Monday, July 29, 2019

Brahms & a Few More Friends: Part 1

Brahms looking a bit dubious about yet another post...
Even though Summermusic 2019's concert series, “Brahms Beyond Borders,” is over – you can read about each concert and hear each work on the program in earlier posts – the idea of listening to music by other composers in some relationship to Brahms sparked an idea about that personal side of the composer's life (since all we normally know is the music) and so I couldn't resist going behind the music to find out a little about Johannes Brahms and some of his other friends.

(I should point out, you won't have to wait long to hear more Brahms with Market Square Concerts: Midori opens the new season on September 20th opening with the Sonatensatz written in October of 1853, shortly after Brahms met Schumann and his contribution to a collaborative sonata with other movements by Schumann and his student Albert Dietrich, a gift for the violinist Joseph Joachim), and concluding with the 3rd Violin Sonata, Op.108, completed in 1888. And the season will end in May with pianists Stuart Malina & Ya-Ting Chang and four singers performing Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes!)

Most concert-goers, understandably, only think of The Great Composers through their music with very little context to a particular piece in relation to the composer's life or the times it was written in. Somewhere, I probably still have the little bust of Brahms I was given as a piano student when I was 8 or 9, and I was surprised, when I first heard his 1st Symphony a few years later, to realize this music could never have been written by a marble bust! That's when I started getting interested in what's going on in their lives behind the music and what was going on around the music we're listening to. To many of my readers, it's possible they'd wonder what this has to do with the music, but composers didn't write in a vacuum.

That was one of the interesting details of the music Peter Sirotin had programmed for this three-concert series, even if there were only two pieces by Brahms himself, both written (or, more accurately, completed) the same summer of 1862 he'd just turned 28. Of the other four composers, Karl Goldmark was a personal friend and colleague; Dvořák was initially a protege who became a friend and one of the few living composers Brahms truly admired (he envied his ease with a melody, for one); Niels Gade was the leading composer in Denmark who, though not a friend, was an acquaintance (one meeting I recount in the post taking place a few years after Gade's string sextet was composed); and Ernő Dohnányi had showed his sextet, written when he was in his mid-teens, to Brahms and became, in a sense, one of the last of those young composers Brahms gave advice and support to. (Gade and Dohnányi are both included in the third of the Summermusic posts.)

So, whether you were aware of it or not, there were four pieces written between 1862 and 1864, and then two more written during the last years of Brahms' life, between 1894 and 1896. And while Brahms may not have had any direct influence on Gade and Goldmark when they composed these pieces, Brahms was certainly a major figure in the evolution of the mature voices, both as inspiration and model, for Dvořák and Dohnányi.

Perhaps the most important thing for a listener to realize is, however they may relate to the composer, these composers were living, breathing, often struggling, sometimes happy people who had a life outside the music they composed. And so, in that context, here is Johannes Brahms, one of the great beards in classical music giving him a most formidable look, in the company of some of his personal friends – outside the music.

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Clara & Robert Schumann
When you read about “Brahms and His Friends,” it's normally about Robert and Clara Schumann, or the violinist Joseph Joachim. Of course, the Schumanns were a major facet of Brahms' life, both personally and musically, though Robert, who “discovered” the 20-year-old Brahms on his doorstep on September 30th, 1853, hardly got to know him before his suicide attempt five months later and his eventual confinement to a mental hospital where he died in 1856. But Brahms remained a close friend of Clara and the family – in addition to visiting Schumann in the asylum – a stalwart supporter during the crisis. And he remained close to the entire family until his death in 1897, less than a year after Clara's.

Books could be (and certainly have been) written speculating about the relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann, almost making it sound like some intense love triangle – hardly, given the fact of Robert Schumann's final years – but facts won't be enough to clarify (no pun intended) the enduring bond between them, spanning almost 44 years. If anything, she served as muse and critic, Brahms frequently sending her recently completed works for her evaluation – it seems he never published anything that did not meet with her approval – just as she went out into the musical world and championed his music as one of the greatest pianists of the day (the polar opposite of Franz Liszt the pianist just as Brahms was the polar opposite of Liszt the composer). You only have to read the story about the travails of Brahms' first symphony – the various attempts to start one; the long gestation that led to the final breakthrough to complete one – to understand the importance of this relationship, whatever one chooses to call it.

