‘The Vibrant, Passionate Human Soul He Was’: Robert Haven Schauffler’s The Unknown Brahms (1933) and the American Middlebrow
Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne
Context 48 (2022): 83–96.
Published online: 31 Jan. 2023
Written to mark the centenary of Brahms’s birth in 1933, Robert Haven Schauffler’s The Unknown Brahms (1933) was received rapturously by many American critics as a work which had humanised Brahms to a public that had perceived the composer as mysterious, contradictory, and unrelatable. Today, however, Schauffler’s book is regarded as a readable but unreliable work of popular psychology based not on serious research, but hearsay and rumour. Given its faults, why was The Unknown Brahms met with such acclaim by American critics? This article analyses the book’s early reception to explain its public success. Interpreting a range of reviews published in large-circulation newspapers, I situate The Unknown Brahms’s reception within the discursive context of the middlebrow, to which musicologists have devoted increasing attention in recent years. I also point to the prominence of popular psychology in interwar American society and its importance to a new paradigm of humanistic biography. I argue principally that The Unknown Brahms engrossed middlebrow readers and critics because it was an effective work of music appreciation which allowed lay listeners to engage empathetically with Brahms’s music. By contributing a new case study of Brahms’s American reception, the article broadens understandings of Brahms’s cultural status in the twentieth century.