Published January 5, 2004

People who are concerned about history often wish they had a time machine and could go back and meet some of the great figures of history and observe their day-to-day life firsthand. The closest thing to this experience I know of is reading old letters, especially in some form of chronological sequence, so that the everyday happenings seem to flow for us much as they might have for the people of the past. It is uncanny how much we can feel "we are there" when reading sensitive letters of other epochs. Time at a distance tends to flatten out events, but it is the sequence of small things added together which adds that important quality of life happening on the fly.

When one thinks of a serious composer like Brahms, the image of him babysitting Clara Schumann's seven children and doing handstands to amuse them is not our usual picture. He is more often seen as an elderly German Socrates-type with watch fob, big bushy beard and a tweedy jacket. But Brahms the baby sitter, Brahms the handsome young fellow who turned the heads of many aristocratic ladies, Brahms the avid traveler, Brahms the liberal political thinker, Brahms the wit and practical joker, are all parts of the man. Knowing them, we know something of the inner workings of Johannes Brahms, who was one of the greatest musical minds of all time.

Brahms at age 32Brahms at age 32The recently published volume of the letters of Johannes Brahms from Oxford University Press, edited by musician and biographer Styra Avins and translated with Josef Eisinger, is a wonderful time machine into the past. In it Brahms becomes remarkably real: Almost literally, he lives again. We feel his progress from the passionate, brilliant, handsome young genius to the equally passionate (yet sometimes cranky) old sage with the beard and the heart of gold. This is absolutely a must read for anyone who loves the music of Brahms, bringing us closer to him than any other biography. Ms. Avins, a working cellist whose love of Brahms' music led her to research this book over a period of several years, not only does a first-rate job of guiding us through the sequence of the letters, the circumstances of their writing and the personalities and events touched upon in their pages, but also does much to clarify a lot of "old wives tales" which have surrounded Brahms' life.

One of the most persistent of these is the story that Brahms played the piano in bordellos, and that his experience with piano-loving ladies of the evening scarred his relations with women for the rest of his life — the reason why he never married. As Ms. Avins most convincingly lays out, Brahms' solid, middle-class parents would never have allowed him into bordellos. His mother, a straight-laced, warm-hearted Christian woman would have had a conniption fit! Also, the family was not so badly off that this employment was necessary to bring in money. The places Brahms played the piano were actually working-class restaurants, respectable places, but not classy. Avins states that the reason behind this misconception is later biographers finding that the Brahms' neighborhood had become a slum. When the Brahms family lived there it was a respectable area, but no one remembered that fact when Brahms was famous.

Brahms' letters paint a complex family relationship between the characters of Brahms, his father, his mother, and his brothers and sisters. Brahms' mother, fifteen years older than his father, adored and protected her son. Brahms' father, something of a dreamer but a competent musician, became a confidant of his son late in life. Yet the parents went through a nasty divorce, and Brahms' mother complained of Brahms' father buying expensive instruments and then going up into the attic to fiddle with them to no one's satisfaction but his own. Brahms kept in close touch with them both, loved them both, and yet one finds him sometimes hard-pressed to keep peace in the family. Alas, Brahms burned many manuscripts and letters to his family late in his life, so the details of his exact relations are still unknown. But what remains of the correspondence shows Brahms as a loving, thoughtful son and brother. He was often the chief financial supporter of the family, which, on a young composer's salary, required him to make sacrifices.

Clara SchumannClara SchumannAvins also examines the letters Brahms wrote to the many friends and women in his life, most significantly those written to Clara Schumann, wife of Robert Schumann. Clara was Brahms' closest confidant for most of his life and his best friend. They became extremely close when Robert — a Brahms patron — succumbed to what was almost certainly tertiary syphilis, first attempting suicide by jumping into the Rhine and then spending his remaining four years in the insane asylum. Brahms' sad letters to Clara relates his visits with Robert, who is at times clear-headed and literate, but eventually becomes completely unhinged. Brahms writes of this to Clara because the doctors did not permit her to see Robert, believing he would be upset by a visit. The growing acceptance of this chilling and terminal descent into madness is clearly laid out in the letters.

However, Brahms shows himself throughout to be a very noble character, a warm, loving friend to Robert, and a protector of his family.

Even before Schumann's death, the young Brahms fell passionately in love with Clara, moving in with her family and taking care of her and her eight children. Though only in his early twenties, Brahms took over as the man of the house and watched over the children while Clara went on piano concert tours to make enough money to support her family. The Brahms of these early letters to Clara is deeply passionate and emotional. At one point he even begs her to be allowed to call her by the familiar "du" (used in German only with family and close loved ones), and she finally relents. Avins makes a good case that they were probably not lovers, but they were certainly highly dependent on one another emotionally. Even on their death beds, they referred to each other as their "best friend," and Clara said in a letter to her daughter that she would never have made it through Robert's madness were it not for Brahms' emotional support and the beautiful music he wrote for piano during that time, including the astonishingly powerful Piano Concerto in D Minor. The relationship between Clara and Brahms is so key to understanding his life that Avins devotes a long, intelligent essay to analyzing and clarifying aspects of their relationship.

