Brahms was born in Hamburg. His father, Johann Jakob Brahms, came to
Hamburg from Schleswig-Holstein seeking a career as a town musician.
He was proficient on several instruments but found employment mostly
as a horn player and double bassist. He married Christiane Nissen, a
seamstress, who was considerably older than he was. They lived in the
poor Gängeviertel district of the city, near the docks.
Johann Jakob gave
his son his first musical training. He studied piano from the age of
3. Brahms showed early promise on the piano (his younger brother Fritz
also became a pianist) and helped to supplement the rather meager family
income by playing the piano in restaurants and theaters, as well as
by teaching. It is a long-told tale that Brahms was forced in his early
teens to play the piano in bars that doubled as brothels; recently Brahms
scholar Kurt Hoffman has suggested that this legend is false. Since
Brahms himself clearly originated the story, however, some have questioned
For a time, Brahms
also learned the cello, although his progress was cut short when his
teacher absconded with Brahms's instrument. His piano teachers were
first Otto Cossel and then Eduard Marxsen, who had studied in Vienna
with Ignaz Seyfried (a pupil of Mozart) and Carl von Bocklet (a close
friend of Schubert). The young Brahms gave a few public concerts in
Hamburg, and though he did not become well known as a pianist he made
some concert tours in the 1850s and 60s and in later life frequently
participated in the performance of his own works, whether as soloist,
accompanist, or participant in chamber music. Notably he gave the premieres
of both his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1859 and his Piano Concerto No.
2 in 1881. In his early teens he began to conduct choirs and eventually
became an efficient choral and orchestral conductor.
He began to compose
quite early in life (we know of a piano sonata he played or improvised
at the age of 11), but his efforts did not receive much attention until
he went on a concert tour as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist
Eduard Reményi in April-May 1853. On this tour he met Joseph
Joachim at Hanover, and went on to the Court of Weimar where he met
Franz Liszt, Cornelius and Raff. According to several witnesses of Brahms's
meeting with Liszt (at which Liszt performed Brahms's own op.4 Scherzo
at sight), Reményi was offended by Brahms' failure to praise
Liszt's Sonata in B minor wholeheartedly (Brahms fell asleep during
a performance of the recently-composed work), and they parted company
shortly afterwards, although it was not clear as to whether Liszt felt
offended or otherwise.
Joachim had given
Brahms a letter of introduction to Robert Schumann, however, and Brahms
walked to Düsseldorf, arriving on 30 September and being welcomed
into the Schumann family. Schumann, amazed by the 20-year-old's talent,
published an article 'Neue Bahnen' (New Paths) in the journal Neue Zeitschrift
fur Musik alerting the public to the young man whom he claimed was 'destined
to give ideal expression to the times'. This pronouncement was received
with some scepticism outside Schumann's immediate circle, and may have
increased the naturally self-critical Brahms's need to perfect his works
and technique. While he was in Düsseldorf Brahms participated with
Schumann and Albert Dietrich in writing the jointly-composed 'F-A-E'
Sonata for Joachim. He became very attached to Schumann's wife, the
composer and pianist Clara, 14 years his senior, with whom he would
carry on a lifelong, emotionally passionate, but perhaps only platonic,
relationship. Brahms never married, despite strong feelings for several
women and despite entering into an engagement, soon broken off, with
Agathe von Siebold in Göttingen in 1859. After Schumann's attempted
suicide and subsequent incarceration in a mental sanatorium near Bonn
in February 1854, Brahms was the main go-between between Clara and her
husband, and found himself virtually head of the household.
in the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery), Vienna.After Schumann’s
death at the sanatorium in 1856 Brahms divided his time between Hamburg,
where he formed and conducted a ladies’ choir, and the principality
of Detmold, where he was court music-teacher and conductor. He first
visited Vienna in 1862, staying there over the winter, and in 1863 was
appointed conductor of the Vienna Singakademie. Though he resigned the
position the following year he based himself increasingly in Vienna
and soon made his home there, though he toyed with the idea of taking
up conducting posts elsewhere. From 1872 to 1875 he was Director of
the concerts of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde; afterwards
he accepted no formal position. He refused an Honorary Doctorate of
Music from University of Cambridge in 1877 (he was afraid of being lionized
in England, where his music was already very popular) but accepted one
from the University of Breslau in 1879, composing the Academic Festival
Overture in response.
He had been composing
steadily throughout the 1850s and 60s, but his music had evoked divided
critical responses and the First Piano Concerto had been badly received
in some of its early performances. His works were labelled old-fashioned
by the 'New German School' whose principal figures included Liszt and
Wagner. Brahms in fact admired some of Wagner's music and admired Liszt
as a great pianist, but in 1860 he attempted to organize a public protest
against some of the wilder excesses of their music. His manifesto, which
was published prematurely with only three supporting signatures, was
a ludicrous failure and he never engaged in public polemics again. It
was the premiere of Ein deutsches Requiem, his largest choral work,
in Bremen in 1868 that confirmed Brahms's European reputation and led
many to accept that he had fulfilled Schumann’s prophecy. This
may have given him the confidence finally to complete a number of works
that had been wrestled with over many years, such as the cantata Rinaldo,
his first String Quartet, Third Piano Quartet and, most notably, his
First Symphony; this appeared in 1876, though it had been begun (and
a version of the first movement seen by some of his friends) in the
early 1860s. The other three symphonies then followed in fairly rapid
succession (1877, 1883, and 1885). From 1881 he was able to try out
his new orchestral works with the court orchestra of the Duke of Meiningen,
whose conductor was Hans von Bulow.
traveled, for both business (concert tours) and pleasure. From 1878
onwards he often visited Italy in the springtime, and usually sought
out a pleasant rural location in which to compose during the summer.
