Personal Recollections of Johannes Brahms (1907) by George Henschel: The Journal, pp. 44-51, July 17 [1876]

July 17

Yesterday I was with Brahms from noon until eleven at night without interruption. He was in excellent spirits. We had our swim in the sea together, and again found much amusement in diving for little red pebbles. After the mid-day dinner Brahms was lying in my room, in the hammock which I had secured between window and door, while I read to him Meilhac’s amusing comedy, “L’Attaché.” After the usual coffee at a coffee house on the beach, we went for a stroll in the Hansemann Park, near Crampas, the nearest village. We spoke, among other things, of Carl Loewe. Brahms thinks highly of his ballads and Servian songs. “However, with us in Vienna,” he said, “Loewe is, to my regret, much overrated. One places him, in his songs, side by side with, in his ballads above, Schubert, and overlooks the fact that what with the one is genius, with the other is merely talented craft….

Johann Carl Gottfried Loewe (1796-1869)

“In writing songs,” he cautioned me, “you must endeavor to invent, simultaneously with the melody, healthy, powerful bass. You stick too much to the middle parts. In that song in E Flat, for instance -” he again referred to “Where Angels linger” -” you have hit upon a very charming middle part, and the melody too is very lovely, but that isn’t all, is it? And then, my dear friend, let me counsel you: no heavy dissonances on the unaccentuated part of the bar, please! That is weak. I am very fond of dissonances, you’ll agree, but on the heavy, accentuated parts of the bar, and then let them be resolved easily and gently.”

Speaking of Schubert’s settings of Goethe’s songs, he said “Schubert’s Suleika songs are to me the only instances where the power and beauty of Goethe’s words have been enhanced by the music. All other of Goethe’s poems seem to me so perfect in themselves that no music can improve them.” (Henschel’s footnote. An opinion which, with all deference to the master, I cannot share. To me there is no sentiment expressed in words which music, i.e., the right music, cannot enhance.)

Passing from music to literature, he remarked: “Paul Heyse used to be one of the most charming men imaginable. He was beautiful and exceptionally amiable, and I hardly know of any one who, suddenly entering a room, would illuminate it, so to speak, by his personality in the way Heyse did.

Paul Heyse (1830-1914), Hanfstaengl, Fotographie ca. 1860. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Bodenstadt is greatly over-rated. His poetry is my special aversion. Geibel, on the other hand, seems to me not appreciated enough.

Perhaps I may be allowed here to interrupt the diary for a moment, and to draw the reader’s attention to the discretion and judiciousness with which Brahms selected the words for his songs.

If we look at the texts of his vocal music, of which there exists a vast mass, we shall find that the sources – individual or national – from which he drew his inspiration, have in themselves been, to a greater or lesser degree, inspired. All his songs, duets, quartets, etc., are set to beautiful, significant, worthy poems; truly a wonderful lesson to modern composers.

If one of the chief aims of art be to elevate, i.e. to raise mankind for the time being above the commonplace routine of life, above paltry everyday thoughts and cares, in short, from things earthy to things celestial, surely such aim should be discernible even in the smallest form of the expression of art.

Just as the beauties of nature, testifying to the incomprehensible greatness of the divine power, reveal themselves as convincingly in a little primrose as in the huge trees of the Yosemite Valley, in the sweet prattling of a little brooklet as in the roaring thunder of the Niagara, in the lovely undulations of the Scottish hills as in the awe-inspiring heights of the Himalayas, so beauty of soul, honesty of purpose, purity of mind, can shine as brightly in the shortest song as in the longest symphony.

No true artist then in the realm of music will debase his muse by wedding it to sentimental trash as far removed from poetry as a mole-hill from Mount Parnassus, though it often be a difficult task, especially for young people, to distinguish sentimentality from sentiment.

The former may be described as superficial, aimless pity; affected, unreal, unwholesome emotion. Sentiment on the other hand is true emotion; is the feeling that grows naturally out of the sympathetic contemplation of a thing; and the sentiment it is, not the thing, which we ought to look for, even in a little song, in the first place, as a fit object for poetic and musical expression.

A true artists’ spirit will not allow itself to be moved by versification of penny-a-line newspaper reports, such as the capsizing of a little pleasure boat with two hapless lovers in it, or the death by starvation of a poor old seamstress ready to meet her lover in heaven, or effusions of a similar kind, generally ending in pseudo-religious inferences and exhortation little short of blasphemy.

The standing of the pale, hungry little boy outside the window of a confectioner’s shop and observing inside the shop the rich, ruddy little boy eating his fill, that is not poetry, even if put into faultless verse and rhyme, but simply a fact, and a sad one, too, the contemplation of which might, in a fine poetic mind, produce the most beautiful sentiments of compassion with the sufferings of our fellow-creatures, of tenderness, of love; but to let the poor little chap march straightway to heaven, to the fortissimo accompaniment of triplets on the last page of an up-to-date ballad, that is sentimentality, and cruel mockery into the bargain.

