Romantic Genius in Johannes Kreisler and Brahms

Our visit to Hamburg inspired a little extra reading — I started with a life of Johannes Brahms by one of his students, Florence May. It is a wonderful biography giving a real taste of how both the man and his music were seen in his own time (and its blinkers of course). I found this:

…his best encouragement must have been derived from his own sense of his artistic progress. This was advancing by enormous strides, the exact measure of which is furnished by the manuscript of the Sonata in F sharp minor now in the possession of Hofcapellmeister Albert Dietrich. It bears the signature ‘Kreisler jun.,’ a pseudonym adopted by Brahms out of love for the capellmeister Johannes Kreisler, hero of one of Hoffmann’s tales, and the date November, 1852.

Hoffmann's Life and Opinions of Tomcat MurrE.T.A. Hoffman wrote three novels about the musician and Kapellmeister Kreisler: Kreisleriana (1813), Johannes Kreisler, des Kapellmeisters Musikalische Leiden (1815), and The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper (1822).

Looking for more information I found that Schumann had actually written a piece he called Kreisleriana for piano, op. 16 (1838), and that Brahms had more than once used Johannes Kreisler as a pseudonym. It is also Schumann who really launched Brahms’ career, and rather fascinating that they shared a love for this fantastical figure in common. So after finishing the biography I read The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, with much enjoyment. I thought I might write about them in reverse order really, because the romantic vision of what a musician should be is so interesting, and plays such a role in the Brahms saw himself, as well as in the way he was received in a rather horribly snobbish society despite his origins.

Helene von Vesque, after meeting Brahms for the first time during his introduction to society, would write:

We had plenty of points in common: Joachim, the Wehners, our mutual favourite poets, Jean Paul and Eichendorf, and his, Hoffmann and Schiller…. He vehemently urged me to read “Kabale and Liebe” and the “Serapionsbrüder,” but above all Hoffmann’s musical novels, of which he spoke with real enthusiasm. “I spend all my money on books; books are my greatest pleasure. I have read as much as I possibly could since I was quite little, and have made my way without guidance from the worst to the best.”

Perhaps I so loved the biography because I quite loved Brahms himself. But on to some of Hoffman’s establishment of Johannes Kreisler as the romantic ideal:

Johannes KreislerThe stranger, a man about thirty years old, was dressed in black and in the height of fashion. There was nothing at all odd or unusual in his clothing, and yet his appearance did have something singular and eccentric about it. In spite of the cleanliness of his garments, a certain negligence was apparent, seeming to stem less from carelessness than from the fact that the stranger had been obliged to go along a path he had not expected to take, and for which his clothes were ill-suited.

This was quite brilliant, and so recognizable from descriptions of Byron down to the romantic regency novels of Georgette Heyer passed from my grandmother to my mother to me.

He is utterly committed to his music, through it he awakens deep passions that often frighten a shallow, aristocratic audience, and though he is capable of deep love it is to remain platonic:

For a true music-maker carries the lady of his choice in his heart, desiring nothing but to sing, write or paint in her honor, and may be compared to the chivalrous knights of old in their exquisite courtesy — indeed, he is to be preferred to them in point of innocence of mind, since he does not conduct himself like those knights who, in their bloodthirsty manner, would strike down the most admirable folk in homage to the ladies of their hearts…

‘No,’ cried the Princess, as if waking from a dream, ‘no, it is impossible for such a pure vestal fire to be kindled in the breast of a man!…’

In Brahm’s own early life there is little of physical romance or love (or none, though in this kind of biography you can’t be sure) — though it is believed he was passionately in love with Clara Schumann, a brilliant pianist in her own right and wife to composer Robert Schumann. After Robert committed himself to a mental asylum, Brahms and the small circle of musicians around Schumann cared for Clara and the family (Clara had just delivered his eighth child! It was a different time…). Brahms actually moved into the same building and devoted several years of his life to them as Robert Schumann’s condition steadily degenerated.

Quite beautiful, really.

Before all this though, as a youth first meeting Schumann and being introduced to society, he inspires them as representing this ideal, this kind of pure artist. (there is also some delightful gossip on musical circles):

Von Sahr was the first person in Leipzig to make Brahms’ acquaintance, and, on the day after his arrival, insisted that he should leave his hotel to become his guest. He introduced him to Mendelssohn’s old friend, the celebrated concertmeister, David; to Julius Rietz, conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts; to the personal acquaintance of Dr. Härtel; to Wieck and his daughter Marie (Frau Schumann’s father and sister); to Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel, one of Schumann’s special friends; to Julius Otto Grimm, a young musician whose room was on the same staircase as his own, and who soon became numbered amongst Johannes’ particular chums; and, generally speaking, to the entire Leipzig circle.

‘He is perfect!’ he exclaims in a letter to Albert; ‘the days since he has been here are amongst the most delightful in my recollection. He answers so exactly to my idea of an artist. And as a man!—But enough, you know him better than I do…. Unfortunately, he can only stay till Friday. He has, however, promised, and I think he will keep his promise, to come again soon.’ (135)

Returning to Helene von Vesque:

The extracts from her diaries and letters contained in Helene von Vesque’s book include several of interest to musical readers. Of young Brahms she says:

‘Yesterday Herr von Sahr brought me a young man who held in his hand a letter from Joachim. He sat down opposite me, this young hero of the day, this young messiah of Schumann’s, fair, delicate-looking, who, at twenty, has clearly-cut features free from all passion. Purity, innocence, naturalness, power, and depth—this indicates his being. One is so inclined to think him ridiculous and to judge him harshly on account of Schumann’s prophecy; but all is forgotten; one only loves and admires him.

 Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), pencil drawing (1853), by Jean-Joseph Bonaventure Laurens

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), pencil drawing (1853), by Jean-Joseph Bonaventure Laurens

From Schloenbach’s ‘open letter’:

We listened now to the young Brahms from Hamburg, referred to the other day in Schumann’s article in your journal. The article had, as you know, awakened mistrust in numerous circles (perhaps in many cases only from fear). At all events it had created a very difficult situation for the young man, for its justification required the fulfilment of great demands; and when the slender, fair youth appeared, so deficient in presence, so shy, so modest, his voice still in transitional falsetto, few could have suspected the genius that had already created so rich a world in this young nature. Berlioz had, however, already discovered in his profile a striking likeness to Schiller, and conjectured his possession of a kindred virgin soul, and when the young genius unfolded his wings, when, with extraordinary facility, with inward and outward energy, he presented his scherzo, flashing, rushing, sparkling; when, afterwards, his andante swelled towards us in intimate, mournful tones, we all felt: Yes, here is a true genius, and Schumann was right; and when Berlioz, deeply moved, embraced the young man and pressed him to his heart, then, dear friend, I felt myself affected by such a sacred tremour of enthusiasm as I have seldom experienced…. If you should smile now and then whilst reading my letter, remember that it is the poet who has spoken, and that it was yourself who invited him to do so.

‘December 5, 1853.’ [139-140]

The other aspect of Johannes Kreisler is his disrespect for rank and money. Hoffman’s book opens on a most hilarious scene that involves the painful humiliation of much of the small court because the Prince had requested an impossible spectacle for a party in the woods, and his courtiers were too afraid to betray the knowledge that everything was going wrong.

Kreisler’s first meeting with the princess goes badly, as she feels insulted by him. He is unrepentant later, talking to an old acquaintance:

‘By no means,’ replied Kreisler, ‘any more than a little princess walking in her good Papa’s open park can be forgiven for trying to impress a respectable stranger with her small person.’

He mocks the roles that talented musicians are forced to play in a feudal world that in fact tames if not destroys their talents:

‘Oh, dear lady, you have no idea how I’ve profited by my appointment as Kapellmeister, and above all I have become wonderfully convinced of the value of artists’ going into service in due form, wince otherwise those proud, unruly folk might stand comparison with the Devil and his grandmother. Make the worthy composer Kapellmeister or Music Director, appoint the poet Court Poet, make the painter Court Portraitist, the sculptor Court Sculptor, and you’ll soon have no more useless fantastical fellows in the land, you’ll have nothing but useful citizens of good breeding and mild manners!’

This is actually just one long book of mockery of the aristocracy (and through the cat’s tales, of the romantic ideals in general). Here the Prince describes another Prince who asked everyone in his court to play the recorder:

It is appropriate for persons of high degree to be prey to strange notions; it increases respect. What might be called absurd in a man without rank or station is, in such persons, merely the pleasing whim of a mind out of the common run, and will rouse astonishment and admiration.

May loves and respects Brahms, but does note that he was often unhappy and uncomfortable in high society, that people often found him rude, rarely understood his jokes and pranks and sense of humour. This reveals more than anything, I think, that not all the class barriers ever came tumbling down, despite his talent and the power of the time’s romantic idealism.

Of course, I also love that he didn’t really care to fit into this society.

Brahms spent three years as Kapellmeister in a small principality at Detmold, rather similar in fact to that described by Hoffman, as well as the post Kreisler himself rejected. May writes:

Brahms found himself more than ever in request amongst the general circle of Detmold society during the autumn of 1859. He had become the fashion. It was the thing to have lessons from him, and his presence gave distinction to a gathering. The very circumstance of his popularity, however, caused some friction between himself and his acquaintances. He disliked to waste his time, as he considered it, in mere society, and, when occasionally induced to attend a party against his will, gave his hosts cause to regret their pertinacity. If not silent the whole evening, he would amuse himself by exercising his talent for caustic speech. Carl von Meysenbug, when at home, jealous for his friend’s credit, often called Johannes privately to account for his perversity, but was always silenced by the unanswerable reply, ‘Bah! that is all humbug!’ (Pimpkram). (244)

The opportunities for mockery remain the same for Brahms as they were for Hoffman:

His lessons to the Princess, who was really musical and made rapid progress, continued to give him genuine pleasure, but he chafed at the constant demands on his time arising from his fixed duties, and the rigid etiquette observed at the Court of a very small capital gave him a distaste for his work as conductor of the choral society. The circle of Serene Highnesses, Excellencies, and their friends, did not furnish sufficient voices for the adequate rendering of two or three oratorios and cantatas by Handel and Bach which he selected for practice during his second and third seasons; and, with Prince Leopold’s permission, he supplemented them by persuading some of the towns-people to become members. His sense of the ridiculous was strongly excited by the rules of conduct prescribed for these not very willing assistants, who were not even permitted to make an obeisance to the Serenities, and scarcely ventured to lift their eyes from the music whilst in their august presence. There were some good performances of great works, however, and Bach’s cantata ‘Ich hatte viel Bekümmerniss’ was given four times; but the difficulty of procuring tenors continued serious, and the entire circumstances of the meetings made Brahms feel increasing desire to be relieved from the necessity of attending them. (245)

Transcending class barriers, commitment to art, fine clothing and romantic ideals, mockery of wealth and power — there is a lot to enjoy here. I’ll just end with a final delightful quote from Hoffman:

What a fine time that was after the French Revolution, when marquises were making sealing-wax, and counts were netting lace nightcaps and claiming to be nothing but plain Monsieurs, and the great masquerade was such fun!

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