Johannes Brahms Life and Times

brahms2Brahms was born at Hamburg, May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna, April 3, 1897.

Among the artists whose merits have been passionately disputed, not only by the public at large, but also by other famous musicians, is certainly Johannes Brahms. With Brahms it is not as with Wagner a question of agreeing or disagreeing with his principles or his daring innovations, but simply a liking or disliking of his music. Someone named him “the last of the classics” or, like Bulow, made him a member of the “Three B’s Trinity,” Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. Others, like Tschaikowsky, find that he lacks the chief thing in music – beauty. After all it is entirely a matter of taste. There are many musicians who, even recognizing the seriousness of his aims, and the extent of his knowledge, do not like his music. Other, on the contrary, swear that every note form his pen is a gem.

I shall try to navigate impartially between these two antagonistic cliffs and to find out what in his works captivated the admiration of one part of the music world and what on the contrary aroused the opposition of the other.

In Brahm’s early days all his surroundings were musical and everything tended to foster the inclination he inherited from his father who was a prominent member of the Hamburg orchestra. Also, his teacher, Marxsen, had the strongest influence on his subsequent work, fostering his comprehension and devotion to the older masters, especially Bach and Beethoven.

First Appearance as a Pianist

He made his first public appearance as a pianist when he was fourteen at a concert of which the program included his own variations upon a Volkslied. Brahms seems to have had a decided preference for the variation. Six of his works – his Opus 9, Variations on a Theme by Schumann; Op. 21 No. 1, Variations on an Original Theme; Op. 21, No. 2, Variations on a Hungarian Theme; Op. 23, Variations on a Theme by Schumann; Op. 24, Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel; Op. 35, Variations on a Theme by Paganini – are all moulded into this form.

At the age of twenty he went for a concert tour with the Hungarian violinist Remenyi. In his intimate connection with this artist he gained a thorough knowledge of Hungarian melodies and rhythm, and from that time we find him constantly introducing them into his compositions.

At Celle an amusing incident occurred. A poor pianoforte had been provided and another had to be secured this being done just before the concert was timed to commence. It proved itself to be nearly a semitone below pitch, a very disconcerting thing for a violinist. Brahms, however, transposed Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor up a semitone without rehearsal, a feat which so impressed Remenyi that he told the audience what had occurred.

The most important outcome of this tour was a meeting with the great violinist Joachim, and from that date began their lifelong friendship. Joachim was impressed with the young man and wrote to several friends prophesying a great future for him. Moreover, he gave him an introduction to Schumann, who was then at Dusseldorf. Schumann heard Brahms play his Sonata in C Major and many of his other pieces, and both he and his wife expressed the highest admiration for the work presented. More than this, he gave him real practical help by writing to Dr. Hartel and a little later, on October 2, 1853, appeared the new historic article in the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, which landed Brahms on one of the highest pinnacles of fame. In this he wrote that a young musician hitherto unknown was destined “to suddenly appear and give utterance to the highest ideal expression of the time; who should claim the mastership by no gradual development, but burst upon us fully equipped as Minerva sprang from the head of Jupiter.” This eulogium did at first more harm than good, as it tended to create skepticism, and it took some years for Brahms to prove himself worthy of the honor which had been thrust upon him.

A beginning was made by the publication of the works which had met with the sympathy of Joachim and Schumann; and an introduction to a large number of prominent musicians at Leipsic, including Berlioz, helped still more to make him known. It must not, however, by imagined that the world unhesitatingly endorsed the opinion of Schumann. There were many, as indeed there are many today, to whom the music of Brahms was antipathetic and even revolting. Its idiom was, to a large extent, new, its technic unfamiliar, its message too obscure.

Schumann’s Death

The year 1854 brought much sadness. Schumann was overtaken by the mental malady which clouded his few remaining years. He attempted to throw himself into the Rhine, but was rescued and taken to an asylum, where he lingered on until 1856. This tragedy affected Brahms very deeply. He rushed off to Dusseldorf to offer his sympathies to the poor wife and in common with other friends set himself to do all that he could to help and comfort her. Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann enjoyed for many years a friendship of the purest and highest artists aims. Evidences of it were soon forthcoming in the set of pianoforte variations written by Brahms On a Theme by Clara Wieck, Clara Schumann’s maiden name.

Meanwhile the problem of the future was before him and he realized that both composition and teaching were very uncertain means of earning an income. He therefore, in 1858, decided on becoming a concert pianist. In this capacity he played in concerts at Bremen and Hamburg with sufficient success to justify this determinations, although some of the critics spoke quite unkindly of his playing, and said that his technic did not satisfy the demands of the time. Although Brahms worked hard to perfect himself, there is a consensus of opinion that he was not a pianist of the first rank. In his later years that was still more the case, and he was considered as a heavy, and not particularly brilliant player.

