Johannes Brahms – A Mini-Biography

Brahms1

Was Johannes Brahms a musical purist carrying on the spirit of the Baroque and Classical traditions? Or was he a stodgy conservative who resisted all change in the Western musical tradition? Indeed, Brahms was “old school” back when the old school may not have been that old, but it certainly wasn’t new. He steadfastly resisted the burgeoning and sensational “Music of the Future” movement inspired by Hector Berlioz and spearheaded by such luminaries as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. By the mid-19th century, classical music was churning with changes that promised to unify the literary, visual, and musical arts. For Wagner, this meant voluptuous multi-layered operatic productions; for Liszt, symphonic poems with literary or visual art underpinnings. All this pointed to a glorious future for music, and indeed paved much of the way towards the radicalism of the Twentieth Century.

In the face of such progress, Brahms was fly in the proverbial ointment. His first symphony, completed in 1876, embodied the classical ideal so much it was praised as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. He championed Bach back when Bach’s music still wasn’t all that fashionable in Vienna. He concentrated on succeeding Schubert as a composer of lieder (German for songs), equaling Beethoven as a composer of symphonies, and composing gorgeous chamber music like no one. After the voices of Mendelssohn and Schumann fell silent in the mid-nineteenth century, Brahms was, as one critic put it, the “keeper of the classical flame.”

Brahms1 Was Johannes Brahms a musical purist carrying on the spirit of the Baroque and Classical traditions? Or was he a stodgy conservative who resisted all change in the Western musical tradition? Indeed, Brahms was “old school” back when the old school may not have been that old, but it certainly wasn’t new. He steadfastly resisted the burgeoning and sensational “Music of the Future” movement inspired by Hector Berlioz and spearheaded by such luminaries as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. By the mid-19th century, classical music was churning with changes that promised to unify the literary, visual, and musical arts. For Wagner, this meant voluptuous multi-layered operatic productions; for Liszt, symphonic poems with literary or visual art underpinnings. All this pointed to a glorious future for music, and indeed paved much of the way towards the radicalism of the Twentieth Century. In the face of such progress, Brahms was fly in the proverbial ointment. His first symphony, completed in 1876, embodied the classical ideal so much it was praised as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. He championed Bach back when Bach’s music still wasn’t all that fashionable in Vienna. He concentrated on succeeding Schubert as a composer of lieder (German for songs), equaling Beethoven as a composer of symphonies, and composing gorgeous chamber music like no one. After the voices of Mendelssohn and Schumann fell silent in the mid-nineteenth century, Brahms was, as one critic put it, the “keeper of the classical flame.” brahms2 Check out some of my Brahms favorites: The Horn Trio, The Academic Festival Overture, and of course, his Violin Concerto. And the way his Second Symphony just barrels to a close is nothing short of glorious. Brahms also produced a wealth of choral music (such as the German Requiem), and perhaps his most profitable works, the Hungarian Dances, demonstrate a deep interest in folk music. That, and he composed a classic lullaby (“lullaby, and good night…”) that rocks children to sleep even today. Brahms’ reputation as the stodgy conservative wasn’t helped at all by his famously brusque behavior. Born in 1833 to humble conditions in the waterfront city of Hamburg, Brahms never seemed to pick up the refinement and manners that one would expect from a star composer. Nor did he seem to care. He reportedly fell asleep while virtuoso Franz Liszt was giving a recital at his home. He did little to curtail his negative opinions of contemporaries such as Anton Bruckner and Peter Tchaikovsky. He was known to say offensive and acerbic things at parties, such as the time when at the home of a wine enthusiast, the host opened what he called “the Brahms of his cellar.” Brahms took a sip and reportedly muttered that host had better bring out the Beethoven. Another story involves how he tried to escape a group of female admirers by lighting up a cigar. Nearly choking on smoke, the ladies scolded Brahms about how gentlemen do not smoke in front of ladies. Brahms replied that “where there are angels there must also be clouds.” Indeed, the quintessential Brahms quote, probably apocryphal but definitely fun, was when leaving a party, he announced, “If there is anyone here I have not offended, I do apologize.” Brahms also had a passionate side, and this was famously expressed in his forty-year relationship with piano virtuoso Clara Schumann. Young and virtually unknown, Brahms fell in with Robert and Clara

Schumann in 1853 after the composer (not one for understatement) hailed him as a genius, a “Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove”. They were tremendously fond of each other, so much that young Johannes lived with the Schumanns for several months and acted as big brother to their many children.

