The Working Musician

Happy Birthday, Brahms (1833-1897)

Volume 114, No. 5May, 2014

Styra Avins

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 was written exclusively for Allegro and is ©2014 by the author, whom readers can contact at All translations from the German are by Josef Eisinger.


From left, Brahms at 19; Brahms childhood home at 29 Dammtorwall in Hamburg; Brahms at 33. Photos courtesy of the author.

From left, Brahms at 19; Brahms childhood home at 29 Dammtorwall in Hamburg; Brahms at 33. Photos courtesy of the author.

As Brahms climed the ladder of success, he never forgot his roots

A boy sits in a small room of a small house in Hamburg practicing the cello, the distracting sounds of family life ever present around him. It is 1843, he is ten years old, and he is already an accomplished pianist. In fact, he has recently performed in a concert in which all the other performers were adults – colleagues of his father – some of them well-known Hamburg musicians. The boy played the piano part of Beethoven’s “Quintet for Piano and Winds” (Op. 16), and in one of the piano quartets of Mozart. He also played a solo etude by the fashionable and flashy Henri Herz. The concert was arranged to raise money for the education of this remarkably talented child.

The father is a professional musician with good contacts in his city. He plays many instruments: flute, violin, viola, flugelhorn and double bass. Where he grew up, in the farmlands of Holstein north of Hamburg, becoming a musician meant apprenticing to a qualified musician and learning to play a whole range of instruments. The father completed his service, and is now the proud possessor of a signed certificate. In his understanding of the word, therefore, a musician is a man who can provide music for any occasion, as called for. That is why his little boy is now learning to play the cello. Although at age seven the child succeeded in convincing the reluctant father to let him have piano lessons, he has not succeeded in convincing him that playing the piano will be sufficient to put bread on his table in the future: he must learn other instruments. His brother will be taught to play the violin and the flute, in addition to the piano. For him, it will be the cello, and the horn.

The little boy’s name is Johannes Brahms. He will study the cello for a few years – I’m guessing three – but he won’t have to continue for too long because his cello teacher is going to run off with his cello and that will be the end of the lessons. This story is neither invention nor poetic license. We have the facts on the best possible authority: a long letter Brahms’ mother wrote to him shortly before her death, and a little memoir by the great cellist Julius Klengel, who reported Brahms’ remarks made during the course of an evening they spent together.

Ask most people to give a picture of Johannes Brahms and if they know who he is at all (“Do you like Brahms?” “I don’t know, what are they?”) they will describe a stocky man with a powerful paunch and flowing beard. They may even add that he came from a poor Hamburg family, or that he grew up in a slum, or that he could be stingingly sarcastic and gruff to the point of rudeness. But another, more accurate picture could be painted, which would show a handsome, smooth-cheeked youth, raised in modest but respectable circumstances, slim and athletic, at once high-minded and high-spirited, boisterous and shy.

Paint the picture a few years later and one could show a young man extraordinarily familiar with literature, history and the fine arts, on his way to being perhaps the most erudite of all the great composers. A later picture could show a man in friendly contact on equal terms with some of the leading scientists, poets, musicologists, philologists and artists of the day, with 18 godchildren to his name, and with a host of friends and a large stack of preserved correspondence to prove it (11,000 letters so far and counting).

This month, in which we commemorate Brahms’ 181st birthday, I want to present an up-to-date picture of what is known about him, and to show a side of him that is not so well known.


An excerpt from Brahms' Symphony no. 1 (Op.68), fourth movement, well known to any graduates of the High School of Music and Art as its school song, with lyrics "Now Upward in Wonder."

An excerpt from Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 (Op.68), fourth movement, well known to any graduates of the High School of Music and Art as its school song, with lyrics “Now Upward in Wonder.”

