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A non-fiction by Elbert Hubbard

Johannes Brahms

Title:     Johannes Brahms
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

What is music? This question occupied my mind for hours last night before I fell asleep. The very existence of music is wonderful, I might even say miraculous. Its domain is between thought and phenomena. Like a twilight mediator, it hovers between spirit and matter, related to both, yet differing from each. It is spirit, but spirit subject to the measurement of time; it is matter, but matter that can dispense with space.


Emerson has said that, next to the man who first voices a great truth, is the one who quotes it.

Truth is in the air; it belongs to all who can appreciate it; and the difference between the man who gives a truth expression and the listener who at once comprehends and repeats it, is very slight. If you understand what I say, it is because you have thought the same thoughts yourself--I merely express for you that which you already know. And so you approve and applaud, not stopping to think that you are applauding your own thought; and your heart beats fast and you say, "Yes, yes, why didn't I say that myself!"

All conversation is a sort of communion--an echoing back and forth of thoughts, feelings and emotions. We clarify our thoughts by expressing them--no idea is quite your own until you tell it to another.

Music is simply one form of expression. Its province is to impart a sublime emotion. To give himself is the controlling impulse in the heart of every artist--to impart to others the joy he feels--this is the dominant motive in his life.

Hence the poet writes, the artist paints, the sculptor models, the singer sings, the musician plays--all is expression--a giving voice to the Silence. But it is all done for others. In ministering to others the artist ministers to himself. In helping others we help ourselves. We grow strong through exercise, and only the faculties that are exercised--that is to say, expressed--become strong. Those not in use atrophy and fall victims to arrested development.

Man is the instrument of Deity--through man does Deity create. And the artist is one who expresses for others their best thoughts and feelings. He may arouse in men emotions that were dormant, and so were unguessed; but under the spell of the artist-spirit, these dormant faculties are awakened from lethargy--they are exercised, and once the thrill of life is felt through them, they will probably be exercised again and again.

All art is collaboration between the performer and the partaker--music is especially a collaboration. It is a oneness of feeling: action and reaction, an intermittent current of emotion that plays backward and forward between the player and his audience. The player is the positive pole, or masculine principle; and the audience the negative pole, or feminine principle.

In great oratory the same transposition takes place. Almost every one can recall occasions when there was an absolute fusion of thought, feeling and emotion between the speaker and the audience--when one mind dominated all, and every heart beat in unison with his. The great musician is the one who feels intensely, and is able to express vividly, and thus impart his emotion to others.

Robert Schumann was such a man. In his youth, when he played at parlor gatherings he could fuse the listeners into an absolute oneness of spirit. You can not make others feel unless you yourself feel; you can not make others see unless you yourself see. Robert Schumann saw. He beheld the moving pictures, and as they passed before him he expressed what he saw in harmonious sounds. His many admirers say he gave "portraits" on the piano, and by sounds would describe certain persons, so others who knew these persons would recognize them and call their names.

Sterndale Bennett has told of Schumann's playing Weber's "Invitation to the Dance," and accompanying it with little verbal explanations of what he saw, thus: "There," said the player as he struck the opening chords, "there, he bows, and so does she--he speaks--she speaks, and oh! what a voice--how liquid! listen--hear the rustle of her gown--he speaks, a little deeper, you notice--you can not hear the words, only their voices blending in with the music--now they speak together--they are lovers, surely--see, they understand--oh! the waltz--see them take those first steps--they are swaying into time--away!--there they go--look!--you can not hear their voices now--only see them!"

Schumann studied law, and had he followed that profession he would have made a master before a jury. He saw so clearly and felt so deeply, and was so full of generosity and bubbling good-cheer, that he was irresistible. As we know, he proved so to Clara Wieck, who left father and mother and home to cleave to this unknown composer.

This splendid young woman was nine years younger than Robert, but she had already made a name and fortune for herself before they were married.

In passing it is well enough to call attention to the fact that this is one of the great loves of history. It ranks with the mating of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. How strange that such things are so exceptional that the world takes note of them!

Yet for quite a number of years after their marriage, Madame Schumann was at times asked this question: "Is your husband musical?"

