Brahms and Liszt

I finished the book that I have been reading this morning.

I began it months ago, well before my brain haemorrhage put a temporary hold on such things during November and into December.

I had worried about the consequences of my haemorrhage on my ability to concentrate on anything longer than the daily newspaper. So this book, a biography of the composer Johannes Brahms by Jan Swafford (Published by Vintage Books, 1997), had become a bit of a test.

It was on the table next to my bed where I had my second brain seizure following the brain haemorrhage and it was quite possible I could have died there with this book left unfinished.

I had a similar anxiety about listening to classical music again too.

So today is a small landmark.

I have broken back into listening to classical music by way of Bach, Mahler, Puccini and Wagner and now I have actually finished the book – all of its 636 pages.

Brain haemorrhages and, I assume, other life threatening conditions, definitely concentrate your mind if you are lucky enough to survive them.

The overwhelming feeling is a real understanding of the old French phrase joie de vivre – the joy of living.

Another phenomenon has been a series of unsolicited images from my childhood – sometimes confusing and sometimes enlightening.

Some of these flash-backs have led me to think “oh that’s why I turned out like this” or “so that’s what they meant” or even “I should have done that.”

These were obvious reminders of how often I did things without realizing why I did them. The signals were all there but I was much to busy living to notice them.

At other times, though, they were just flash-backs, merely things that happened in the random way that is mostly how life unravels.

Take my childhood piano teacher, for instance.

She was an inspiration to me – someone who thought I had a talent even when I was very young.
She approached my parents and suggested piano lessons when she was impressed by the way I shook those castanets and jingled that triangle in my first year at school.

My parents agreed to the lessons and this brilliant teacher stayed as my principal musical contact until well into my teens.

She always said that she was brought up “in the old school.” Her teacher had studied with someone who had studied with one of Liszt’s pupils. Franz Liszt, of course, as the nerd in me already knew, was the greatest pianist who has ever lived.

So I was in good hands and, at a rather young age, decided that I was one day going to be Franz Liszt Junior.

This was after spending most of my childhood doing vigorous piano exercises to build up my finger technique whilst having inspirational conversations about the lives of the great composers.

My teacher’s teacher had given her some old 78 rpm records. In case you don’t know, they were the recordings people listened to, before LPs – or vinyls – and before cds and before illegal downloads.

My teacher was clearing out the house after her mother died and came across them and thought of me.

They were like two giant photograph albums containing the Schumann Piano Concerto; recorded in 1934 in the Abbey Road Studios by Alfred Cortot 1877-1962 and the Brahms Second Piano Concerto; recorded, also in the Abbey Road Studios in 1935 by Artur Schnabel 1882-1951.

My teacher knew that my father had an old record player which allowed you to insert a special stylus to play the old records and I was introduced to a new inspiring world.

These were my very first records and the pieces which now can be fitted easily onto a cd were, in those pioneering days, each published as, respectively a set of 8 and 12 delicate records each fitting into its own sleeve inside grandly bound books.

These pianists, my teacher told me, were two of the greatest and I should listen to their method and technique.

Inevitably I obsessed on these works and the two grand masters whose finger technique I studied through the crackles and hisses of the recorded surfaces and whilst I tried to keep the continuity of the music going between having to get up and change the records every few minutes.

So this was one of my flashbacks. Finishing the Brahms biography took me straight back to myself aged 11 entering the epic world of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto – a world which I haven’t left to this day (the recording has been issued on CD by the way Pearl GEMM CD 9399).
It is definitely one of those pieces that would make it onto my top ten list.

My connection to Brahms felt so real because I realized that Schnabel was 15 years old when Brahms died and, even though I am sure it wasn’t true, I imagined Schnabel teaching my teacher’s teacher.

Another Brahmsian flashback concerned me going off to music college at the age of 18. No longer wanting to be the next Franz Liszt ( I now had ambitions to be an operatic tenor) I had got in to the Royal Academy of Music in London by singing two operatic arias, Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lagrima” and Mozart’s “Il mio tesoro” to a panel of distinguished English singers at 9.00 in the morning of the most terrifying day of my life.

Afterwards, I walked backwards and forwards under an arch of blossoming cherry trees in Regent’s Park trying to stop shaking from a mixture of terror and joy.

Ever since then cherry trees have always had a strong emotional significance for me.

At the Academy, I did piano as my second subject and had regular lessons on a magnificent Steinway concert grand piano in my new teacher’s equally grand teaching room.

One morning, it was nine 0 clock, with a slight hangover I have to admit, I sat down at this wonderful instrument and put my music up on the stand. Mozart, Schubert and, yes, you guessed, Brahms (Four Ballades Op.10).

The Brahms Ballades are early works still full of the composer’s first flush of romantic passion. I had seen a portrait of him at about this time (published above) and, vain 18 year old as I was, rather fancied myself as his look-alike.

My teacher called for the Brahms.

I said, with an arrogance and ignorance that still embarrasses me today, “I am not really in the mood for Brahms today.”