The friendship with Joachim and Clara Schumann was invariably renewed during the summer vacation. Clara Schumann introduced at a concert in Duseldorf some of his Hungarian dances, by which Brahms in many quarters is not known more than by his more serious works.

In 1859 Brahms played his new pianoforte concerto at Hanover, Joachim being the conductor, and later at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig; but he soon realized that his life work lay more in the direction of creation than of execution. Great publishing firms accepted his works for publication. Clara Schumann continued her propaganda of Brahm’s works and performed in Hamburg his Variations on a Theme of Handel.

The charm of Vienna attracted him at first only for a long visit, but later to permanent residence. Brahms performed there his G Minor Quartet and the Handel Variations, which were well received. Hanslick, the famous critic, wrote very favorably of his work. At Vienna Brahms met Wagner, but the two composers never became intimate. The aversion of Brahms toward other modern masters was equally accentuated. In the three years while he was conductor of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna (1871-1873), he gave evidence of a lack of interest in modern music such as was at hand in the new and revolutionary works of such composers as Liszt and Berlioz; and, when such a one was occasionally performed under has baton, there was so little enthusiasm in his interpretation that it made no impression whatever. He entertained, however, great respect for Verdi, speaking of him in glowing terms and dwelling with pleasure on the fact that in his habits of life, such as early rising, simplicity in clothing and unostentatious demeanour, Verdi resembled himself. Upon once hearing Bulow speak in disparaging terms of Verdi’s Requiem, Brahms went immediately to a music store, and obtaining the pianoforte score, read it through. When he had finished it, he said: “Bulow has made a fool of himself for all time; only a genius could have written that.”

Great Master Works

His German Requiem was given in 1868 in the Cathedral at Bremen, and was attended by many representative musicians.

The event of the year 1876 was the production of his Symphony Op. 68 in C Minor at Carlsruhe. The critics of the day were very divergent in their views; some could make neither head nor tail of it, while others lauded it to the skies. A second symphony, Op. 73, in D, followed after a short time. Another great work, the Violin Concerto, was produced for the first time by his old friend, Joachim, at Leipsic, in 1879. Like many other works of Brahms, its demands upon the listeners are considerable.

The beautiful playing of the clarinettist Muhlfeld, in Meiningen, inspired him to his Trio for Pianoforte, Clarinet and Violoncello, the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings and two Sonatas for Clarinet and Pianoforte. Brahms humorously referred to Muhlfeld as his “Prima Donna.”

In April, 1897, Brahms died, after having suffered for several years from a cancer.

In early life Brahms was slim and slight of build. As the years passed he took on weight rapidly. He was rather short, had sandy colored hair, and was clean shaven. By the time he was fifty he looked stout, shaggy and unkempt. Moreover, a thick beard hid much of his face. Though neat and tidy in his youth, he would later wear alpaca rather than broadcloth. An old shawl was the garment he preferred. His aversion to visiting England seems partly to have arisen form his dislike for conventional society.

I became personally acquainted with Brahms in Vienna. As I was leaving the “Hoftheater” with him, after the general rehearsal of L’Amico Fritz, by Mascagni, I asked the master what he thought of the new opera. “I am not paid,” he answered, alluding to teh critics, “to have an opinion.” This answer reflected Brahms’ character most decidedly; contempt for criticism, disregard for everybody, Teutonic rudeness.

On another occasion at an evening gathering, where Brahms was present, a mediocre singer, out of deference for him, sang several of his songs. When she turned to Brahms, apparently expecting a compliment, he said bluntly; “Singing is difficult, yet oftentimes it is far more difficult to listen to it.” I must add that the young lady was not exactly good looking, for, notwithstanding all his extravagance, Brahms was very sensitive to the fair sex, if it was really fair. He would then have overlooked the mediocre presentation of his songs.

Rude But Amiable

In spite of his reputation as a rude fellow, I found Brahms comparatively amiable. He soon honored me with his autograph, the first measures of his famous song Oh versenk.

Brahms was an inveterate smoker. He loved a good weed, but did not turn up his nose at a bad one. Erich Wolff, the composer, used to tell a story about Brahms’ cigarettes. He had only just emerged from the Academy of Music at Vienna when he ventured to submit one of his first compositions to the redoubtable master and played it in his house on the piano. Brahms was in a cheerful mood and showed his approbation of Wolff’s composition. As the young man rose to go he asked him whether he smoked; and, on Wolff’s confessing with a bow that he did, the master said; “Then you shall have something really choice.” With that he took out of his cigarette case an Egyptian cigarette with a gold mouthpiece and handed it to the young musician, who received it with thanks and placed it carefully in his breast pocket. “Why do you put the cigarette away? Why not light it now?” asked Brahms.