But Robert Schumann, like Robert Browning, was too big a man to be jealous of his wife. Jealousy is an acknowledgment of weakness and insecurity. "Robert and Clara," their many dear friends always called them. They worked together--composed, sang, played, and grew great together. And as if to refute the carping critics who cry that domesticity and genius are incompatible, Clara Schumann became the happy mother of eight children, and not a year passed but she appeared upon the concert stage, while a nurse held the baby in the wings. Schumann was very proud of his wife. He was grateful to her for interpreting his songs in a way he could not. His lavish heart went out to every one who expressed the happiness and harmony which he felt singing in his soul.

And so he welcomed all players and all singers, and all who felt the influence of an upward gravitation. Especially was he a friend of the young and the unknown. His home at Dusseldorf was a Mecca for the aspiring--worthy and unworthy--and to these he gave his time, money and influence. "Genius must have recognition--we will discover and bring forth these beautiful souls; we will liberate and give them to the world," he used to say. Not only did he himself express great things, but he quoted others.

Among those who had reverenced the Schumanns from afar, came a young man of twenty, small and fair-haired, from Hamburg. He was received at the regular "Thursday Night" with various other strangers. These meetings were quite informal, and everybody was asked to play or sing. On being invited to play, our young man declined. But on a second visit he sat down at the piano and played. It was several minutes before the company ceased the little buzz of conversation and listened--the fledglings were never taken seriously except by the host and hostess. The youth leaned over the keyboard, and seemed to gather confidence from the sympathetic attitude of the listeners, and especially Clara Schumann, who had come forward and stood at his elbow.

He played from Schumann's "Carnival," and as he played, freedom came to him. He surprised himself. When he ceased playing, Robert kissed his cheek, and the company were vehement in their applause. Next day Schumann met Albert Dietrich, another disciple who had come from a distance to bask in the Schumann sunshine, and said with an air of mystery: "One has come of whom we shall yet hear great things. His name is Johannes Brahms."

* * * * *

We have at least four separate accounts of Brahms' first appearance and behavior when he arrived at the city of Dusseldorf. These descriptions are by Robert and Clara Schumann, Doctor Dieters and Albert Dietrich. All agree that Johannes Brahms was a most fascinating personality. Dieters and Dietrich were about the age of Brahms, and were lesser satellites swinging just outside the Schumann orbit. Very naturally when a new devotee appeared, they gazed at him askance. Many visitors were coming and going, and from most of them there was nothing to fear, but when this short, deep-chested boy with flaxen hair appeared, Dietrich felt there was danger of losing his place at the right hand of the Master.

Brahms carried his chin in, and the crown of his head high. He was infinitely good-natured, met everybody on an equality, without abasement or condescension. He was modest, never pushed himself to the front, and was always ready to listen. A talented performer who can listen well, is sure to be loved. And yet when Brahms went forward to play, there was just a suggestion of indifference to his hearers in his manner, and a half-haughty self-confidence that won before he had sounded a note. We always believe in people who believe in themselves.

Young Brahms brought a letter of introduction from Joachim. But that was nothing--Joachim was always giving letters to everybody. He was like the men who sign every petition that is presented; or those other good men who give certificates of character to people they do not know, and recommendation letters to those for whom they have no use.

So the letter went for little with Robert Schumann--it was the way Brahms approached the piano, and settled his hands and great shock-head over the keyboard, that won.

"He is no beginner," whispered Clara to Robert before Johannes had touched a key.

It didn't take Brahms long to get acquainted--he mixed well. In a few days he dropped into that half-affectionate way of calling his host and hostess by their first names, and they in turn called him "Johannes." And to me this is very beautiful, for, at the last, souls are all of one age. More and more we are realizing that getting old is only a bad habit. The only man who is old is the one who thinks he is. Of course these remarks about age do not exactly apply just here, for no member of the trinity we are discussing was advanced in years. Robert was forty-three, Clara was thirty-four, and Johannes was twenty.