Here's an image of familial bliss: Brahms, remember, was barely 20 when he was practically adopted into the Schumann family, helping Clara deal with reality during her husband's confinement, often babysitting the children while she practiced or toured (imagine Brahms playing piggy-back with the younger ones!). This photograph, taken around 1860, includes five of the Schumann children: Felix (named after Mendelssohn, born after Robert's suicide-attempt), Elise, Julie (the tall one in the middle), Marie, and Eugenie.

Julie Schumann in 1868
Later, on frequent visits, especially during the summers, Brahms and Clara would play four-hand piano music in the midst of the family's evenings, or play chamber music with friends like Joseph Joachim. In 1869, he published a series of "Love-Song Waltzes" (the famous Liebeslieder, Op. 52), first heard on these Evenings at the Schumanns, with Johannes and Clara at the piano, a quartet of the older children and some friends standing around the piano, singing, others sitting back and listening to this "home-entertainment center" when music was very much DIY.

(Usually heard as a choral work, the original vocal quartet version will conclude Market Square Concerts 2019-2020 Season in May, as I mentioned above.)

But the very shy young Brahms was in love at the time, in fact in love with Clara's daughter Julie and he was just about to build up the courage to ask for Julie's hand when Clara, all excited, told him Julie had just been proposed to: she's going to marry an Italian count! And Clara could not understand why Brahms, given this news, turned pale and ran out of the house.

Not long after this, Brahms composed one of his most desolate pieces, known simply as The Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53, in which a heart-broken lover is "urged to find spiritual sustenance and throw off the shackles of his suffering." He gave it to Julie as a wedding present.

Like I said, quite often composers do not compose in a vacuum, but are often impacted by very real events in their lives. Case in point...

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Elisabeth von Herzogenberg
Which leads me to another muse and love-interest, in this case definitely unrequited: Elisabeth von Herzogenberg was born in Paris in 1847, her father the ambassador from the King of Hannover, himself a piano student of Frederic Chopin's. Elisabeth showed great promise as a pianist herself when the family moved to Vienna where she studied with Julius Epstein, one of the major pianists teaching at the Vienna Conservatory. When Brahms settled in Vienna in 1862, Elisabeth's father asked Brahms to take over his sixteen-year-old daughter's lessons but for whatever reasons, Brahms decided it would be better for her to return to Epstein (now a friend of his) for her studies. And of course there is reason to speculate about those reasons, whether he'd fallen in love with her or not: Epstein later wrote “one could not but fall in love with her.” And Ethel Smyth, the English composer who later lived with her and her husband when she was a student in Leipzig, described her as “not really beautiful but better than beautiful, at once dazzling and bewitching.”

The Herzogenbergs
In 1866, Elisabeth married a scholarly aristocrat from Graz whose full name was Heinrich Picot de Peccaduc, Freiherr von Herzogenberg, a Bach scholar, a composer, and a Brahms fan who, after 1874, lived and taught in Leipzig. When he completed a set of variations on a theme of Brahms' in 1876, Elisabeth sent them to her former teacher. It was a kind of enigmatic reunion, one both “beautiful and excruciating.” He had a “deep affection” for her – now called Lisl – and “respect” for her husband. In fact he never cared for him or his music, no matter how much it seemed to imitate his own style. Despite her cajoling, Brahms almost never expressed approval of Herzogenberg's works. Later, as Elisabeth became increasing ill with heart disease, Brahms grudgingly relented somewhat writing, “Herzogenberg is able to do more than any of the others.”

That she was a composer herself is fascinating. Unfortunately, as an aristocratic amateur, it was “not permitted” (socially) for her to publish her music, so beyond a collection of 24 folk songs she'd arranged, nothing else of hers appeared in print. Only one other work survived her death, a set of eight piano pieces which her husband dedicated to various of their friends and sent to each of them. Brahms then made arrangements to publish them in Vienna by way of tribute.

Surprisingly, her music does not imitate Brahms: what I hear is more a Mendelssohnian lyricism (like his “Songs without Words”) but with a polyphonic texture that is certainly thanks to Brahms. Given her own abilities as a pianist – Epstein called her “a genius” – it's no surprise in 1879 Brahms dedicated his two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, to her.

In this insightful video clip, you'll find out more about Elisabeth von Herzogenberg than you ever knew before, and I highly recommend listening to it, even with the annoying voice overlay or having to deal with reading the subtitles. (Love the cat, though...)

Listen especially to the one folk-song setting beginning around 5:54 which sounds so much like one of Brahms own idyllic songs, especially in her treatment of a supposedly incidental piano epilogue at 6:24-6:32!

