Brahms on Tour

Think tours are hard these days? Here's what is was like to go on the road in 1879

Volume 118, No. 9September, 2018

Styra Avins

Johannes Brahms on tour at age 46 as a piano virtuoso? Accompanying his violinist friend on the piano in his own violin concerto? Brahms, who steadfastly disliked giving concerts and had only done so either to pay the rent or to promote his own music?

A letter in Brahms’s hand has surfaced from a private collection in St. Paul, Minnesota. It is one of those “Dear Friend” letters, so that anyone unfamiliar with the details of Brahms’s life could only puzzle as to what it was about, and to whom.

Sept. 79

Dear Friend,

I have a most urgent request of you – so pressing that it isn’t enough just to carry it out – you ought to have done so already! Therefore, read on:

I need for a time (14 days) Violin Sonatas by Beethoven, 2 in G Major, the one in C Minor, and the Kreutzer Sonata, also the B Minor Rondo for violin and piano by Schubert, finally I’d very much like the D Minor Sonata for ditto by Schumann. The last item perhaps later or, if you cannot find it, not at all.

In case you cannot extract them from the Archive, it would be fine with me if you bought the Peters editions, and in case the things are not available individually, the complete sonatas of Beethoven for violin and piano. The same for Schubert.

But the things should already have been in the post long ago!!!!

You might already have heard from Faber [a mutual friend] that I am about to make a name for myself – but I, along with it [my name], will be back home by October 1.

I can expect Joachim to pick me up any day now to take me to Siebenbürgen, Novi Pazar and Bosnia – for that I am in need of the above mentioned holy scriptures in order to preach to the heathens.

Now, however, continue writing in the 3rd volume: “Whereupon the Duke embraced his Capellmeister and presented him with a major decoration, the Duchess, however, embraced the biographer and gave him a delightful smack; then the whole company went, even then, just as one hundred years later, to the Igel.

Whereupon I am

your affectionately devoted

J. Brahms

Pörtschach on the Lake

The friend was Ferdinand Pohl, librarian and archivist of one of Vienna’s most important musical institutions, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. Brahms was spending the summer in Pörtschach, in the Austrian Alps, and the cause of his unusual excitement was the immediate prospect of a concert tour with his old friend, the famous violinist Joseph Joachim, to the nether limits of Austro-Hungarian lands. Pohl’s ongoing work at the time was the third volume of his ground-breaking biography of Josef Haydn, a project which interested Brahms keenly, which explains the curious ending of Brahms’ letter above. In a mind-bending merging of time, place and personnel, Brahms encourages Pohl to include an imaginary incident in which the Duke (Count Esterházy) rewards Pohl for his great biography; his wife the Duchess engages in a more feminine expression of approval, and all, including Brahms, go off to the Igel, Brahms’s favorite Viennese eating place. Such jocular nonsense was not uncommon in letters between men in the German-speaking world, although this is not your usual Brahms!

The urgent letter was written in something of a panic once Brahms had finally agreed to make the 10-day tour with Joachim to the eastern portion of the Crown Lands. He needed to practice, and the music was unobtainable up there in the Alps. The tour, starting on Sept. 13, 1879, is indeed mentioned in any decent biography of Brahms, but with virtually no details. Where did they go? How far did they travel? How did they travel? What did they play? How were they received? This letter aroused my curiosity.

BRAHMS ON TOUR: At the time of the Brahms-Joachim tour, the borders of Hungary and Romania were much different from the modern map shown above. Hungary included the cites of Arad, Temesvar and Klausenburg. Both nations were part of the Dual Monarchy (the Austro-Hungarian Empire), not the independent countries of today. At right is a chart of the place names of the towns visited on the tour in the three relevant languages. Brahms refers at all times to the German names, as does the contemporary German literature. Hungarian accounts use their own. To follow the trail on a modern map such as above, readers need to use the Romanian place names.

