Johannes Brahms might have been a genius, but he was still a man. He, like the rest of us, had to have his breakfast, make his living, and deal with adversity.
His close friend George Henschel, the English baritone, described Brahms, the man of 41 years as “broad-chested, of somewhat short stature, with a tendency to stoutness, clean shaven; his thick straight hair of brownish color came nearly down to his shoulder. What, however, struck me the most … was the kindliness of his eyes.”
He loved the society of intimate friends, he was given to good natured sarcasm, he was humble before his art, and he was generous to friends.
Brahms the Composer
Brahms the genius is more of a mystery. Unlike ordinary mortals, a miraculous synthesis often took place in his mind: From everyday life, common to us all, a vision would sometimes unfold. Thoughts and feelings would cast deep roots in his mind, become fragments of a melodic line, and after much labor, a piece of musical work would be born. This progeny would issue from the composer, take on a life of its own, make its way into the hearts of others, and continue to exist and cast its spell long after its creator had passed away.
Brahms spoke sparingly but candidly to friends about his creative genius. He once told Henschel that “a thought, an idea, is an inspiration from above for which I am not responsible. It is a present, a gift, which I ought even to despise until I have made it my own by right of hard work.”
In later years, he elaborated on this idea, asking the American journalist Arthur M. Abell to quote the opening lines of Homer’s “Odyssey” (“Sing to me O Muse”). After the words were spoken, Brahms continued: “Homer sought inspiration from above just as I do when I compose, and just as Beethoven did. … I want to be inspired so that I can compose something that will uplift and benefit humanity—something of permanent value.” One might find such ideas slightly esoteric, having little to do with ordinary people like us, but truly, it has everything to do with us and our common lot. Especially Johannes Brahms’s songs and choral works give voice to our need for love in all its forms; they give voice as well to our suffering, our happiness, and our helplessness before fate. His music gives reassurance, consolation, hope, and endows even the meanest existence with dignity.
Brahms set to music the texts of the foremost poets, addressing the significant milestones of life’s journey—the journey of “Everyman,” from dreams and hopes, through despair, to its spiritual destination. Youth’s kinship with nature, the awakening of love in all its forms, and the experience of loss—the human condition, in a phrase—these ultimately lead to the great spiritual world that unfolds before us.
For example, “Die Mainacht” (“May Night”), set to the text of 18th-century German poet Ludwig Christoph Hölty, expresses our longing for union with another soul, our intimate connection to nature, and its power, through beauty, to fill us with wonder.
“Treue Liebe dauert lange,” by Ludwig Tieck, celebrates the achievement of such a union. Its sublime melodic lines breathe life into the poet’s words: “True love long endures. May it ever be removed from sorrow and never disappear, this beloved, blessed, heavenly joy!”
Though love remains, the beloved, in the course of time, is taken from us. When Brahms suffered the loss of his friend Anselm Feuerbach, the brilliant German painter, it was the source of profound sorrow; still it served as a catalyst for one of the composer’s finest works, “Nänie.” The text from Friedrich Schiller’s lament cites the deaths of the classical Greek figures Eurydice, Adonis, and Achilles: “Even the beautiful must die … even the most perfect shall perish … but a song of lament on the lips of one who loves is wondrous.”
A song of lament might be wondrous and beautiful, but it is of little comfort in the time of grief. “Schicksalslied” (“Song of Destiny”) looks grief straight in the eye. The poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote: “To us is given no place of rest. Mankind suffers, blindly he shrinks, he falls from one hour to another, like the waters ever driven from cliff to cliff into the unknown.” Although the work is short in duration, it is arguably the composer’s greatest choral masterpiece.
Ultimately, people come to realize that they need answers deeper than those beauty can supply. It is often at a time of crisis when a broad spiritual horizon appears, and solid ground is felt under one’s feet. After the death of his beloved Clara Schumann, Brahms, in his despair, set the text from the Gospels:
“And ye now therefore have sorrow;
but I will see you again,
and your heart shall rejoice,
and your joy no man taketh from you.”
This was the revelation of Johannes Brahms the man, and the genius. He told his close friends that such works come “directly from God.” Yes, they come directly from God. They enter our hearts, and our hearts do, indeed, rejoice.
Raymond Beegle has performed as a collaborative pianist in the major concert halls of the United States, Europe, and South America; has written for The Opera Quarterly, Classical Voice, Fanfare Magazine, Classic Record Collector (UK), and The New York Observer. Beegle has served on the faculty of the State University of New York–Stony Brook, the Music Academy of the West, and the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. He has taught in the chamber music division of the Manhattan School of Music for the past 28 years.