|Brahms & Joachim, 1855|
Regardless of this hiatus, they would rarely have had the opportunity to socialize in Vienna, since Joachim based himself and his quartet in Berlin where he was busy teaching as well as performing. But there had been many visits across the years involving music-making together or with Clara Schumann, often “trying out” some of Brahms' latest creations. In many ways, Brahms recalled those early visits with fondness throughout his life.
|Joachim with Clara Schumann at the piano, Dec. 20th, 1854|
And yet already, in 1854, Joachim was writing this to a friend of his:
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“Brahms is egoism incarnate, without himself being aware of it. He bubbles over in his cheery way with exuberant thoughtlessness – but sometimes with a lack of consideration (not a lack of reserve, for that would please me!) which offends because it betrays a want of culture. He has never once troubled to consider what others, according to their natures and the course of their development, will hold in esteem; the things that do not arouse his enthusiasm, or that do not fit in with his experience, or even with his mood, are callously thrust aside, or, if he is in the humor, attacked with a malicious sarcasm. This immediately raises a barrier between him and his companion, who has been rejoicing in the society of the happy, brilliant young man whose whole personality is stamped with intellectual power. I often had to summon my sense of justice to prevent the warmth of my feeling from cooling down. He knows the weaknesses of the people about him, and he makes use of them, and does not hesitate to show (to their faces, I admit) that he is crowing over them.”
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|Hans von Bülow & Brahms|
|Hanslick, Brahms & Billroth|
Billroth first met Brahms when he heard the composer playing Schumann's Piano Concerto and some of his own piano pieces in Zurich in 1865, where he was then teaching and practicing as a surgeon. In addition to music – especially for Brahms' music and against Liszt's – they shared a passion for hiking in the mountains and talking about a wide variety of subjects. When he became a professor of surgery at the University of Vienna in 1867, Billroth and Brahms became close friends, quite possibly Brahms' closest friend who was not a professional musician.
In April of 1878, Brahms, Billroth, and Karl Goldmark took off for an Italian holiday, a four-week dash through Florence and Naples where Brahms and Billroth, at Clara Schumann's request, visited her very ill son, Felix. He was the last of her eight children, born shortly after Robert's attempted suicide, and named in tribute to their late friend, Mendelssohn. A poet whose poetry Brahms had set to music, much to his mother's delight, Felix would die of tuberculosis the following January at the age of 24. In Naples, Goldmark left them to return to Vienna while the others went on to Rome.
Again, in 1881, Brahms and Billroth, this time with Gustav Nottebom, the Beethoven scholar, visited several places including Taormina in Sicily where Brahms, enjoying the local wine, was “in ecstasy” as Billroth wrote home to Hanslick. The surgeon had to return home and left Brahms and his newly discovered love of Italian wine in Venice where this very serious composer was rescued at the last minute before he strolled into a canal. One of his souvenirs of this trip was a notebook of sketches that found their way into the second half of his 2nd Piano Concerto, especially the sunny finale.
Billroth's illness may have been his excuse or it may have been the continued ill-feelings between them, but Billroth did not join in on the next (and last) vacation Brahms took in Italy during the spring of 1893. It was probably just as well: Brahms spent his 60th birthday sitting beside his injured traveling companion, Josef Widmann, another close friend, who'd broken his leg in a fall (knowing, had his foot not gotten caught in an iron rung, the fall would have killed him). Brahms joked with him "If there's any sawing to be done, I'm your man," explaining how Billroth had described many of his operations to him. Small comfort, I'm sure, but at least a bit of levity to lift a friend's spirit.
In one of his last letters to Billroth, Brahms committed yet another one of those typical gaffes of his that upset the man in his last days. After Billroth died in February, 1894 – six days before the death of Hans von Bülow – Brahms, feeling guilty about this, avoided joining in with the funeral procession, instead walking the back streets to the cemetery with Max Kalbeck, his future biographer, reminiscing about the good times they'd had together.
When the painter Anselm Feuerbach, a mutual friend of theirs, died in 1880, it was Billroth who suggested Brahms write a choral tribute to him, but also suggested, in a round-about way, it could also be written to be sung at his own eventual funeral. And since, like Brahms, he was not religious, he suggested something “not too pious.” After returning from Italy, Brahms completed the piece in the summer of 1881, having found a suitable text on the recommendation of Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, Schiller's poem, Nänie, a mourning song with its opening line, “Even the beautiful must die.” Like the German Requiem, it is intended to console the living rather than mourn the dead. Brahms sent a copy to Billroth, saying he'd not forgotten their discussion the year before, hoping he'd like it. So far, I've found no record if it was ever performed in Billroth's honor after his death.