It was Joachim’s Viennese concert agent who had had the idea to arrange a trip which would be part vacation and part concert, seeing this as a way to entice Brahms, who objected to the normal tour schedule of playing a concert, rushing off to catch a train for the next one, and so on. Brahms’s interest was not in making money, but in seeing new lands and new people, and “in having fun while earning the tour.” Now financially secure and famous (the German Requiem, Hungarian Dances, Lullaby, and First Symphony were under his belt), he had already been to Italy; this time he wanted to travel to “less civilized lands which interest me.” Those lands would be the most exotic corners of the Austro-Hungarian empire, populated by Gypsies, Romanians, Hungarians, Saxon Germans and Jews. They would visit four towns in the heart of Transylvania, the mountainous region called Siebenbürgen, now in Romania, and two cities of the Banat, the southeastern portion of Hungary, near the Serbian border.

It is the Saxon German element that was the draw, as much of this area was German-speaking, thanks to the seven fortified towns – the literal meaning of “Siebenbürgen” – built centuries ago. Over time the towns formed the nucleus of a German-speaking population that had continued to speak an archaic German and promoted a German culture within the ethnically diverse area. They  had even resisted the Turks with some success. Because all of the concert towns had German-language newspapers, it was possible for me to find reviews and reconstruct their programs. Brahms and Joachim put together an immense repertory, enough material to organize six concerts with six sections, each section including as many as three individual pieces. They arranged their own programs, altering them when necessary. For the most part they chose pieces they had played, individually or together, for the past 25 years. Brahms had been trained as a virtuoso pianist, and now, rather astonishingly (he had not practiced for years) he chose some of the most difficult works in the repertory: Schumann’s Noveletten (we don’t know which or how many), and his Paganini Etudes, (again, which?) – the latter so challenging they are rarely programmed today. Several of Schubert’s four-hand marches were also on the list, arranged by him for solo piano and performed over the years but never written down. We know of them only from concert programs and reviews. For Joachim there was indeed one very new and challenging work: Brahms’s violin concerto. Initial performances had not gone well. Taking it to the provinces “as often as possible,” as he wrote to Brahms, was appealing. Brahms, dubious, advised bringing Bruch’s G Minor Violin Concerto “just in case.” Joachim chose Mendelssohn. Other works included:

  • The Beethoven violin sonatas mentioned in the letter to Pohl at the beginning of this article
  • Schubert’s Rondo Op. 77
  • Scarlatti’s “Caprices”
  • Brahms’s own 4
  • Brahms’ just-pubished Op. 76
  • A set of variations by Brahms (we don’t know which ones)
  • Various transcriptions by Brahms
  • Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in Joachim’s arrangement
  • Spohr’s violin concertos
  • Bach’s Chaconne and some Partitas, both violin and keyboard
  • Tartini’s Devil’s Trill.

For the most part, this was serious stuff! The men met up in Budapest, spending one day (!) rehearsing. From there, with a Streicher piano and Joachim’s two Stradevari, they caught the night train directly to Arad, 140 miles east across the Hungarian Puszta, the largest prairie in Europe. The Carpathian Mountains were on the eastern horizon. Arad was an important transportation hub strongly influenced by Western European ways. It was a bustling commercial center, with a European-style music conservatory (only the sixth on all the continent), and one of the largest Jewish populations of any city in Europe. Was Brahms disappointed to find no exotic “heathens”? Their next concert was in nearby Temesvar, the historic, economic and cultural center of the Banat, the first city after New York to have electric street lights, also lacking in heathens. The exotic travel began after Temesvar, as they back-tracked to Arad for a 233-mile journey on a single-track railroad directly into the heart of the Carpathians. Their destination was Schäßburg (modern Sigişoara), a little fortified medieval Saxon town. The train followed rising river valleys bordered on both sides by forested mountains, the landscape dotted with Hungarian and Romanian villages and Gypsy settlements, with ever-higher mountains coming into view.

Kronstadt (modern Braşov) was next, an old Teutonic stronghold, by 1879 a crossroads populated equally by Romanian and German speakers, with a large contingent of Hungarians and a sprinkling of Roma and Jews. From there across the fearful forest that was Dracula’s haunt, to Hermannstadt (modern Sibiu), the most German of all the towns of Siebenbürgen. Never conquered, it’s walls had withstood the Turkish siege and still stand today. Brahms and Joachim arrived safely enough, but their piano did not. A local doctor earned a place in history by lending the artists his Blüthner. From Hermannstadt on to Klausenburg (modern Cluj-Napoca), the last stop. It was a Hungarian town, eagerly awaiting Joachim.

The Redoutensaal in Klausenburg/Kolozsvar, modern-day Cluj-Napoca, Romania, site of Brahms and Joachim’s last concert of their tour. Liszt had performed here during his Balkan tour of 1847.