Here, without distractions, is an andante from this set of eight pieces:

It makes one wonder how much good music we've lost thanks to those stupid and horrid attitudes that women should be neither seen nor heard, much less not compose music or publish it!

After Brahms finally finished his 1st Symphony in 1876 , he quickly wrote his 2nd Symphony and teased Elisabeth about it. Considering how dark and fearsome the 1st Symphony was, especially that heart-pounding opening, he wrote:

“I shall not need to play it to you beforehand. You have only to sit down at the piano, put your small feet on the two pedals in turn, strike the chord of F Minor several times in succession, first in the treble, then in the bass... and you will gradually gain a vivid impression of my 'latest.'”

Of course, the D Major Symphony is all light and sunshine, almost “pastoral” by comparison. But Brahms loved his little jokes: he'd also written to his publisher it was “so melancholy you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning” (that is, with a black border around the cover).

Like Clara, Elisabeth also was receiving new works to be “reviewed,” as Brahms often sought critical reactions from friends to his latest pieces before he'd consider publishing them (whether he listened to some of their advice or not). Elisabeth enjoyed his C Minor Piano Trio, Op. 101 of 1886 and called it, with its optimistic outcome, “a more satisfactory image” of Brahms than the recently completed 4th Symphony which left most of his friends confused, “better than any photograph for it shows your real self.” After receiving a set of songs and some new choral pieces, Elisabeth wrote back, “I have an unfortunate love of truth. I would not dare to say a word about what fills me with enthusiasm in these sets, if I were to remain silent about what fails to move me.” And though Brahms may have loved to dish out criticism to other composers, he was fairly thin-skinned himself, depending on the source. But from Clara and Elisabeth, he respected their views and often made changes accordingly or decided, in some cases, not to release the work at all. Even though I can't find verification of it at the moment, I remember reading about the two new piano trios Brahms sent Clara one summer, one I believe the C Major, Op.87 (completed in 1882), the other in E-flat Major: while she was enthusiastic about the first one, the E-flat trio was never to be seen again.

Imagine his response, after receiving a letter from Lisl in 1877 telling him about her visit to her friend Clara Schumann in Berlin which happened to coincide with his birthday, and about their plans to celebrate with some music that evening. “How your ears should burn when we drink your health! Let me tell you it is a red-letter day for us, the day when you graciously condescended to visit this planet.” She then continued, telling him about the seventeen new songs (Op.69–Op.72) he'd sent her (and Clara) and which ones she liked or didn't like, then apologizing for breaking off because it was time to “fetch” Joachim for an evening of music-making.

According to his housekeeper, Brahms kept a photograph of Lisl on his writing desk for some time, and at one point gave her its empty frame, suggested she put her husband's portrait in it to keep on her desk. He was devastated by her death in 1892 – she was only 44 though ill with heart disease for some time – and wrote to Heinrich,

“It is vain to attempt any expression of the feelings that absorb me so completely. And you sit there alone in your dumb misery, speechless yourself and not desiring speech from others... You know how unutterably I myself suffer by the loss of your beloved wife, and can gauge accordingly my emotions in thinking of you, who were associated with her by the closest possible ties... It would do me so much good to sit beside you quietly, press your hand, and share your thoughts of the dear marvelous woman.... I preserve in [her letters] above all one of the most precious memories of my life, and furthermore a rich treasure of feelings and wit, which, of course belongs to me alone.”

But there would be few letters between him and Herzogenberg afterward. He was no more inclined now to “smile” on Herzogenberg's work than before and, in general, preferred to avoid the subject.

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Ethel Smyth & Marco (1891)
Ethel Smyth was another composer who came into Brahms' orbit, solely through her association with the Herzogenberg's. An English composer who fought long and hard to overcome her father's prejudices against her studying music, she'd gone to Leipzig in 1877 where, at 19, she'd studied composition with Carl Reinecke – and where she met Dvořák, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky – but left after a year, disillusioned by the “low standard of teaching.” Instead, she began studying privately with Heinrich von Herzogenberg and lived with him and his wife for the duration of her studies there. She became, in a sense, Elisabeth's “adopted daughter.” It was through the Herzogenbergs that she met Clara Schumann and, eventually, Johannes Brahms.

Going on to become a composer in her own right, not to mention an important figure in the women's rights movement in England, jailed for two months in 1912 after demonstrating for women's suffrage, she also wrote about her student years in Leipzig, including her first-hand impressions of Brahms (speaking of insightful) both about his friendship with the Herzogenbergs but also about his personality in general, not always complimentary.

