IT has been truly said that great composers cannot be compared one with another. Each is a solitary star, revolving in his own orbit. For instance it is impossible to compare Wagner and Brahms; the former could not have written the German Requiem or the four Symphonies any more than Brahms could have composed “Tristan.” In the combination of arts which Wagner fused into a stupendous whole, he stands without a rival. But Brahms is also a mighty composer in his line of effort, for he created music that continually grows in beauty as it is better known.
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, May 7, 1833. The house at 60 Speckstrasse still stands, and doubtless looks much as it did seventy years ago. A locality of dark, narrow streets with houses tall and gabled and holding as many families as possible. Number 60 stands in a dismal court, entered by a close narrow passage. A steep wooden staircase in the center, used to have gates, closed at night. Jakob and Johanna lived in the first floor dwelling to the left. It consisted of a sort of lobby or half kitchen, a small living room and a tiny sleeping closetnothing else. In this and other small tenements like it, the boy’s early years were spent. It certainly was an ideal case of low living and high thinking.
The Brahms family were musical but very poor in this world’s goods. The father was a contra bass player in the theater; he often had to play in dance halls and beer gardens, indeed where he could. Later he became a member of the band that gave nightly concerts at the Alster Pavillion. The mother, much older than her husband, tried to help out the family finances by keeping a little shop where needles and thread were sold.
Little Johannes, or Hannes as he was called, was surrounded from his earliest years by a musical atmosphere, and must have shown a great desire to study music. We learn that his father took him to Otto Cossel, to arrange for piano lessons. Hannes was seven years old, pale and delicate looking, fair, with blue eyes and a mass of flaxen hair. The father said:
“Herr Cossel, I wish my son to became your pupil; he wants so much to learn the piano. When ,he can play as well as you do it will be enough.”
Hannes was docile, eager and quick to learn.
He had a wonderful memory and made rapid progress. In three years a concert was arranged for him, at which he played in chamber music with several other musicians of Hamburg. The concert was both a financial and artistic success. Not long after this, Cossel induced Edward Marxsen, a distinguished master and his own teacher, to take full charge of the lad’s further musical training. Hannes was about twelve at the time.
Marxsen’s interest in the boy’s progress in-creased from week to week, as he realized his talents. “One day I gave him a composition of Weber’s,” he says. “The next week he played it to me so blamelessly that I praised him. ‘I have also practised it in another way,’ he answered, and played me the right hand part with the left hand.” Part of the work of the lessons was to transpose long pieces at sight; later on Bach’s Preludes and Fugues were done in the same way.
Jakob Brahms, who as we have seen was in very poor circumstances, was ready to exploit Hannes’ gift whenever occasion offered. He had the boy play in the band concerts in the Alster Pavillion, which are among the daily events of the city’s popular life, as all know who are acquainted with Hamburg, and his shillings earned in this and similar ways, helped out the family’s scanty means. But late hours began to tell on the boy’s health. His father begged a friend of his, a wealthy patron of music, to take the lad to his summer home, in return for which he would play the piano at any time of day desired and give music lessons to the young daughter of the family, a girl of about his own age.
Thus it came about that early in May, 1845, Hannes had his first taste of the delights of the country. He had provided himself with a small dumb keyboard, to exercise his fingers upon. Every morning, after he had done what was necessary in the house, Hannes was sent afield by the kind mistress of the household, and told not to show himself till dinner time. Perhaps the good mistress did not know that Hannes had enjoyed himself out of doors hours before. He used to rise at four o’clock and begin his day with a bath in the river. Shortly after this the little girl, Lischen, would join him and they would spend a couple of hours rambling about, looking for bird’s nests, hunting butterflies and picking wild flowers. Hannes’ pale cheeks soon became plump and ruddy, as the result of fresh air and country food. Musical work went right on as usual. Studies in theory and composition, begun with Marxsen, were pursued regularly in the fields and woods all summer.
