OF THE THREE B's--Bach, Beethoven and Brahms--it is Johannes Brahms, whose 150th birthday was yesterday, who has been the least lionized, the least glorified.

The armchair analysts who dissect the ids and the egos of musical experience have not been lured to this giant of music, part w0002 ----- r s BC-05/08/83-BRAHMS 3takes 05-08 0001 Brahms, with Reserve The Pale Life of the Lyrical Composer, 150 Years After His Birth By Lon Tuck

OF THE THREE B's--Bach, Beethoven and Brahms--it is Johannes Brahms, whose 150th birthday was yesterday, who has been the least lionized, the least glorified.

The armchair analysts who dissect the ids and the egos of musical experience have not been lured to this giant of music, partly because Brahms led a life that pales in comparison to Wagner's shenanigans, or the melodramatic existences of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

This is not to suggest that Brahms' music has been neglected. Even in non-anniversary years it is omnipresent, and it is almost universally regarded as one of the greatest bodies of work produced by any composer.

During this landmark year, we already have a flood of Brahms, and right now Washington is awash with it. A week-long Brahms festival at the Library of Congress, which owns the world's richest collection of Brahms manuscripts, ends today. The Choral Arts Society performs the German Requiem this afternoon at the Kennedy Center. Wolf Trap will have a summer festival of Brahms' symphonic works, and it put on a Brahms chamber music festival earlier this year. And almost every important instrumentalist and conductor seems possessed with the urge to program even a little more Brahms than usual this year.

Since his death April 3, 1897, there has never been much question about Brahms' place in musical history. His work has not seemed subject to the fluctuations of taste that led to neglect of Bach in the three-quarters of a century after his death, trivialization of lots of Mozart in the 19th century or disregard for many of Verdi's finest operas in the first half of our century. Perhaps because the musical pundits have not had to defend Brahms, they have not explored his significance as deeply as they might.

Although he was recognized as the leading musical personality of late 19th-century Vienna, he was never one of the Beautiful People. That was the role of his rival Richard Wagner, the Mick Jagger of that period. The rivalry between the two was created mainly by critics and conductors. It was not just a question of sharply contrasting musical styles. The contrast was as much a matter of personality, given Wagner's hedonistic appetites, compulsive heroics and absence of scruples.

Brahms led a bourgeois existence, rooted in the combined ethos of German nationalism and the Lutheran Bible, though early on he lost his belief in the Christian God. He never forgot that he was a man of the people, nor did he desert the values he grew up with as the son of a poor musician in Hamburg.

He was short (5 feet 5). His hair was fair and he had deep, penetrating blue eyes. He had a high-pitched voice that he detested. He grew a beard in 1878, when he was in his forties, and later became quite fat. He adored beer. His cigars came from Havana.

He was sometimes gruff and had a temper. As Peter Latham writes in his biography of Brahms, "Always he was on the alert for any insincerity, any attempt to lionize him, and quick to check it with a crushing retort."

But the trait that dominated his adult life was his reserve. As Latham writes:

"Having weathered the storms of his youth he was resolved that neither his emotions nor his enthusiasms should involve him in further catastrophic disturbances. He would undertake no enterprise whose end he could not foresee, no course of action whose consequences he could not control. He succeeded tolerably well. His life in Vienna he lived there his last 34 years was as equable as most men's; he realized his ambitions within the limits he set himself. The price he paid was loneliness of soul and inner discord. For the warm-hearted young romantic was not dead, only closely prisoned. He appears again and again as the generous benefactor, the children's friend . . . Caution, at first a policy, then a habit, grew at last into something like an obsession."

If it was an obsession, Brahms was keenly aware of its dangers. "I am indeed dependent on the outer world; the racket of existence," he wrote in 1872. "I do not laugh at it, I do not join in its lies--but it is as though the best in one could shut itself off, and only half oneself go on its way dreaming."

That was in a letter to Clara Schumann, the widow of his mentor, Robert Schumann, and one of the great pianists of the 19th century. She was 14 years his senior, and his love for her formed the most dramatic relationship of his life. "Let this deep love of mine be a comfort to you," he wrote to her two years later, "for I love you more than myself, more than anybody or anything on earth." Although there is no evidence that their love ever went beyond words, there is little question that she was the closest friend he had; her death the year before his own, at age 63 from cancer, was a crushing blow. Brahms never married.

Musically, Brahms was forced early on into a historic and psychological mold as the anointed keeper of the flame of Beethoven--starting with Schumann's famous article titled "Neue Bahnen" ("New Paths"), which compared Brahms with Athena springing "fully armed from the head of Zeus."

". . . He has come," Schumann wrote, "a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes stood watch." Brahms was 20 years old at the time.

The pressure of following in Beethoven's footsteps is one reason Brahms did not produce the First Symphony, dubbed by some Beethoven's Tenth, until he was 43. He finished the Fourth Symphony, his last, by age 53. It was only then, historians speculate, that he could relax into the autumnal lyricism of his later music--the Clarinet Quintet and the glorious little piano Intermezzi, for instance--having lifted the onus of the Beethoven label.

Clearly, it was not an easy life. The stress, at times, must have seemed overwhelming. Nevertheless, Brahms' capacity for love gave him a wide and devoted circle of friends--and it suffuses much of his greatest music.

While a composer's creations should not be viewed strictly as a musical Rorschach test, it is beyond contradiction that most of the music of the mature Johannes Brahms--from the tenderest songs to the bedrock emotional and intellectual might of the Fourth Symphony--is a marriage of the musical forms he inherited and the emotional demons that lay within him. It is a mixture that much resembles the uneasy, but workable, balance between reserve and passionate intensity that he maintained in his personal life.

Brahms was brilliant at the harmonic, contrapuntal and structural intricacies of music--sonata form, variation form, song form, the niceties of counterpoint in general. He seemed to cling to formality, as if it were a safety net that would protect him from betraying the musical traditions that had been passed to his stewardship. And it would also protect him from that dreaded overt sentimentality. Even in works so direct in their expressiveness as the last piano pieces, a simple melody is not allowed to sing out without a counterweight to curb its sentiment.

Brahms had remarkable precision of judgment about how far these forms could be stretched to serve as vessels for his surging feelings. His music is never lacking in clarity; but in addition, even more than with Beethoven, there are hardly any pages of Brahms' music that do not ring emotionally true.

Yet in his art as in his life, he paid a price for this insistence on simultaneous reserve and passion. His music never quite leaves you stunned in metaphysical awe the way, say, Beethoven's stupefying C-sharp Minor Quartet does. But neither does it ever betray you, the way, say, the cheap formulas of Beethoven's "Wellington's Victory" do.

Brahms speaks to a need for honest balance of passion and order that exists in all of us. And no artist has ever expressed the tension between these conflicting values more eloquently.

Brahms' Victorian life of sublimated emotions is quite out of fashion in these post-Freudian days. But the fact that his music continues to strike such a deep response may tell us something about the forces that lie simmering beneath today's life styles.