He was a great walker and especially enjoyed spending time in the open
air, where he felt that he could think more clearly.
In 1890, the 57-year-old
Brahms resolved to give up composing. However, as it turned out, he
was unable to abide by his decision, and in the years before his death
he produced a number of acknowledged masterpieces. His admiration for
Richard Muhlfeld, clarinettist with the Meiningen orchestra, caused
him to compose the clarinet quintet Op.115 (1891), clarinet trio Op.114
(1891) and the two clarinet sonatas Op. 120 (1894). He also wrote several
cycles of piano pieces, Opp.116-119 and the Four Serious Songs (Vier
ernste Gesänge) Op. 121 (1896).
the Op. 121 songs Brahms fell ill of cancer (sources differ on whether
this was of the liver or pancreas). His condition gradually worsened
and he died on April 3, 1897. Brahms is buried in the Zentralfriedhof
may be often regarded as one of the last bastions of the Romantic Period,
he was not a mainstream Romantic but rather maintained a Classical sense
of form and logic within his works in contrast to the opulence and excesses
of many of his contemporaries. Thus many admirers--though not necessarily
Brahms himself---saw him as the champion of traditional forms and "pure
music," as opposed to the New German embrace of program music.
Alongside Anton Bruckner, Brahms was perhaps the major practitioner
of the symphony during the latter half of the 19th century; his symphonies
helped revive a virtually moribund genre and pave the way for others
such as Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius. Though he was viewed as diametrically
opposed to Wagner during his lifetime, it is incorrect to characterize
Brahms as a reactionary. His point of view looked both backward and
forward; his output was often bold in harmony and expression, prompting
Arnold Schoenberg to write his important essay entitled "Brahms
the Progressive" which paved the way for the revaluation of Brahms's
reputation in the 20th century. Only in recent decades have scholars
begun to examine Brahms's remarkably original rhythmic conceptions,
which include 5- and 7-beat meters.
It is (perhaps)
significant that Brahms himself had considered giving up composition
at a time when all notions of tonality were being stretched to their
limit and that further expansion would seemingly only result in the
rules of tonality being broken altogether. It should be noted, however,
that he offered substantial encouragement to Schoenberg's teacher Alexander
Zemlinsky and was apparently much impressed by an early quartet of Schoenberg's.
Like Beethoven, Brahms was fond of nature and often went walking in
the woods around Vienna. He often brought penny candy with him to hand
out to children. To adults Brahms was often brusque and sarcastic, and
he sometimes alienated other people. His pupil Gustav Jenner wrote,
"Brahms has acquired, not without reason, the reputation for being
a grump, even though few could also be as lovable as he." He
also had predictable habits which were noted by the Viennese press such
as his daily visit to his favourite 'Red Hedgehog' tavern in Vienna
and the press also particularly took into account his style of walking
with his hands firmly behind his back complete with a caricature of
him in this pose walking alongside a red hedgehog. Those who remained
his friends were very loyal to him, however, and he reciprocated in
return with equal loyalty and generosity. He was a lifelong friend with
Johann Strauss II though they were very different as composers. Brahms
even struggled to get to the Theater an der Wien in Vienna for Strauss'
premiere of the operetta Die Göttin der Vernunft in 1897 before
his death. Perhaps the greatest tribute that Brahms could pay to Strauss
was his remark that he would have given anything to have written The
Blue Danube waltz. An anecdote dating around the time Brahms became
acquainted with Strauss is that the former cheekily inscribed the words
'alas, not by Brahms!' on a fan decorated with the theme of the famous
'Blue Danube' waltz.
Starting in the
1860s, when his works sold widely, Brahms was financially quite successful.
He preferred a modest life style, however, living in a simple three-room
apartment with a housekeeper. He gave away much of his money to relatives,
and anonymously helped support a number of young musicians.
Brahms was an extreme
perfectionist. We know he destroyed many early works, including a Violin
Sonata he performed with Reményi and the great violinist Ferdinand
David. He claimed once to have destroyed 20 string quartets before he
issued his official First in 1873. The First Piano Concerto was evolved
over several years out of an original project for a Symphony in D minor,
and the official First Symphony was toiled over from about 1861 to 1876.
Even after its first few performances, Brahms destroyed the original
slow movement and substituted another before the score was published.
(A conjectural restoration of the original slow movement has been published
by Robert Pascall.) Another factor that contributed to Brahms's perfectionism
was that Schumann had announced early on that Brahms was to become the
next great composer like Beethoven, a prediction that Brahms was determined
to live up to. This prediction hardly added to the composer's self-confidence,
and may have contributed to the delay in producing the First Symphony.