The tour covered 1,029 miles: Budapest to Arad-Temesvar-Arad, Schäßburg, Kronstadt, Hermannstadt, Klausenburg, Budapest. Most of the travel was by train, sometimes single track, sometimes narrow gauge. The short trip from Temesvar back to Arad, 39 miles, was by coach – no train ran at night. Also, as no train yet went all the way from Kronstadt to Hermannstadt, part of that trip also must have been made by carriage.

The real story is in the newspapers. In every town, crowds rushed to buy tickets, every concert was over-sold. In Arad, Brahms’s performance of the Novelletten came in for special praise: He “effortlessly displayed the highest technique for piano that can be attained…Noisy applause was accepted with appropriate grace.” In Temesvar, people swarmed the streets to hear the “Piano Hero and Violin King,” their appearance having been announced days ahead. By concert time people were standing in the balconies. This time Brahms’s Violin Concerto was on the program. One critic called it “doubtless one of the most important compositions today, standing at the same height as other masterpieces,” but he clearly had no idea what to make of it. Another wrote it was difficult to conceive how strong Joachim’s right hand must be: his was a technical level that no one else had reached so far. His bow arm – his legato, arpeggios, nuances from pp to ff were inimitable, unmatched, the maximum of possibility. Equally unmatched was his “miraculous clarity of sound.” Brahms’s bravura, endurance, and skill as an accompanist were praised. The concert was deemed a “brilliant success,” the huge audience delivering a greater financial return than expected – this being the first item of the review. The report went on: anybody who was anyone, by birth, rank, position, anyone with an understanding for music, was present. They held their breath at the wonderful sounds of the Violin King and the rare virtuosity of Brahms, a pianist of the first rank. Stormy applause followed each number; the audience left highly satisfied, conscious of having been present at an evening of rare artistry.

Everywhere the duo went the wine flowed, the tables were laden. Schäßburg (Sigişoara) was no different. Nor was the reception of the public and critics. “We heard not virtuosos, but rather artists in the true sense of the word, whose performance defies all description. One has to have heard and experienced the playing of this King of Violinists to have some notion of him.” After the concert the pair were entertained by a jolly circle of “friends of art,” and the next day, before leaving, they enjoyed a light lunch on the glassed-in veranda of a summer villa, overlooking snowy mountain tops and green hills.

The reception in multi-cultural Kronstadt was something different. Here, the three major ethnic groups had each prepared their own musical welcoming committee. More than casually interested, Brahms and Joachim paid visits to local musicians on their sightseeing trip in and out of the city. The concert itself had been announced for days in newspaper articles – the house was sold out. The German-language critic declined to offer an actual review, saying merely that every listener was thrilled by both the piano and the violin playing of the artists. The Romanian critic was more explicit: The hall was overcrowded, as expected. The musicians were received with thunderous applause, which only “increased to the point of ecstasy between musical selections…To write about it would be impossible for a poet; this short report is not enough to describe it.” The after-concert banquet featured more toasts, this time offered by the mayor and other dignitaries, and a great deal of music from the local city chorus and orchestra and other ethnic groups. There was a stunning medley of Romanian music, of the greatest interest to Brahms and Joachim – Brahms went so far as to ask the Romanian orchestra leader to bring him the best compositions available from local composers. Folk singers sang Romanian folk tunes, including the famous Ciobanului, a Shepherd’s Song redolent of the Eastern heritage of that part of the world and still performed to day. (Here is an instrumental version: The German newspaper made no mention of Romanian music.

Hermannstadt, where a dignified crowd was waiting to welcome the pair on the train platform, was the most German of all the towns in Siebenbürgen. A friendly banquet at a hillside villa was offered immediately, and the artists were then taken to hear three choral works by Brahms admirably performed by the local choral society. The review for this concert focused on Brahms: “We have heard pianists of eminent technical ability, but we have often had more cause to regret than to rejoice when they also sought to make an impression as composers. Johannes Brahms, however, is not only the greatest composer that one can hear anywhere today. The technique of piano playing is for him no longer an issue. In combination, these qualities make an overpowering impression. We joyfully acknowledge: these days we have felt a breath wafting from one of the greatest minds. How Brahms played! Never have we experienced the power of unity of content and form, of ideas and their execution, of composition and performance so forcefully.” Noting the stormy applause for Joachim’s total mastery, the writer added, “Only such a violinist could be Brahms’s companion.”

