JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897) and HIS LITTLE SINGING GIRLS
Brahms is a strange, somewhat forbidding figure to get to grips with. A giant of the later 19th century but ostensibly out of nowhere. In Britain, at any rate, the name of Brahms is possibly the widest known of all the composers to have been bandied about….though for the wrong reasons. The unlikely linkage of the name of Brahms with that of Liszt has given rise within the chattering classes to a politely coded reference to inebriation. Without knowing a note of music my younger son can tell you who Brahms was. For him it is a name imprinted on the imagination by none other than Basil Fawlty with his ranting reference to Brahms’ third racket, not a description that remotely can relate to the music of Brahms whatever else one may think about it. On the other hand it might do nicely for Liszt, thank you very much.
Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833. He comes therefore a generation later than Berlioz (1803), Mendelssohn (1809), Schumann (1810), Liszt (1811) and Wagner (1813). This will help give one some chronological bearings. Brahms was still a young man of 20 in the second half already of the nineteenth century when he first met Schumann. He is frequently coupled as a protagonist of Wagner but the latter was a slow starter which made their compositional output contemporaneous with each other. He was born into a poor Lutheran family. His father was a town musician who played horn and double bass and instilled some of this into Johannes. His mother had been a seamstress who was 41 when she married.
Little detail is known of Brahms’ education but he studied mathematics, history, English, French, and Latin in private elementary and secondary schools. He was an avid reader and left a library of over 800 books which can be seen in the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. Brahms took lessons on cello and horn and at age seven, he started private piano lessons followed within a few years by instruction at no charge in piano and music theory by Eduard Marxen, a piano teacher and composer who seems to have been a pupil of a pupil of someone famous or a friend of a friend of someone else who was even more famous. Still he left a considerable impression on Brahms who dedicated his massive second piano concerto to him.
From what one can make out, Brahms’ professional music career began at age 10. In order to ease his family’s often tight financial conditions he played the piano at dance halls of ill repute and presumably gained as much musical practice there as at any conservatoire. By the time he was a teenager, Brahms is said to have been an accomplished musician, and he used his talent to earn money along the city’s docks at local taverns and in brothels. Various opinions are advanced as to the effect his close working relations with prostitutes had upon his later difficulties in his relationships with women and a misogynistic outlook he developed. Come what may, he never did marry and in his later years he spent some of his own pleasurable time in Vienna with “my little singing girls” as he was wont to describe them.
Brahms gave a few public concerts in Hamburg but did not become well known as a pianist. He began conducting choirs from his early teens, and became a proficient choral and orchestral conductor. He started composing quite early but later destroyed most copies of his first works. A fellow pupil of Marxsen stated that she had heard Brahms play a sonata he had written when he was 11 but that he had destroyed it.
In early 1853 he travelled as an accompanist on a concert tour by a Hungarian violinist and whilst in Hanover he was to meet the great violin virtuoso, Joachim, all of two years his senior. Joachim was impressed enough by the totally unknown Brahms to give him a letter of introduction to Robert Schumann, then the leading light in contemporary musical trends and to whose allegiance Joachim had switched following his disaffection from the Liszt modernist school. From there Brahms went on to Weimar where Liszt held court assisted by his disciples, Cornelius and Raff. Brahms not only got presented but the great Liszt himself performed Brahms’s opus 4 scherzo at sight. Brahms failed to return the compliment. He himself fell asleep during a performance of Liszt’s recently composed sonata in B minor. It was not however a case of Brahms and Liszt but that Brahms claimed that he had been exhausted by his travels.
After a walking holiday in the Rhineland, Brahms took the train to Dusseldorf to meet Robert Schmann, armed with his letter of introduction from Joachim. As it happened, at the time of his knocking at the door, Schumann was half way through writing his violin concerto for Joachim. This never got played for eighty years as Joachim saw it as a product of Schumann’s madness. Joachim did not do too badly though because he would later in 1867 receive the dedication of the first violin concerto of Max Bruch; in 1878 the violin concerto of Brahms and in 1887 he was to be one of the dual dedicatees of Brahms’ double concerto.