Johannes Brahms was thrice well blest in being well born. His parents were middle-class people, fairly well-to-do. They proved themselves certainly more than middle-class in intellect, when they adopted the plan of being the companions and comrades of their children. Johannes grew up with no slavish fear of "old folks." He had worked with his father, studied with him; learned lessons from books with his mother, and played "four hands" with her at the piano, by the hour, just for fun.

Then when Remenyi came that way with his violin, and wanted a pianist, he took young Brahms. When their lines crossed the line of Liszt, they played for him at his inn; and then Liszt played for them.

This Remenyi was our own "Ol' Man Remenyi," who passed over only a year or so ago. I wonder if he was Ol' Man Remenyi then! He never really was an old man, and that appellation was more a mark of esteem than anything else--a sort of diminutive of good-will. I met Remenyi at Chautauqua, where he spent a month or more in Eighteen Hundred Ninety-three. He gave me my first introduction to the music of Brahms, of whom he never tired of talking. He considered Brahms without a rival--the culminating flower of modern music; and if the Ol' Man slightly exaggerated his own influence in bringing Brahms out and presenting him to the world, I am not the one to charge it up against his memory.

In explaining Brahms and his music, Remenyi used to grow animated, and when words failed he would say, "Here, it was just like this"--and then he would seize his violin, the bow would wave through the air, and the notes would tell you how Brahms transposed Beethoven's "Kreutzer Sonata" from A to B flat--a feat he never could have performed if Remenyi had not told him how. It was Remenyi who introduced Brahms to Joachim, and it was Joachim who introduced Brahms to Schumann, and it was Schumann's article, "New Paths," in the "Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik," that placed Brahms on a pedestal before the world. Brahms was not the great man that Schumann painted, Remenyi thought, but the idealization caused him to put forth a heroic effort to be what Clara and Robert considered him. So it was really these two who compelled him to push on: otherwise he might have relaxed into a mere concert performer or a leader of some subsidized band.

Remenyi always seemed to me like a choice antique mosaic, a trifle weather-worn, set into the present. He used to quote Liszt as if he lived around the corner, and would criticize Wagner, and tell of Moescheles, Haertel, the Mendelssohns and the Schumanns, as if they might all gather tomorrow and play for us at the Hall in the Grove.

Recently I met dear old Herr Kappes, eighty years young, who knew the Mendelssohns, and admired Brahms, loved Clara Schumann, and liked Remenyi--sometimes. They were too much alike, I fear, to like each other all the time. But the harmony is still in the heart of Herr Kappes. He gives music-lessons, and lectures, and will explain to you just how and where Brahms differs from Schumann, and where Schubert separates from both.

Herr Kappes can speak five languages, but even with them all he finds difficulty in making his meaning clear, and at times adopts the Remenyi plan, and will just turn to the piano and cry, "It's like this, see! Schumann wrote it in this way"--and then the strong hands will chase the keys down and back and over and up. "But Brahms took the motif and set it like this"--and Herr Kappes will strike the bass a thunderous stroke--pause, look at you, glide back and down, up and over, and you are carried away in a swirl of sweet sounds, and see a pink face framed in its beautiful aureole of white hair. You listen but you do not "see" the fine distinctions, because you do not care--Herr Kappes is all there is of it, so animated, so gentle, so true, so lovable--because he used to pay court to Fanny Mendelssohn and then transferred his affections to Clara Schumann, and now just loves his art, and everybody.

* * * * *

Schumann's article, "New Paths," at once determined Brahms' career. He must either live up to the mark that had been set for him--or else run away.

I give below an extract from Robert's estimate of Brahms and his work:

Ten years have passed away, as many as I formerly devoted to the publication of this paper--since I have allowed myself to commit my opinions to this soil so rich in memories. Often in spite of an overstrained productive activity, I have felt moved to do so; many new and remarkable talents have made their appearance, and a fresh musical power seemed about to reveal itself among the many aspiring artists of the day, even if their compositions were only known to the few.

I thought to follow with interest the pathways of these elect; there would--there must--after such a promise, suddenly appear one who should utter the highest ideal expression of the times, who should claim the mastership by no gradual development, but burst upon us fully equipped, as Minerva sprang from the brain of Jupiter. And he has come, this chosen youth, over whose cradle the Graces and Heroes seem to have kept watch.