When the summer was over and all were back in Hamburg again, Lischen used to come sometimes to Frau Brahms, of whom she soon grew very fond. But it troubled her tender heart to see the poor little flat so dark and dreary; for even the living room had but one small window, looking into the cheerless courtyard. She felt very sorry for her friends, and proposed to Hannes they should bring some scarlet runners to be planted in the court. He fell in with the idea at once and it was soon carried out. But alas, when the children had done their part, the plants refused to grow.
Johannes had returned home much improved in health, and able to play in several small concerts, where his efforts commanded attention. The winter passed uneventfully, filled with severe study by day and equally hard labor at night in playing for the “lokals.” But the next summer in Wiesen brought the country and happiness once more.
Hannes began to be known as a musician among the best families of Winsen, and often played in their homes. He also had the chance to conduct a small chorus of women’s voices, called the Choral Society of Winsen. He was expected to turn his theoretical studies to ac-count by composing something for this choir. It was for them he produced his “A B C” song for four parts, using the letters of the alphabet. The composition ended with the words “Winsen, eighteen-hundred seven and forty,” sung slowly and fortissimo. The little piece was tuneful and was a great favorite with the teachers, from that day to this.
The boy had never heard an opera. During the summer, when Carl Formes, then of Vienna, was making a sensation in Hamburg, Lischen got her father to secure places and take them. The opera was the “Marriage of Figaro.” Hannes was almost beside himself with delight. “Lischen, listen to the music ! there was never anything like it,” he cried over and over again. The father, seeing it gave so much pleasure, took the children again to hear another opera, to their great delight.
But the happy summer came to an end and sadness fell, to think Johannes must leave them, for he had found many kind friends in Winsen. He was over fifteen now and well knew he must make his way as a musician, help. support the family, and pay for the education of his brother Fritz, who was to ° become a pianist and teacher. There was a farewell party made for him in Winsen, at which there was much music, speech making and good wishes for his future success and for his return to Wiesen whenever he could.
Johannes made his new start by giving a concert of his own on September 21, 1848. The tickets for this concert were one mark; he had the assistance of some Hamburg musicians. In April next, 1849, he announced a second concert, for which the tickets were two marks. At this he played the Beethoven “Waldstein Sonata,” and the brilliant “Don Juan Fantaisie.” These two works were considered about the top of piano virtuosity. Meanwhile the boy was always composing and still with his teacher Marxsen.
The political revolution of 1848, was the cause of many refugees. crowding into Hamburg on their way to America. One of these was the violinist, Edward Remenyi, a German Hungarian Jew, whose real name was Hofmann. But it seemed Remenyi was really in no haste to leave Hamburg. Johannes, engaged as accompanist at the house of a wealthy patron, met the violinist and was fascinated by his rendering of national Hungarian music. Remenyi, on his side, saw the advantage of having such an accompanist for his own use. So it happened the two played together frequently for a time, until the violinist disappeared from Germany, for several years. He reappeared in Hamburg at the close of the year 1852. He was then twenty-two, while Brahms was nineteen. It was suggested that the two musicians should do a little concert work together. They began to plan out the trip which became quite a tour by the time they had included all the places they wished to visit.
The tour began at Winsen, then came Cella.
Here a curious thing happened. The piano proved to be a half tone below pitch, but Brahms was equal to the dilemma. Requesting Remenyi to tune his violin a half tone higher, making it a whole tone above the piano, he then, at sight, transposed the Beethoven Sonata they were to play. It was really a great feat, but Johannes performed it as though it were an every day affair.
The next place was Luneburg and there the young musician had such success that a second concert was at once announced. Two were next given at Hildesheim. Then came Leipsic, Hanover and after that Weimer, where Franz Liszt and his retinue of famous pupils held court. Here Johannes became acquainted with Raff, Klindworth, Mason, Prükner and other well-known musicians.