Schumann and his wife, Clara, were amazed at the talent of Brahms. Despite their having seven children and another on the way they invited Brahms into the family circle on his arrival there. Schumann was really serious about it and went on to publish an article entitled ” New Paths” in the next issue of the journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, claiming here was a young man “destined to give ideal expression to the times.”
At this early stage Brahms was happy to participate in a Schumann’s composition, a violin sonata written for Joachim. There is a noticeable similarity in the sound worlds of Schumann and Brahms, a distinct German sound. Brahms music was clearly more muscular and his piano writing and playing more powerful. Schumann might well have recognized this muscular potential as an extension to his own limitations. Brahms for his part seemed somewhat bowled over by Schumann’s expectation predicted for him which seemed to bring out in Brahms an inferiority complex. It was at this time in late 1853 that he was writing his own first published works; three piano sonatas, opus 1,2 and 5 (his scherzo, opus 4 played by Liszt had been written two years earlier). Like Beethoven before him, Brahms started his composing career with chamber music and also songs. Orchestral music was a long way yet from getting on the agenda. Just listening to the third sonata, a mighty five movement work, one is already aware of the enormous power that Brahms could engender. With Brahms there is no sense of early period, middle period and late period but one of power, energy and then with premature old age a sense of recline, rather than decline, and waning power.
Brahms’ presence in the Schumann household could not be maintained. Apart from not overstaying one’s welcome Brahms may well have found himself disturbed by an attraction to Clara although, if he did, he could not let on. It would not be long after his departure that he received the distressing news in February 1854 that Robert Schumann had attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine and had been confined to an asylum near Bonn. Brahms rushed back to offer his help, putting all musical commitment to one side. He took an apartment above that of Clara who had the family to look after and was only allowed to see Robert on one occasion only two days before his death two years later in 1856. One presumes this prohibition was for her protection as a member of the weaker sex. Brahms acted as a family representative and go between.
By this time Brahms was clearly, as his letters show, in love with Clara but too frightened to come out and say as much and at the same time remaining loyal to the memory of her husband. She was fourteen years older than him and had eight children in tow. He was seen by the children as an avuncular loyal friend but what was the attraction for him? His feelings for her would have been high minded and impossible for him to associate with what he had observed in the brothels of Hamburg. A pure almost unspoken love similar to that depicted by the pre-Raphaelite painters. Oddly enough there is another possibility, an oedipal variation. Clara was fourteen years older than Johannes. His own mother had been seventeen years older than her husband, his father. Each, Clara and Brahms’ mother might be viewed as mother figures to their respective partners, except that in Brahms’ case Clara never became his partner. He lived on and off with the family, never it seems declaring himself, except by epistolary statements of his love, and whilst she must have been very aware of her attraction to him, perhaps even hoping, she seemed content to make her life centre upon her eight children and his music.
It could not go on. Brahms decided to leave and this hurt Clara. They did maintain correspondence, however, including over the period of his engagement in 1859, three years later, to Agathe von Siebold which he suddenly broke off without reason whilst declaring that he continued to love her more than ever. In matters of the heart Brahms was an absolute nutter. Clara and Brahms maintained a strange relationship. She bought a house near Baden Baden and he rented a nearby apartment every summer from 1863 to 1873. They saw less of each other after that as she moved to Berlin and Brahms made Vienna his home. They travelled on concert tours together but he always wrote to her addressing her in his letters with the formal “Sie” for you and not the informal “Du”. Some commentators say that Brahms had become too entrenched in his ways and too mean to want to get married; that he bought cheap presents and got others to get them past the custom posts! Other commentators state how generous he was giving sweets to children. To adults, Brahms was often brusque and sarcastic, and he often alienated other people. His pupil Carl Jenner wrote “Brahms has acquired, not without reason, the reputation for being a grump, even though few could also be as lovable as he.” Brahms became quite wealthy later on but despite this, he lived very simply, in a modest apartment with a single housekeeper who cleaned and cooked for him. He was often the butt of jokes for his long beard, his cheap clothes and often not wearing socks. Yet he also gave away large sums of money to friends and to aid various musical students, often on terms of strict secrecy.