Brahms at a Garden Party in 1896Brahms at a Garden Party in 1896Many of the other letters of Brahms comprise a veritable "who's who" of late nineteenth century musical life, since his close friends included the likes of Bach scholar Phillippe Spitta, conductors Hans Von Bulow and Hans Richter, Hermann Levi, critic Eduard Hanslick ... the list of prominent names goes on and on. Brahms was the most important figure in Vienna musical circles, and it shows in the people he knew. Other friendships were wide-ranging and various. Brahms had on-again, off-again relationships with various woman all his life (including a temporary engagement to Agathe Von Siebold), and many of these woman were very much in love with him, but he seemed to steer clear of marriage through each relationship.

Brahms was a close friend of the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim, and in their early years they used to send each other composing exercises (with Brahms complaining that Joachim wasn't keeping up his end of the bargain by not composing enough). Joachim was aware that Brahms was the greater genius, saying "Who needs a Joachim when there is a Brahms?" After a falling out, they reestablished their friendship, with Brahms writing the magnificent Double Concerto for Violin and Cello as a kind of celebration of their relationship.

Avins clears up a Brahms myth regarding his friendship with the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. On hearing Dvorak's Cello Concerto (the greatest of all Cello Concertos), Brahms is reported to have said, "And how come no one has shown me such a cello concerto was possible?" As Avins points out, Brahms actually corrected the proofs of the concerto for Dvorak and knew the work intimately a year or two before it premiered. Brahms even exchanged a few letters with his arch rival, Richard Wagner. Strangely enough, the one time the two met (at a dinner party) they got along rather well, with Brahms playing his "Handel Variations" for piano and Wagner commenting, "It is admirable what can be done with the old forms by someone who knows what he is doing with them." But the two feuded in writing over a page or two of manuscript from "Die Miestersinger" which Brahms acquired for his collection of musical manuscripts. Their four letters show mutual respect — even with Wagner's occasionally churlish tone — and make for interesting reading: Two of the greatest musical geniuses of the age doing a dance of words around one another.

Brahms at age 20Brahms at age 20Brahms is often is often warm and compassionate in his letters. In person, especially in his later years, he could be sharp-tongued — he once left a dinner of Vienna VIP's stating, "If there is anyone in this room who I have not offended tonight I apologize for that." Some of his letters show sarcasm and temper, but he also had a heart of gold. His letters often begin with the likes of "Most esteemed friend," "Dear worthy friend," "Most Esteemed Lady!" "Most cherished friend, "Beloved Clara" and (to Hans von Bulow the conductor) "Most gracious of all friends." And his complementary closes are equally warm: "With Exceedingly High Regard," "Utterly and warmly your devoted..." "Most affectionately..." "With my heartfelt gratitude and devotion..." and (to Joachim) "Greetings straight from the heart." One cannot read these letters without sensing the deeply warm spirit also present in Brahms' music.

Brahms' letters from later in his life reveal more of a man of the world and less the young impetuous lover. But he is the same intense man: emotional, sincere, honest, strait-forward and deeply intelligent. One feels a great soul slipping out now and again, as in his response to Joachim, who had praised some of Brahms' songs:

"Your kind words about my folk-songs have given me the greatest pleasure and I thank you from my heart. ... I have never before written up anything with so much love, indeed, a sense of being in love, and of course I could be in love without embarrassment — with something external to me."

Brahms' sensitivity also shows through in a letter written to Heinrich von Herzogenberg, an old friend from the music publishing world, on the death of his wife, Elizabeth von Herzogenberg, also Brahms' friend:

"You know how inexpressibly much I have lost in your dear wife, and can gauge accordingly with what emotion I think of you, you who were joined to her as only human beings can be. When you are once again at all disposed to thinking of yourself and of other people, do let me know how you are, and how and where you plan to carry one with your life. What a comfort it would be for me to if I could only sit with you in silence and recall with you the dear, magnificent person!"

Brahms: Life and Letters is a very big book (858 pages), and Oxford University Press is to be congratulated for having the courage to publish such a lengthy book in the name of good scholarship. Many of the letters are translated into English for the first time, and the translations are notable for their clarity and attempts to capture the direct flavor of Brahms' language, so different from standard 19th century purple prose. Every letter seems to contain something of interest, sometimes musical, sometimes a little human anecdote, sometimes commentary on political affairs and sometimes jokes as well. Brahms loved to pun, and though the German puns don't translate perfectly, his childlike sense of fun comes through.

Brahms at age 56 Brahms at age 56 Avins deserves great credit not only for assembling the letters and sharing the task of translation, but also for sorting out the details of who is who and what is what in late 19th century Germany. Her notes are models of clarity and perception as she guides us through the maze of persons and events, and she also puts some long-held, inaccurate myths about Brahms to rest. It is obvious that Brahms is a very complex man, but he emerges with multi-form clarity from the pages of Avins' marvelous book, clearly a labor of love for its author.

I guarantee you will find Brahms: Life and Letters to be a wonderful time machine — his world literally comes alive as you read through the pages. The life of a great composer in his own words is pretty exciting stuff, and occasionally the book reads like a good novel written in a sequence of letters, complete with suicide attempts, passionate love affairs, disastrous and triumphal events, family fights, fallings out and reconciliations, scenic travelogues, anecdotes, and enough mysteries (sometimes resolved by Avins' dogged scholarship) to keep Sherlock Holmes busy for years. It is great stuff!

— Robert Kameczura (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )
Classical Music Critic for The Site of Big Shoulders

JOHANNES BRAHMS: LIFE AND LETTERS Selected and annotated by Styra Avins with translations by Styra Avins and Josef Eisinger published by Oxford University Press.