By this time his relations with Remenyi had become somewhat irksome and strained and he decided to break off this connection. One morning he suddenly left Weimar, and traveled to Göttingen. There he met Joseph Joachim, whom he had long wished to know, and who was the reigning violinist of his time. Without any announcement, Johannes walked in on the great artist, and they became fast friends almost at once. Joachim had never known what it was to struggle; he had had success from the very start; life had been one long triumph, whereas Johannes had come from obscurity and had been reared in privation. At this time Johannes was a fresh faced boy, with long fair hair and deep earnest blue eyes. Wullner, the distinguished musician of Cologne, thus describes him: “Brahms, at twenty, was a slender youth, with long blond hair and a veritable St. John’s head, from whose eyes shone energy and spirit.”
Johannes was at this time deeply engaged on his piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5. He had already written two other piano sonatas, as yet little known. The Op. 5, is now constantly heard in concert rooms, played by the greatest artists of our time.
In disposition Hannes was kindly and sincere; as a youth merry and gay. A friend in Düsseldorf, where he now spent four weeks, thus de-scribes him:
“He was a most unusual looking young musician, hardly more than a boy, in his short summer coat, with his high-pitched voice and long fair hair. Especially fine was his energetic, characteristic mouth, and his earnest, deep gaze. His constitution was thoroughly healthy; the most strenuous mental exercise hardly fatigued him and he could go to sleep at any hour of the day he pleased. He was apt to be full of pranks, too. At the piano he dominated by his characteristic, powerful, and when necessary, extraordinarily tender playing.” Schumann,
whom he now came to know in Düsseldorf, called him the “young eagle-one of the elect.”
In fact Schumann, in his musical journal, praised the young musician most highly. And his kindness did not stop there. He wrote to Hannes’ father, Jakob Brahms, in Hamburg, commending in glowing terms his son’s compositions. This letter was sent to Johannes and the result was the offering of some of his compositions to Breitkopf and Härtel for publication. He had already written two Sonatas, a Scherzo, and a Sonata for piano and violin. The Sonata in C, now known as Op. 1, although not his first work, was the one in which he introduced himself to the public. For, as he said: “When one first shows one’s self, it is to the head and not to the heels that one wishes to draw attention.”
Johannes made his first appearance in Leipsic, as pianist and composer, at one of the David Quartet Concerts, at which he played his C major Sonata and the Scherzo. His success was immediate, and as a result, he was able to secure a second publisher for his Sonata Op. 5.
And now, after months of traveling, playing in many towns and meeting with many musicians and distinguished people, Johannes turned his steps toward Hamburg, and was soon in the bosom of the home circle. It is easy to imagine the mother’s joy, for Hannes had always been the apple of her eye, and she had kept her promise faithfully, to write him a letter every week. But who shall measure the father’s pride and satisfaction to have his boy return a real musical hero?
The concert journey just completed was the bridge over which Johannes Brahms passed from youth to manhood. With the opening year of 1854, he may be said to enter the portals of a new life.
He now betook himself to Hanover, to be near his devoted friend Joachim, plunged into work and was soon absorbed in the composition of his B major Piano Trio. Later Schumann and his charming wife, the pianist, came to Hanover for a week’s visit, which was the occasion for several concerts in which Brahms, Joachim and Clara Schumann took part. Soon after this Schumann’s health failed and he was removed to a sanatorium. In sympathy for the heavy trial now to be borne by Clara Schumann, both young artists came to Düsseldorf, to be near the wife of their adored master, Robert Schumann. There they remained and by their encouragement so lifted the spirits of Frau Clara that she was able to resume her musical activities.
Johann had been doing some piano teaching when not occupied with composition. But now, on the advice of his musical friends, he decided to try his luck again as a concert pianist. He began by joining Frau Clara and Joachim in; a concert at Danzig. Each played solos. Johann’s were Bach’s “Chromatic Fantaisie” and several manuscript pieces of his own. After this the young artist went his own way. He played with success in Bremen, also in Hamburg. It is said he was always nervous before playing, but especially so in his home city. However all passed off well. He now settled definitely in Hamburg, making musical trips to other places when necessary.