The death of Schumann in 1856 following that of Mendelssohn only nine years earlier, had left a musical lacuna within the classical tradition of writing. The progressives led by Liszt and Wagner were in the ascendant and the sole standard bearer for the traditional side was the unknown 23 year old Brahms, assisted by the musical support of Clara, and carrying on his shoulders the heavy legacy bestowed by his predecessors. Brahms divided his time between Hamburg, where he formed and conducted a ladies’ choir, and Detmold. where he was court music-teacher and conductor.
The praise heaped on him by Schumann brought derisory responses from some but Breitkopf and Hartel, Beethoven’s publishers had pricked up their ears and sought to publish Brahms’ works. He needed not to go chasing round to find a publisher. He was at work producing in particular his First Serenade, opus 11 and his first piano concerto, opus 15 which received its first performance in 1859. The serenade is effectively Brahms first orchestral work but it was first written for a string and wind octet and later orchestrated. Hence perhaps Wagner’s description of Brahms’ orchestral music as chamber music writ large. It remains one of the most felicitous works he would write. The same procedure took place with his Second Serenade, opus 16 which underwent the same process of being upgraded from chamber to orchestral status. It is a little unusual in omitting violins giving the strings a darker hue. Did he get the idea from Bach’s sixth Brandenburg concerto? This was the first work he wrote to be published by the Simrock house. The first piano concerto was started soon after Schumann’s death which would explain its opening mood of heavy tragedy. It was originally intended as his first symphony. However Brahms did not feel he had sufficiently mastered orchestral colour and rewrote it for two pianos before ending up with a piano concerto. It is dark, shattering, powerful and long. Many a tear has been shed by its impact particularly in the film “The L Shaped Room”. Its first performance was hissed but notwithstanding Johann Rittner took the bold risk of publishing the concerto.
By 1860 the musical world had divided into two camps. The modernists led by Liszt, and Wagner and the Traditionalists with Brahms, Joachim and the critic Eduard Hansleck. For the modernists, the symphony was dead. It was replaced by the programme symphony (Berlioz); the symphonic poem (Liszt) and music drama (Wagner). For the traditionalists the symphony remained a live force together with sonata form which needed upgrading to reflect current romantic outlook. It was party politics. It was Stalin and Trotsky; Cameron and Milliband and in this case one was a Brahmsian or a Wagnerian. The Traditionalists decided to issue a manifesto but they went public too early and only three signed. It was a political disaster and from then on Brahms withdrew from further polemics and simply followed his own path.
Between 1860 and 1865 Brahms was producing chamber works and numerous song cycles. Two cello sonatas were followed by his first two piano quartets, (the first with its gypsy finale later orchestrated by Schoenberg) and in addition variations, one set on a theme of Handel and the other on a theme of Paganini. Expanding further, there followed the piano quintet, never a work one can imagine being played by drawing room amateurs. I was lucky enough to hear it played frenetically by the Lindsays with Peter Frankl in our own Matthew room. Over this period Brahms was attempting on and off to compose his first symphony but this Herculean task was to take a further eight years before it would see the light of day. It was during this period that he settled in Vienna for the rest of his life, like Beethoven before him.
The German Requiem would be his first large scale work since the piano concerto,written for soloists, chorus and orchestra. The death of Brahms’ mother in 1865 had a profound effect upon him and is said to have been the inspiration for Ein Deutches Requiem. Parts of it had been on the stocks for some time and originally was planned for the death of Schumann with some sections written even earlier. It therefore went back ten years. Further parts were added after his mother’s death. The requiem mass is in concept a liturgical ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church to which Brahms did not belong. His is not a setting of the Missa Pro Defunctis but of German texts which Brahms himself selected from the Luther Bible. The majority of the Requiem was composed after his mother’s death and the fifth movement, with soprano soloist, added after the official premiere in 1868. The work was to make Brahms a bigger name before a wider public and was published by Rittner who made a pretty pfennig from it. Music used as an add on for a visual can in the right setting have an enhancing effect. Conversely thoughtless choice can result in the ruination of the music by association with the cinematic content. Much of Wagner’s orchestral work coloured my wartime childhood when heard to accompany German storm troopers and Nuremberg rallies. Even worse was perpetrated in the BBC film series “The Nazis: A Warning From History” by the use of “Denn alles Fleisch”, the second section of the German Requiem, as sound accompaniment to the horror images shown during the credits. The identifying of war and extermination with great music of religious and high humanistic values was as artistically barbarous as the scenes it depicted.
