Friederike Sophie Wilhelmine (1709 – 1758) was the daughter of Frederick William I of Prussia and Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, granddaughter of George I of Great Britain, and sister of Frederick the Great. Her memoirs, several versions of them, are available online, hereare the ones I read… Sadly, I found much salacious (yet somehow mostly uninteresting) gossip but little in them about Bayreuth or some of the more interesting things she is known for — a literary and scientific salon that attracted Voltaire among others, and her work as a composer.
Her music is rather lovely.
This is really an account of another dreadful, brutal, and both physically and emotionally violent upbringing of a member of the aristocracy, though one rather higher in rank than Cosima Wagner. I found a picture of her and her brother as children — there is no mention of a Black servant but I wonder who he was, where he came from, why he was so included though I suppose it was a signal to wealth and status:
The goal of it all to marry advantageously, and her mother as a Hanover had her heart set on the crown prince of England, also a Hanover of course, while her father preferred the Habsburg — this intersection between royal courts and empires and families caused no end of problems in a still-not-unified-Germany of competing principalities that I still haven’t quite got my head around apart from just how boring their constant wrangling is. Boring and destructive.
Wilhelmine writes this chilling description of a princess for sale:
We went to Charlottenburg on the 6th of October ; and on the 7th, in the evening, King George arrived there. The whole Court was assembled, and the King and Queen and all the princes received him as he alighted from his carriage. After they had welcomed him, I was presented to him. He embraced me, and said nothing further than ” She is very tall; how old is she? ” Then he gave his hand to the Queen, who led him to her room, all the princes following. No sooner had he reached her room, than he took a candle, which he held under my nose, and looked at me from top to toe. I can never describe the state of agitation I was in. I turned red and pale by turns ; and all the time he never uttered one word.
This is a tale of the petty intrigue and awfulness that swirled around the issue of her marriage. The machinations, lies, gossip, spying and stabbing in the back that goes one when a multitude’s lives and fortunes all depend on the whim of a king and his independently wealthy and powerful queen are of an extraordinary horribleness. It seems to me that the general tenor of the life and politics of the court ring true, whatever doubts have been described of trustworthiness around the details of, among other things, sex for information and power. Even that is remarkably uninteresting in such a context.
There are some good little nuggets though. I can think of a number of figures of whom this saying of Cardinal de Richelieu is true:
He has been guilty of too many bad actions to be well spoken of, and he has done too many good actions to be ill spoken of.
In the year 1717, the Emperor [Charles VI. of Austria, Emperor of Germany] had founded an East Indian Company in Ostend, a small town in Holland. This company began to trade with two ships, and in spite of all the difficulties which the Dutch tried to lay in their way, they reaped many advantages. The Emperor had given this company, to the exclusion of all his other subjects, the right and privilege for thirty years of extending their trade to Africa and India. As trade and commerce are the best means of increasing the prosperity of a State, the Emperor had made a secret treaty with Spain, in 1725, in which he bound himself to obtain Gibraltar and Port Mahon for the Spaniards.
But rather more interesting (on so many levels) was this little foible of her father’s:
My father’s greatest passion and amusement consisted first in hoarding up money, and then in perfecting his regiment at Potsdam, of which he was Colonel. This regiment was composed of nothing but giants, the smallest of the men being six feet. They were sought for all over the world, and the recruiting sergeants took them by force wherever they found them. Up to this time the King of England had constantly sent my father such recruits, but the Hanoverian Government, which had never been friendly to the House of Brandenburg, refused to obey their King’s orders any longer, hoping by this means to create a bad feeling between the two Courts. Some Prussian officers were bold enough to take several men by force from Hanoverian soil. This caused a great disturbance.
The international political implications of a desire for giants… and what a fucking disgrace that Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia had power enough to simply go around taking them by force.
