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Essential Brahms

By Gary Barton

It is helpful in this world to be bright and gifted. However, success can often hinge upon happenstance, particularly if one is born into poverty and is desperately in need of recognition and mentoring. Johannes Brahms was born on May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany. His father played the double bass in an orchestra but by his own admission was not very good at it. It is said of his mother that she had memorized all of Schiller's writings, a feat all the more remarkable considering that she bore almost all of the household duties.

Brahms learned the basics of music at an early age, although at school he doesn't seem to have distinguished himself. However, if his academic pace was ponderous, his progress in playing the piano moved like quicksilver. Like so many musicians about whom I have written, Brahms received his first music lessons from a parent, in this case his father. When he had gained all he could from this instruction, he went on to study with a pedagogue named Otto F.W. Cossel and later with Edward Marxsen. Brahms must have learned a lot from the latter as he later dedicated his Piano Concerto #2 in B flat Major to him.

In his early years, Brahms apparently composed quite a lot of music, but he considered it inferior and destroyed it all. However, he persevered and at the death of Mendelssohn Marxsen is reported to have said, "A master has gone; a greater master arises in Brahms." Despite this praise, the gifted young Brahms had to do "hackwork" for publishers, play in dance halls, bordellos and saloons and teach in order to support himself.

In 1853, Brahms met a Hungarian violinist, Eduard Remenyi, and the meeting turned out to be the first of several great turning points in his life. Remenyi liked Brahms's music and Brahms liked Remenyi's playing, so much so that he proposed that the two of them tour and perform together. They traveled mostly on foot through northern Germany, ending up in Hanover, where the renowned violinist Joseph Joachim lived. After hearing Brahms's work performed, Joachim resolved to take this promising young musician under his wing.

Joachim arranged for Brahms to meet Franz Liszt at a social gathering, but Brahms, basically a peasant at heart, was too uncomfortable to play his music in such refined society. Liszt therefore took the manuscript from Brahms's hands, sat down at the piano and sight-read the Scherzo in e flat minor and some sections of the Sonata in C Major to everyone's delight. Liszt continued to play some of his own new music, but when he glanced over to see Brahms's reaction he was startled to discover him fast asleep in a chair. Liszt left the room in disgust, leaving his friends to upbraid Brahms for his boorish behavior in the presence of "the master." Liszt in time forgot the matter, but Brahms from that moment looked upon him as an enemy to be fought and described his approach to "the music of the future" as showy and shallow.

It's no wonder then that when Joachim suggested they travel from Weimar to Dusseldorf so Brahms could meet Clara and Robert Schumann the composer was apprehensive. However, on the way, they stayed some time at the home of some friends who were admirers of Schumann. With their encouragement and a chance to look over some hitherto unfamiliar music by Schumann, Brahms warmed to the work of this fellow composer and set out to meet him.

Robert Schumann was then at the zenith of his career, but there is no doubt that Clara had already noticed some symptoms of the mental illness that blighted his later life. Brahms and Joachim, however, saw nothing of this in the enthusiastic welcome extended to them. Brahms was asked to play, and this time he felt comfortable in doing so. The visit was extended and a happy familiarity was established between the young composer and the Schumann family.

It is here that Brahm's story intersects with the events that I describe in the article on the Schumanns that is part of this website series. Clara Schumann shared the admiration of her husband for Brahms's music, and it is said that her maternal instincts were also aroused by the spectacle of a young man so gifted, so modest and so unlearned in the ways of the world. In turn, Brahms worshipped Robert and for Clara had a still warmer regard as she was the first to show him what a woman's care and kindness can mean. Because Schumann called Brahms "one of the elect," the publishers Breitkopf and Hartel took notice of his music and purchased some of his work, paying him 40 louis d'or for some piano sonatas and the Scherzo, Op. 4, the very pieces Brahms had played on his first visit to the Schumanns.

A few months later, Robert Schumann, in a fit of madness, attempted to commit suicide and threw himself into the Rhine. When this news reached Brahms, he was thunderstruck. He hurried back to Dusseldorf to share the sorrow and to help to assuage the anguish the Schumann family was experiencing. He sacrificed the next two years of his life for Robert, Clara and their children, supervising the schooling of the youngsters, assisting the housekeeper and keeping the family accounts.

No one knows exactly what the relationship was between Brahms and Clara, but they remained close for the rest of their lives. Clara's death came on May 20, 1896; Brahms died eleven months later.