However, Clara Schumann noted before that Brahms' First Symphony was
a product that was not reflective of Brahms' real nature as she felt
that the final exuberant movement was 'too brilliant' as she was encouraged
by the dark and tempestuous opening movement when Brahms first sent
to her the initial draft. However, she recanted in accepting the Second
Symphony, which has often been seen in modern times as one of his sunniest
works. Other contemporaries, however, found the first movement especially
dark, and Reinhold Brinkmann, in a study of Symphony No.2 in relation
to 19th-century ideas of melancholy, has published a revealing letter
from Brahms to the composer and conductor Vinzenz Lachner in which Brahms
confesses to the melancholic side of his nature and comments on specific
features of the movement that reflect this.
As for Brahms's
place in musical history, which so concerned him, he would no doubt
be gratified in knowing that posterity has indeed placed him among the
three great "Bs" of German composers — Bach, Beethoven
Jeffery Dane shares
insights in the life of Johannes Brahms, who "accomplished more
in a single year than most others do in their own lifetimes." He
was responsible for some of the greatest musical pieces ever written,
yet was a modest man. He refused to sail in a ship or pay taxes on his
tobacco (he was once caught attempting to smuggle some through customs).
A fascinating character!
by Jeffrey Dane
© Jeffrey Dane 2001
When asked to fill
out a biographical form, one modest man wrote, "Happily impossible,
I would have to paint nothing but zeros and dashes in these columns.
I have had no experiences that I could communicate. I have attended
no schools or institutions for musical culture. I have embarked on no
travels for purposes of study. I have received no instruction from eminent
masters. I am the incumbent of no public offices, and I hold no official
positions. Well, then, what am I to write here?" - Johannes Brahms.
Another quote attributed
to him is a near-perfect illustration of the stoicism and self-confidence
that stood him in such good stead throughout his life - and is something
from which many of us could learn and benefit even now. It also seems
to encapsulate in a mere seventy words an idea that's occurred to most
of us, and it proves that some of the nonsense we see in contemporary
society today is not a modern phenomenon, but an eternal verity prevalent
even in Brahms' day. "Those who enjoy their own emotionally bad
health and who habitually fill their own minds with the rank poisons
of suspicion, jealousy and hatred, as a rule take umbrage at those who
refuse to do likewise, and they find a perverted relief in trying to
denigrate them. A pity. In so doing, such unfortunates are deceiving
no self-thinking person, for they reveal much about themselves and little
about their targets."
When we think of
Johannes Brahms we tend to envision a tall, portly, kindly, grandfatherly
man writing cradle songs, with long hair down to his shoulders, and
a long grey beard. Actually, he was relatively short (like Beethoven),
and he became rather rotund later in life. He had a great, benevolent
heart which he sometimes had to conceal behind a sometimes abrupt but
protective exterior. He had no children. He wore his hair long, unfashionable
in his day - and his great beard effectively defines him in his photos.
We usually see only
the proverbial tip of the iceberg. As there's more to Leonardo da Vinci
than his Mona Lisa and more to Jules Verne than his "Twenty Thousand
Leagues Under the Sea," there's more to Brahms than just his "Lullaby"--by
title and tune one of the world's most recognizable pieces. It was originally
composed as a song for voice and piano, and titled Wiegenlied (pronounced
VEE-gen-leed, meaning "cradle-song"), with a dedication to
Bertha Faber. Bertha Porubszky was a singer and a friend of Brahms'
from his days in Hamburg. After she married the industrialist Arthur
Faber of Vienna, Brahms commemorated the birth of her first child with
his most famous piece.
His character is
one of the most fascinating in the entire history of music, and his
nature one of the most noble. He sometimes spoke and wrote his letters
as though he were actually trying to conceal his meaning rather than
his adversaries, saw only a formidable stubbornness in Brahms the Conservative,
while others recognized the unyielding integrity of Brahms the Classicist.
Both views had merit. In some ways he was a real idealist and in others
an ideal realist, at times very pragmatic. Hidden behind his sometimes
bearish façade was a real restraint and true unpretentiousness
belying the outward gruffness (usually directed only at the privileged),
a deep-rooted generosity which often benefited others (especially needy
children) - and a heart big enough for Clara Schumann to live in.
* * * * * * * *
His lifelong personal
friendship and occasional professional collaboration with pianist Clara
Schumann paralleled the later personal friendship and professional collaborations
between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, "the actor's actor."
Tracy himself found Brahms' personality so engaging that he considered
portraying him in a film biography of the composer, provided he could
grow his own beard for the role. Interestingly, Hepburn had portrayed
Clara Schumann in the 1947 film, "Song of Love," in which
she appeared with Paul Henreid (Robert Schumann) and Robert Walker (the
significance in Brahms' life can't be understated - or, by some, even
understood. Fourteen years older than him and in her prime, she entered
his life when he was 20, blond, blue eyed and boyish-looking. The attraction,
which was mutual, is easy to understand. She, the great pianist, worshiped
her husband Robert, the great composer. The young Brahms worshiped both
of them. They also adored him, especially Clara, who saw him first as
a son, then as a friend. A remarkable and extraordinarily gifted woman
in her own right, she was an altogether unique phenomenon in his life.
Her death in 1896 left an unfillable void in his existence. She was
gone but surely not lost, for his memory of her may have consoled him
for no longer being young. In a very real sense, they spent their lives
with each other: though not side by side, they were surely together.
He never married.
