Brahms is the first great musician, in whose case historical meaning and meaning as an artistic personality no longer coincide: that this was so, was not his fault, but rather that of his epoch. The loftiest formal creations of Beethoven had been born out of Beethoven's time, in so far as they employed the language and expressive possibilities of this time. The aspirations of Beethoven, as timeless and pregnant with the future as they may have been, were nonetheless in correspondence with the aspirations of the time; Beethoven was "borne by his time." The most audacious and thorough-going works of Wagner themselves attest not only to the vehement humanity of their creator, but to the aspirations and possibilities of their epoch. He was, as much as he then wished to perceive himself in contrast to his time, nonetheless its expression. With Beethoven, with Wagner, as well as with later ones, like Strauss, Reger, Debussy, Stravinsky - personal aspirations and the aspirations of the times coincide.
With Brahms, and for the first time with him, these aspirations part company. And this was not because Brahms were not deeply a man of his times, but rather because the material/musical possibilities of his time went other ways, that did not suffice the quality of his aspirations. He is the first, that as artist and creator was greater than his musical-historical function.
He is hence the first, that had to defend himself, in order to remain what he was - what for his predecessors through Wagner, borne by the favor of the times, fell into their laps as a matter of course. Thus he became the first, that had to confront his times in his heart of hearts, only to be able to do consciously what to earlier generations was self-evident: to make the human being the focus of all art and artistic practice - the human being, who is ever new and yet ever the same. For not the development of the material - harmony, rhythm etc. - is the soul of history, but rather the will to expression of those, who avail themselves of this material. Not the degree of "audacity," the newness of what is said from the developmental-historical standpoint, but rather the degree of inner necessity, the humanity, the expressive power is the measure of an artwork's meaning.