Personal Recollections of Johannes Brahms (1907) by George Henschel: The Journal, pp. 29-32, July 9 [1876]

Sunday, July 9.

Early yesterday morning Brahms came up to go bathing with me. There was a fine surf on, and the temperature of the water being rather high we stayed in it for nearly half an hour, enjoying ourselves hugely. I greatly admired Brahms’ burly, well-knit, muscular body, which is only rather too much inclined to stoutness, I fear.

In the water he drew my attention to the possibility of keeping one’s eyes wide open when diving. It is not only possible, he said, but also very agreeable and strengthening for the eyes. I at once followed his advice to try, succeeding immediately, and we greatly amused ourselves by throwing little copper coins into the water and diving after them.

In the evening we sat together in the Fahrnberg. I showed him the new series of Moritz Hauptmann’s letters. (Henschel’s footnote. Hauptmann was a composer, rather dry and academical, and up to his death, in 1868, cantor of the church of St. Thomas in Leipzig.)

After we had read a few, he said: “How discreet one ought to be in writing letters. Who knows, some day they’ll be printed. Now, there’s hardly anything in these letters which would not read just as well if their contents were reversed. To be sure it is an agreeable gift to be able to write clever letters, but only letters of purely scientific purport are in my opinion of real value to any but those they are written to.”

I drew Brahms’ attention especially to one letter, written to Professor R. (Henschel’s footnote. An able but decidedly mediocre composer of good birth, who at that time occupied a rather prominent position as teacher at one of the Musical State-institutions of Berlin.) I expressed my surprise at the lenient and amiable way in which Hauptmann spoke of that gentleman’s compositions.

“Well,” said Brahms, “you see, R. had very aristocratic connections and Hauptmann….a very delicate nature.”

Moritz Hauptmann (1792-1868), engraving 1840.

In the course of our talk one of the greatest virtuosos of the day, a personal friend of Brahms, was mentioned. “There are people,” Brahms said, “who can talk and talk about the most unlikely, impossible thing until they actually believe it themselves. It’s what I would call Twaddle. For instance, the other day, after having played the last movement of my ‘C Minor Quartet,’ in which a friend detected a certain resemblance to Mendelssohn’s ‘Trio in C Minor,’ without realizing that what, there, is theme itself, is, with me, simply an accompanying figure, my friend asked me, – in all seriousness mind, – ‘Now, am I not right: you wanted to show what you could do with that theme?’ How silly!”

Two stories which Brahms told me I write down as showing what a tender, sympathetic heart he has. Both stories refer to Mr. N. (Henschel’s footnote. A well-known writer and commentator on music, then living in Vienna.) “With us in Vienna,” Brahms began, “it frequently occurs that the postmen, though officially obliged to deliver all letters at the doors of the respective flats to which they are addressed, leave them with the concierge of the house, who, as you know, always has his little lodgings in the soutterrain. Well, Mr. N., who lived in the fourth floor, once received a letter in that way twenty-four hours later than he ought to have, if the postman had delivered it, according to his duty, at the door.

“Without warning, N. lodged an information against the offender with the general postmaster, who ordered the matter to be investigated. In the meantime a colleague of the poor postman had succeeded in persuading Mr. N.’s servant-girl to take the blame upon herself, since nothing could happen to her, whilst the postman, who was a married man with a family, would surely be dismissed. When, consequently, the post-office commissioners appeared at N.’s house to ascertain the exact facts of the case, the servant-girl stepped forward, boldly declaring it was she who had omitted to deliver the letter, which had been in the pocket those twenty-four hours. And the postman was saved.”

Brahms’ whole face beamed with joy as he told the story, and especially the action of the brave and generous girl he could not praise highly enough.

The second story is equally pathetic.

“N. and I, said Brahms, met at the same table in a certain coffee-house regularly on two or three evenings in the week, and it always used to embarrass me greatly when, on paying our bills, N. suspiciously scrutinized his, questioning the waiter as to this or that little item which he was not sure of having had, etc.

“One evening when this had happened again, the waiter came close up to N., and whispered into his ear, his voice trembling with excitement and indignation: ‘I beg of you, Mr. N., not to mistrust me; I could not live if I thought you doubted my honesty.’ Then he retired. N. got up without changing a muscle in this face and left. A little later, when I went home myself, I gave the waiter an unusually large douceur, and said, ‘This…is…from the other gentleman as well.'”……

Brahms is looking splendid. His solid frame, the healthy, dark-brown color of his face, the full hair, just a little sprinkled with gray, all make him appear the very image of strength and vigor. He walks about here just as he pleases, generally with his waistcoat unbuttoned and his hat in his hand, always with clean linen, but without collar or necktie. These he dons at table d’hôte only. His whole appearance vividly recalls some of the portraits of Beethoven. His appetite is excellent. He eats with great gusto and, in the evening, regularly drinks his three glasses of beer, never omitting, however, to finish off with his beloved Kaffee.

Notes

The photograph of Hauptmann is not in Henschel’s book.

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