Classical KUSC

Encounters with Brahms

Posted By: Dennis Bartel · 7/24/2014 9:39:00 AM

   Johannes 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.


Josef Suk

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.”

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  1. Ben Singer posted on 07/28/2014 10:14 AM
    Enjoying the Beethoven on Monday AM (post 10 AM). Knowing you're a 'man of mirth', have you seen the great Sid Cesar/Nannette Fabre sketch using Beethoven's 5th music as 'dialogue' for dueling spouses? O You Tube.

    Argument to Beethoven's Fifth: Live on national television — a mime sketch in which Caesar and Nanette Fabray are a couple who bicker in perfect rhythm and counter-rhythm to the famous classical composition, their hands, mouths, entire bodies jutting and slashing like the strings themselves.
  2. Margaret Saine posted on 08/03/2014 04:07 PM
    Mozart's String Quartet "The Hunt"

    Let's examine the statement: "Mozart's quartet # 17 [K 458] called 'The Hunt', an utterly ridiculous notion: Mozart was no hunter," which was made on kusc at 15h30 on August 3, 2014.

    Of course, Mozart was not a hunter. As a musician, his station was akin to that of a carpenter or and cobbler of the palace. In the 18th century, only aristocrats hunted. Yet the entire population knew about and enjoyed hunts. True, nobles spent lots of time displaying themselves, either in the capitals, away from home, or in the "privacy" of their palaces, where no commoner entered, unless he or she be a servant. And when in church, the aristocrats sat ramrod straight, or could also hide drunk behind high, enclosed balconies reserved for them.

    But for the hunt, the nobles dressed up, often in garish colors such as red, and their hounds and the hunting horns made a lot of noise in the forests, near where the peasants lived. Often it was the only music the peasants heard all year, outside of church music on feast days. As late as the 20th century, the folklore of the common people is full of hunting motifs; we find them especially in the embroidery. So anybody would have recognized hunting-related themes as being very common, and musicians from Domenico Scarlatti to Mozart used them profusely.

    That the name "The Hunt" for the quartet was given belatedly and perhaps erroneously has nothing to do with whether Mozart was a hunter or not. Unlike the spiritual Juliet, who asks "What's in a name?" people are avid creators and [ab]-users of names: they jog their brain and help them distinguish similar things from each other.

    And so let's accept the name "The Hunt," which is not so far off the mark after all.

    Margaret Saine
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