Robert and Clara Schumann
Robert and Clara Schumann
When Robert died three years later, Brahms grew much closer with Clara, who was fourteen years his senior. There is much speculation as to whether their relationship was romantic or platonic, with most evidence (or lack thereof) pointing to a loving but platonic one. Then again, they did burn a lot of their letters, so one has to wonder. Regardless, theirs was a relationship for the ages, filled with passion and strife, and with love and music. It is speculated that this love, thwarted by an insurmountable age difference, is the reason why Brahms never married. He could never find another Clara. Clara finally died in 1896, and this set off a series of tragic accidents that made Brahms horribly late for her funeral. He received the news late, boarded the wrong train, missed his stop, backtracked and got off at the wrong city, and then spent the next forty hours without sleep correcting these mistakes. He arrived during the procession to the grave, exhausted and in tears, just in time to toss three fistfuls of dirt on her coffin. Later, he said, “Now, I have nobody left to lose.” Beyond the boorishness and this intense passion, those who knew Brahms knew him for the kind-hearted softie he really was. He lived modestly in a three room apartment and gave much of his money away to relatives or fellow musicians. He once offered his fortune to a young Antonin Dvorak and helped further the career of Gustav Mahler. He loved nature and the outdoors, and was famous for taking long walks throughout Vienna. He once claimed he could hear music in the croaking of bullfrogs!
Two of Brahms' famous beneficiaries: Dvorak and Mahler
Two of Brahms’ famous beneficiaries: Dvorak and Mahler
Brahms was also extremely humble for someone who was the toast of Vienna for practically three decades. Once at a party, when someone lifted his glass to Brahms to honor the greatest composer of all time, Brahms completed the toast by announcing, “Yes, yes, let’s all drink to Mozart’s health!” and quickly downed his glass. As rough and rude he was, Brahms was indeed a sweet, generous man. This is perhaps exemplified best when someone once asked him for an autograph. Brahms jotted down a few bars of the Beautiful Blue Danube by his dear friend Johann Strauss Jr., and beneath it wrote, “Alas, not written by…Johannes Brahms.”

TRIO

In the afterward of TRIO, his sprawling two-volume novel about the Schumanns and Brahms, author Boman Desai describes his work as a “dramatized biography.” He goes on to say that “TRIO is a biography for people who hate biographies…and a novel for people who hate novels.”

This is pithy and clever, but only half right. It’s a work for people who love novels and biographies too. And it doesn’t hurt if you love the Schumanns and Brahms as well.

The beauty of this however is that TRIO is a great way for people to grow to love the Schumanns and Brahms. Maybe even better than the music itself. It’s got plot, music, politics, warfare. It’s got great characters (including Liszt, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Chopin). Without knowing anything about classical music, there’s enough here to draw you in. Or, if you already love the music and know a thing or two about the principals, TRIO is so well-researched, so all-encompassing, so daring, and so deftly written that you will be pleased to read about what you do know, and your curiosity will be stoked about what you don’t.

In the afterward of TRIO, generic his sprawling two-volume novel about the Schumanns and Brahms, pills author Boman Desai describes his work as a “dramatized biography.” He goes on to say that “TRIO is a biography for people who hate biographies…and a novel for people who hate novels.”

This is pithy and clever, but only half right. It's a work for people who love novels and biographies too. And it doesn't hurt if you love the Schumanns and Brahms as well.

The beauty of this however is that TRIO is a great way for people to grow to love the Schumanns and Brahms. Maybe even better than the music itself. It's got plot, music, politics, warfare. It's got great characters (including Liszt, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Chopin). Without knowing anything about classical music, there's enough here to draw you in. Or, if you already love the music and know a thing or two about the principals, TRIO is so well-researched, so all-encompassing, so daring, and so deftly written that you will be pleased to read about what you do know, and your curiosity will be stoked about what you don’t.

Starting with Clara Wieck as a 9 year-old traveling piano prodigy, Volume One takes us into the life of music at the dawn of the Romantic Period. It's 1828. Robert Schumann is young and passionate but undisciplined. Still unsure of his future (will he be a lawyer or a writer?) he finds himself falling for a maturing Clara and struggling with the notion that his child-bride might earn more money than he. Desai also shows exactly how ferocious Clara's father Friedrich was in opposing his daughter's marriage to Schumann. The couple's ultimate victory is sweet indeed.
As the plot progresses, Desai offers glimpses of the prevailing musical attitudes of the day. Here is a telling passage, taking place at a soiree:

An Italian sang next with the clearest tone accompanied by Kalkbrenner on the piano, but cluttered her songs with the trills and scales and cadenzas and ritardandos Italians found so salubrious and Germans so painful.

Another line that I have to repeat comes from Robert speaking his mind to Friedrich Wieck:

“If we do not make distinctions between the virtuous in music and mere virtuosity, we do not make strides, except backward. Might as well play the pianoforte with your feet. It is not easy, but neither will it make you an artist.”

This is very good. But did Schumann actually say it when he did in TIO? Probably not. But maybe he said something similar. Desai often feeds lines from letters and diaries into his character's mouths during dialog in order to convey the feeling of the character, the time, and the action. One cannot recreate history as it happened, of course, but Desai's technique is the next best thing. These were the thoughts that were running through Schumann's head during this time in his life, and Desai paraphrased them nicely in dialog.

Other composers appear either as part of the central plot or in interpolative chapters. Mendelssohn, brilliant and graceful, makes his benign presence felt, perhaps most poignantly when he meets a young Queen Victoria. Liszt, resplendent in his Mephistophelean glory, comes across equally as cunning schemer and genuine nice guy. Wagner, on the other hand, is well-nigh evil, the villain one loves to hate.