We have seen that Brahms was given a leg up at the start by Schumann, but there was one other who assured his continued success, Fritz Simrock. It was in the 1870’s that Fritz took over the publishing house from his grandfather and realized that Brahms was their greatest asset. There was nothing by Brahms that he would not publish. Moreover, he would never stipulate a fee but told Brahms that whatever fee he suggested would be acceptable. The two were great friends and holidayed together in Italy. Later when Brahms took Dvorak under his wing he advised Dvorak to use Simrock and also twisted Simrock’s arm to take on Dvorak. Simrock never lost out. He made a fortune alone both from Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances.
Time passes by. One cannot deal singly with each and every one of Brahms’ works as they came, lieder; more choral works (Schicksaslied, Rinaldo and Nanie); the second piano concerto, larger and more heroic; the violin concerto written for Joachim with its gypsy finale. It was not until 1876 however that he would at last produce his first symphony after twenty one years of effort struggling to do so. The problem had been the claim by Schumann at the outset that here was a Beethoven in the making. It was a claim that Brahms could never live up to. Had it not been made he could and would have written symphonies, different no doubt, perhaps owing something to Mendelssohn or to Schumann, lighter in touch maybe, like his serenades, but they would have been Brahmsian and not Beethovenian. His first symphony , when it did come, was hailed as Beethoven’s 10th. Many rate it as such although I personally do not agree. Brahms said that writing a symphony was no laughing matter and that is the problem with the work, it is no laughing matter as it would have been with Beethoven. Brahms could write a scherzo and often did as in his horn trio or the St Antony Variations. But he lacked the humour to write a symphonic scherzo and avoided doing so in his first three symphonies and whilst adding a fiery third movement in his fourth it does not contain that rhythmic ingredient of a true scherzo. Still, having got the first off his chest he produced his lovely second with ease within a year and later the third and fourth. The third contains the most sumptuous of melodies and the third movement of which will always be remembered from the film of Françoise Sagan’s novel “Aimez-vous Brahms?”
It is a matter of personal preference. For many Brahms is the greatest. And why not? I myself find his orchestration lacking colour contrast. It seems his music tends to occupy the middle ranges and that all the winds seem to be playing in the middle of the park. I get the feeling that the character of the instrument chosen does not stand out as it would with, say Mahler. Some people see colour in music. If that is so I would describe Brahms as sepia brown. Yet, at the same time, he could produce some most harmonious sounds and if I were to substitute taste for colour it would be toffee fudge for Brahms. I therefore end up kinder to Brahms than Constant Lambert who referred to the muddy impasti of the symphonies of Brahms. The toffee fudge can be found in the slow movement of his double concerto for violin and cello which he wrote in the autumn of his career.
By 1890 when he was 57 Brahms decided to retire. He had had enough. However he was to hear Richard Muhlfeld the lead clarinet of the Meiningen Orchestra and Brahms could not just write enough for him, certainly more than Matthew Taylor can manage in one lecture. Most famous is the clarinet quintet which has a decidedly autumnal feel about it. My best personal memory was visiting my older son in Siegen during his gap year and playing in my car the recording of the clarinet quintet you will hear, whilst the autumn leaves were falling all around us. I get sentimental.
One aspect of Brahms I have not dealt with is his popular Viennese music. He loved to sit outside the cafés of Vienna and listen to the Hungarian gypsy bands whose music he reproduced in his Hungarian dances as well as his lieberslieder waltzes. He was in fact a lifelong friend of Johann Strauss and said that he would have done anything to have written the Blue Danube waltz.
In 1896, his dearest friend and colleague, Clara Schumann died, aged 77. In 1897 Hans Richter conducted a performance of the Brahms fourth symphony with the audience cheering all four movements in the presence of the tearful composer. He was suffering from cancer and died a month later. He had no close relatives to mourn his passing, but there were friends and colleagues…….and maybe perhaps a tear or two of fond memories from his little singing girls.