April 12, 2023

Adventures in the World of Brahms

By Stuart Mitchner

Life is a wild polyphony

—Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) 

During the media’s recent “wild polyphony” on a theme of indictment, I tried a “Brahms/indictment” search online just for fun and came up with Maurice Brahms, founding owner of a discotheque called Infinity, which had a 100-foot-long dance floor surrounded by mirrors, colored neon rings, 54 spinning laser beams, and 70 neon sculptures. Once known as “the uncrowned king of New York night life,” Brahms was the subject of a 1980 federal grand jury investigation into possible tax fraud. So while a terminally fraudulent ex-president was being indicted and arraigned in a New York courtroom, I learned that Brahms had retained Donald Trump’s favorite fixer Roy Cohn, who also represented the owners of Studio 54, a target of the same investigation. Warned by Cohn through an intermediary that his family would be harmed if he fought the sentence, Brahms pled guilty and served two and a half years at Allenwood Federal Penitentiary.

I could have rolled the Google dice and come up with any number of professions for an American Brahms, in and out of the music business, but given the ongoing interest in Trump’s and the country’s current plight, it was worth the search to know that the great composer’s namesake was a player in New York’s 1970s club scene. It’s also worth adding that in his late teens Maurice’s son Eric promoted events at Manhattan nightclubs featuring, among a polyphony of other performers, Run DMC, LL Cool J, 2 Live Crew, Jazzy Jeff, Fresh Prince, and Fat Joe.

Hamburg to Hollywood

Since “polyphony” derives from the Greek word for “many sounds” and names are sounds, “Brahms” has its own atmosphere and music, with nuances darkly evocative of the genre French critics dubbed film noir, the terrain of one of the wartime 1940’s most haunted and haunting directors, John Brahm, born Hans Brahm (no “s”) in Hamburg in 1893. At around the same time, four years before his April 3,1897 death, Hamburg native Johannes Brahms was composing the Intermezzos, and giving piano lessons to young Max Steiner (1888-1971), who landed in Hollywood in 1929 and would eventually be dubbed “the father of film music,” best known for composing the scores for Gone With the Wind and Casablanca.

A decade later, after fleeing from Nazi Germany to England (where he directed a remake of D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms), John Brahm came to Hollywood and found his métier in richly atmospheric thrillers like The Lodger (1944) and his masterpiece Hangover Square (1945), in which a composer susceptible to amnesia goes on a murderous rampage whenever his hearing is assaulted by sudden loud noises. While it seems unlikely that Johannes Brahms would have had much interest in his former student Steiner’s florid scores, he’d have surely been impressed by the soundscape Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) created for Hangover Square, including the piano concerto he composed for the tormented pianist/composer (Laird Cregar), who concludes his first and only public performance literally on fire. While Herrmann won acclaim for scoring Alfred Hitchcock classics like Vertigo and Psycho, John Brahm ended his career in television, directing numerous episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone.

Playing for the Master

Writing about Brahms last week, I focused on later works like the Intermezzos and the lively word pictures in James Huneker’s book Mezzotints in Modern Music. Describing the memorable morning in October 1853 when Brahms “presented his credentials” to Robert Schumann, Huneker pictures the 20-year-old as “completely worn out,” having “walked part of the way to Düsseldorf because his money was gone.” When Schumann asked him to play something, Brahms performed his Opus 1, the C major Sonata. “Little wonder,” writes Huneker, that  Schumann, “great artist and great critic,” should have declared that it was “music the like of which he had never heard before, and proclaimed the shy, awkward youth a master.” Given Brahms’s reference decades later to life’s “wild polyphony,” it’s interesting that Huneker refers to the “genial polyphony” of Brahms’s  presence when describing Schumann’s response “to the devices of counterpoint used in the freest fashion” that led him to consider the young composer “a romanticist.”

