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!
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 clarify it.
Some, especially 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.
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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 young Brahms).
Clara Schumann's 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.
Their interaction 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).
It's conceivable 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 today.
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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."
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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.
The differences 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.
Brahms' renown, 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.
Sometimes fittingly 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.
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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 even today.
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.
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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 their mouths.
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."
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.
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An unpretentious 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.
Parenthetically, 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 organist.
After attending 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 alive.
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Johannes Brahms 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.
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JEFFREY DANE is a music historian, researcher and essayist who has written extensively about Brahms, Beethoven and other composers. His work, including CD and book reviews, is published in the USA and abroad in several languages. His personal recollection of Leonard Bernstein, whom he knew when a student and who was a mentor and significant influence during his formative years, appeared in the Musical Performance Journal (London), and a special Bernstein-related article, Gone But Not Lost, was published in Prelude, Fugue & Riffs, the official publication of The Leonard Bernstein Society. Some of the innumerable musicians and composers he has met and spoken with have been the subjects of his articles. He has a marked tendency to develop an almost emotional attachment to those, living or not, whose work he studies. He is perceived by some as being overly confrontational and by others as being insufficiently engaged. Both views may be right.
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