For any of my readers in the medical profession, I'd like to point out, if you don't already recognize the name, Billroth is known as the “father of abdominal surgery,” in the 1870s performing the first esophagectomy, the first laryngectomy and the first successful gastrectomy. By 1876, he had performed thirty-three operations “excising” rectal cancer. Clearly not just another amateur musician who had a lot in common with Johannes Brahms!
I'd initially wondered “where were people like Billroth or Bülow in this photo?” Had there been some kind of estrangement between Brahms and Billroth at the time? Yes. Perhaps Bülow was out-of-town? In fact, he'd gone to Cairo, but not for a performance. Now aging and plagued by intense headaches caused, it turned out, by a brain tumor, he'd recently resigned from the Berlin Philharmonic and sought the warmer, drier climate of Egypt, hoping it would ease the pain. He died there ten months after his last performance.
Now I knew: only months before this photograph was probably taken in 1894, both of these friends had died, both at the age of 64.
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Consider the clarinetist Mühlfeld's presence, here: it likely has something to do with the premiere of the sonatas Brahms had completed for him that summer. That premiere took place in Vienna in January of 1895 – close enough to “c.1894” – but consider this: the first private performance took place before the Duke of Meiningen (at whose court Brahms had often “tried out” new works before their official Viennese premieres, and where Mühlfeld was the principal clarinetist) in September of 1894. And then again, privately, for Clara Schumann in November.
It was at that November visit we get another first-hand description of Johannes Brahms – in my first post, about the two piano quartets finished when he was 28, there is a description of him by his landlady that summer. This time, it's from Clara's teenaged grandson Ferdinand (now living with her and some of her daughters, following his father's death), in awe of meeting the famous family friend. He thought Brahms was shorter and stouter than his photos – Brahms had just sent one to Clara taken with Johann Strauss, looking youthful and chipper, standing beside Brahms looking considerably older though Strauss was eight years older. Ferdinand was also fascinated by the mustache, gray on one side “and fiery red on the other.”
Daughter Eugenie was astonished how “full of life the house seemed as soon as Brahms set foot in it,” no doubt recalling the Old Days when a much younger Brahms had been a daily part of their family life. He regaled them with jokes and stories about an operation that Billroth had described to him, or telling them about Dvořák's new pieces, or how Joachim, who'd sleep like a log when they were touring together, was a terrible card player. They read through the clarinet sonatas with Mühlfeld, Clara turning pages, smiling.
But one day, during this visit, he angrily complained “I have no friends! If anyone tells you he is my friend, don't believe him!” “But,” Eugenie countered, “friends are the best gift in the world. Why should you resent them?” He only stared back at her “with wide haunted eyes and said nothing.”
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Though totally forgotten as a composer today, most of the music he wrote was in the realm of chamber music and works for piano. In a letter to Heinrich von Herzogenberg in 1876, Brahms mentioned Nottebohm in the same sentence with Schumann among the modern practitioners of variation form.
Anyway, Brahms, who was also a collector of composers' original manuscripts, took an old piece of music paper and “expertly faked” what looked like a sketch by Beethoven which, once you deciphered it, turned out to be a popular tune of the day. Bribing a food vendor to give Nottebohm a hunk of cheese wrapped in this manuscript paper, Brahms sat back and watched as Nottebohm unwrapped the cheese, examined the wrapper, put on his spectacles and, “his eyes popping,” slipped it into his pocket “with a sly air” before strolling away, munching “barehanded on the greasy cheese.” There is no record of Nottebohm's reaction once he discovered the identity of the tune, but, as they say, Brahms “dined out” on that story for quite some time.
Brahms also had a reputation for making cruel and often hurtful remarks even to his dearest friends. One could explain it as a lack of a “social filter,” or simply of empathy. There are numerous examples of such clueless behavior including many written to Clara Schumann who found them especially painful; but considering Karl Goldmark was represented on the second of this summer's concerts, I'll use a particularly odious one directed at this good friend.
Brahms appreciated what made these Viennese friends of his imminent in their field, but he also needed companions who could “light up a cigar and down a few glasses and make a back room ring with gossip and good talk and manly laughter.” Considering the make-up of Vienna at the end of the 19th Century, many of these friends were Jewish: Joseph Joachim, Eduard Hanslick, Julius Epstein, Ignaz Brüll, Karl Goldmark, Eusebius Mandyczewski, the baritone and composer George Henschel and, later, Gustav Mahler. Toward the end of his life, responding to the antisemitism that had become endemic in Austrian politics, Brahms growled, “next week I'm going to have myself circumcised!”
So it is uncomfortable to read this anecdote about Brahms and Goldmark even with that context.
One such incident, perhaps the final straw, took place at a dinner hosted by Ignaz Brüll when several of the other guests began complimenting Goldmark on his recent setting of a psalm translated by Martin Luther, when Brahms piped up “Don't you think it extraordinary a Jew should set Martin Luther's words?”