Robert Schumann rallied for a while from his severe malady, and hopes were held out of his final recovery. Frau Clara, having her little family to support, resumed her concert playing in good earnest, and appeared with triumphant success in Vienna, London and many other cities. When possible Brahms and Joachim accompanied her. Then Schumann’s malady took an unfavorable turn. When the end was near, Brahms and Frau Clara went to Endenich and were with the master till all was over. On July 31, 1856, a balmy summer evening, the mortal remains of the great composer were laid to rest in the little cemetery at Bonn, on the Rhine, The three chief mourners were: Brahms-who carried a laurel wreath from the wifeJoachim and Dietrich.
Frau Schumann returned to Düsseldorf the next day, accompanied by Brahms and Joachim. Together they set in order the papers left by the composer, and assisted the widow in many little ways. A little later she went to Switzerland to recover her strength, accompanied by Brahms and his sister Elise. A number of weeks were spent in rest and recuperation. By October the three musicians were ready to take up their ordinary routine again. Frau Clara began practising for her concert season, Joachim re-turned to his post in Hanover, and Johann turned his face toward Hamburg, giving some concerts on the way, in which he achieved pronounced success.
The season of 1856-7, was passed uneventfully by Brahms, in composing, teaching and occasional journeys. He may be said to have had four homes, besides that of his parents in Hamburg. In Düsseldorf, Hanover, Gottingen and Bonn he had many friends and was always welcome.
It may be asked why Brahms, who had the faculty of endearing himself so warmly to his friends, never married. It is true he sometimes desired to found a home of his own, but in reality the mistress of his absorbing passion was his art, to which everything else remained secondary. He never swerved a hair’s breadth from this devotion to creative art, but accepted poverty, disappointment, loneliness and often failure in the eyes of the world, for the sake of this, his true love.
Johannes was now engaged as conductor of a Choral Society in Detmold, also as Court Pianist and teacher in the royal family. The post carried with it free rooms and living, and he was lodged at the Hotel Stadt Frankfort, a comfortable inn, exactly opposite the Castle, and thus close to the scene of his new labors.
He began his duties by going through many short choral works of the older and modern masters. With other musicians at Court much chamber music was played, in fact almost the entire repertoire. The young musician soon be-came a favorite at Court, not only on account of his musical genius but also because of the general culture of his mind. He could talk on almost any subject. “Whoever wishes to play well must not only practise a great deal but read many books,” was one of his favorite sayings. One of his friends said, of meetings in Brahms’ rooms at night, when his boon companions reveled in music : “And how Brahms loved the great masters ! How he played Haydn and Mozart! With what beauty of interpretation and delicate shading of tone. And then his transposing!”. Indeed Johann thought nothing of taking up a new composition and playing it in any key, without a mistake. His score reading was marvelous. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, all seemed to flow naturally from under his fingers.
The post in Detmold only required Brahms’ presence a part of the year, but he was engaged for a term of years. The other half of the year was spent in Hamburg, where he resumed his activities of composing and teaching. The summer after his first winter in Detmold was spent in Göttingen with warm friends. Clara Schumann was there with her children, and Johann was always one of the familyas a son to her. He was a famous playfellow for the children, too. About this time he wrote a book of charming Children’s Folk Songs, dedicated to the children of Robert and Clara Schumann. Johann was occupied with his Piano Concerto in D minor. His method of working was somewhat like Beethoven’s, as he put down his ideas in notebooks. Later on he formed the habit of keeping several compositions going at once.
The prelude to Johann’s artistic life was successfully completed. Then came a period of quiet study and inward growth. A deeper activity was to succeed. It opened early in the year 1859, when the young musician traveled to Hanover and Leipsic, bringing out his Concerto in D minor. He performed it in the first named city, while Joachim conducted the orchestra. It was said the work “with all its serious striving, its rejection of the trivial, its skilled instrumentation, seemed difficult to understand; but the pianist was considered not merely a virtuoso but a great artist of piano playing.”