The final stop of the tour was Klausenburg, the Hungarian town of Koloszvár. Waiting on the train platform were the mayor, the head of the invitation committee, the vice president of the music conservatory, and a large, boisterous crowd. There were flowery speeches in Hungarian, and someone to translate. Brahms, Joachim and their “exalted profession” were wished a blessed long life. Joachim said “thank you” in Hungarian, and amidst a cheering crowd the two left the station followed by an imposing line of carriages carrying the conservatory delegation and town dignitaries who escorted them to their hotel, where they were awarded their ceremonial diplomas as honorary members of the conservatory. This was the grandest reception of the tour, something Brahms would remember and mention in a letter to Clara Schumann. Dinner at the hotel that night was accompanied by Hungarian folk music, ending with the Rákoczy March.

As for the concert, it was a wild success. The elegant audience in the crowded hall erupted in applause as the artists emerged on stage, and stopped in reverential silence when Joachim raised his violin to play. The public was “riveted by sounds so beautiful, so perfect, one could pray to them.” The reviewer was overcome, reporting from the sumptuous banquet which followed. “Dear Mr. Editor! Please do not take it amiss that my report sounds somewhat incoherent.” He went on to describe a chaotic scene. He was standing very close to Brahms and Joachim, wine was flowing copiously, one toast after another. “I believe this explains, if not everything, much, and you are an old friend of mine so you will accept the explanation favorably.” He could not judge the performances. What he heard from them “was at such soaring heights, beyond my ability to follow…I do not apologize…I simply note that the audience followed the sublime music with great interest and growing enthusiasm as if they felt they were experiencing rare moments that seldom happen in our small, remote, provincial hamlet…it will be a very long time before something even close to it will be witnessed in Koloszvár.” The next afternoon, the men were on their way home.

Which musician today can dream of such a reception? Franz Liszt before them, or perhaps the Beatles after them, might have come close. But what do we make of Brahms, at age 46, agreeing to perform such an unusually large and demanding repertory? Some remnant of pride in the enormous pianistic abilities of his youth must have remained. A dozen years earlier, in a letter to Clara Schumann, he had hinted as much. Describing his tour in Switzerland to promote the new Horn Trio, he wrote that he had performed, in the space of ten days, his Paganini Variations Op. 35 twice, Robert Schumann’s Fantasy Op. 17 twice, Beethoven’s 32 Variations, his own arrangement of the Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, his First Piano Concerto Op. 15, and two of his piano quartets. “Above all, what pleases me the most is that I really have the talent to be a virtuoso…The bigger the pieces, the better.” The Transylvanian tour must have strengthened that pleasure. But to what purpose? Perhaps, since Brahms always premiered his own works, the tour was his way of refurbishing his pianistic credentials for the foreseeable future; the Second Piano Concerto was already in mind, and five duo sonatas with piano were still to come, to say nothing of all the late piano opuses.

After all, hadn’t he announced to both the Fabers and Pohl that he would return having made a name for himself?

* * *

I gratefully thank the Schubert Club of St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Gilman Ordway Manuscript Collection housed there, for permission to translate and publish Brahms’s letter to Ferdinand Pohl, and my Romanian and Hungarian translators. This article was written exclusively for Allegro and was adapted from “In the Land of Seven Fortresses: Johannes Brahms and Joseph Joachim in Transylvania: An Unpublished Letter,” which appeared in the Newsletter of the American Brahms Society,” Vol. 35/2 (Fall 2017). That article includes more detail and specific repertory for each concert. All quotes are from Brahms’s letters and contemporary newspaper accounts.

Styra Avins has been a member of Local 802 since 1961. She is the author of “Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters” (Oxford University Press, 1997/2001) as well as many articles and book chapters concerning Brahms’s life, his correspondence with members of his circle, and the performance of his music. She wrote the entry for Brahms in the “Oxford Companion to Music.” As a cellist, she has played with the Seoul Symphony, the American Symphony, the New York City Opera Orchestra, the Queens Symphony, and many chamber groups. She is the author of numerous publications. This original essay is © 2018 by the author, whom readers can contact at