Personal Recollections of Johannes Brahms (1907) by George Henschel: Recollections of Brahms, pp. 54-61. [The death of Brahms]

Here closes the journal. During the twenty-one years of undisturbed friendship that followed our intercourse had to be mostly by letter, and our meetings fewer and further between; the channel, and, later on, the Atlantic, separated us bodily.

After Brahms, in 1878, had considerably changed his outward appearance by the growth of the long and flowing beard in the frame of which his face has become familiar to the last and present generations, our first meeting was marked by an amusing little incident, illustrative of his ever-abiding love of fun.

Ignaz Brüll (1846-1907)

At the end of that year I was engaged upon an extended recital tour through Austria and Hungary, together with my friend Ignaz Brüll, the composer and pianist. We commenced in Vienna. Having arrived only a day or two previous to the first recital I had not seen Brahms as yet. At the end of the concert Brüll and I were receiving, in the artists’ room, the congratulations of friends, when suddenly I saw a man unknown to me, rather stout, of middle height, with long hair and full beard, coming up toward me. In a very deep and hoarse voice he introduced himself “Musikdirector Müller,” making a very stiff and formal bow, which I was on the point of returning with equal gravity, when, an instant later, we all found ourselves heartily laughing at the perfect success of Brahms’ disguise, for, of course, he it was…

Of subsequent reunions, two have been especially vividly impressed on my mind. In order that my wife, who hitherto had only occasionally met this great and admired friend, should have an opportunity of knowing him more familiarly, she and I traveled to Vienna, in 1894, for the sole purpose of spending a few days in Brahms’ company.

“For once, dear friend,” he had written to me on my announcing our visit, “Simrock is right. (Henschel’s footnote. This was meant facetiously. Fritz Simrock, Brahms’ publisher, was, and remained to the end, the most trusted and highly valued of his friends.) I am not the last, nor by any means the only one rejoiced at the prospect of your coming. Heartily welcome then, and may it be a cheerful meeting!”

On our arrival in Vienna, rather late in the evening of April 23d, we found a note from Brahms awaiting us at our hotel: “If not too tired after your journey, do come to us, quite close by, at the restaurant of the ‘Musik-Verein’; just as you are, informally, in your traveling clothes.” Who could resist the temptation? Arrived at the indicated place, we found a little party of men and women, mostly members of the “Tonkünstler-Verein” (Tone-Artists Union), gathered together in a social way, as usual, after one of their weekly concerts. Brahms, surrounded, as always on such occasions, by a host of admiring ladies, young and elderly, to whose charms and homage his susceptibilities had not by any means lessened with the advancing years, was in excellent spirits and received most cordially.

If, however, truth must be told, his jokes – and he was very fond of them – were not always characterized by that sense of delicacy which the presence of ladies should have made desirable; and one lady at least there was – need I name her? – who on such occasions did not join in the general chorus of amused acclamation, ready though she, too, was to forgive much to the composer of the “Mainacht” and of the “German Requiem.”

Early the following morning we went to his rooms. He received us, as was his wont with friends, irrespective of sex, attired in a short jacket of which the lowest button only was put to its proper use; without waistcoat or shirt collar, and in slippers. The coffee-machine – he always made his own coffee in the morning – was still standing on the table; the air of the large, yet cosy room was filled with the delicious fragrance peculiar to Viennese coffee; the shone shone brightly through the large windows and the whole atmosphere was one of the quiet, inward happiness, contentment, and ease.

Soon our host commenced to ransack drawers, cupboards, shelves for things he thought might interest and entertain us, when suddenly, with that dear, familiar twinkle in his eyes and a long-drawn “A-a-ah!” he motioned us to quickly settle down to a treat which apparently he had in store for us. Then, smilingly and with mock ceremoniousness, he opened a large portfolio and showed and read to us, with great gusto, the famous letters of Richard Wagner to the milliner. He had bought the collection recently and seemed very proud of the precious possession, chuckling with amusement as he went from one amazing letter to the other.

After a few days of charming intercourse with him and out mutual friends Ignaz Brüll, Max Kalbeck. Carl Goldmark and Johan Strauss, the famous composer of the “Blue Danube” valse, which Brahms often protested he would have given much to have written himself, we left Vienna; and only once more was I privileged to see the great man in the flesh.

That was in January 1896, when Brahms, Edvard Greig, Arthur Nikisch, and myself spent a delightful evening together at one of the favorite restaurants of Leipsic.

Brahms, rather stouter, it seemed to me, than I had ever seen him before, was in the merriest of moods did ample justice to the excellent beer of Munich brew, of which he consumed an astounding quantity before we parted, long after midnight.

Nothing seemed to indicate the approach of the mortal disease which was to take hold of him so soon afterwards, and little did Nikisch and I dream that night that our next meeting would be among the mourners at Brahms’ funeral.