Some have noticed a correlation between Brahms' lifelong attraction
to Clara Schumann and the fact that his own mother, to whom he was devoted
and largely in whose memory his Requiem was composed, was 17 years older
than his father.
was as deep as Clara's relationship with her own husband, nine years
her senior and with whom she had eight children: Marie (1841), Elise
(1843), Julie (1845), Emil (1846), Ludwig (1848), Ferdinand (1849),
Eugenie (1851) and Felix (1854). Schumann never saw his last child,
born only after he had been institutionalized. In her memoirs, their
daughter Eugenie, a trained observer, gave a significant account not
only of her family's life but also of Brahms' piano-playing. His hands
were large - not disproportionately so but unusually so - which may
help explain the stretches, leaps, and plethora of notes in some of
his piano music. His playing in his youth was described as noble, musicianly,
and often inspired.
Brahms could be
very candid. When Clara proposed writing a biography of her famous husband,
Brahms wrote to her, in 1856, "What would become of all historical
research and all biographies if they were always written with consideration
for people's feelings? Such a biography as you, for example, would write
about your Robert would surely be very beautiful to read, but would
it as surely be of historical value?" Observations as penetrating
as these bespeak a maturity unusual in a 23-year-old - but we must remember
who we're dealing with here. Clara herself wrote in her diary about
him, very soon after they met: "He is so masterful that it seems
God sent him into the world complete."
The image of discretion
in each other's company, they shared a tender yet intense personal interaction
throughout their lives. The bond between the young Brahms and the Schumanns
was cemented while he lived in their home at Bilkerstrasse 15 in Düsseldorf,
but the personal connection between him and Clara was as singular for
both of them as was the nature of her own 16-year marriage, which ended
only with her husband's death in the asylum at Endenich, near Bonn,
on July 29, 1856.
In a Romantic age,
she was a classical performer who worked with the great artists of her
day. Brahms was a creator, some of whose works are, effectively, portraits
of her. For nearly half a century their friendship was almost unique
in the annals of human interaction. The depth of their relationship
stands on its own and needs no dramatic embellishment a-la-Hollywood.
They blessed posterity with their individual contributions - and robbed
it by leaving no photographs of the two of them together.
"It is obvious
that we who go on living must see many things vanish with the years
- things with which it is more difficult to part than with years of
life. . . No-one can be more attached or devoted to you than I am."
Thus he wrote to his beloved friend on the untimely death of her young
and stunningly beautiful daughter, Julie (whose marriage had inspired
the creation of his Alto Rhapsody for soloist, chorus and orchestra).
the very special friendship between Brahms and Clara Schumann may have
contributed in some measure to the psychological deterioration of her
husband, notwithstanding the known history of mental instability in
his family. What she meant to her younger friend must have been very
clear to his intimates - as clear, perhaps, as the tears that might
have filled his eyes when Brahms thought of her during the last days
of his life. "When those dear eyes are closed, so much will have
ended for me," he wrote during her final illness.
He ultimately destroyed
many of her letters for the same reason he did away with early sketches
and studies for his own work. Many of his missives to her have survived,
allowing us only a partial and imbalanced view of their correspondence
- if not actually "equivalent" then certainly comparable to
eavesdropping on his end of phone conversations with her.
It seems as incontrovertible
as the Pythagorean theorems that Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann
each shared an extra life, and that they were as alive then as we are
* * * * * * * *
In accordance with
his personal tastes and character, Brahms lived a relatively uneventful
life, compared with those of the most famous actors and diplomats of
his day, or even some of the most celebrated musicians. We don't remember
most of them. We remember him. His daily routine in Vienna was fairly
consistent and is a matter of record. Rising early, he'd brew his strong
black coffee and enjoy it with some sweet rolls. After this simple but
satisfying breakfast, he'd compose throughout the morning and sometimes
into the afternoon. As did Beethoven, Brahms would take long afternoon
walks around Vienna, one of his favorite places being the Prater, a
large park still drawing visitors, and the site of Vienna's now world-famous
Ferris wheel, the Riesenrad (built only within a year or two after Brahms'
death). He worked little in the evenings, preferring to spend time with
friends, dining, having a beer or two, or playing cards with cronies
in the unpretentious second-floor dining room at his favorite restaurant,
Zum Roten Igel (The Red Hedgehog), which no longer exists. Paradoxically,
the building where he lived for the last 26 years of his life was demolished
unceremoniously exactly ten years to the date after he died there. The
structure now on that site is a wing of the city's Technical University.
Brahms was always
generous to others, and devoted to his own family. Preparing to leave
for Vienna, he wrote to his father, who was also a musician, "If
things ever go badly with you, bear in mind that music is always the
best consolation. Just read industriously in my old copy of Saul, and
there you will find what you need." Not long afterward, Johann
Jakob Brahms remembered the advice. When he turned for spiritual comfort
to his son's tattered score of Handel's oratorio, he was elated to find
that his son had left the pages liberally interleaved with banknotes.
He had a younger
sister, Elise, and a younger brother, Fritz (Friedrich), who became
a fashionable piano teacher in Hamburg - but whose disposition was not
improved by his nickname, The Wrong Brahms.
He also put pressure
on his own publisher, Simrock of Berlin, to bring out the music of a
still-struggling young Czechoslovakian composer. Brahms didn't suffer
fools lightly but he could be very considerate and magnanimous when
he saw genuine talent and skill. He held this younger man and his music
in very high regard, and when the younger composer wrote his own Cello
Concerto, Brahms was almost suicidal, wishing that he, himself, had
composed it. From one composer to another there can be few finer compliments,
and that this sentiment came from the man who was, musically, the primary
classical European figure spoke volumes. The young Czech composer of
whom Brahms thought so highly was Antonin Dvorak.