The composer had now to hurry to Leipsic, as he was to play with the famous Gewandhaus orchestra. How would Leipsic behave towards this new and serious music? Johann was a dreamer, inexperienced in the ways of the world; he was an idealistin short, a genius gifted with an “imagination, profound, original and romantic.” The day after the concert he wrote Joachim he had made a brilliant and decided failure. However he was not a whit discouraged by the apathy of the Leipsigers toward his new work. He wrote: “The Concerto will please some day, when° I have made some improvements, and a second shall sound quite different.”
It has taken more than half a century to establish the favor of the Concerto, which still continues on upward wing. The writer heard the composer play this Concerto in Berlin, toward the end of his life. He made an unforgettable figure, as he sat at the piano with his long hair and beard, turning to gray ; and while his technic was not of the virtuoso type, he created a powerful impression by his vivid interpretation.
After these early performances of the Concerto, Johann returned to Hamburg, to his composing and teaching. He, however, played the
Concerto in his native city on a distinguished occasion, when Joachim was a soloist in Spohr’s Gesang-Scene, Stockhausen in a magnificent Aria, and then Johann, pale, blond, slight, but calm and self controlled. The Concerto scored a considerable success at last, and the young composer was content.
In the autumn of this year, Johann paid his third visit to Detmold, and found himself socially as well as musically the fashion. It was the correct thing to have lessons from him and his presence gave distinction to any assemblage: But Johann did not wish to waste his time at social functions; when obliged to be present at some of these events he would remain silent the entire evening, or else say sharp or biting things, making the hosts regret they had asked him. His relations with the Court family, however, remained very pleasant. Yet he began to chafe under the constant demands on his time, and the rigid etiquette of the little Court. The next season he definitely declined the invitation to re-visit Detmold, the reason given was that he had not the time, as he was supervising the publication of a number of his works. Brahms had become interested in writing for the voice, and had already composed any number of beautiful vocal solos and part songs.
We are told that Frau Schumann, Joachim and Stockhausen came frequently to Hamburg during the season of 1861, and all three made much of Johannes. All four gave concerts together, and Johannes took part in a performance of Schumann’s beautiful Andante and Variations, for two pianos, while Stockhausen sang entrancingly Beethoven’s Love Songs, accompanied by Brahms. On one occasion Brahms played his Variations on a Handel Theme, “an-other magnificent work, splendidly long, the stream of ideas flowing inexhaustibly. And the work was wonderfully played by the composer; it seemed like a miracle. The composition is so difficult that none but a great artist can attempt it.” So wrote a listener at the time. That was in 1861, We know this wonderful work in these days, for all the present time artists perform it. At each of Frau Schumann’s three appearances in Hamburg during the autumn of this year, she performed one of Brahms’ larger compositions; one of them was the Handel Variations.
Although one time out of ten Johann might be taciturn or sharp, the other nine he would be agreeable, always pleased-good humored, satisfied, like a child with children. Every one liked his earnest nature, his gaiety and humor.
Johann had had a great longing to see Vienna, the home of so many great musicians; but felt that when the right time came, the way would open. And it did. Early in September, 1862, he wrote a friend : “I am leaving on Monday, the eighth, for Vienna. I look forward to it like a child.
He felt at home in Vienna from the start, and very soon met the leading lights of the Austrian capital. On November 16, he gave his first concert, with the Helmesberger Quartet, and before a crowded house. It was a real success for “Schumann’s young prophet.” Although concert giving was distasteful, he appeared again on December 20, and then gave a second concert on January 6, 1863, when he played Bach’s Chromatic Fantaisie, Beethoven’s Variations in C minor, his own Sonata Op. 5, and Schumann’s Sonata OP. 11.
Johann returned home in May, and shortly after was offered the post of Conductor of the Singakademie, which had just become vacant. He had many plans for the summer, but finally relinquished them and sent an acceptance. By the last of August he was again in Vienna.
Now followed years of a busy musical life. Brahms made his headquarters in Vienna, and while there did much composing. The wonderful Piano Quintette, one of his greatest works, the German Requiem, the Cantata Rinaldo and many beautiful songs came into being during this period. Every little while concert tours and musical journeys were undertaken, where Brahms often combined with other artists in giving performances of his compositions. A series of three concerts in Vienna in February and March, 1869, given by Brahms and Stockhausen, were phenomenally successful, the tickets being sold as soon as the concerts were announced. The same series was given in Budapest with equal success.