Here is a recording of Dame Ethel reading this account, made sometime in the 1930s when she'd be in her 70s:

The influence of Brahms – musically speaking – on Ethel Smyth's development as a composer might be indisputable, listening to this first movement of her first piano trio, an early (and eventually unpublished) work written in 1880.

However, one could also point out she also had studied with Heinrich von Herzogenberg whose work is almost completely unknown to modern American audiences and whose style is generally dismissed as too reminiscent of Brahms' own. What might her own composition teacher's influence been at the time she composed this? On the other hand, I can't say Herzogenberg's music is so thoroughly imitative of Brahms to be mistaken for something as derivative of The Master as this student work. It is, after all, a student's job to be omnivorous and essentially imitate whatever she'd find appealing: eventually, some things are absorbed and others discarded, eventually leading the way to, with any luck, something that might be considered “the mature voice.” Original or not, not everyone reaches that point, unfortunately.

Wikipedia manages to give Herzogenberg some credit against the usual riff: “While Herzogenberg has tended to be characterized as a mere epigone of Brahms, many of his compositions show little or no overt Brahmsian influence, for example his two string trios Op.27 Nos. 1 & 2 [here's a link to the Minuet from the 2nd trio], while some early compositions pre-dating his acquaintance with Brahms have features in common with the [later] composer.”

So here, by way of defense, is the Violin Sonata No. 1 of Herzogenberg's, published in 1881 (his photo on the graphic is dated 1894): written during the height of whatever his relationship with Brahms might have been, it certainly doesn't sound like a mere imitator of (as he would have considered Brahms) the world's greatest living composer.

You could make an argument that another influence here – not just the common denominator of Robert Schumann – could be Edvard Grieg, another friend of the Herzogenbergs who was also a guest in their home when he and his wife visited Leipzig. It's not to say that Old Heinrich (as his photos might make us think him, a stuffy academic) was so bereft of his own talent he couldn't write something without copying someone else, but there are few composers I've known or read about who would not, at one time or another, have heard another composer's music and probably thought (a.) “I can do better than that!” or (b.) “I like that: how can I do it my way?”

While the reminders of Brahms' influence practically stifle the Trio for Oboe, Horn, and Piano of 1889, much of that can be laid to Brahms' Horn Trio of 1865 and the nature of the horn (there's not much you can do with traditional “hunting-horn calls” from the instrument's stereotypical “bag-of-tricks”). Still, it's a delightful piece and deserves being heard if for no other reason than there's so little music for a combination like this – as long as it's not played on the same program with Brahms' Horn Trio... Here's the scherzo, but I recommend the whole trio if you have the time (I recommend the rest of the individual movements' clips from Albrecht Mayer's Decca recording, heard here).

While I would not normally want to sit through a whole program of “People Who Imitated Brahms Badly,” I wouldn't mind hearing some of Elisabeth von Herzogenberg's eight piano pieces and the folk-song settings along with her husband's 1st Violin Sonata. If I were still programing classical music for the radio, I could easily see that on my playlist and probably throw in the horn trio's scherzo to fill out the hour.

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The genesis of this post was a pair of photographs I'd found on-line, both without caption or date and without identifying who Brahms' companions were, setting up a mystery I felt needed to be followed through.

The first of these is one of Brahms in the midst of a phalanx of nine other friends lined up against a wall.
Front Row: Walter, Hanslick, Brahms, Mühlfeld; 2nd Row: Brüll, Door, Gänsbacher, Epstein, Hausmann, Mandyczewski 
Other “search results” brought up a date – “c.1894” – and one site kindly listed names. Many of the faces were recognizable to me, but only one of the names was a complete puzzle, the first one seated on the far left.

He is Gustav Walter, who I discovered was a Bohemian-born tenor who'd sung in the premiere of Karl Goldmark's Queen of Sheba in 1875 and was a professor of voice at the Vienna Conservatory after 1882. After retiring from the stage in 1887, he continued to be a well-known recitalist, performing and premiering several songs by Brahms and Dvořák, including Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes and, most recently, Wie Melodien zieht es mir, Op.105/1, (originally for low voice and written his friend, the alto Hermine Spies) in 1888 with Brahms at the piano. Brahms had published a number of songs – Op.105-107 – which were edited by his friend Eusebius Mandyczewski (see below).