His name is Johannes Brahms; he comes from Hamburg, where he has been working in quiet obscurity, instructed by an excellent, enthusiastic teacher in the most difficult principles of his art, and lately introduced to me by an honored and well-known master. His mere outward appearance assures us that he is one of the elect.

Seated at the piano, he disclosed wondrous regions. We were drawn into an enchanted circle. Then came a moment of inspiration which transformed the piano into an orchestra of wailing and jubilant voices. There were sonatas, or rather veiled symphonies, songs whose poetry revealed itself without the aid of words, while throughout them all ran a vein of deep song-melody, several pieces of a half-demoniacal character, but of charming form; then sonatas for piano and violin, string quartets, and each of these creations so different from the last that they appeared to flow from so many different sources. Then, like an impetuous torrent, he seemed to unite these streams into a foaming waterfall; over the tossing waves the rainbow presently stretches its peaceful arch, while on the banks butterflies flit to and fro, and the nightingale warbles her song.

Whenever he bends his magic wand towards great works, and the powers of orchestra and chorus lend him their aid, still more wonderful glimpses of the ideal world will be revealed to us.

May the Highest Genius help him onward! Meanwhile another genius--that of modesty--seems to dwell within him. His comrades greet him at his first step in the world, where wounds may, perhaps, await him, but the bay and the laurel also; we welcome this valiant warrior!

Robert Schumann had been before the public as essayist, poet, pianist and composer for twenty years. He had given himself without stint to almost every musical enterprise of Germany, and his sympathy was ever on tap for every needy and aspiring genius. You may give your purse--he who takes it takes trash--but to give your life's blood and then hope for a renewal of life's lease, is vain.

The public man owes to himself and to his Maker the duty of reserve.

The desert and mountain are very necessary to the individual who gives himself to the public. That any man should so bestride the narrow world like a colossus that the multitude must stop to gaze, and thousands feed upon his words, is an abnormal condition. The only thing that can hold the balance true is solitude. Relaxation is the first requirement of strength. Watch the cat, the tiger or the lion asleep. See what complete absence of intensity--what perfect relaxation! It is all a preparation for the spring.

Schumann had not sought the mountain, nor abandoned himself to the woods in old shoes, corduroys and a flannel shirt. Now he was paying the penalty of publicity. Virtue had gone out of him; and in the article just quoted, there are signs that he is clutching for something. He hails this new star and proclaims him, because in some way he feels that the ruddy, valiant and youthful Brahms is to consummate his work. Brahms is an extension of himself. It is a part of that longing for immortality--we perpetuate ourselves in our children and look for them to accomplish what we have been unable to do.

Johannes Brahms was the spiritual son of Robert Schumann.

In less than a year after Brahms and Schumann first met, there were ominous signs and evil portents in the air. "Why do you play so fast, dear Johannes? I beg of you, be moderate!" cried Robert on one occasion. Brahms turned, and his quick glance caught the ashy face and bloodshot eyes of a sick man. His reply was a tear and a hand-grasp.

Soon, to Schumann, all music was going at a gallop, and in his ears forever rang the sound of A. He could hear naught else. Tenderness, patience, and even love were of no avail. Indeed, love is not exempt from penalty--the law of compensation never rests. Nature forever strives for a right adjustment.

The richness and intensity of Schumann's life were bought with a price. The first year after his marriage he composed one hundred thirty-eight songs. Sonatas, scherzos, symphonies and ballads followed fast, and in it all his gifted wife had gloried.

But when, in Eighteen Hundred Fifty-four, Robert had, after sleepless nights, in a fit of frenzy thrown himself into the Rhine, and had been rescued, shattered, unable to recognize even his nearest friends--the loyal and devoted wife saw where she herself had erred.

Writing to Brahms she says: "I encouraged him in his work, and this fired his ambition to do and to become. Oh! why did I not restrain that intensity and send him away into the solitude to be a boy; to do nothing but frolic and play and bathe in the sunshine, and eat and sleep? The life of an artist is death. Kill ambition, my Brother!"