My favorite passage featuring Mendelssohn occurs when he is forced to listen to Clara play one of Robert's sonatas on the piano during a party. Despite both being in their early-to-mid-20s, Mendelssohn was already an established musician (having been a famous child prodigy). Robert on the other hand was still known mostly as a critic, and an impoverished one at that. He was still developing as a composer, and his most well known works were considered pretty and lightweight. Mendelssohn settled down for what he expected to be “a pleasant few minutes”. What he got however was this:

The sonata started as he might have expected, a motif of two notes, now rising, now falling, now maintaining the level of its pitch, played successively over a rumbling harmonic bass, but in a few moments it became evident that the motif in its various guises was only a prelude, and the first movement proper began with a muscular theme, a masculine theme, a gallop in concert, cavalry in triplets, far more satisfactory than anything he had heard yet by Robert, which developed generously and unpredictably. Found himself sitting up, listening intently.

Mendelssohn asked to hear a movement from that piece a second time. I doubt Robert came down from the clouds in over a week.

Robert and Clara's story, of course, does not end well. Robert's mental health was never very stable, and after trying to end his life in the Rhine, he spent the last two years of his life in an insane asylum. But Desai does not focus simply on Robert's harrowing descent into madness, but also on Clara's difficulties raising a houseful of children without a husband. Despite this, Desai shows just how steadfast her love for Robert had always been, even in the worst of times. She was his wife and champion and a very strong lady in her own right. Included is the magnificent scene in which she marched alone through a war zone to return her children to safety.

Volume Two chronicles Clara's relationship with Johannes Brahms within the broader politics of music in the late 19th-Century. It was the New German School of Wagner and Liszt against the Conservative hold-outs Clara and Brahms. Things begin passionately for Clara and Brahms (Known affectionately as “Hannes”), but they soon realize they aren't right for each other. Their 40-year friendship is as bumpy as it is smooth, and Desai makes us feel every bit of it.

Bittersweet, too, is Brahms' bachelorhood. Why did he never marry? Why was he not right for Clara, the woman he could so easily enthrall and frustrate? Among the intellectual and political elite of Central Europe Brahms always remained one step from the shipyards and cheap apartments of his lower-middle class upbringing. Desai gives us some of that too, as well as Brahms' first experience with a prostitute. Apparently, this was an experience he never could overcome.

But he was Brahms. He didn't need to. He didn't kowtow to anyone, not the aristocracy, not academia, and not royalty, especially musical royalty. This reactionary attitude made him stand out among Europe's elite like a ragamuffin at a gala ball, only one expertly wielding a baton. His ratty clothes, his cruel japes, his straight-as-an-arrow honesty, he refusal to put on airs. Brahms once claimed that he had no friends, but if you were something like a friend to him, he could be loyal and generous. Violinist Joseph Joachim once complained that when he and Brahms toured together, Brahms' slow pace made it harder for him to make money (which he desperately needed with a family to support). So Brahms insisted that they keep the slow pace, but that Joseph take in two-thirds of the purses rather than half.

Brahms is a complex character, and Desai gives it to us with a side of boiled cabbage. Once when a friend wanted to learn more about Brahms and his life, Brahms took him to a seedy bar where he, Brahms, the toast of Vienna and the greatest composer of his day, played bawdy songs on a upright piano into the wee hours of the morning. Nobody there knew who he was.

Then there is the question of whether Brahms and Clara were ever indeed lovers. People love to speculate about their relationship, but no one knows for sure, largely because they burned so many of their letters. There is no direct evidence that they were lovers. On the other hand, if they were never lovers, then why burn so many letters?

(Unforgettable is the scene in which Brahms and Clara as old fogies return their letters to each other as part of some earlier agreement. The air is thick with mixed emotions as the pair haggles and stalls before the final barter. You see, they say they don't want to give up the other's letters because they know the other will destroy them. Yet really they just don't want to give them up…and they really really want to burn theirs.).

So what does Desai do to solve the mystery of Clara and Hannes? Were they lovers or were they not lovers? Desai's answer is yes. You'll have to read the book to learn more about that.

Desai also does a wonderful job of describing the music. Of course, any descriptions come up short when compared to the real thing, but the language of TRIO is so vivid it makes one want to explore a composer's repertoire. Schumann's Carnaval and Sonata in F sharp Minor and Brahms' German Requiem and Symphony #1 get some evocative descriptions. So do the performers themselves. Clara's meticulousness, Liszt's power and bravura, Brahms' perfection at the piano as a cocky young virtuoso, his sloppiness as a old man. Mendelssohn's spot on imitations of Liszt and Chopin are breathtaking as well.

In his Afterward, Desai makes it clear that despite thorough research, there are some apocryphal scenes. In these cases he draws reasonable conclusions according to the scant evidence we have. He makes his case, but really doesn't have to. TRIO is a novel about some of the greatest figures of classical music. Like the music, it is meant first and foremost to be enjoyed. And on this account, it certainly does not fail.