The fact that Brahms owned a cello is one of the best clues to understanding his childhood. Although the myth persists that he grew up in poverty in a Hamburg slum, and that he was sent to play in brothels at an early age just to put food on the family table, his cello is one of several pieces of evidence that utterly refutes this notion. The cello cost as much as the full year’s salary of many working men at the time, and it was paid for by using the money Brahms’ mother had saved from her little business taking in sewing and selling sewing supplies. Brahams’ father, Johann Jakob Brahms, scraped together a living playing the double bass in a six-man band, and playing the flute or horn or piccolo as needed when work was offered in one of the theater orchestras. As an immigrant from Holstein, Johann Jakob had acquired Hamburg citizenship as soon as he was eligible, a considerable expenditure in those days when one had first to prove one’s moral and religious suitability, buy one’s own uniform and weapon (and prove you could use it) and then pay for the privilege – amounting to a sum that would have been enough to feed and clothe a family of four for a year.

Brahms was born on May 7, 1833, in the crowded old quarter of Hamburg known as the Gängeviertel, the Neighborhood of Narrow Lanes. Eight months later his family moved. His formative years were spent in a small house at 29 Dammtorwall near the Alster Basin (Hamburg’s inland lake), within walking distance of one of his father’s major places of work. Eventually the Gängeviertel became a notorious slum – and since this was its condition when his important early biographers visited it, they all, without exception, came to the faulty conclusion that they were seeing the neighborhood where Johannes grew up. They were also unaware that the family had moved so soon after his birth. Everyone since has copied this point of view until, starting in 1983, a wave of modern scholarship unearthed a host of specific documents which are the foundation of the updated story you are reading here.

Brahms’ mother was Christiana Johanna Brahms née Nissen (1789-1865), respectable but somewhat sickly and lame, descending from a family of ministers and schoolteachers whose station in life had been greatly diminished by the upheavals of the time. Her letters to her famous son display a generous nature and a fund of common sense, couched in untutored but expressive language. She had lived through some very lean years (Napoleon’s brutal siege of Hamburg) and knew how to stretch her money, which was a lucky thing because life with Johann Jakob was not easy. Money was indeed always in short supply. To supplement his income, Brhams’ father Johann Jakob had a variety of schemes: he bought lottery tickets, raised rabbits, then chickens, ducks, and doves in the back courtyard. It all cost money and it all failed. The family moved frequently – too frequently for Frau Brahms’ wishes, and in her view Johann Jakob bought furniture and musical instruments the family neither needed nor could afford. Nevertheless, the Brahms family lived above, not below, the poverty line. We know how much his parents spent to educate their boys, and how much rent they paid for their apartment. Those two items alone add up to more than the annual wage for all but the most skilled workers of the day.

Both Johannes and his brother Fritz attended a good, up-to-date middle-class school, side by side the sons of physicians, lawyers and well-to-do landowners and business men, and both received their diplomas at age 14. They studied Latin, French, English, natural sciences, history, mathematics, and gymnastics, a sport Johannes practiced occasionally until he was about 30 – hence the muscular shoulders so many have described. There was food on the table, even special food for holidays. Their respectable working-class neighborhood was home to other lower-middle class people, including those who are today classed as professionals: among Brahms’ neighbors were a number of musicians, including his first piano teacher.

We can dispose of the brothel myths, too. Brothels in Hamburg were legal and regulated by law. Music was not permitted in them. (Too much of an incitement?) Children between the ages of 10 to 18 were not allowed entry, under penalties to the brothel owners that included stiff fines and imprisonment. (Did I ever think I would be reading up on Hamburg’s brothel laws?!) So the stories of the young Brahms being hauled out of bed at night for brothel gigs are simply absurd, even ignoring the fact that parents who were willing to spend precious cash on primary school education, at a time when schooling was not mandatory, were hardly likely to expose him to such sordidness.

At age 14, however, Brahms did leave school to begin his career as a working musician, a role never abandoned in one form or other until the last summer of his life. He played in dance halls (the rougher ones had police on duty to keep the peace), and at taverns both outdoor and indoor where he was essentially a live juke box. When he could get the work, he played in theaters. He gave piano lessons, arranged operatic potpourris for a local publisher, and gave a brilliant debut recital at age 16. That got him nowhere, because in that day and age, before the time of the concert agent, one needed aristocratic or wealthy patrons to promote a career. Hamburg had no aristocracy. It was a Republic, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, and no wealthy person there was interested in promoting the career of the son of a poor local working musician.