Early in the year 1872, when our composer was nearly forty, we find him installed in the historic rooms in the third floor of Number 4 Carl’s Gasse, Vienna, which were to remain to the end of his life the nearest approach to an establishment of his own. There were three small rooms. The largest contained his grand piano, writing table, a sofa with another table in front of it. The composer was still smooth of face and looked much as he did at twenty, judging from his pictures. It was not until several years later, about 1880, that he was adorned by the long heavy beard, which gave his face such a venerable appearance.
The year 1874, was full of varied excitement. Many invitations were accepted to conduct his works in North Germany, the Rhine, Switzerland, and other countries. A tour in Holland in 1876, brought real joy. He played his D minor Concerto in Utrecht and other cities, conducted his works and was everywhere received with honors. But the greatest event of this year was the appearance of his first Symphony. It was performed for the first time from manuscript in Carlsruhe and later in many other cities. In this work “Brahms’ close affinity with Beethoven must become clear to every musician, who has not already perceived it,” wrote Hanslick, the noted critic.
We have now to observe the unwearied energy with which Brahms, during the years that followed added one after another to his list, in each and every branch of serious music; songs, vocal duets, choral and instrumental works. In the summer of 1877 came the Second Symphony. In 1879 appeared the great Violin Concerto, now acclaimed as one of the few masterpieces for that instrument. It was performed by Joachim at the Gewandhaus, Leipsic, early in the year. There were already four Sonatas for Piano and Violin. The Sonata in G, the Rhapsodies Op. 79 and the third and fourth books of Hungarian Dances, as duets, were the publications of 1880. He now wrote a new Piano Concerto, in B flat, which he played in Stuttgart for the first time, November 22, 188E In 1883 the Third Symphony appeared, which revealed him at the zenith of his powers. This work celebrated his fiftieth birthday.
The Fourth Symphony was completed during the summer of 1885. Then came the Gipsy Songs.
From 1889 onward, Brahms chose for his summer sojourn the town of Ischl, in the Salzkammergut. The pretty cottage where he stayed was on the outskirts of the town, near the rushing river Traun. He always dined at the “Keller” of the Hotel Elizabeth, which was reached by a flight of descending steps. In this quiet country, among mountain, valley and stream, he could compose at ease and also see his friends at the end of the day.
A visit to Italy in the spring of 1890, afforded rest, refreshment and many pleasant incidents.
The “Four Serious Songs,” were published in the summer of 1896. At this time Brahms had been settled in his rooms at Ischl scarcely a fort-night when he was profoundly shaken by news of Clara Schumann’s death. She passed peace-fully away in Frankfort, and was laid beside her husband, in Bonn, May 24. Brahms was present, together with many musicians and celebrities.
The master felt this loss keenly. He spent the summer in Ischl as usual, composing, among other things, the Eleven Choral Preludes. Most of these have death for their subject, showing that his mind was taken up with the idea. His friends noticed he had lost his’ ruddy color and that his complexion was pale. In the autumn he went to Carlsbad for the cure.
After six weeks he returned to Vienna, but not improved, as he had become very thin and walked with faltering step. He loved to be with his friends, the Fellingers, as much as possible, as well as with other friends. He spent Christmas eve with them, and dined there the next day. From this time on he grew worse. He was very gentle the last months of his life, and touchingly grateful for every attention shown him. Every evening he would place himself at the piano and improvise for half an hour. When too fatigued to continue, he would sit at the window till long after darkness had fallen. He gradually grew weaker till he passed peacefully away, April 3, 1897.
The offer of an honorary grave was made by the city of Vienna, and he has found resting place near Beethoven and Mozart, just as he had wished.
Memorial tablets have been placed on the houses in which Brahms lived in Vienna, Ischl and Thun, also on the house of his birth, in Hamburg.