While on a holiday,
Brahms' gold pocketwatch was stolen one day from his rooms, which he
had never locked. When he was urged to take the matter up officially
with the police, he's said to have dismissed the notion with the remark,
"Leave me in peace. The watch was probably carried off by some
poor devil who needs it more than I do."
He was very particular
about his journeys. His one youthful seagoing experience (in a skiff)
caused a life-long hatred even of the prospect of travel on water. He
once arranged to sail from Genoa to Sicily with three friends, but already
on the gangplank he suddenly "jumped ship" and opted for the
lengthy, tiring railway journey to Reggio, in sight of Messina.
His practical sense
of reasoning prompted him to see questionable or unpleasant situations
from a disarmingly rational viewpoint: "I see no reason why I should
subject myself to such discomfort." The stance cost him an honorary
doctorate from Cambridge in England, whose offer in 1877 had been conditioned
on its being accepted in person - which would have involved his having
to cross the English Channel. While Beethoven had a fascination with
England, Brahms had an indifference to it. He even asked his publisher
to print certain editions of his songs - ultimately more than 250 of
them - without the English words.
The loss of the
doctorate was tempered by a degree offered him two years later by the
University of Breslau. He thanked them, of course - a year afterward,
with a postcard, the advent of which as a time-saver Brahms proclaimed
as a godsend. Informed by a colleague that his personal presence would
be "appreciated" at the ceremonies, he gladly agreed to accept
the honor in person, since it didn't involve boat travel. His piece,
the Academic Festival Overture, was composed especially for the occasion
and included medleys of student songs (including Gaudeamus Igitur).
The first performance was given at the ceremonies, and the piece is
scored for the largest orchestra for which Brahms ever wrote.
A practical man,
his choice of holiday destinations depended upon the ease and convenience
of railroad schedules and train connections. When traveling, in a train
compartment Brahms would considerately ask a lady's permission to smoke.
When entering a Catholic church, observant of protocol he would pretend,
with his Protestant hand, to take holy water. In hotels he would place
his shoes in the corridor in the early evening, and go about stocking-footed
". . .so as not to shorten the sleep of some poor servant."
* * * * * * * *
Like his personal
nature, Brahms' religious view was unconventional and idiosyncratic.
His attitude challenged dogma and therefore threatened the comfort and
even the security of those who subscribed to doctrine. It was essentially
a reflection of his love of life rather than a conventional religious
fear of death and redemption through suffering. He celebrated this in
his German Requiem (so titled because the text is sung in German rather
than Latin) by omitting the traditional Dies Irae (Days of Wrath) section,
which Brahms felt would be inconsistent with his concept.
between Brahms and Franz Liszt, in a sense the Leonard Bernstein of
his day, were not only vast but also diametric. - Where Brahms was subtle,
Liszt was obvious. Brahms was the introvert, Liszt the extrovert. Brahms
tended to be enigmatic, Liszt was explanatory. Brahms was restrained
and casual, Liszt was almost flamboyant and sometimes ceremonial. Brahms
was the Classicist, Liszt the Romantic. Brahms could be almost angelic,
Liszt almost Mephistophelian.
The Requiems of
Brahms and Giuseppi Verdi, however, are, like their personalities and
characters, so dissimilar that the only things they have in common are
musical form and their religious subject matter. Verdi's work, operatic
in the extreme, is marked by theatrical drama, while Brahms' piece is
far more introspective and tender. Both these Requiems are among the
greatest works of their kind, notwithstanding the marked differences
between these men in religious outlook and musical approach. Dvorak,
a simple, pious being whose Stabat Mater was inspired by the death of
his own daughter, once said of Brahms, "Such a great soul, yet
he believes in nothing."
As a man he seems
to have compensated his outward lack of piety with an innate goodness,
and personal charity, which often benefited others. Brahms was not a
religious man in the strict sense of that term - but he retained the
Christian ethic and its dictates specifically in the conduct of life.
even in his own day, fostered the evolution of a historical petri dish
in which the culture of "The Composer" grew and flourished.
It seems to have begun with Beethoven and was certainly perpetuated
by Brahms' fame throughout Europe. Strangers acknowledged him in the
streets of Vienna and his music was performed on different continents.
called "The Keeper of the Flame," he was debatably the last
true musical classicist. As the Baroque era ended with Bach, the Romantic
age began with Beethoven and ended with Brahms, whose music was the
zenith of its epoch. Influenced by Beethoven in some ways but not in
others, Brahms chose the conventional architectural structures for his
music, emotional in spirit but clothed in traditional formal garb. In
its temperament, however, he was a Romantic: at times lyrical and heroic,
at others meditative, dark and intimate, but usually with unmistakable
overtones of a seething passion that allows an almost immediate identification
of his music as having been composed by him, only by him, and by no-one
else but him.
Brahms' work has
an atmosphere that's impossible to define, difficult to explain, hopeless
to imitate but very easy to recognize. What he accomplished in about
forty five years of professional musical life represents in its qualitative
magnitude a corpus of achievement that boggles the mind of the musician.