Harold C. Schonberg, in his Lives of the Great Composers (3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1977) paints an interesting picture of Brahms. "In his youth he was a handsome man, slim, with fair hair, very blue eyes, and a high voice that annoyed him. In his mature years he became a heavy-set man with an enormous beard. He constantly smoked cigars and had an appearance of hopeless sloppiness. And he was sloppy. He hated to buy clothes, and his old, baggy, patched trousers were invariably too short. In Vienna, there were many who pointed out the resemblances between Beethoven and Brahms (could Brahms have played this up?): both were short men, both loved the country, both had fierce tempers, both were bachelors. They even had a similar way of walking, head forward and hands clasped behind the back. Over his shoulders Brahms would wear a plaid shawl secured by a safety pin. In his hand, a hat he seldom put on his head. All his life he observed humble habits. Even when he was financially well off he ate at cheap restaurants, lived very simply, and spent next to nothing on himself. Generally he could be found at his favorite tavern, The Red Hedgehog. He liked the coffee there."

The composer's less amiable qualities could not affect a reputation that grew with every new work published, rising to the highest pinnacle with the publication of the symphonies. The first was written in 1877; the second came out the following year. An interval of six years separates the second from the third, then came the fourth in 1886. Brahms's use of the orchestra was a surprise to his admirers, for before the symphonies he had written only the Serenades and the Haydn Variations for this medium.

It is impossible here to discuss the rest of Brahms's great output, which includes the Violin Concerto (which was first performed by Josef Joachim in Leipzig in 1878), the Piano Concerto No. 2, which Brahms himself played at its first performance in Meinengin in 1882, the Academic Festival Overture, written the year before to commemorate the conferring of a Ph.D. upon the composer and the amazing chamber music works.

The Essential Brahms

For Brahms on a budget, let's start with the keyboard music, as it was the works for solo piano that first brought attention to the composer. I recommend the complete works for solo piano played by the late Julius Katchen (London 455247, six CDs in all), one of the great Brahms interpreters of all time. Three tracks on CD #1 are in mono; the rest are in high quality analog stereo. Jeremy Siepmann's extensive notes that come with the set are useful although perhaps a bit technical.

There is a slight relationship between these recordings and WGUC's history. The late Gerard Newman, a longtime volunteer at the station, actually witnessed virtually all of them being made in a London studio. Katchen apparently disliked playing for the technicians alone and insisted that there be at least one other person in the room with him when he performed. Gerard told me that the 26-minute-long Handel Variations were recorded in one breathtaking "take," and that it was one of the most extraordinary experiences in his life. Whether you listen methodically or just play the discs while driving around town, you're sure to be captivated by Katchen's deep understanding of Brahms the pianist.

London/Decca 1220 presents Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 with Vladimir Ashkenazy as soloist and the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink. As a bonus, the Variations on a Theme by Haydn (Chorale St. Antoni) are included as well as a work I didn't know existed until I was gathering materials for this article, an orchestration by Sir Edmund Rubbra of the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Both feature the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Ashkenazy.

Going for both quality and economy in recordings of the four symphonies, may I suggest the three-CD set on Deutsche Grammophon 471443 with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by a conductor for whom I have ever-growing respect, Karl Böhm. Along with the symphonies are the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, the Alto Rhapsody with Christa Ludwig as soloist and the Vienna Singverein and the Tragic Overture.

Philips 438760 offers the work that was inspired by the death of Robert Schumann, A German Requiem. Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts the Vienna Symphony Orchestra with the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and soloists Wilma Lipp, soprano and Franz Crass, baritone. On disc two appear the Academic Festival Overture, Tragic Overture, Song of Destiny, and Alto Rhapsody with contralto soloist Aafje Heynis.

Finally, we come to the Concerto for Violin in D Major. I started out with a recording by Anne-Sophie Mutter with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon 445515) and was duly impressed. Then I heard Hilary Hahn and fell totally in love with her interpretation. In comparison, Mutter's playing seemed, for lack of a better word, brittle. The Hilary Hahn disc, however, is playable only on Super Audio Compact Disc Players (SACD). She is accompanied by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner conducting (Sony 89649). At this point I'm ready to buy a copy of anything that this young woman records. What an extraordinary talent!

I haven't mentioned the Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra and a huge body of chamber music and songs. If you find yourself liking the pieces I've suggested, strike out on your own and explore. The curious often find great rewards.

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.

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