Consider Johannes Brahms, the ostensible champion of absolute music.
Brahms as an old man, the way he’s most often pictured.
Brahms in 1853, the year he met the Schumanns. The night of their first meeting, Robert Schumann wrote in his diary: “Visit from Brahms (a genius).” Soon afterwards, Schumann would write an essay in the journal he had founded, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, called “New Paths,” in which he predicted that the young Brahms would chart the path for German music.
Brahms was born in 1833 into extreme poverty in Hamburg, on the German coast of the North Sea (most famous now as the city where the Beatles had their first success in the early 1960s).
Throughout the nineteenth century, the Hamburg city authorities refused to invest in infrastructure in poor neighborhoods, so that families like Brahms’s lacked access to clean water. Deadly epidemics of cholera, which is spread by water contaminated with sewage, spread through the slums of Hamburg throughout the century, culminating in an outbreak that left 10,000 people dead in 1892.
Brahms’s deeply emotional music is always held back from despair by a sense of restraint, making it even more moving. For instance, the song “O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück” (Oh, if I only knew the way back) — which is also in 3/4 — is deeply touching, but not tragic. At 1:13, where the B section begins, you hear a kind of fluttering anxiety similar to that in the 3rd movement of Third Symphony.
Ah! if I but knew the way back, The sweet way back to childhood’s land! Ah! why did I seek my fortune And let go my mother’s hand?
Ah! how I long for utter rest, Not to be roused by any striving, Long to close my weary eyes, Gently shrouded by love!
And search for nothing, watch for nothing, Dream only light and gentle dreams, Not to see the times change, To be a child a second time!
Ah! show me that way back, The sweet way back to childhood’s land! I seek happiness in vain, Ringed round by barren shores.
When the most comprehensive biography of Brahms to date, by Jan Swafford, was published in 1997, it raised some controversy. Reviewing it in The New York Review of Books, the musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen took the author to task for suggesting that during his time playing in the waterfront brothels of the Sankt Pauli District, the young Brahms was sexually abused both by the “St. Pauli girls” and the sailors who frequented them.Jan Swafford and Charles Rosen sniped at each other in an exchange of letterspublished in the next issue.
Swafford defended himself:
In my book I take Brahms at his word: he played in sleazy waterfront bars [in Hamburg] as a teenager, was sexually abused by prostitutes there, and the experience traumatized him. It was because of the depth of trauma he spoke of that I added a speculation: . . . perhaps Brahms was abused by sailors as well. Mr. Rosen and another critic have tacitly accused me of adding that detail for sensational effect. . . . [But] I . . . left it there for two reasons. First, there is the trauma Brahms spoke of, the “deep shadow on his mind.” This heartfelt statement is hard to understand if he were abused only by prostitutes, because Brahms frequented brothels from his teens on. Why would the ordinary activities of the places remain so terrible in his memory? (Brahms was, in fact, tough as nails.) Second, the bars were frequented by sailors fresh off the sea. What was to stop the worst of them from abusing a beautiful boy who was entirely at their mercy?
Rosen wrote back:
I will be very interested if Professor Swafford’s forthcoming article presents real evidence that little Brahms was molested by prostitutes. Even if the challenged opinion that the cafés he played in as a child were brothels is accepted, the rest is speculation. The secondhand evidence is that he said he “saw things and received impressions.” Any port city like Hamburg may present scenes that might shock a child. Swafford leaps from this to an assertion that what Brahms saw was things being done to him, the impressions received were prostitutes’ hands on his young private parts. This is how he takes Brahms at his word. He makes a further leap and assumes that being the object of sweet dalliance by prostitutes as a pubescent child will cause a man to be incapable later of a relationship with a respectable woman. Of course, this could be the result of having found the attentions of prostitutes rather agreeable so that the elderly Brahms preferred frequenting brothels to marriage, but this is not horrid enough for a modern biographer. We need a further speculative leap: How about sexual abuse by sailors?
Whatever the case, perhaps all of Brahms’s music is biographical — is actually, in a sense, program music. He said of his solo piano Intermezzi op. 117 (1892) that they were the “cradle-songs of my sorrows.”