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Johannes Brahms: Romantic Traditionalist and Innovator

Austrian Herring Salad 3

By Tim Hazell

German composer and virtuoso pianist Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) is sometimes grouped with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the “Three Bs” of music. He is generally considered as both a Romantic period traditionalist and an innovator. To be sure, there is a conservative aspect to his music, firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of masters such as Beethoven. But also his craftsmanship is pristine, and yet has an emotive power that transcends pure elegance.

Brahms’ First Symphony, which took up to twenty years to complete, is ushered in via a rawly evocative processional section, featuring syncopated rhythms underpinned by pulsating timpani. Woodwinds and pizzicato strings toy with thematic phrases to be subsequently fully explored. There is a short and tempestuous return to the original development, supported by rolling timpani, followed by melodic introductions on oboe, flute, and cello before resolving in an extended transitional passage.

Brahms premiered much of his own work as a virtuoso pianist and collaborated with leading luminaries of his time, including the pianist Clara Schumann. Many of his compositions have become standards of modern concert repertoire. An uncompromising perfectionist, Brahms is known to have destroyed some of his scores, while leaving others unpublished.

The music of Brahms exerted a deep influence upon his colleagues: Czech composer Antonín Dvorak deeply admired him, evoking his spirit in music such as the Symphony No. 7 in D minor and the F minor Piano Trio. Features of the “Brahms style” were absorbed in a complex synthesis with other nineteenth-century trends.

Johannes Brahms’ contemporaries often mentioned his love of food and drink. Here is a fond remembrance from a friend:

“He would stop at the casino in the Stadtpark on his way back from Rote Igel for relaxation. There I found him, seated at a little marble table on the high terrace, sipping his coffee seasoned with a glass of cognac, eagerly reading the newspaper…”

The composer is known to have had a special weakness for Silsalat, a refreshing Austrian salad of marinated herring.




1 lb small new potatoes, halved

1/2 lb marinated, fileted herring (Bonanza)

2/3 cup sweet or dill pickles

2 sour apples such as Granny Smith

1/2 cup cooked white beans

1 medium red onion

1 cup sour cream

5 tbsp mayonnaise

Tarragon or Dijon mustard to taste

2 tsp vinegar or lemon juice

Salt, pepper and horseradish to taste

1 tsp anchovy paste (Bonanza)

1 tbsp capers

Hard-boiled egg quarters



Boil potatoes in lightly salted water until tender. Chop herring and pickles. Peel apples, remove core, and dice. Chop onion finely. Mix together potatoes, pickles, herring, apple cubes, onion, and beans. Fold sour cream into mayonnaise. Add mustard, vinegar, salt, pepper, horseradish, anchovy paste, and capers to make a savory marinade and incorporate into salad ingredients. Let the salad rest; season to taste again with vinegar or lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Decorate with egg quarters, a touch of parsley, extra capers, and finely chopped pickles.


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