The violinist Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg is on record as having said she
has a hard time believing that a human being could actually conceive
and compose, without divine intervention, the Violin Concerto that came
from Brahms' pen. He composed numerous piano, chamber and choral works,
and though he wrote only fourteen compositions for orchestra (including
the four symphonies), almost all of them are firmly in the standard
repertoire. The importance of his musical contributions is immeasurable
and his position in the history of music is virtually unique.
Brahms was fortunate:
his creations outlived him and will outlive us. He didn't give the public
what it wanted; he gave it what he wanted, and they accepted it on his
terms. He broke no new ground in the handling of his materials, choosing
instead to cultivate an existing garden, the seeds of which had been
planted by the giants who had preceded him and whose steps he could
still hear behind him. Throughout his life he remained an island in
a sea of swells. With the possible exception of the even-then popular
Hungarian Dances, he showed a conspicuous disregard of popular trends,
producing works that were characteristically introspective and intellectually
profound. There was nothing of the revolutionary about him, either personally
or in his work - unless one considers his conservatism a revolt against
the radicals. He might have agreed.
Had he lived even
another fifteen years, posterity might have been graced with additional
chamber and piano works, and even recordings of his own piano-playing.
He may have eventually journeyed to Norway (despite his aversion to
boat travel) at the invitation of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who
thought Brahms might find inspiration there for a fifth symphony. Though
the likelihood is slim, he might even have visited New York, where Gustav
Mahler might have given a Brahms Festival with some joint piano recitals
between the two composers. An impressario wanted to take Brahms, when
he was still a precocious child, on an American tour, but this never
came to pass. Conjecture is fruitless but still fascinating.
* * * * * * * *
Brahms was unassuming
but he could also be facetious. On his arrival in Mürzzuschlag
(pronounced "mee-YOORTS-tsoo-shlahg"), in the Styria region
of Austria, where he spent the summers of 1884-1885 composing his Fourth
Symphony, the already famous composer registered with the authorities
as "Itinerant musician." Once when Clara Schumann stopped
in Mürzzuschlag to visit him, he arranged in advance to have the
entire railway station restaurant cleared so they could dine with each
other undisturbed. Today, a journey to Mürzzuschlag from Vienna's
Sudbahnhof (South Railway Station) takes about one hour; in Brahms'
day, it took more than four.
The Dietrich House,
where he lived, is now The Brahms Museum, the only such entity in the
world devoted exclusively to him, and contains more original Brahms
memorabelia than has ever been permanently displayed publicly in one
location. The museum opened in 1991, 106 years late but certainly none
the worse for it. Among the myriad authentic Brahms mementos exhibited
are books from his personal library (including his red Baedeker guidebook),
his coffee maker (a then state-of-the-art apparatus), along with one
of the actual canisters in which he had his coffee sent to him in Mürzzuschlag,
a glass wine carafe, some of his bow-ties (displayed as he himself would
have kept them: in a disordered pile), and an ashtray in which rests
the butt of a cigar said to have been smoked by Brahms himself.
The Museum's dominant
exhibit is a concert grand piano made by Wilhelm Bachmann of Vienna
ca.1850, which Brahms often played during his stay in Mürzzuschlag.
Given the changes in piano construction even between 1825 & 1850,
the Bachmann instrument has a timbre somewhere between that of the hammerklavier
and a modern concert grand, leaning in the latter direction while retaining
a direct sonic connection with the former. The sonorities of the Bachmann
piano are closer than our modern instruments to what Brahms himself
heard during his time in Styria. A gift from Dr. Peter Freiberger of
Mürzzuschlag, the large Bachmann piano is displayed prominently
in the Museum's recital hall, where performances are given on the instrument
Perhaps the most
significant of Brahms' pianos, which remained in private hands for decades,
was made by J.B. Streicher of Vienna around 1865. This was the instrument
Brahms had in his own Vienna apartment at Karlsgasse 4. It was displayed
at The Brahms Museum during the Brahms Festival in the fall of 1996.
The author had the unique experience of playing this piano, whose tone,
befitting the nature of Brahms' music, is wonderfully smooth and mellow,
and which offers us the sounds of an era that died with him.
During his second
summer in Mürzzuschlag, a fire broke out in a carpenter's shop
very close to the composer's dwelling. While everyone has an ego, it's
the creative artist who acknowledges it more readily than do others,
but Brahms' conduct on this day, and his subsequent deeds, are clearly
not the mark of The Egotist. Having already fled from his desk in his
shirtsleeves to join the bucket brigade, he impelled the stylish onlookers
to lend a hand. Soon he was warned by a friend that the fire's direction
was threatening his rooms - and the precious manuscript of his nearly-completed
Fourth Symphony (now in the Central Library in Zürich, Switzerland).
After a moment's pause, Brahms simply continued with his fire-fighting.
The friend had difficulty getting the room-key from the busy Brahms,
to get the irreplaceable score to safety. Ultimately, the ruined carpenter
actually benefited from the fire, thanks to Brahms' munificence, which
was both practical and anonymous, in keeping with his usual procedure
in matters of personal generosity with those he didn't know.
* * * * * * * *
Two of Brahms' idiosyncracies
were his reluctance to put enough stamps on his letters, and to pay
duty on what he smoked - cigarettes in his youth, later graduating to
the cigar. Once he himself turned smuggler, but with unfortunate results.
