy editor and proofreader for some time to expedite the publication process and was instrumental in promoting Dvořák’s music, arranging for performances, and introducing him to other important musical figures.
Shortly after their relationship began, Brahms introduced Dvořák to his German publisher Franz Simrock. Simrock accepted Dvořák Moravian Duets and published them at the beginning of 1878 under the German title Klänge aus Mähren, although Dvořák did not receive payment for this publication. With a lively public interest in the duets, the cycle was published again in 1880. With the immediate success of the duets, Simrock commissioned Dvořák to write what would become one of his most famous works, his 8 Slavonic Dances.
Brahms and Dvořák’s relationship was not limited to just mentorship and music, as the two also shared a close personal friendship. They traveled Europe together and performed their work for each other in turn providing valuable feedback and support. With the encouragement and support of Brahms, Dvořák grew as a composer and launched himself into the international spotlight, where he remains to this day.
Hear the Houston Symphony perform works by both composers March 10–12 as Jonathon Heyward conducts Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with pianist Stephen Hough, and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. For tickets and livestream information visit the concert page.