To honor Brahms’s 180th birthday, let’s recall the article about his birthplace that ignited a musicological firestorm!
In “Brahms era chileno” (Pauta: Cuadernos de teoría y crítica musical, no. 63 [July-Sept 1997] pp. 39–44), the Argentine composer Juan María Solare states that Johann Jakob Brahms (1806–72), accompanied by his wife, Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen (1789–1865), took part in a tour of South America as a performer in the orchestra of the Alsterpavillon in Hamburg, and that Johanna gave birth to Johannes Brahms in the village of Copiapó, northern Chile, on 6 February 1833.
He further states that the birth is documented in a letter that Johanna wrote to her sister in Hamburg, but which was lost and eventually ended up in the archive of an obscure village in Patagonia, where it can still be seen; the birth was concealed from German society, and Brahms was baptized under a false place and date of birth upon his parents’ return to Germany.
Later, in an interview, Solare clarified his intention: He wrote the article as a piece of speculative fiction, a type of writing that Pauta sometimes publishes; but since the journal also presents peer-reviewed research, the piece was mistaken for authentic musicology, generating widespread controversy among Brahms scholars.
BONUS: Brahms was from New Orleans:
Already a cello prodigy with a full scholarship to the Moscow Conservatory, at the age of ten Gregor Piatigorsky found himself stranded in Astrahan’ due to one of his father’s failed enterprises.
Tall enough to pass as a teenager, he found a temporary job as a substitute cellist in an amusement-park orchestra, and when the former cellist returned he was offered a job playing violin. Piatigorsky accepted gamely, and found that he could play the unfamiliar instrument easily in undemanding passages; but for more difficult ones he had to revert to playing it between his knees, like a cello. For detracting attention from the conductor and eliciting unwelcome applause, the boy was fired.
Still lacking the funds to return to Moscow, he found a job in a café orchestra. To keep the underaged cellist from seeing the nude dancers onstage, the owner had him turn to face the wall of the pit and provided a mirror so he could see the conductor. When he quit in sympathy for a fired dancer he had developed a crush on, he was given a week’s pay.
Piatigorsky used the money to buy a train ticket as far north toward Moscow as he could; he finally arrived home after about 12 days of hitching rides on freight trains by night, sleeping during the day, and selling everything but his cello for food.
This according to Gregor Piatigorsky: The life and career of the virtuoso cellist by Terry King (Jefferson: McFarland, 2010, pp. 8–10).
Today is Piatigorsky’s 110th birthday! Above, the cellist in his school uniform before he moved to Moscow. Below, excerpts from the film Heifitz & Piatigorsky (Kultur, 1953).
Related article: Cellist, interrupted
In January 1900 Rahmaninov and the bass Fëdor Ivanovič Šalâpin were invited to perform for a gathering at Tolstoj’s home; they were both 26 years old. Their excitement was tempered with no little trepidation about meeting the revered author, but they could not have foreseen what transpired.
Šalâpin recalled that after the performance Tolstoj accosted him and asked “What kind of music is most necessary to men—scholarly or folk music?”
Rahmaninov’s own experience was no less harrowing, as he later described it:
“Suddenly the enthusiastic applause was hushed and everyone went silent. Tolstoj sat in an armchair a little apart from the others, looking gloomy and cross. For the next hour I evaded him entirely, but suddenly he came up to me and declared excitedly: ‘I must speak to you. I must tell you how I dislike it all!’
“And he went on and on: ‘Beethoven is nonsense, Puškin and Lermontov also.’ It was awful….
“After a while Tolstoj came up to me again: ‘Please excuse me. I am an old man. I did not mean to hurt you.’ I replied: ‘How could I be hurt on my own account if I was not hurt on Beethoven’s?’”
This according to Sergei Rachmaninoff: A lifetime in music by Sergei Bertensson, Jay Leyda, and Sof’â Aleksandrovna Satina (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001 [reprint] pp. 88–89).
Today is Rahmaninov’s 140th birthday! Below, Šalâpin sings one of his romances.
The Bavarian composer Max Reger was famous for his appetite. According to his biographer Fritz Stein, he was capable of consuming up to 30 little Bavarian weißwürste or up to 12 Regensburger würste at one go. Such meals needed to be washed down with up to ten liters of beer, but after giving up alcohol while he was living in Meiningen (as conductor of the Hoforchester of Duke Georg II, from 1911 to 1915), he kept up with the sausage habit.
Thus, from a letter to the Duke of 27 May 1912: “Yesterday afternoon we took another walk to the Helenenhöhe, where I sampled the Thuringian Rostbratwürste for the first time, and immediately devoured ten of them, to my wife’s disgust. But they agreed with me extremely well; I worked until ten o’clock last night, woke up fit as a fiddle, and feel fine, although everybody warned me that the bratwurst was too greasy. They were revolted by my drinking cold milk with the ten sausages. I thus brilliantly disproved the old myth that says one has to have alcohol with greasy foods, in the form of schnapps.”
