Encounters with Brahms
By this time in his life, but really all his life, Brahms (Doktor Brahms) was absolute master of his world, a world which included many of the most astute & serious-minded ladies and gentlemen in artistic Vienna. Unmarried to the end, Brahms had collected in his over-stuffed apartment the treasured objects of a lifetime. He had privately resolved to retire, and was in the process of destroying all his work that he determined to be incomplete or unsatisfactory. He had even retrieved his letters to his late mother and erased them from posterity. Putting his house in order. Late this spring afternoon, Brahms was expecting a visit from young Josef Suk.
Suk had recently graduated from the Prague Conservatory, where he’d been a favorite pupil of Brahms’ friend Antonín Dvořák. At the Conservatory, Suk enjoyed a goodly share of student success as a violinist, but he had been late coming to composition. Now, under the on-going guidance of Dvořák, whose daughter Otilie he was courting, Suk had completed a string quartet, surely his finest work yet. Perhaps, hoped the young composer, he had at long last and after so much hard work written something of real value, good enough even to show to Doktor Brahms. Dvořák agreed, and wrote to his friend. Suk would be in Vienna soon, as second violinist of the Czech Quartet which was about to tour. Thus did Suk gain an audience with the master, and best of all, Brahms had agreed to comment on his work. Suk was feverish with anticipation.
Punctual and dressed in his crispest suit, Suk knocked on the door and waited. He waited a long while, standing stiff at the knees & the waist. He cradled the manuscript of his string quartet in his arm, and waited. Finally the door opened, slowly, and the white-bearded Brahms, in a dark coat, standing to the side, welcomed Suk in with a short sweep of his arm.
The young future composer of several works of substance tinted with Czech blues & morbidity, followed Brahms to the study, which looked the same as the rest of the apartment – dark, nobly furnished, packed with books & manuscripts. Suk took the chair to which Brahms gestured and sat stiff-backed. Dvořák had told him that Brahms was a peaceful man at heart, but also a veteran of many bitter wars with ideas at odds with his own. One never knew when Johannes would unsheathe his cool irony & bitter witticisms to turn away someone he disliked.
Brahms lounged in his chair, hands folded on his substantial stomach. They spoke fondly of Dvořák. Suk briefly outlined his career plans. He was a level-eyed young man – or not really young anymore, but not so far removed from young that he had not lost his boyish fire. He was confident but not vainglorious, not a Philistine. Finally, Brahms asked to see Suk’s manuscript.
Brahms in his study
Suk sat motionless as Brahms spread the folios of the quartet on his desk and read them, turning the pages slowly and evenly until he came to the end. Suk noticed that on the shelves all around were Brahms’ childhood tin soldiers, poised for combat.
In the coming few years, for that was all Brahms had left, the master would be helpful to Suk, publicly praising the Czech Quartet, recommending that Suk’s Serenade for Strings be published.
But what precisely, upon this first encounter, did Doktor Brahms say to the no-longer-young Josef Suk? Only this: “The essential thing is that every note should be in its place. I can’t do that – nor can Dvořák – and you, of course, least of all.”