Did I mention that he composed? It was his continuing passion, but as he was a working musician the only time he could follow his calling was very early in the morning, when he polished his boots, as he once recounted. Judging from the roll of music he had with him when he left home to make his way in the world, those early morning hours were productive. He remained an early riser for the rest of his life, composing until noon.

Brahms did not leave home willingly: it is his father who insisted the time had come – Brahms was already 19 – and who enlisted the help of a friend to arrange a little tour in a few small cities in northern Germany. That year, 1853, changed his life dramatically. The tour resulted in his meeting with Liszt, who understood his talent, then with the great violinist Joseph Joachim, who immediately befriended him and who sent him on to Robert Schumann (“Arrival of Brahms,” Schumann wrote in his diary on the day Brahms knocked on their door, “a genius.”), who introduced him to the public with an unprecedented canon-blast which both helped and hindered him for years to come. In the long run, however, it was Clara Schumann who set his career on track, because it is she who had all the aristocratic and wealthy connections anyone could want, and who gave Brahms the all the openings he needed. She encouraged his compositions by giving first performances of many of them in the early years, and she also saw to it that he had concerts to play, not willing to let him neglect his tremendous abilities as a pianist. Until Brahms’ finances finally stabilized with the publication of the “German Requiem” in 1868, giving concerts was his means of restoring his bank account. If he performed reluctantly, he never gave it up altogether, eventually conducting and performing his new works on tour every year. That he played his “Pagannini Variations” in public in 1883 is a clue that he retained a formidable technique for much of his life.

Brahms’ identification with the working musician was in evidence long after he had succeeded in devoting himself to composition. The experience of growing up in the home of a free-lance musician who practiced music as a trade, who went every day to find work, whose family depended on his hands to make a living , was not lost on him. Brahms was ever mindful of the needs of the musicians he worked with, whether they were soloists or members of his orchestra. In 1875, while engaged as conductor of the orchestra of Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, one of his three planned rehearsals for a performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” had to be canceled. There was a conflict over rehearsal space. He was now going to have to schedule two long rehearsals instead of three shorter ones, and his players were not happy. Brahms wrote to the directors of the society. (See letter below).

Brahms letter 1Many years later, he was serving as consultant to the founder of modern musicology, Guido Adler, on a learned edition of the music of Gottlieb Muffat, an early Austrian keyboard master contemporary with Bach. Adler’s copyist for the project was Brahms’ own copyist for the last decade of his life, a fellow Hamburger, someone Brahms knew well. In his letter to Adler, Brahms could barely bother to answer the musicological question, but went straight to what concerned him. (See letter below.)

Brahms letter 2Brahms’ sense of responsibility extended to his solo performers. Most striking is a letter he wrote to Joseph Joachim, one of the great European violinists of the time. Brahms was in the habit of sending Joachim his violin works before publication to make sure they were playable. In this case the “Third String Quartet,” (Op. 67) was the subject. “This request is probably in vain,” he wrote. “Would you, in the difficult passages, alter a few notes for me, particularly in the first movement? To me, fingerings are nothing but evidence that something is rotten in the violin scoring.” And to his favorite arranger, Theodor Kirshner, who was engaged in producing a four-hand arrangement of his Handel Variations (Op. 24), “Do what ever you want with it all! Double it, cut it, ornament it – the trill may almost be easier with two hands.” In making piano reductions of his own work, top priority was given to playability, rather than to a note-for-note reproduction of the original.

And finally, the responsibility he felt towards working musicians is embodied in the advice he passed on to a young composer who had brought his work for Brahms to see. Looking over the music, Brahms commented, “You write as if for a music box, where each little pin has a fragment of the music. But musicians are not music boxes, you know, they are human beings, too: if you give someone the dissonance, you must also give him the resolution.”