Tag Archives: Johannes Brahms

Brahms and the “cremation cantata”

Wesendonck

Mathilde Wesendonck (above) is known to music historians for her romantic entanglement with and artistic influence on Wagner in the 1850s. What is less commonly known is that once her relationship with Wagner had cooled she became an admirer and personal acquaintance of Brahms, and began a correspondence with him that was to last for several years.

A little-known oddity is the poetic text she composed and sent to Brahms in 1874 in the hope that he would set it to music as a work for chorus and soloists. The remarkable subject matter of her poetry: cremation.

The practice of modern cremation, demonstrated at the Vienna Exposition of 1873, had begun to attract much attention among the medical community and press in Europe and U.S., but it was new, controversial, and generally unavailable. In appealing to Brahms to write a work on the subject, Wesendonck’s intention was to encourage the movement’s growth.

Upon receiving her ode to cremation, Brahms, much amused, immediately forwarded it to his friend Theodor Billroth, who likewise derived from it much unintended humor. Word of the would-be “cremation cantata” spread to other friends, including Wilhelm Lübke and Julius Stockhausen.

This according to “Brahms, Mathilde Wesendonck, and the would-be ‘cremation cantata’” by Jacquelyn E.C. Sholes (The American Brahms Society newsletter XXX/2 (fall 2012) pp. 1–5). Below, Brahms’s Begräbnisgesang, op. 13, which explicitly evokes a conventional burial.

More tidbits about Brahms are here.

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Brahms was Chilean

436px-Johannes_Brahms_1853

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:

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Johannes Brahms, railfan

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.

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Brahms and Breitkopf

Responding to enthusiastic recommendations from Robert and Clara Schumann, Breitkopf & Härtel published several of Brahms’s early works; but after the hostile public reaction to the 1859 premiere of his D-minor piano concerto the publisher became more cautious, accepting some works and rejecting others.

Brahms’s frustration reached a peak in 1865, when the publisher accepted his G-major string sextet sight unseen and then asked to be released from the obligation to publish it, citing outside opinions that were not attributed or detailed. Brahms responded with a furious letter and never submitted his work to the publisher again.

This according to “Brahms and the Breitkopf & Härtel affair” by George S. Bozarth (The music review LV/3 [August 1994] pp. 202–213). Above, the composer around the time of the decisive incident; below, the final movement of the sextet that the publisher spurned.

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One finger too many

The classical music world knows Alfred Brendel as one of the foremost pianists of his time. Far fewer people know him as a poet, with two books of poetry in German and one—One finger too many—in English translation (New York: Random House, 1999).

The collection’s title poem concerns a pianist who developed a third index finger “not to play the piano with/though it sometimes did intervene/discreetly/in tricky passages/but to point things out/when both hands were busy.”

While some of Brendel’s poems are serious, many are light-hearted. He explains, “At one stage in my life I didn’t laugh enough…some mechanism in my psyche may have come to my rescue.” The title of another poem, “Not Brahms again”, points to a humorous but therapeutic reflection that he describes as “a little revenge for the perversity of the B♭ concerto…the passages which, as they stand, are literally unplayable.”

This according to “The poet speaks” by Michael Church (BBC music magazine, VII/3 [November 1998], pp. 32–33).

Today is Maestro Brendel’s eightieth birthday! Below, an excerpt from the documentary Alfred Brendel: Man and mask by Mark Kidel (BBC, 2000).

BONUS: Cover one half of Brendel’s face and then the other in the above photograph to see two completely different expressions.

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Brahms era chileno

In the article “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.

Related articles:

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