Despite the pin-drop silence and Goldmark's obvious pallor, Brahms, completely oblivious to his friends' discomfort, went on and on about the “impropriety” of setting things outside one's own faith until, apparently, the dinner came to an abrupt end. (I have this image of Brahms looking around, totally clueless, going “what! What'd I say!”) And as Brahms never apologized for the remark – apparently the only antisemitic remark of his to be recorded – Goldmark still avoided him for “a long time” after that and eventually moved out of Vienna to the lakes and hills of Gmunden, closer to Salzburg, as if to give himself a little breathing room.
To be fair, in 1895, Brahms was commenting on the serious political change happening in Vienna, he and his friends apprehensive about the future. The long liberal rule of the city's government had come to an end with the election of the right-wing Christian Social Party which “mixed populism, socialism, and pandering to the antisemitic instincts of both the working class and the German-speaking Catholics and aristocrats,” as Swafford explains it. “With [Karl] Leuger's victory, successful politics in Austria became antisemitic by definition, from then until Hitler.”
In fact, Leuger came to power much the way Hitler would in Germany, first by becoming second-in-command (as Hitler would first become Hindenburg's vice-chancellor), then inevitably moving ahead into complete power. “Brahms barked across the table to his friends [at their favorite hang-out, Zum roten Igel (the Red Hedgehog)]: 'Didn't I tell you years ago that it was going to happen? You laughed at me then and everybody else did, too. Now it's here, and with it the priests' economic system. If there was an “Anticlerical Party” – that would make sense! But antisemitism is madness!'”
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|Rocking a Fellinger Tie|
The family settled in Vienna in 1881, moving from Berlin where one of their friends was the cellist of Joachim's quartet, Robert Hausmann. They met Brahms shortly afterward. Maria's mother had been a singer and a composer – imagine, another “woman composer”! – admired by Mendelssohn both as a singer and a singer-of-her-own-songs. Before, Brahms had set to music several poems of her father, Christian Reinhold.
|Brahms w/the Fellinger sons|
|Brahms & Marie Soldat, 1895|
|Robert Hausman, Brahms, Maria Fellinger (1889?)|
It's too bad Frau Fellinger didn't take any photographs on December 2nd, 1889, when Theo Wangemann, a recording engineer (apparently the first ever recording engineer!) working for Thomas Edison, visited the Fellinger's to record Dr. Johannes Brahms. He had already recorded German chancellor Otto von Bismarck and Field-Marshall Count Helmuth Karl von Moltke who, incidentally, led the Prussian army to victory in the 1864 War against Denmark mentioned in the post on Niels Gade.
According to one of Fellinger's sons, the first voice recorded was an identifying introduction by engineer Wangemann, followed by Brahms saying "In the home of Herr Doktor Fellinger, I am Dr. Brahms – Johannes Brahms." His intention had been to play the Op.79 G Minor Rhapsody (dedicated to Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, btw) but the set-up had taken so long, Brahms had become impatient, so he played two lighter pieces instead: a bit of his Hungarian Dance No. 1 and a popular polka by Josef Strauss, Die Libelle ("The Dragonfly").
The sound quality has understandably deteriorated over the years, mostly from simply being played – still, imagine listening to the voice of Moltke, a man born in 1800! (listen to some of them, here) – but in this video you can hear the raw original sound, then hear the piece as played in a modern recording, then the 1889 audio with a reinforced melody line followed by the original audio once again. As a bonus, there's a recording of the same Hungarian Dance Brahms had played, recorded by Joseph Joachim in 1903. Yes, the audio is barely audible under all the distortion, but imagine actually listening to Brahms playing the piano!
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But Maria Fellinger did more than just cook dinners and take photographs of Brahms.
When Brahms' long-term housekeeper at Karlsgasse No. 4 died in 1887, it was Frau Fellinger who found him Celestine Truxa who became his housekeeper until his death. That night, Frau Truxa came home and was met by her sons, alarmed by the stranger in the living room, measuring their furniture. The stranger announced himself as Herr Doktor Brahms and he was delighted to find her furniture would fit into his houskeeper's apartment next door to his own.
|Brahms' Apartment (note bust of Beethoven) Photo by Maria Fellinger|
Perhaps intended as a joke, given its presentation, is the large white plaster bust of Beethoven overlooking the piano's keyboard, as if keeping an eye on the composer as he worked. Remember his quip, years before when talking about why it took so long for him to complete his 1st Symphony, about what it was like trying to write a symphony hearing the tramp of a giant like Beethoven behind you? Well, there is Beethoven – still – looking over his shoulder!