I well remember what fun Brahms and I had in later years when I showed him some specimens of the typical popular English balled and how we laughed-especially over the sad ones! But to return to the rest of the journal.

After supper we sat, quite alone in the dark on the terrace of the Fahrnberg. Soon our conversation took a more serious turn. He spoke of friendship and of men, and how, properly speaking, he believed very little in either.

“How few true men there are in the world!” he exclaimed. “The two Schumanns, Robert and Clara, there you have two true, beautiful ‘Menschenbuilder’ (images of man). Knowledge, achievement, power, position -nothing can outweigh this: to be a beautiful Menschenbild. Do you know Allgeyer in Münich? (Henschel’s footnote. An engraver and photographer with a great love for music; the intimate friend of the painter Anselm Feuerbach, and one of a small circle of musicians, painters and poets then living in Munich, and comprising, among others, Hermann Levi, Franz Lenbach, Paul Heyse, and Wilhelm Busch.) There you have one too.” And then he began to talk with touching warmth of the time when, in Allgeyer’s house at Karlsruhe, he wrote his “Mainacht” and the D minor movement of his “Requiem”…”I sometimes regret,” he said to me after some moments of silence, “that I did not marry. I ought to have a boy of 10 now; that would be nice. But when I was of the right age for marrying I lacked the position to do so, and now it is too late.”

Speaking of this had probably revived in him reminiscences of his own boyhood, for he continued: “Only once in my life have I played truant and shirked school, and that was the vilest day of my life. When I came home my father had already been informed of it, and I got a solid hiding.”

“But still, he said, “my father was a dear old man, very simple-minded and most unsophisticated, of which qualities I must give you an amusing illustration: “You know he was a double-bass player in the Municipal Orchestra of Hamburg, and in his leisure hours tried to increase his scanty income by copying music.

“He was sitting in his room at the top of the house some fine day, with the door wide open, absorbed in writing out the part from an orchestral score, when in walked a tramp, begging. My father looked up at him quickly, without interrupting his work, and, in his very pronounced Hamburg dialect, said:

” ‘I cannot give you anything, my dear man. Besides, don’t you know it’s very wrong of you to come into a room like this? How easily might you not have taken my overcoat that’s hanging in the hall! Get out, and don’t you do it again!’

“The tramp humbly apologized and withdrew. “When, a few hours later, my father wanted to go out for a walk, the overcoat of course had disappeared.” Brahms then touched upon his relations to the members of his family, and told me he still supported his old stepmother. With his sister he had little in common; their interests had always been too far apart.

Between his brother, whom he had likewise supported, and himself, there existed no intercourse whatever…

The other day I happened to hum the theme of the Andante from his Quartet in C minor. He seemed rather to like my doing so, for when it came to the place

he accompanied my humming with gentle movements of his hand, as if beating time to it. At last he smilingly said: “I am not at all ashamed to own that it gives me the keenest pleasure if a song, an adagio, or anything of mine, has turned out particularly good. How must those gods: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, have felt, whose daily bread it was to write things like the St. Matthew Passion, Don Giovanni, Fidelio, Ninth Symphony! What I cannot understand is how people like myself can be vain. As much as we men, who walk upright, are above the creeping things of the earth, so these gods are above us. If it were not so ludicrous it would be loathsome to me to hear colleagues of mine praise me to my face in such an exaggerated manner.”

Thus he went on: it was no longer modesty, it was humility, and I took good care not to disturb his mood by a single word.

Soon, however, he smiled again, and remarked, among other things, that he considered the Agitato from his still unpublished “Quartet in B Flat” the most amorous, affectionate thing he had written.

When we parted that night, he said: “You will write me from Bayreuth, won’t you? I know you will rave about it, and I don’t blame you. I myself must confess ‘Walküre’ and ‘Götterdammerung’ have a great hold on me. For ‘Rheingold’ and ‘Siegfried’ I do not particularly care. If only I knew what becomes of the Ring and what Wagner means by it! Perhaps the cross? Hebbel, in his ‘Nibelunge,’ has dared it, and perhaps it was Wagner’s meaning too. I am by no means a fanatic as to my devotion to the cross, but that, at least, would be an idea – thus to indicate the termination of the reign of the gods.”


The photographs are not in Henschel’s book.

Was Brahms was correct in his assessment of the music of Carl Loewe? Here is Loewe’s setting of Der Erlkönig, Op. 1. No 3, followed by Schubert’s setting of the same poem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s