By Styra Avins
In the February issue of WestView, Styra Avins introduced us to the musical work and family life of Johannes Brahms. Part Two expands upon these areas, and reflects an edited version of Avins’ original essay, published in the May 2014 issue of Allegro to commemorate Brahms’ 181st birthday.
Brahms’ mother, Christiana Johanna (1789-1865), came from a family of ministers and schoolteachers whose station in life had been reduced by the social upheavals of the time. The letters to her famous son display generosity and common sense, couched in untutored but expressive language. Having lived through Napoleon’s brutal siege of Hamburg, she knew how to manage with limited financial resources. This was important because money in the Brahms family was always in short supply. To supplement his income as a freelance musician, Brahms’ father, Johann Jakob, bought lottery tickets, raised rabbits, then chickens, ducks, and doves in the backyard. It all cost money, and it all failed. The family also moved frequently. Johann Jakob bought furniture and musical instruments the family neither needed nor could afford. Nevertheless, the Brahms family lived above, not below, the poverty line. What the parents spent to educate their boys, and as rent on their dwellings, totaled more than the annual wage for an average worker.
Both Johannes and his brother Fritz attended an up-to-date middle class school, along with the sons of physicians, lawyers, well-to-do landowners, and businessmen; they both graduated at age 14. They studied Latin, French, English, the natural sciences, history, mathematics, and gymnastics—a sport Johannes practiced until he was about 30. There was always food on the table, even special items for the holidays. Their working-class neighborhood was home to people today classed as professionals. Among them were musicians, including Brahms’ first piano teacher.
So, the stories of Brahms being hauled out of bed at night for brothel gigs to help support the family are absurd myths, even without considering that parents, who spent precious cash on primary school education when schooling was not mandatory, were unlikely to expose him to such sordidness. Brothels in Hamburg were legal and regulated by law. No music was permitted. Children between 10 and 18 years old were not allowed entry, given the threat of penalties to owners, including stiff fines and imprisonment.
At age 14, however, Brahms did leave school to begin work as a musician, a role never abandoned. He played in dance halls and indoor and outdoor taverns where he was essentially a live jukebox. He played in theaters, gave piano lessons, arranged operatic potpourris for a local publisher, and gave a brilliant debut recital at age 16. That got him nowhere though because, at that time, before concert agents existed, one needed aristocratic or wealthy patrons to promote a career. The Republic of Hamburg had no aristocracy. No wealthy citizen cared to promote the career of the son of a local working musician.
Brahms composed. That was his continuing passion. But as a working man, he could only follow his calling very early in the morning while polishing his boots, as he once recalled. Judging from the roll of music under his arm when he left home at 19, those early hours were productive. He remained an early riser for the rest of his life, composing until noon.
Brahms’ father was the one who insisted that he earn his way at 19. With the help of a friend, Johann Jakob arranged a little tour to some small towns in northern Germany. That year, 1853, changed Brahms’ life dramatically. He met Franz Liszt, who understood his talent, and the great violinist Joseph Joachim, who immediately befriended him and sent him on to Robert Schumann (“Arrival of Brahms,” Schumann wrote in his diary, “a genius”). Schumann introduced him to the public with an unprecedented literary canon-blast, which both helped and hindered him for years to come. In the long run, it was Clara Schumann who set Brahms’ career on track; she had all the aristocratic and wealthy connections one could want. She gave first performances of many of Brahms’ new compositions, and saw to it that he had his own concert performances. Until 1868, when Brahms’ finances stabilized with the publication of the German Requiem, he restored his bank account by performing as a pianist, however reluctantly. He never gave it up entirely. That Brahms played his Paganini Variations in public in 1883 is a clue that he retained a formidable technique for much of his life.
Brahms’ identification with working musicians was evident long after he was an established composer. The experience of growing up in the home of a musician who practiced music as a trade was not lost on Brahms. Whether they were soloists or members of his orchestra, Brahms concerned himself with the needs of his musicians. In 1875, as conductor of the orchestra of Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, one of his three rehearsals of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion had to be cancelled. He now had to schedule two long rehearsals instead of three shorter ones. His players grumbled. Brahms wrote to the Directors of the Society:
“It follows…that [i]nstead of the customary three rehearsals of…two hours each, [now] we have two rehearsals of a good three hours. I declare[d] that…it had not entered my mind to lay claim to the gentlemen’s time and effort…thereby hoping to save a rehearsal (and the money for it). Therefore I [presented] the simple mathematical equation, that 2×3 is as good as 3×2 – i.e. I am holding two rehearsals and consider myself obliged to pay for three. I most urgently request that the gentlemen… definitely be compensated as usual for three rehearsals, since I will…gladly accept personal responsibility in any case…With extreme respect, Your very faithful J. Brahms.”
Years later, now an authority on early music and serving as a consultant to Guido Adler, the founder of modern musicology, Brahms wrote to Adler concerning the wages of his copyist:
“If I finally get…to responding to your questionnaire today, the immediate incentive is your copyist, Herr Kupfer. He showed me the Muffat things he is copying…and I [want] to ask you…urgently and cordially not to pay for his work so badly. How exceedingly difficult and laborious the work is, I need hardly [say]. But do…picture for yourself clearly how costly his work is for him in every respect because of the fact that he cannot do it at home.”
(Since the volume was located in the Court Library, Kupfer had to travel there.)
Brahms compared Kupfer’s paltry wage to that of a common street messenger, and urged Adler not to “economize where it would be least just and humane.” He ended by reminding Adler to read the beginning of his letter again “with a sympathetic eye, and [to] respond with very kindly and generously giving hands!”
Concerned about the playability of his music, Brahms’ sense of responsibility extended to solo performers. About a passage in his yet-unpublished Third String Quartet, he wrote to violinist Joseph Joachim: “Would you alter a few notes for me in the difficult passages, particularly in the first movement? To me, fingerings are nothing but evidence that something is rotten in the violin scoring.” For piano arrangements of his own work, top priority was given to playability. To his favorite arranger he wrote about the Handel Variations (Op. 24) about to appear in a four-hand version: “Do what ever you want with it all! Double it, cut it, ornament it…”
His attitude is embodied in the advice he gave to a young composer. “You write as if for a music box, where each little pin has a fragment of the music,” he said. “But musicians are not music boxes, you know, they are human beings too: If you give someone the dissonance, you must also give him the resolution.”
Styra Avins is a cellist and author of Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters (Oxford University Press, 1997/2001), as well as many articles concerning Brahms’ life and music. Readers may contact the author at email@example.com.