A Quarrel Between Brahms and Wagner

Correspondence Between “Two Sovereigns”


Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner, having lived in totally different ideological worlds, did live around the same time and same space on earth. Although they seldom conversed, they did have vivid conversations.

One such conversation happened when Wagner demanded Brahms to return his manuscripts. The manuscript in question is the “Venusberg” music from Tannhäuser, an autograph score that Wagner adapted the opera for Paris performance. Pianist Karl Tausig, knowing Brahms’ habit of collection manuscripts, gave the autograph to Brahms as a personal gift. Wagner, after a decade and with Tausig then dead, demanded the manuscripts back. “Tausig was undoubtedly in error when he declared the score was his property,” he wrote in a stern letter to Brahms :-

Presumably it is quite unnecessary for me to remind you of these circumstances, and no further discussion will be needed to induce you to be so good and kind as to return this manuscript, which you can only value as curiosity, while my son might treasure it as a momento.

Brahms replied, with no less diplomacy and sternness :-

Given the large number of your works, ownership of this scene can hardly be as valuable to your son as to me, who, without actually being a collector, nevertheless likes to have autographs that I treasure. ‘Curiosities’ I do not collect . . .

Brahms agreed to return the Tannhäuser, but being “rob[bed] my manuscript collection of such a treasure,” Brahms proposed Wagner to do something in return,

it would please me very much if you would enrich my library with something else of yours, such as the Meistersinger.

Nice try, Herr. Brahms was 58, and Wagner exactly twenty years senior.

The result? A gold-stamped first edition of Rheingold, with an inscription, “To Herr Johannes Brahms, a well-conditioned substitute for a sloppy manuscript.” And Wagner’s attendance, together with Cosima, of première of Brahms’ third piano quartet at the Musikverein, as a reconciliation effort over the dispute between two reigning music sovereigns.

Bibliographical Notes

Quotations and citations taken from Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848–1861, Volume 2 (Cornell, 1989), p. 182; Jan Swafford, Brahms, A Biography (Vintage, 1997), p. 401; Hans Adolf Neunzig, trans. Mike Mitchell, Brahms. (Haus, 2003), p. 112; Walter Frisch and Kevin C. Karnes ed., Brahms and His World. Rev. Ed. (Princeton, 2009) p. 348 n. 16.