Activity and rest--both are needed. The idea of the "retreat" in the Catholic Church is founded on stern, hygienic science. Wagner's forced exile was not without its advantages, and the "retreats" of Paganini and the "retirements" of Liszt were very useful factors in the devolution of their art.

* * * * *

For the malady that beset Robert Schumann, there was no cure save death; his only rest, the grave. When his spirit passed away in Eighteen Hundred Fifty-six, his devoted wife and the loyal Brahms attended him. Owing to the insidious creeping of the disease, Schumann's affairs had got into bad shape; and it was now left to Brahms, more than all others, to smooth the way of life for the stricken wife and her fatherless brood.

The versatility and sturdy commonsense of Brahms were now in evidence. In business affairs he was ready, decisive and systematic. And the delicacy, tact and charming good-nature he ever showed, reveal the man as a most extraordinary figure. Great talent is often bought at a price--how well we know this, especially with musicians! But Brahms was sane on all subjects. He could take care of his own affairs, lend a needed hand with others, but never meddle--smile with that half-sardonic grimace at all foolish little things, weep with the stricken when calamity came; yet above it all the little man towered, carrying himself like the giant that he was. And yet he never made the mistake of taking himself too seriously. "I am trying to run opposition to Michelangelo's 'Moses,'" he once called to Dietrich, as he leaned out of the window in the sunshine, and stroked his flowing beard. In his later years many have testified to this Jovelike quality that Brahms diffused by his presence. No one could come into his aura and fail to feel his sense of power. Around such souls is a sacred circle--if you are allowed to come within this boundary, it is only by sufferance; within this space only the pure in heart can dwell.

* * * * *

Tolstoy in "Anna Karenina" speaks of that quiet and constant light to be seen on the faces of those who are successful--those who know that their success is acknowledged by the world.

Brahms was a successful man by temperament, for success (like East Aurora) is a condition of mind. There is no tragedy for those who do not accept tragedy; and the treatment we receive from others is only our own reflected thought.

Brahms thought well of everybody, if he thought of any one at all. He reveled in the sunshine, and everywhere made friends of children. "We saw Brahms on the hotel veranda at Domodossola," wrote a young woman to me in Eighteen Hundred Ninety-five, "and what do you think?--he was on all fours, with three children on his back, riding him for a horse!"

For many years Brahms used to make an annual pilgrimage to Italy, and often on these tours at fairs he would fall in with Gipsy bands. At such times he would always stop and listen, and would lustily applaud the performance. On one such occasion, Dietrich tells, the leader recognized Brahms, and instantly rapped for silence. He was seen to pass the whispered word along, and then the band struck up one of Brahms' pieces, greatly to the delight of the composer.

He was a man of the people, and I am glad to know that he hated a table d'hote, smiled a smile of derision at all dress-coats, had small sympathy with pink teas, loved his friends, doted on babies, and was never so happy as when in the country walking along grass-grown lanes in the early summer morning, when the dew was on and the air was melodious with the song of birds. He had a habit of going bareheaded, carrying his hat in his hand; and on these country walks, always with bared head, he would sing or whistle, and unconsciously in his mind the music would be taking shape that was to be written out later in the quiet of his study.

Brahms knew the world--not simply one little part of it--he knew it as thoroughly as any man can, and was interested in it all. He knew the world of workers--the toilers and bearers of burdens. He knew the weak and the vicious, and his heart went out to them in sympathy; for he knew his own heart and realized the narrow margin that separates the so-called "good" from the alleged "bad." He knew that sin is only a wrong expression of life, and reacts to the terrible disadvantage of the sinner.

He was interested in mechanics--bookbinding, printing, iron-working, carpentry, and was well acquainted with all new inventions and labor-saving devices. He knew the methods of farming, the different breeds of cattle; he knew what soil would produce best a certain crop, and understood "rotation." He could call the wild birds by name and imitate their notes, and studied long their haunts and habits. That excellent man and talented, George Herschel, in a letter to a friend speaks of walking with Johannes Brahms along the highway, and Brahms suddenly calling in alarm, "Look out! look out! you may kill it!"

