Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

A classical music love triangle (Part 2)

(A continuation of this entry.)

Johannes Brahms cut his performing teeth in the brothels of waterfront Hamburg playing piano at the age of twelve. His family was poor, and this was how he contributed to the household income. Pianists would play bawdy songs and dances all night. In between dances, the women would sometimes have Brahms sit on their laps while they poured beer down him. They would even pull down his pants and pass him around, playing with him and laughing at him the whole while. The experience would color his relationships with women his entire life.

At fourteen, his health was poor, and his whorehouse piano days ended. He continued to bring in money, however, by giving piano lessons. He also performed concerts, and studied composition throughout his teenage years. In 1850, Robert and Clara Schumann were in Hamburg to perform, and Brahms collected some of his compositions and sent them to Schumann's hotel. However, Schumann did not know Brahms and had no inclination to study the works, so they were sent back unopened.

In 1853 Brahms paired with a Hungarian violinist named Eduard Rimenyi to do a concert tour of Germany. In May of that year they paid a visit to the reknown violinist Joseph Joachim. (Joachim was a close friend of the Schumanns.) Brahms played some of his piano compositions and Joachim was very impressed; so impressed, that Joachim arranged for Brahms to play before the King of Hanover, who commented afterwards that Brahms was a "little Beethoven."

There would be many comparisons between Beethoven and Brahms throughout the latter's lifetime.

Rimenyi and Brahms parted ways in June of 1853, and Brahms went back to Joachim. They lived and performed together for a few months. With his share of the profits, Brahms decided to do a bit of a hiking tour.

Joachim suggested that Brahms should call on the Schumanns when he reached Dusseldorf, however Johannes was still upset with Schumann for not reviewing the music sent to him earlier. However, throughout his trip he was given the same advice from several people. While in Bonn, he had his first chance to look at Schumann's music, and he was impressed. He finally decided to introduce himself to the Schumanns, and headed to Dusseldorf.

What Brahms did not know was that his reputation had preceded him in the form of praise from Joachim. Robert Schumann ushered the young man in and requested he play something on the piano. However, before Brahms had finished playing a sonata, Schumann stopped him and went to get his wife Clara. Of course Clara was quite famous as a pianist, and playing before her was a bit unnerving. He played the sonata and a few other works, and the Schumanns were speechless. He was invited back to lunch for the next day.

For his part, Brahms did not think he had made much of an impression, and failed to show up for lunch. Clara went out searching for the young man, and brought him home. The Schumanns insisted Brahms stay with them for awhile. Robert Schumann contacted his publisher to have four works of Brahms published. On top of that, Schumann wrote a glowing article on Brahms, proclaiming him as the new great talent.

A great friendship had been formed, which would influence Brahms for the rest of his life.


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