Brahms & Ravel VS Tchaikovsky & Beethoven

Piano Lessons / composers / Brahms & Ravel VS Tchaikovsky & Beethoven

Welcome to I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today may sound strange to you. Today we’ll be discussing Brahms & Ravel versus Tchaikovsky & Beethoven. What could I possibly be talking about? These are four great composers, and this indeed is not a contest. It’s just an interesting observation, a fundamental difference among composers. There is something that Brahms and Ravel share that distinguishes them from Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. There is a fundamental difference in how they presented their music to the public, which lives on to this day. I wonder, do any of you know what the difference is?

Brahms and Tchaikovsky are both 19th century Romantic composers who wrote a lot of works.

Tchaikovsky wrote six symphonies, and Brahms wrote four symphonies. So the output of Tchaikovsky is a little bit bigger than Brahms in this regard. However, if you look at what orchestras typically program, it’s only three of the Tchaikovsky symphonies that get 90% of the play. The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies are played constantly. They’re played in public performance and recording. If you were to search out how many different recordings there are of those latter three symphonies, it’s far greater than his first three symphonies. Not that those early works were mediocre, by any stretch of the imagination. However, the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies are arguably better works than his earlier ones.

So what about Brahms? He wrote four symphonies. Could you say that maybe the third and fourth are better than the first two? I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, you might have a favorite, but you couldn’t honestly say that any one of those Brahms Symphonies is better than the next. Why is this?

Brahms destroyed any music he didn’t feel was on the absolute highest level!

We don’t know what Brahms wrote that wasn’t his absolute best. Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, wrote a lot of works. Some of them are phenomenally great, for example his B-flat Minor Piano Concerto. Everybody knows and loves that concerto. But that is his second piano concerto. What about his first concerto? I don’t even really know it, and you probably don’t either, because it’s seldom played. The second concerto is a blockbuster everybody knows and loves. So Tchaikovsky released whatever he had, whereas Brahms was more selective. And the same thing is true of Ravel.

Beethoven, on the other hand, wrote nine great symphonies.

Beethoven didn’t write any bad symphonies. However, generally, the odd-numbered symphonies are the ones that are really enriching, and played much more often than the even-numbered ones. They’re all great worthwhile works. But you could arguably say that his third, fifth, seventh and ninth are his most famous works for good reason. Not that any of them are bad works, because it’s all great music! But there are some Beethoven works that are arguably better than others, and have lived on more.

Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas. There are some that are absolutely stupendous! They’re all more than worthwhile. But some are arguably better, like the Appassionata, the Hammerklavier and the Pathetique. Yet Beethoven wrote other sonatas that are not played as much. They’re still worthwhile works. He let it all out, for better or for worse, and they’re all worthwhile! But some are more substantial works than others.

If Brahms and Ravel had released more of their music that wasn’t up to their highest standard, would we be richer for it?

I certainly wouldn’t want to have less Beethoven and Tchaikovsky works out there! Even if some of the pieces are not among the absolute cream of those composers, it’s still nice to be able to hear and enjoy those works. So it’s a different methodology. I’m curious as to what your feeling is about composers being very selective and self-editing (or burning as Brahms did!) before the music even gets out to the public. We only have the greatest works of Brahms and Ravel. But with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, there are some works that are still great, but not as great as some of their other works.

I hope this has been interesting for you! Let me know how you feel about this in the comments! Can you name composers you feel released things they perhaps shouldn’t have? Or composers you wish had released more? It’s a tough thing as a composer, knowing which compositions to release and which ones to hold back. The same thing is true as a performer. If you have recordings of concerts, or recordings that you made in the studio, which ones should you release and which ones should you hold back? Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin here at, Your Online Piano Resource.

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9 thoughts on “Brahms & Ravel VS Tchaikovsky & Beethoven”

  1. Mr. Mahler wowed me with his resurrection symphony #2

    but as I hear for example #8 9 10 these seem to be understated in that so much of the motifs and instrumentation are so similar. . don’t get me wrong. love Gustav for his use of unusual instruments and the placement of them.

  2. Other way to see them; Brahms and Tchaikovsky as alpha and omega inspirations; Brahms & Ravel being the inner breath and Beethoven &Tchaikovsky the outer. One pair integrative, the other pair differential~ In tone and style. Yes?
    Thank you Robert for all your lessons and viewpoints shared. You are amazing!

  3. I also think Brahms and Ravel were much more daring in their use of unusual harmonies and rhythms in their compositions while Beethoven and to a lesser extent Tchaikovsky stayed with harmonies and rhythms that were more acceptable in their time.

  4. I think Shostakovich’s symphonies are also a case in point. Some are extraordinary and some are so, so, but still interesting. His 5th, 7th, 8th, 10th, 11th, and 15th are among the world’s great symphonies. The others are okay though.
    Mahler’s symphonies as well.
    Both Shostakovich and Mahler are like Beethoven in that respect.

  5. This is actually a very interesting understanding. I’ve anyways felt the same between Ravel and Debussy. Ravel seems to have out out a lot less. Debussy wrote a huge amount and we got to know him better while Ravel seems to out out one masterpiece after another. Ever showing us his more vulnerable side. On the other hand there is Mahler who wrote 9 and a half symphonies- more than Beethoven – but every second is amazing. Going along with Robert’s theory Mahler basically only gave out those symphonies and some other works but not much more. We never see piano sonatas or quartets by Mahler. I think he wrote more works but we just were never shown them. By the way, Wagner too. I’ve seen a piano sonata by Wagner admnd while it’s a great piece of music it doesn’t compare in any way with his operas.
    So Robert- good call here. Thanks for this!

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