By Styra Avins
The author’s original essay, edited herein, was published in the May 2014 issue of Allegro to commemorate the 181st birthday of Johannes Brahms. (Josef Eisinger provided all of the German-to-English translations.)
A boy sits in a small room within a modest house in Hamburg practicing the cello, the distracting sounds of family life ever present. It is 1843 and he is already an accomplished pianist at age 10. In fact, he has recently performed in a concert in which all the other performers were adults—colleagues of his father—some of them well-known Hamburg musicians. The boy played the piano part of Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano and Winds (Op. 16), and one of Mozart’s piano quartets. He also played a solo etude by the fashionable and flashy Henri Herz. The concert was arranged to raise money for the education of this remarkably talented child.
The father is a professional musician with good contacts in his city. He plays many instruments—the flute, violin, viola, flugelhorn, and double bass. Where he grew up, in the farmlands of Holstein, north of Hamburg, becoming a musician meant apprenticing to a qualified musician and learning to play a range of instruments. The father completed his service and is now the proud possessor of a signed certificate. In his view of the world, a musician is a man who can provide music for any occasion. That is why his son is now learning to play the cello. Although at age seven the child convinces the reluctant father to let him take piano lessons, he does not convince him that piano playing will be sufficient to put bread on his table in the future; he must learn other instruments. His brother will be taught to play the violin and the flute, in addition to the piano. For him, it will be the cello and the horn.
The little boy’s name is Johannes Brahms. He will study the cello for several years—I’m guessing three—but he won’t continue for too long because his cello teacher will run off with his instrument and that will be the end of the lessons. This story is neither invention nor poetic license. We have the facts on the best possible authority: a long letter Brahms’ mother wrote to him shortly before her death and a short memoir by the great cellist Julius Klengel, who reported Brahms’ remarks during an evening they spent together.
Ask most people to describe Johannes Brahms and, if they know who he is at all (“Do you like Brahms?” “I don’t know. What are they?”), they will refer to a stocky man with a powerful paunch and flowing beard. They may even add that he came from a poor Hamburg family, or that he grew up in a slum, or that he could be stingingly sarcastic and gruff. But another, more accurate, picture would show a handsome, smooth-cheeked youth, raised in modest but respectable circumstances, slim and athletic, at once high-minded and high-spirited, boisterous and shy.
Paint the picture a few years later, and one could show a young man extraordinarily familiar with literature, history, and the fine arts, on his way to being, perhaps, the most erudite of all the great composers. A later picture could show a man in friendly contact and on equal terms with some of the leading scientists, poets, musicologists, philologists, and artists of the day. Brahms had 18 godchildren, a host of friends, and a large stack of preserved correspondence to prove it (11,000 letters so far and counting).
In this piece, I want to present an up-to-date picture of what is known about him and to show a side that is not as well known.
The fact that Brahms owned a cello is one of the best clues to understanding his childhood. Although the myth persists that he grew up in poverty in a Hamburg slum, and that he was sent to play in brothels at an early age to put food on the family table, his cello is one of several pieces of evidence that utterly refutes this notion. The cello cost as much as the full year’s salary of many working men at the time. It was paid for by Brahms’ mother who had saved money from her small business taking in sewing and selling sewing supplies. Brahms’ father, Johann Jakob Brahms, scraped together a living playing the double bass in a six-man band and playing the flute or horn or piccolo, as needed, when work was offered in theater orchestras. As an immigrant from Holstein, Johann Jakob had acquired Hamburg citizenship as soon as he was eligible—a considerable expenditure in those days. In order to do this, one had first to prove one’s moral and religious suitability, then buy one’s own uniform and weapon (and prove one could use it), and finally pay for the privilege. This all amounted to a sum that would have fed and clothed a family of four for a year.
Brahms was born on May 7, 1833, in the crowded old quarter of Hamburg known as the Gängeviertel, the Neighborhood of Narrow Lanes. Eight months later, his family moved. His formative years were spent in a small house at 29 Dammtorwall near the Alster Basin (Hamburg’s inland lake), within walking distance of one of his father’s major work places. Eventually, the Gängeviertel became a notorious slum and, since this was its condition when important early biographers visited it, they all, without exception, came to the faulty conclusion that they were seeing the neighborhood where Johannes grew up. They were also unaware that the family had moved so soon after his birth. Everyone since has copied this point of view until, starting in 1983, a wave of modern scholarship unearthed a host of specific documents, which are the foundation of the updated story you are reading here. Stay tuned for Part Two of Brahm’s fascinating life!
Styra Avins has been a member of Local 802 since 1961. She is the author of Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters as well as many articles and book chapters concerning Brahms’ life. She also wrote the entry for Brahms in the “Oxford Companion to Music.” As a cellist, Avins has played with the Seoul Symphony, the American Symphony, the New York City Opera Orchestra, and the Queens Symphony. Readers may contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.