Photograph of Johannes Brahms with the Fellinger family (June 5, 1896)

The Rivalry of Brahms and Wagner

In the vast landscape of 19th-century German music, two towering figures emerge, each commanding attention and adulation in their own right: Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. Their names evoke distinct musical worlds, yet their paths intersected in a clash of artistic philosophies and egos, creating one of the most compelling rivalries in the chronicles of music history.

Background on Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms was born on May 7, 1833, in Hamburg, Germany, the son of a musician. His early exposure to music came through his father’s work as a double bass player and his own studies in piano and composition. Brahms showed prodigious talent from a young age, performing in public as a pianist and earning recognition as a composer while still in his teens.

As Brahms matured as a composer, he was deeply influenced by the works of past masters such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. He developed a style that blended the classical forms and structures of his predecessors with a distinctive Romantic sensibility, characterized by rich harmonies, lyrical melodies, and intricate counterpoint.

Brahms’ breakthrough came with the publication of his “Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor” and “Variations on a Theme by Schumann,” which showcased his mastery of form and expression. Throughout his career, Brahms composed prolifically across various genres, including symphonies, chamber music, choral works, and solo piano pieces. His compositions earned him acclaim both in Germany and abroad, establishing him as one of the leading figures of the Romantic period.

Background on Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813, in Leipzig, Germany. His upbringing was marked by a deep appreciation for literature, philosophy, and music, instilled in him by his stepfather, the playwright and actor Ludwig Geyer. Wagner’s early exposure to the works of Shakespeare, Goethe, and Beethoven had a profound influence on his artistic development and informed his later operatic endeavors.

From his early operas, such as “The Flying Dutchman” and “Tannhäuser,” Wagner sought to redefine the operatic form, rejecting the conventional divisions between aria and recitative in favor of a seamless integration of music, drama, and text. His concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total artwork,” aimed to create a synthesis of all the arts within the framework of opera, leading to the epic scale and complexity of his later works.

Wagner’s operas, with their grand themes, innovative orchestrations, and psychological depth, captivated audiences and critics alike, sparking debates and controversies that continue to this day. His ideas about the role of art in society, the relationship between music and drama, and the nature of German identity profoundly influenced not only his contemporaries but also subsequent generations of composers, writers, and thinkers.

Initial Encounters and Philosophical Differences

Brahms and Wagner first crossed paths in the cultural hub of mid-19th century Germany, where their reputations as rising musical talents preceded them. Brahms attended a performance of Wagner’s opera “Tannhäuser” in 1860, which left a lasting impression on him, albeit not entirely positive. Conversely, Wagner was aware of Brahms’ emerging stature as a composer and expressed skepticism about his adherence to traditional forms.

The meeting of Brahms and Wagner symbolized a broader ideological divide within German music of the time. Brahms, deeply rooted in the traditions of the past, championed the classical ideals of form, structure, and craftsmanship. Wagner, on the other hand, viewed tradition as a constraint to be overcome in pursuit of a more revolutionary and progressive musical language.

Wagner did not hesitate to express his disdain for Brahms’ music, dismissing it as derivative and lacking in originality. Brahms, for his part, remained diplomatic in public but privately harbored reservations about Wagner’s music and the direction of the so-called “New German School.” Despite these initial tensions, both composers maintained a begrudging respect for each other’s talents and contributions to music.

The Bayreuth Festival and Further Strain

In 1876, Richard Wagner realized his long-held dream with the inauguration of the Bayreuth Festival, a theatre specifically designed for the performance of his operas. The festival was intended to be a showcase for Wagnerian music drama and a haven for like-minded artists and enthusiasts. Its establishment signaled Wagner’s desire for artistic autonomy and control over his musical legacy.

Despite Wagner’s efforts to cultivate support for his festival among leading figures in the music world, Brahms remained conspicuously absent from Bayreuth. His reluctance to embrace Wagner’s music and ideology was compounded by personal and philosophical differences, as well as practical considerations regarding his own career and artistic integrity.

As the rivalry between Brahms and Wagner intensified, Wagner publicly derided Brahms’ compositions as “academic” and out of touch with the spirit of the times. Brahms, in turn, defended his adherence to classical forms and principles, arguing that true innovation must be grounded in tradition and craftsmanship. Their exchanges in the press and private correspondence reflected not only their artistic disagreements but also their underlying philosophical worldviews.

Musical Contributions Amidst Tensions

Despite the ongoing rivalry with Wagner, Brahms continued to produce a staggering array of masterful compositions. His four symphonies, chamber music, piano works, and choral compositions exemplified his commitment to craftsmanship and emotional depth. Brahms’ music, characterized by its richness of harmony, melodic invention, and structural integrity, solidified his reputation as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era.

Meanwhile, Wagner’s creative energies were focused on the completion of his monumental Ring Cycle, a four-part music drama that explored themes of power, love, and redemption on an epic scale. The Ring Cycle, along with works such as “Tristan und Isolde” and “Parsifal,” showcased Wagner’s groundbreaking approach to opera and solidified his status as a visionary artist whose influence extended far beyond the realm of music.

Despite their rivalry, Brahms and Wagner shared certain musical influences and cultural contexts. Both composers drew inspiration from the literary and philosophical currents of their time, incorporating elements of mythology, folk tradition, and romantic idealism into their respective works. Brahms’ steadfast adherence to classical forms and structures laid the groundwork for the development of neoclassicism in the early 20th century. Composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev looked to Brahms as a model of clarity, precision, and emotional depth in their own compositions. Brahms’ emphasis on craftsmanship and the integration of folk elements into his music also resonated with composers exploring nationalistic themes and identities.

Wagner’s revolutionary approach to opera and his synthesis of music, drama, and philosophy paved the way for the emergence of modernism in the 20th century. Composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Richard Strauss were deeply influenced by Wagner’s harmonic innovations, chromaticism, and exploration of psychological themes. Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, inspired experiments in multimedia and interdisciplinary collaboration among avant-garde artists.


The rivalry between Brahms and Wagner, while intense and at times acrimonious, ultimately contributed to the richness and diversity of 19th-century German music. Their contrasting approaches to composition and performance reflected the broader cultural and intellectual currents of their time, leaving an indelible mark on the development of Western classical music. As their legacies endure, Brahms and Wagner continue to inspire composers, performers, and audiences around the world, reminding us of the enduring power of artistic creativity and human expression.