“I cannot smoke it,” replied Wolff, “I shall take great care of it. It is not every day that one gets a cigarette from Brahms.”

Thereupon Brahms opened his cigarette case again and said with a smile of satisfaction: “Then give me back the good cigarette; for your purpose a common one of the Austrian Tabackregie will do just as well!”

Brahms never married. Although frequently on terms of intimacy with ladies, he does not appear to have got further than occasionally remarking to a friend; “Such a girl would make me happy.” What he missed in this way, however, was atoned fro by his friendships, which once formed were usually made for life.

In later years he became rude and uncivil. Always a son of the people he appears never to have put himself out to be particularly courteous. He became somewhat autocratic and on certain occasions when dining out he would not sit a this appointed place, but in a place chosen by himself, or, when the meal was arranged for the dining room, he refused to dine except in the garden.

His Season

His sarcasm was widely known. To a young composer who showed him a manuscript he said: “My dear, you will never become a Beethoven,” to which, however, he received the unexpected reply; “My dear master, none of us ever will.”

One day as a friend came to tell him that admirers of Raff were getting up a subscription to erect a monument to his memory, he exclaimed, “Let them make haste, don’t delay a moment, or he will be forgotten before you put it up.”

At the same time he was modest. On one occasion Joachim attempted to toast him as the greatest of living composers, but Brahms anticipated him by saying; “Here’s to the health of Mozart.”

When asked by the wife of Strauss, the Waltz King, to write something on her fan, he penned a bar or two of the Blue Danube Waltz and subscribed it “Not, alas, by Johannes Brahms.”

He was addicted to the habit of snoring.

Georg Henschel, the singer, was much in contact with Brahms and did much in the way of introducing his works. On one occasion when he and Brahms arrived at a certain town they were given a double bedroom and Henschel anticipated the night with some alarm. As soon as the light was out Brahms was asleep and snoring loudly. Henschel, knowing that he would not sleep, went off to the porter and managed to secure another room. When the friends met in the morning Brahms said, “When I awoke and found your bed empty I thought, “The poor fellow has gone and hanged himself.”

He was not a good speaker. A great banquet was given in Vienna after the performance of one of his symphonies and was attended by many notabilities, including Popper, the violoncellist. Brahms was asked to make a speech and began: “Gentlemen composing is very difficult, copying far easier; but on that point my friend Popper can give you more information.” Popper got up smiling and said: “My friend, Brahms, has informed you that I know all about copying. I do not know if he is right in this; I only know that if I were to copy there is only one man I would consider worth copying and that man is Beethoven; but on that matter my friend Brahms can give you more information.”

Brahms built his music laboriously. It was his custom to keep his work in manuscript for some time and usually to hear one or two performances of it before allowing it to appear in print. He carried self criticism to the extent of rewriting works which had already been published. To Georg Henschel he said once, “One ought never to forget that by actually perfecting one piece one gains and learns more than by commencing or half finishing a dozen. Let it rest, let it rest and keep going back to it and working at it over and over again until it is completed as a finished work of art, until there is not a note too much or too little, not a bar you could improve upon. Whether it is beautiful also is an entirely different matter, but perfect it must be.”

This is surely a great point and one of the secrets of the success of Brahms. Every composer becomes a better judge, a better critic of his own works when he lets them rest for a time, thus becoming like a stranger to his own creation and being more capable to judge of it objectively.

In the beginning of my article I said that Tschaikowsky had no sympathy for the music of Brahms. In one of his letters he gives the following remarkable appreciation of the German composer: “In the music of this master there is something dry and cold which repulses me. He never speaks out his musical ideas to the end. He excites and irritates our musical senses without wishing to satisfy them and seems ashamed to speak the language which goes straight to the heart. It is impossible to say that the music of Brahms is weak and insignificant. He is never trivial, but he lacks the chief thing – beauty. Brahms commands our respect. We must bow before the original purity of his aspirations; but to love him is impossible. I, at least, in spite of much effort, have not arrived at it.”

A Sealed Book

Resuming, we may say that to the ordinary amateur Brahms is a sealed book. Not only can he not enjoy it, but is is apt to repel him. The reasons are that his is not making any concession to popularity which, indeed, he always despised; then there is a prevalent somberness, which reveals at every moment the North German; also, a lack of spontaneity. We find often the craftsman over shadowing the artist. In his works the feelings for beauty, calculation are predominant over the feelings for beauty.

I would mention as most prominent points in Brahms’ career:

His devotion to Bach and Beethoven and the deep almost exclusive study of their works.

The habit of letting his works rest and rest until he could criticise them with cool objectivity.

On the other hand he fell into the other extreme where calculation suffocates spontaneity and inspiration.