His first biographer, Max Kalbeck, tells how Brahms, before being graced
with unlimited funds, hid a large quantity of his favorite Turkish mixture
in his bag. He evidently thought he had an imaginative cunning that
would deceive the smartest Customs sleuth. Brahms had an absolutely
towering musical intellect, but his innocence in the practical matters
of Customs logistics was woeful, and the masks of Pathos & Comedy
were now worn simultaneously. At the border, to his dismay, the Customs
officers unerringly homed in on something that looked like a disembodied
leg. The composer had stuffed a stocking full of tobacco, under the
naïve impression that no official would bother with such a thing.
This caprice cost Brahms loud cries of rage a-la-Beethoven, the amputated
leg, and a fine that corresponded to the magnitude of his music.
In Austria then,
as now, protocol dictated that even the spouse of a titled individual
share the distinction. For example, the wife of Brahms' friend, Herr
Dr. Richard Fellinger, would be addressed as Frau Dr. Maria Fellinger.
Brahms' widowed landlady in Vienna, Frau Dr. Celestine Truxa, was once
called away for several days on urgent business, leaving her two young
sons at home in the housekeeper's care. On returning she was surprised
and touched to hear that Brahms himself had gone in every noon to see
if the children had the right food, and every evening to see if they
were properly covered. He, himself, had grown to young manhood in the
Hamburg slums and as a young teenager had to supplement the family's
income by playing piano for the sailors in the port city's brothels.
He had little sympathy, though, for the children of the wealthy, feeling
they were privileged enough in having been born with silver spoons in
Brahms never allowed
a score or book in his personal library unless he himself had already
read it. His workroom in his Vienna apartment had a traditional kneehole
desk, but his library contained a tall, console desk, rather like a
pulpit, at which he could stand while writing. Personal privacy was
a ruling passion with Brahms, and even secrecy played a role regarding
his compositions-in-progress. This lectern-type desk had a raiseable
hinged top. When a visitor knocked at his door, Brahms would raise the
desk's lid and quickly conceal the manuscript on which he was working.
Today this desk is displayed in the special Brahms Room at The Haydn
Museum at Haydngasse 19 in Vienna.
Visitors to Brahms'
Vienna apartment could have a hard time finding a place to sit. All
the chairs were usually filled with books or scores, but the supreme
order in his compositions extended to his personal sense of organization.
According to his landlady, "He knew by heart the position of every
single volume; and, on his travels, he might write to me to send him,
for example, the fifth from the left on the second shelf from the top."
Like Beethoven before
him, Brahms was sometimes negligent of attire. A composer has greater
priorities than to maintain a reputation as a clothes horse. Brahms'
occasionally unkempt appearance might be due to his prosaically practical
method of "packing" for a journey, which was ingenious in
its simplicity: he'd pile his clothing on a table-top, tip the table,
and let the clothes fall helter-skelter into an open trunk. While his
clothes may have needed pressing, they - and his person - were always
spotlessly clean. His old brown overcoat, which should have been condemned
years earlier, became even as he wore it one of Vienna's famous "landmarks."
Today three of Brahms'
inkwells are exhibited in as many locations in Austria. - His clear
glass inkwell - even now dried ink residue can still be seen at its
bottom - is on display in the Brahms Room at the Haydn Museum in Vienna;
his serpentine marble inkwell is at the Kammerhof Museum in Gmunden;
and his bronze inkstand is displayed at the Brahms Museum in Mürzzuschlag.
A staunch conservative and by nature a creature of habit, Brahms continued
writing with quills even after they were long out of fashion.
Johann Strauss was
held in very high regard by Brahms, who was a frequent guest at the
Strauss home. Strauss' daughter, Alice, had a hand-held fan which when
unfolded revealed the signatures of many of her father's illustrious
visitors. Though himself averse to giving autographs, Brahms complied
with her request to add his signature to the fan, which he did in an
unusually clever and complimentary way. On the fan he notated a few
measures of music - not his own, but the first bars of her father's
Blue Danube waltz, below which he wrote, "Alas, not by Johannes
Brahms' very existence
was an effective testimony to how futile pessimism about art can be.
No sooner had the Liszt-Wagner school of thought declared that absolute,
"pure" music was played out, than Brahms appeared. In the
1890s Brahms was visited in Bad Ischl, Austria, by a young musician.
Though Brahms admired the younger man's talent as a conductor, he didn't
think highly of his "modern" music. "Music is done for,"
Brahms lamented. "Nothing new remains to be composed. You and your
kind have seen to that with your compositions." As they crossed
a footbridge the younger man gazed into the flowing stream and observed,
"Master, I have just seen the last ripple." The young man
was Gustav Mahler.
* * * * * * * *
man, Brahms usually took the least expensive lodgings on his travels
and took his meals at the least expensive restaurants. His earnings,
wisely invested for him by his publisher, gave him the fortunate and
very enviable practical stability to live very comfortably throughout
his life, but also very simply, in line with his personal character,
without the need to hold an official position. His estate, most of which
he had bequeathed to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien (Society
of the Friends of Music in Vienna), was valued at about 400,000 Marks
- an extremely handsome sum at that time and a handsome sum even now.
There are intrinsic differences between cheapskates who are extremely
stingy with others but who treat themselves like royalty, and the generous
who are considerate of others less fortunate than they and who spend
on themselves only what's warranted. Brahms was one of the latter, and
his few personal extravagances were minimal and were the exceptions.
