I recently read Simon Callow’s excellent biography of Richard Wagner. Now, to be fair, I’m reading a biography of Johannes Brahms by Jan Swafford. As in music, in biography these two are opposed.
We have volumes upon volumes of Wagner’s journalistic polemics along with his extensive letters and diaries. With Brahms we have a composer who burned vast swaths of his personal correspondence and even suppressed and destroyed most of his early compositions.
While reading the book on Wagner, I had no need to reference the music being discussed, as I am well versed in the Wagnerian canon. However, with Brahms, I am not familiar with that much of his music prior to the German Requiem (1868) — a piece of which I was so enamored that it provided the background to my collegiate answering machine greeting for many a semester.
As I’ve been reading the first dozen or so chapters I have found myself diving time and again into Spotify to listen to the music being discussed by the author. There is a certain air of erudition which envelops me as I read about the young Brahms while listening to the young Brahms. If I’m honest, during these moments I feel more than a little bit superior—except that anyone with true superiority wouldn’t be diving for spotify. It’s so easy to put on pseudo-academic robes these days.
The stories of Brahms’s childhood in Hamburg are beyond disturbing. At the tender age of 12 he began playing piano in a waterfront bar which also served as a brothel. “The women would sit the prepubescent teenager on their laps and pour beer into him, and pull down his pants and hand him around to be played with, to general hilarity. There may have been worse from the sailors. Johannes was as fair and pretty as a girl.
“Many years later, in Vienna, the old Brahms got drunk and broke up a birthday dinner by branding all women with a word that nobody would repeat. Later that night, walking it off with a friend, he spoke disjointedly of what he had seen and suffered in those places. In a seizure of anguish and rage he cried out, ‘You tell me I should have the same respect, the same exalted homage for women that you have! You expect that of a man cursed with a childhood like mine!’” - Johannes Brahms, Jan Swafford.
Brahms would never marry or, so far as anyone knows, ever have sexual relations with any woman he loved. Sex was relegated to prostitutes. The women he loved, Clara Schumann amongst others, were too pure in his mind for any sexual encounter.
The early compositions of Brahms that survived his artistic inquisitions are primarily chamber music and choral works. For three years, Brahms conducted and composed for a women’s choir in his hometown of Hamburg. He had several platonic relationships with the young women which led to, not surprisingly, him setting the text of Ave Maria for women’s chorus and organ.
Freud’s “psychic impotence” theory, also known as the madonna-whore complex, was perhaps the defining characteristic of Brahms’s artistic life. It both fueled his creativity and created 14-year deserts in which he didn’t complete any compositions of substance.
Stories such as this are the reason Brahms destroyed so much of the record of his personal life. I can find no fault in his desire to control the conversations around his legacy. When all is said and done, the legacy of Johannes Brahms resides in his music, as it should.