There was also a portrait of Luigi Cherubini (not easily visible on the far left side of Maria Fellinger's photo), which I found a surprising choice, but Brahms identified with him, “a once-famous craftsman the world was determined to forget.” However, if you know the famous Ingres painting of Cherubini being inspired by his muse, you might be surprised Brahms found the muse “ridiculous” and cut a piece of cardboard which he used to cover her up. Perhaps Brahms was saying “a craftsman does not rely on inspiration,” despite the role of Clara Schumann and Elisabeth von Herzogenberg in his own life?
Near the bust of Beethoven, Brahms placed a bas-relief of his hero, the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck, surrounded by a laurel wreath (remember the anecdote I mentioned in a previous post regarding his infamous visit to Copenhagen and the party hosted by Niels Gade in 1868?).
One winter (February, 1892?), the Fellingers had installed electricity in Brahms' apartment, much to his surprise and initial displeasure. It consisted of a kind of track-lighting lamp hanging from the ceiling which could be moved between the piano keyboard and the table beside it where he kept his coffee-maker. There was a similar set-up in his library, as well. You can see the lamp in the photograph above.
In the left-side corner, one can see a bit of Frau Truxa's rocking chair which Brahms always directed a guest to sit in (especially attractive young ladies). Perhaps rocking chairs were not a familiar item to the Viennese, but Brahms delighted in seeing his guests thrown back in surprise, legs (and presumably skirts) flying, or thrown forward and dumped on the floor, knees first. In another corner was a firescreen he would sometimes hide behind when guests arrived (especially unannounced), then startle them with “a burst of fiendish laughter.”
(In May, 1933, the newspaper Wiener Bilder or “Vienna in Pictures” published an article celebrating Brahms' Centennial and included an illustration of "Brahms at Home," along with an interview with Frau Truxa. You can read it here in the original German.)
Not only was Frau Truxa a good housekeeper, she also acted as a go-between with her employer and the immediate wider world. A woman who lived downstairs, in an attempt to impress her famous neighbor, would frequently play his music – badly – which drove Brahms to distraction. Considering his level of diplomacy, when he spoke to her about this, the result was, she hired a conservatory student to come in every day to play for hours – loudly. It was Frau Truxa who, extolling the virtues of the zither (which she herself played), convinced her it was better to fire the student and take up the zither, even offering to throw in free lessons. However gullible the neighbor must have been, it worked, and peace was again restored to Karlsgasse No. 4...
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|Clara Schumann, 1894|
Fourteen years his senior, Clara's arthritis soon made it difficult and eventually impossible to play in public. For her old age, Brahms composed those wonderful, “autumnal” piano pieces – four sets, Op.116-119 – and sent them to her as he'd complete each one. One of the first ones he'd sent her, the Intermezzo in B Minor (actually one of the last set to be published, Op.119) so delighted her: “that bittersweet piece which for all its discords is so wonderful.” She called it “a gray pearl.” In the end, these were a great solace to her, and her eldest daughter Marie, now her mother's care-giver, often heard her playing them in the solitude of the music room.
If it had not seemed like it before, in May of 1896 Brahms' world began to fall completely apart. Through a series of misunderstandings and mistakes, Brahms missed receiving the telegram informing him of Clara Schumann's death and, between its being forwarded to his summer vacation spot and then missed trains and misinformation, he barely made it to Clara's funeral in time. The anxiety was bad enough, but the emotion of the unexpected news, of his arriving just as the procession had started (she would be buried next to Robert), and his subsequent exhaustion initiated a tailspin in his own health. He had just turned 63 and rarely ever been ill, but that summer he was diagnosed as having jaundice and also had to suffer the indignity of dentures. He had aged considerably over the past few years – he always looked older than he was – but now, he aged even more quickly.
|Richard & Maria Fellinger, Brahms, probably Robert Hausmann; standing Richard (Jr.) & Robert Fellinger|
Then, in September, Brahms gave in and made a reluctant visit to Karlsbad, a famous health spa, where he began working on some organ chorale preludes. The weather was good, he wrote friends, he felt he was responding to treatment, being told this jaundice had “no further significance.” Another specialist there examined Brahms on his arrival and diagnosed “cancer of the liver” (the same disease that killed his father) but Brahms had requested the doctor not to tell him anything unpleasant, and so he kept his word.
|The last photo Marie Fellinger took of Brahms: in her garden, 1896|
Taken home by his friend Max Kalbeck, his future biographer, and a first-hand source for many of the anecdotes we know about Brahms' personal life, Brahms never left his apartment again. Writing a few notes to friends, including his still-surviving step-mother in Hamburg, his last note was to his friend Ignaz Brüll, informing him he would not be able to make the dinner set for the next day.
Ten days later, he died, a little over a month before his 64th birthday.
- Dick Strawser