Next, the man on Brahms' right, is the critic Eduard Hanslick, very much Brahms' “right-hand man,” Vienna's “High Priest of Brahms.” He was viciously anti-Wagnerian and it was primarily his journalistic vitriol that fueled the great Wagner-Brahms Feud known as “The War of the Romantics.” Hanslick had the honor, so to speak, of being lampooned in Wagner's Die Meistersinger as Sixtus Beckmesser – he'd originally wanted to call him Hanslich (in the past I remember thinking it was Hans Lick, neither particularly subtle) but friends talked him out of it – the comic villain of the piece, a frumpy, old-fashioned composer critical of the new wave led by the handsome, likable hero, Walter (a self-portrait of Wagner, no doubt), whose Prize Song ultimately defeated Beckmesser's Old-Style Music with its rigid rules, and won the day (and the beautiful maiden's hand) with its breath-of-fresh-air beauty.

On Brahms' left is clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, whom Brahms heard play for the first time in January, 1891 and to whom we owe all of the wonderful clarinet repertoire of Brahms' final years. Having announced his retirement the year before, Brahms was soon inspired by Mühlfeld's playing, quickly composing a series of masterpieces, including two sonatas, just completed in July, 1894.

The first man standing (so to speak) in the second row, is Ignaz Brüll, not a very prolific composer (though he wrote seven operas, something Brahms never attempted to do). While I've heard both his piano concertos (they're available on Hyperion's Romantic Concertos series, volume 20), since this is a program of chamber music, I'll suggest his only Piano Trio in E-flat, completed in 1876.

He was a very sensitive pianist, Brahms' “go-to” collaborator when he would preview his latest works in four-hand piano arrangements for his friends. They probably met sometime before 1875. Shy in his composing as well, he was often the brunt of Brahms' better-intended teasing. Living with his wife, mother and sisters, Brahms once joked that “Nazy really intended to write a [very simple and undramatic] modulation from F Major to B-flat Minor, but the whole family objected and so he gave it up.”

Anton Door: a pianist and friend of Joachim, he “encountered” Brahms in 1855, when Brahms was so nervous about an impending concert w/Joachim, Door noticed this “diminutive blond youth pacing back and forth in the shadows, nervously smoking one cigar after another.” Over the course of an hour Brahms never acknowledged the stranger's presence. “I was empty air to him.” Later they met again and became good friends.

Josef Gänsbacher: a music-loving lawyer and government official who wrote to Brahms in Hamburg in 1863 and offered him a job in Vienna conducting the “Singverein,” the city's premiere choral organization that, during its history, has featured in some major performances at the Musikverein with the Vienna Philharmonic. It was the reason Brahms could move to Vienna after having lost the Hamburg Philharmonic conducting post to his friend Julius Stockhausen, and make a living there without resorting to concertizing out of necessity.

Pianist Julius Epstein: one of the leading teachers in Vienna (Elisabeth von Herzogenberg had been one of his students). They'd met in 1862 when Brahms first began concertizing in Vienna, performances arranged through a Hamburg friend who knew Epstein and did the “networking.” Epstein's initial reaction to Brahms found him a “slight, quiet blond youth who played the piano with such authority, who appeared so certain of himself, who wrote things” – the G Minor Piano Quartet was one of the pieces Brahms performed then – “so manifestly fresh and vital.”

Standing directly behind Brahms, cellist Robert Hausmann joined Joseph Joachim's string quartet in 1879 and first played with Brahms at the piano in 1883. Three years later, he was the cellist Brahms wrote his 2nd Cello Sonata for, and gave it its premiere. More importantly, he was Joachim's partner for Brahms' Double Concerto written the following year. Hausmann also played in the premiere of several other of Brahms' works during this period, most notably the Op.111 Quintet (1890) and the Clarinet Trio (1892) with Mühlfeld. There is a series of photographs taken at the home of Richard and Maria Fellinger (see the next post) with Brahms and Hausmann. After Dvořák returned from America with his new Cello Concerto, it was Hausmann who read through it one evening with Brahms at the piano (probably at one of those many musical evenings at the Fellingers).

Then, on the far right, the last man standing is Eusebius Mandyczewski, a young music scholar born of Romanian heritage in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (his birthplace is now in Ukraine) who studied with Hanslick and Nottebohm, then met Brahms in 1879. He had just become the new director of the Singverein and eventually became, on Brahms' recommendation, the librarian for the famous Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (which sounds so much more imposing in German than saying “Society of Music-Lovers”). He was an editor involved with many of Brahms' publications and Brahms later would make him curator of his estate.

To be continued: Part Two of this post examines some other friends of Brahms, particularly the Fellingers, and include that famous audio recording made in the Fellinger's music room for Thomas Edison in 1889.

Dick Strawser

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