It was in the evening of April the 3d, 1897, that I arrived in Vienna, too late to see the dear friend alive. He had breathed his last that morning.

I hurried to the death-chamber which had been transformed into a chapelle ardente. The arrangements usual in Catholic countries: a plentiful display of silver crosses on draperies of black velvet; huge brass candelabra on which huge wax candles were burning, presented a strange contrast to the simplicity of the life and habits of the master (who had been a Protestant), and it was only the beautiful flowers which Love and Admiration had piled up in great and fragrant masses on the floor beneath the canopy until they reached high above the coffin, almost completely hiding it from sight, that somewhat reconciled one to the inappropriateness of the official decoration of the room.

The Tuesday following, April 6th, was the day of the funeral. As if Nature had wished to present an image of the character of the master’s music, combining, as it does, the gentle and the severe, cold winds of winter alternating with balmy breezes of spring.

From early morning on, friends and deputations, carry wreaths and flowers and palm-branches, followed each other in constant succession up the three familiar flights of stairs to the master’s apartments, and the place before the house of mourning in the Karlsgrasse began to fill with people ready to join in the procession. By noon nearly the whole of the street, and the open space in front of the adjoining Karlskirche, were one mass of humanity. All musical Vienna seemed to assembled, and the extraordinary large number of eminent men and women who had come from far and near to pay their last tribute of Love and Devotion to what had been mortal of Johannes Brahms must have conveyed some idea of his greatness and popularity to even to those who hitherto had perhaps not quite realized either.

One could not help being reminded of the historical answer the old peasant woman gave to the stranger who had happened to arrive in Vienna on the day of Beethoven’s funeral: “Whose funeral is this?” the wondering stranger had asked. “Why, don’t you know?” was the answer, “They are a-buryin’ the General of the Musicians!

At last the coffin with its precious load appeared in the doorway. Every head uncovered. Amid reverential and most impressive silence it was lifted onto the open funeral car. To its lid were fastened two wreaths of gigantic proportions, the one by the composer’s native city, the free town of Hamburg, the other by the corporation of Vienna, the home of his adoption, and procession, headed by a standard-bearer in old Spanish costume, riding on a black horse, started on his melancholy journey.

The rather lugubrious impression created by the six riders in similar attire, who, also mounted on coal-black horses and carrying lighted tapers on long poles, followed the standard-bearer, was relieved by a wonderful sight: a succession of six high, open funeral cars, each freighted to the very top with an abundance of beautiful fresh flowers, laurels, palms; their many-colored ribbons floating down to the ground. The sun, which had come out gloriously by that time, shone, as it were, on a gigantic moving garden; a spectacle as lovely as it was solemn. Before the building of the “Society of the Friends of Music,” the procession halted. The doors and pillars were draped in black cloth. On either side of the portal, from metal bowls, resting on the topic of high candelabra and filled with ignited spirit of wine, blue flames were flickering with a subdued, mystical light. From underneath a canopy the “Sing-Verein,” which so often had sung under the inspiring direction of the master, now sang his own beautiful part-song “Farewell” (op. 93 A. No 4).

As the lovely strains rang out into the vernal air, there could be heard from the neighboring trees the merry twittering of birds whose song seemed to have been kindled by the unwonted occurrence no less than the approach of spring. At last, after a short choral service in the old church in the Dorotheër Gasse, the cemetery was reached. Another touching farewell, another song – and the mortal remains of Johannes Brahms were lowered into their last resting place, close to those of Beethoven and Schubert.

There have at all times lived great artists who been small men. In Brahms both the man and the artist aspired to high and lofty ideals. It never was his aim or ambition to gain for himself – through cheap and dazzling display with tones or “catching” tunes, the quickly withering crowns of popular favour.

Though undisguisedly delighted when finding himself appreciated and acclaimed, he coveted neither fame nor applause. He was of a very simple, kind, childlike disposition. He loved children, whom – poor or rich – to make happy, was to himself a source of pure happiness.

He loved the poor, to whom his heart went out in sympathy and pity. He hated show of charity. But where he could comfort in silence those who suffered in silence, those who struggled against undeserved misfortune, the sick and the helpless, there the man, so modest, sparing and unpretentious in his own wants, became a benefactor, ready for sacrifice. No better summing up of Brahms’ character and personality can conclude this little volume that that contained in the words of his old friend Franz Wüllner of Cologne: He has left us a precious inheritance, the noble example of rare truthfulness and simplicity in art and life; of a relentless severity towards himself, of hatred of self-conceit and pretence; of a high-minded, inflexible, unwavering artistic conviction. To him may be truly applied Goethe’s fine words in his Epilogue to Schiller’s “Lay of the Bell”:

“With mighty steps his soul advanced

Toward the ever True – Good Beautiful.”

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