She went quiet and then very loud.

It is not a matter of you being in the mood for Brahms, she shouted, it is more a matter of if Brahms would ever have been in the mood for you, young man.

So I played those pieces obediently and, in her opinion, not at all badly.

She told me that she thought Brahms suited my style and that I should learn more which of course I did. I never knew though whether she was paying a compliment when she called my style “muscular.” Was she accusing me of thumping?

Every lesson after that she would begin with the question: “Are you in the mood for Brahms this morning?”

Between then and now many other non-musical things have happened to me and often my relationship with Brahms and Liszt has been much closer to the cockney rhyming slang for being “pissed” or drunk than it was in recreating their piano music.

Jan Swaffer’s book is encouraging there with its many tales of Brahms’ love of boozy sessions with friends even if the over-all impression left is of a sad man. One who made an active decision to restrict his emotional and erotic life to a bachelorhood devoted to his art as a composer of great music.

The handsome young Brahms, with his high tenor voice and passionate nature, was eventually hidden behind the more famous long grizzled beard just as his real nature was hidden from public view. It is all there in his music of course, distilled and refined in abstract form for anyone who takes the time to crack his often tough surface or who is, after all, in the mood for Brahms.

Jan Swaffer knows that Brahms is in many ways a mystery. He burnt many of his letters and deliberately masked his emotions behind irony. He was a very private man, the opposite of his great and controversial contemporary Richard Wagner and, Swaffer argues, he may be the better for it to our ears after Wagner’s very public and outspoken stance allowed his music to be coloured by some of the worst atrocities of the 20th. Century.

Swaffer makes the point that Brahms’ death marks the end of a one hundred and twenty five years when Vienna became the “the most extraordinary concentration of genius in one medium in one place since the Florentine Renaissance.” This was also a tradition based on a musical system written for and understood by a highly educated middle class audience. One that Swaffer, maybe as a frustrated composer himself, laments. He says that a modern audience no longer hears the structure of classical music, they have grown accustomed to wallowing, maybe too much, in the grand splashes and oceans of sound created by Wagner and Bruckner – something that Brahms dreaded and predicted in his old age.

He also, of course, watched the dying 19th. century in Vienna abandon the long liberal tradition that he supported for an extreme right wing politics that would eventually sweep the young Austrian, Adolf Hitler to power. “This anti-antisemitism is madness!” he once said.

He, with Haydn, came from the least privileged backgrounds of all the great composers. Forced to play the piano in sailors’ bars as a child which were really Hamburg’s equivalent of modern strip clubs, Swaffer speculates at what might have happened between the beautiful and vulnerable child and some of those ladies of pleasure.

His life, maybe warped by the experience, distinguished between idealised women whom he could never marry and the prostitutes who into his sad and lonely old age, supplied the total of his erotic pleasures.

Swaffer, the composer, writes just enough about the music not to put off non-music specialists and just enough titillating details to keep all of us, brain haemorrhages apart, from following the course of this unenviable and often depressing life through all those 636 pages.

So what should I read next?

Here is an old Schnabel recording….sorry it isn’t Brahms, I just wasn’t in the mood, here is some Schubert and it is wonderful:


  1. If you’re still in the mood for musical reading I’d recommend Beethoven: The Music and the Life by Lewis Lockwood.

    I must get a recording of the 2nd Piano Concerto. My first Brahms was the 2nd Symphony, which I played in a youth orchestra when I was about 16. I still think it is one of the most beautiful things I know. That perfect balance of order and passion that no one after him really understood.

  2. Good heavens – your secret life! Well… not secret – but not known to lots of us. I like the Dinizetti, but tend to think Don Ottavio is such a wimp that it is not surprise that the women fall for Giovanni.

    Personally, though, I would always prefer to play Figaro or Leperello than the more obviously sexy characters – I like their wheeler-dealing.

    It’s funny how music does bring a raft-load of memories – “Vissi d’arte” has baggage for me, but it only comes to the fore sometimes. Maybe that is the sign of the great performances – that they overpower everything else.

  3. Thanks guys for the comments.

    Anatole…I have read the Lewis Lockwood…..fantastic and revealing about the old codger.Maybe I should give biographies a rest for a bit….they do have a tendency to end badly for their subjects!

    I too love the Second Symphony….it can never replace the Piano Concerto but that is also a personal thing. I used to have a copy of the First conducted by the young James Levine that was electrifying it seems to have disappeared from the catalogues though and mine is busted. The Fourth is so bleak but romantic too but it is something I am avoiding listening to at the moment – maybe it is just too morbid for me right now.And also,of course, it was written after 1856.

    Claudio….believe me man, I have plenty more secrets!

    Ottavio is a wimp for sure….but what music! The women would have been much better off going with him….after-all we don’t really get to see his secret side.

    The second act of Tosca is is so tense and painful, that is why the Vissi d’arte aria practically always gets me…..we are totally primed for it.

    Thanks gentlemen for reading my ramblings….it is good to know you are out there.

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