The Duke replied “In the name of God, don’t repeat that Wurstiade very often, if you don’t want to get popped underground or into the crematorium soon. Mass-produced sausages often contain nasty things.”
This according to Über die Lebensgewohnheiten eines Genies by Hans-Joachim Marks (Mitteilungen der Internationalen Max-Reger-Gesellschaft XXI  pp. 23-27. The full text of the article is here (scroll down to page 23).
Today is Reger’s 140th birthday! Below, Hans-Dieter Bauer perform’s Reger’s Humoresque for the left hand alone—presumably composed so he could continue to eat würste with his right hand. Many thanks to David Bloom for helping with this post!
The series Studien, Beiträge und Materialien zur Leschetizky-Forschung was launched by Musikverlag Burkhard Muth in 2011 with Theodor Leschetizky by Annette Hullah, in a German translation from the original English (London: J. Lane, 1906).
This volume is particularly suitable as the beginning of the series, since—in addition to presenting a contemporaneous, authentic text—it provides an ideal introduction for those who know little or nothing about the pianist, composer, and teacher.
The first two chapters are devoted to Leschetizky’s biography; the remaining chapters explore his approach to teaching. Information on newly published editions of his piano works is also included.
Below, Leschetizky plays one of his own compositions via piano roll.
“I know a distinguished pianist, of tremendously nervous temperament; he often has trouble urinating, and often is subject to all the trouble in the world without being at liberty to satisfy his needs; yet whistling or a few chords on the piano frees this obstruction in an instant.”
So wrote Jan Matuszyński in an 1837 doctoral thesis for the École de Médecine in Paris, referring to his best friend and former school- and then flat-mate, Frédéric Chopin. Matuszyński’s topic, the concept of sympathetic nerves, was in the vanguard of Parisian physiological theory in the 1830s.
His thesis in his study of the suffering pianist was that “the intimate connection existing between the human ear and the abdominal viscera by the sympathetic nerves permits these organs to have a significant influence upon the organ of hearing.”
This according to “Reflecting on reflex, or, Another touching new fact about Chopin” by James Q. Davies (Keyboard perspectives II  pp. 55–82). Below, the composer’s celebrated “Raindrop” prelude, which may now be open to reinterpretation.
While there is no evidence that Isaac Albéniz and George Bernard Shaw ever met, the latter attended and reviewed some of the former’s London recitals.
The outspoken Shaw pointed out what he perceived as the composer and pianist’s limitations—dismissing, for example, his renditions of Mozart’s works as “monotonously pretty”—but he had some approving words as well.
Arriving at an 1891 recital at one minute before three, Shaw was “intending to have the usual twenty minutes or so over the evening paper before business began. To my amazement Albéniz appeared at the stroke of three as if he had been sent up on the platform by electric wire from Greenwich…I shall henceforth regard Albéniz not only as one of the pleasantest, most musical, and most original of pianists, but as a man of superior character.”
This according to “Albéniz and Shaw” by Colin Cooper (Classical guitar XXV/1 [September 2006] pp. 30–31). Below, a recital for Alfonso XII from Louis César Amidori’s Albéniz (1947).
Related article: Franck and Rodin
Since the 1950s scientists have increasingly agreed that Paganini was probably a victim of Marfan syndrome—although beneficiary seems a more appropriate word than victim.
The typical characteristics of this pathological condition—a tall, thin body and particularly long, thin arms and hands—are perfectly in keeping with the virtuoso’s somatic characteristics, noted by all who described him and confirmed by the concert sketch by the poet and painter L.P.A. Burmeister , who is the only artist known to have reproduced the violinist’s exact physiognomy (above; click to enlarge).
There can be no doubt that Paganini’s abnormal ligaments—together, of course, with his extraordinary musical talent—were a definite advantage, and by no means a handicap, in his chosen career.
This according to “Nicolò Paganini (1782–1840)” by G. Sperati and D. Felisati (Acta Otorhinolaryngologica Italica XXV/2 [April 2005] pp. 125–128). Today is Paganini’s 230th birthday! Below, Jascha Heifetz play’s the composer’s Caprice, op. 1, no. 24.
Brahms’s correspondence reveals that he was very fond of railroad travel; nowadays he might be called a railfan.
In an 1881 letter to George Henschel, Brahms noted that he was spending the summer in the Viennese suburb of Pressbaum, observing that “I shall be only a short distance by rail, which, however, I always travel with great pleasure.”
Advising his father on taking a train to visit him in 1867, the composer wrote:
“Before you travel the night through, as is practical in the heat, drink a glass of grog so you sleep well. But take along very little, for example no scruffy things for the trip! No cigars, nothing that is taxable.”
This according to “Johannes Brahms and the railway: A composer and steam” (The American Brahms Society newsletter XXX/1 [Spring 2012] pp. 1–4). Below, the EuroCity 177 “Johannes Brahms” leaves Ústí nad Labem.