Brahms in Hamburg

Before I get to Hollywood’s presentation of this landmark moment in Brahms’s story, I want to go back to his beginning in Hamburg, where the teenager earned money for his struggling family by playing piano in dives in the St. Pauli district, precursors of the clubs the teenage Beatles performed in a century later (today there are tours headed “From Brahms to the Beatles”). Checking for more information about Brahms in Hamburg, I found a photograph of the towering tenement building in which he spent the first years of his life. According to the article by Hermione Lai (interlude.hk, October 3, 2022), the Brahms family moved in 1833 to a “ramshackle half-timbered house on Specksgang — Bacon Lane — in the Gängeviertel,” a district “well known for its sailor’s dancehalls that doubled as brothels. The family probably lived on the first floor in two very small and low-ceilinged rooms…. There was no bathroom or running water, with people drinking unfiltered water from the canals. When a sanitation inspector entered the area as late as 1892, he remarked that he had ‘never seen such unhealthy places, pest-houses, and breeding-places for every infection.’” It was from that rickety seven-story warren that on May 7, 1833, the Brahms fam ily “announced the birth of a healthy son.”

Brahms in Person

Cited as the author of one of two “exceptional biographies” in Brahms and His World (Princeton University Press 2009), Florence May (1845-1923) knew the composer in person as a teacher and a friend. In her 1905 biography she gives an account of his meeting with Robert and Clara Schumann that Hollywood would depict in the biopic Song of Love (1947). “After some preliminary conversation, the master desired his visitor to play something of his own. Scarcely was the first movement of the C major Sonata concluded, when he rose and left the room, and, returning with his wife, desired to hear it again.” Brahms obliged, playing it to “the amazement and delight” of the Schumanns, who as soon as he had finished one movement “bade him play another, and at the end of that, another, and still desired more, so that when, at length, the performance was at an end their hearts had gone out to him in affection, whilst in his the first link had already been forged of that chain of love by which he soon became bound to the one and the other till the end of both their lives.”

If May’s prose sounds a bit old-fashioned, it’s offset by the fact that she took lessons with both Clara Schumann and Brahms in Baden-Baden in 1871, when she was 26. Years later she would sit listening in her “blue-papered, carpetless little room” as Brahms played his String Sextet in B-flat for her. He told her that if she wanted to improve as a pianist, “You must walk constantly in the forest.”

Brahms and Clara

It was in an October 15, 1868 letter to Clara Schumann that Brahms expressed himself on life’s “wild polyphony.” He finished the sentence by telling her that “a good woman like you” can bring about an “exquisite resolution of life’s discords.” A tour of their letters reveals that Clara was much more than “a good woman,” she was his muse, his soulmate, the love of his life; she never remarried after Robert Schumann’s death in 1856 although she and Brahms once seriously considered it. She died of a stroke in May 1896, and Brahms, who never married, died less than a year later. Speaking to friends after her funeral, he said, “I have buried today the only person whom I truly loved.”

A detailed firsthand account of Brahms at Clara’s funeral can be found in Heinz von Beckerath’s contribution to Brahms and His World. He remembers the composer gazing quietly for some time at the beautiful view in the park of the Hagerhof before saying, “Now I have nothing more to lose.”

Brahms in Indiana

The Indianapolis Symphony plans a late October performance of Brahms’s “triumphant” Symphony No. 1 as part of a program titled “Brahms and the American Spirit,” featuring the “immortal words” of President John F. Kennedy and poet Robert Frost in a new work titled JFK: The Last Speech. As fond as I am of the state I grew up in, it’s hard to think of Indiana and the American Spirit these days without reference to the recent ACLU suit over the state’s ban on health care for transgender youth, along with its position on the wrong side of  gun violence and the banning of abortion, not to mention the prominence of its former governor’s name in the January 6 insurrection when shouts of “Hang Mike Pence” were heard round the world.

Although Brahms had some lucrative offers, he  never visited America; it’s said that he had a “fear of sea travel.” Even so, the Indianapolis tribute makes a bookend to his appearance in name only when the New York Times greeted the 1855 premiere of his first piano trio as the work of an unknown 21-year-old with “many good points and much sound musicianship” along with “the defects of a young writer.”