One evening he wanted
to entertain his guests particularly well at a fine restaurant, and
said, "Waiter, give us a good bottle of wine - but it must be your
best." Soon the man reappeared with a bottle cradled in its basket,
a venerable affair covered with cobwebs and dust. "What sort is
that?" asked Brahms. The waiter bowed and said, "Our finest
vintage, Master. It is `a bottle of Brahms`". The composer tasted
the wine, pushed it away, tapped the label and said, "Well, then,
you'd better bring us a bottle of Bach!"
As Brahms' contemporary
Anton Bruckner often wore incredibly baggy pants, Brahms liked to wear
his trousers unfashionably short. When his tailor was daring enough
to make them the proper length, almost in defiance of the composer's
orders, Brahms addressed this matter by assaulting the pants with his
desk shears and just cut them to ankle-length. This was a wonderfully
simple solution to this problem, but sometimes he cut and slashed without
overmuch regard for the laws of symmetry. While both pants legs were
shy of the ground, one could be noticeably shyer than the other.
On one literally
historic occasion his trousers temporarily overcame their ground-shyness,
but with results that were if not actually calamitous then potentially
very embarrassing. Brahms' friend and colleague, the great violinist
Joseph Joachim, was introducing Brahms' Violin Concerto in Leipzig,
Germany, with the composer himself conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus
Orchestra. Unfortunately Brahms hadn't finished dressing properly. Arriving
onstage in grey street trousers, it soon became evident he had forgotten
to fasten the braces, so that as he conducted, more and more of his
shirt was continually revealed between upper and lower garments. To
envision what might have happened if the concerto had been one movement
longer, takes little imagination.
the old Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig was bombed during the Second
World War. The original podium, replete with candle-sticks, from which
Brahms had conducted (as did Mendelssohn, Liszt, Wagner, and so many
others) was one of the few original articles from the old concert hall
that was saved before its destruction. That conductors' desk is now
on display at Leipzig's old City Hall - as is the inlaid table at which
Johann Sebastian Bach signed his contract as music director of Leipzig's
St. Thomas Church, where he spent the last 27 years of his life as the
the funeral of Clara Schumann in 1896, Brahms spent the night at a large
estate on the Rhine. That evening he tried to take part in playing his
c-minor Trio but he was overcome by grief at the loss of his friend,
and had to stop after a score of measures. This loss marked the beginning
of the end for Brahms, and he outlived her by less than a year.
We are all part
of the chain that binds us to the world's history. The author was told
by Elmer Bernstein (composer of the scores of the films "To Kill
A Mockingbird," "The Ten Commandments," and countless
others) that his own piano teacher at the Juilliard School, Henriette
Michelson, guided him through his entire period of piano study. She
had been a child prodigy in Vienna. When a young girl, she was taken
to a concert where she heard a performance of the second piano concerto
of Brahms - with the composer himself as the piano soloist. The man
who cared for Brahms shortly before his death was Dr. Joseph Breuer
- the very physician who gave Sigmund Freud the germinal idea that led
to the development of psychoanalysis. Dr. Breuer's son, himself a physician,
spent some time with Brahms during the composer's final hours. Those
connective links seem even stronger when we realize it was only until
relatively recently that people who actually knew Brahms were still
* * * * * * * *
accomplished more in a single year than most others do in their own
lifetimes. The twelve intermittent summers he spent in the autumn of
his life during the 1880s and 1890s in Bad Ischl, near Salzburg, were
fruitful creative holidays. By that time he had already cultivated his
famous beard, which he had grown in Pressbaum, Austria in the early
1880s, during the composition of the second piano concerto, arguably
the greatest such piece ever written.
Though Brahms often
met with friends for dinner at the Hotel Elisabeth (now a pharmacy,
the D.M.Drogerie), or at Zauner's Restaurant (still a popular establishment),
the dwelling he occupied in Bad Ischl was in a private house at Salzburgerstrasse
51, a short walk from the center of town, for his need for seclusion
and privacy. We must remember that he had already reached iconic status
as a composer and was the dominant musical figure in Austria, beseiged
even then, before the era of mass media coverage, by autograph hunters.
The house he chose was owned by the Gruber family, who rented the second,
uppermost storey to Brahms and gave him the use of a Bösendorfer
grand piano (now displayed in the Brahms Collection at the Kammerhof
Museum in nearby Gmunden). The Grubers had a young son, born in 1875.
Brahms would compose
for most of the morning and often part of the afternoon. During his
first summers in Bad Ischl, when leaving the house Brahms would address
the young Gruber boy, "Hello, child." As the boy grew older,
Brahms modified his greeting to, "Hello, young man." He'd
occasionally talk with the boy, asking him how he had done in school
that year, and so on. - On his last day at the Gruber house in the fall
of 1896, as the carriage waited to take Brahms to the railway station
for his departure from Bad Ischl, the 63-year-old composer approached
the now 21-year-old man, shook his hand, and said to him, "Aufwiedersehen,
Herr Gruber" (Goodbye, Mr. Gruber). The passage of time and sad
sequel have shown us that Brahms had cancer of the liver, and he might
have sensed that he'd not return to Bad Ischl. Fate verified this: he
died less than a year later, on April 3, 1897.
This vignette was
reported to this author in the fall of 1987 in Bad Ischl, by the elderly
lady who was then living in the Gruber house. The young boy whom Brahms
had seen grow to manhood was her father.