It was only a tumblebug, but he shrank from putting foot on any living thing. Brahms reverenced all life, and felt in his heart that he was brother to that bug in the dust, to the birds that chirruped in the hedgerows, and to the trees that lifted their outstretching branches to the sun.

He was deeply religious--although he never knew it. All music is a hymn of praise, a song of thanksgiving, a chant of faith. Music is a making manifest to our dull ears the divine harmony of the universe, and thus all music is sacred music, and all true musicians are priests, for by their ministrations we are made to realize our Oneness with the Whole. Through music we read the Universal.

Music is the only one of the arts that can not be prostituted to a base use. We hear of bad books, of the "Index Expurgatorius," and in every State there are laws against the publication of immoral books and indecent pictures. We also hear of orders issued by the courts requiring certain statues to be removed or veiled, but no indictment can be brought against music. It is the only one of the arts that is always pure.

Brahms realized this and felt the dignity of his office, holding high the standard; and yet he knew that the toilers in the fields were doing a service to humanity, just as necessary as his own. And possibly this is why he uncovered, walking with bared head. All is holy, all is good--it is all God's world, and all the men and women in it are His children.

* * * * *

For forty-two years Brahms was the devoted friend of Clara Schumann. She was thirteen years his senior, yet their spirits were as children together. From the first he was to her, "Johannes," and she was "Clara" to him. A few of their letters have been published in the "Revue des deux Mondes," and this woman, who was a great-grandmother, and had sixty years before captured a world, then in her seventy-fifth year, wrote to her "Dear Johannes" with all the gentle fervor of a girl of twenty, congratulating him on some recent success. In reply he writes back to his "Dear Clara" in gracious banter; mentions rheumatism in his legs as an excuse for bad penmanship; hopes she is keeping up her practise; tells of a "Steinway Grand" that some one has sent him, and regrets that she does not come to try it "four hands," as he has failed utterly to get out of it alone the melody that he knows is there.

Brahms never married--the bond between himself and Clara was too sacred to allow another to sever or share it. And yet the relationship was so high, so frank, so openly avowed, that no breath of scandal has ever smirched it.

The purity and excellence of it all has been its own apology, as love ever should be its own excuse for being.

For about three months every year these two friends dwelt near each other. Together they worked, composed, sang, read, wrote and roamed the woods. "None of Madame Schumann's children is as young as she is," wrote Doctor Hanslick, when Clara was sixty and Johannes was forty-seven. "With the hope of passing for her father, Brahms is cultivating a patriarchal beard," continues Hanslick.

In his essay on "Friendship," Emerson speaks of the folly of forcing our personal presence on the friend we love best, and of the faith that ideality brings. Something of this thought is shown in the letters of Madame Schumann to Brahms, and in his to her.

Often for six months they would not meet, he doing his work in his own way, she doing hers, but each ever conscious of the life and love of the other--feeding on the ideal--writing or not writing, but glorying in each other's triumphs--lives linked first by the love of a third person, cemented by dire calamity, and then fused by a oneness of hope and aspiration.

Brahms' nature was too decidedly masculine, that is to say, one-sided, to exist without the love of woman; Clara Schumann, gentle, generous, motherly, plastic, needed Johannes no less than he needed her.

When Clara's spirit passed away, in May, Eighteen Hundred Ninety-six, Brahms attended her funeral at Frankfort. Hero that he was in body and spirit, the shock unnerved him. No rebound came--every bodily faculty seemed to have lost its buoyancy. The doctors tried to cheer him by telling him that he had no organic ailment, and that twenty years of life and work were before him. He knew better, and told them so. Men do not live any longer than they wish to. "Shall I live to see the anniversary of her death?" asked Brahms of the doctor in March, Eighteen Hundred Ninety-seven. "Oh, undoubtedly--you can live many years if you only will to," was the answer. Three weeks later--on April Third--Max Kalbrech telegraphed to Widmann, this message, "Brahms fell asleep early this morning."

[The end]
Elbert Hubbard's Writings: Johannes Brahms