More music in case you are done with the overture to the opera Wilhelmine wrote for her husband’s birthday, a concerto this time…
I think my favourite passage from the memoirs is this description of a stay in a castle in the late 1720s, she was definitely no stranger to sarcasm:
In a fortnight’s time we went to “Wusterhausen”. A description of this celebrated place will not be amiss here. The King had, with the greatest labour, succeeded in raising a mound which so well shut out the view of the Castle, that you never caught sight of it till you were close upon it. The Castle consisted of the main building, the chief point of interest in which was a curious old tower, which had served as a refuge for the robbers that had built the castle, and to whom it had belonged. The Castle was surrounded by a moat and ramparts. The water in the moat was as black as the Styx, and certainly could not be compared to lavender water. A bridge built over the moat led to the Castle. There were two wings to the main building, each guarded by two black and two white eagles. The sentries consisted of ten or twelve large bears, who walked about on their hind legs, their front paws having been cut off. In the middle of the courtyard was a grass plot, on which a fountain had been made with great trouble. The fountain was surrounded by an iron railing, and steps led up to it. It was near this pleasant spot that the King had his “Tabagie.” My sisters and I, with our suites, were lodged in two rooms which resembled a hospital far more than rooms in a palace. We always dined in a tent, whatever the weather might be. Sometimes when it rained we sat up to our ankles in water. The dinner always numbered twenty-four persons, half of whom had to starve, for there were never more than six dishes served, and these were so meagre that one hungry being might easily have eaten them up alone. We had to spend ‘the whole day shut up in the Queen’s room, and were not allowed to get any fresh air, even when the weather was fine. It was a wonder we did not get bilious from sitting in-doors all day long, and hearing nothing but disagreeable speeches.
Holy Animal Liberation Front though, did they actually cut off the front paws of the bears? The translation is maybe not the best, but to have bears chained at all is terrible, I am glad they all dined in water up to their ankles. I shall probably never see castles in quite the same way again.
I also love this sentence describing the morning of her wedding day.
The next morning I went to the Queen in an elegant undress. She led me to the King to pronounce the customary renunciation to the allodial estates.
I have no idea what elegant undress looked like, but I assume it was probably still a great deal of dress.
A final quote, this time actually about Bayreuth, though about the Ermitage as it was in 1744, the closest I could get to her intellectual abilities:
Near the house are ten avenues of limes, whose branches are so thick that the sun’s rays never penetrate them. Every path in the wood leads to some hermit’s cave or other device, each differing from the other. I have a little hermitage of my own commanding a view of a ruined temple built in imitation of those at Rome. I have dedicated it to the Muses, and have placed in it the pictures of all the famous scientific men of the last century: Descartes, Leibnitz, Locke, Newton, Bayle, Voltaire, Maupertius, &c.
I didn’t get to the Ermitage, but saw much of her and her husband’s rebuilding of Bayreuth, particularly the new castle and the opera house, though I did not get to see the famous rococo interiors sadly — their projects almost bankrupted their court. A final piece of hers performed in the opera house, currently closed for restoration. Seeing the extravagance of this might have made this trip a little more enjoyable, though in general I am not a rococo fan. Bayreuth was also home to Jean-Paul Richter, and there is a museum here for him as well (closed on the Sunday). I am sad that the Wagners have eclipsed both of them so.
Sun shining and blue skies and birds singing as I walked through the lovely Richard Wagner Park to Wahnfried. Following in footsteps I know to Richard Wagner’s home, to Cosima Wagner’s home, to a haven for Hitler.
I still hope none of that dust clung to my shoes.
Wahnfried, this horrible straightjacketed place of immense ambition, this entombing of a man who never was, this legacy of machinations and power plays to control music, talent, creativity, the meaning of being German tied into the aristocratic and exploitative, the epic, the nationalistic, the anti-semitic… Tied into blood.
I thought about Hermann Levi begging for his release, and the contortions required of him to conduct music. I thought too of Cosima broken down by Madame Patersi and rebuilt again in stone and will and charm.
It is hard to get in, the doors to the building marked museum are all closed and there is no sign of welcome. Of the main double doors that serve as the entry, one is locked. The one I tried. If only I hadn’t been so determined. Almost everything in this town is in German. There is only the occasional nod to a non-German speaker, and that is only in English, most of what is written here is not for you. You start in a great black modern space, head downstairs to lockers for bags and great glass cases for opera costumes carefully preserved from one hundred years of Bayreuth Festivals. Art separated from complicated life.
Up and outside and over to Wahnfried itself. It feels as though almost everything is under dust covers, waiting for more important guests than myself — furniture, paintings, almost as though the house waits for Cosima’s own return. But of course not everything is under dust covers. I listen to an immensity of detail about its architecture and art. Look at old photographs of it, and realise how much of the sacred clutter is no longer here. The video shows expensive bric-a-brac piled and spilling across every surface, a profusion of wealth and a living museum of memory. Cosima still stares down from almost every surface, from walls and corners and up from displays under glass. Not hard to imagine her ghost extorting the rebuilding of the house after her great room was destroyed by the bombing and an irreverent descendant refused to return it to the way it was before. But that’s all changed now, and it has been restored to resemble this once again.
A beautiful house in its way, its great hall built for its acoustics, a house dedicated to music. Up to the second floor and down spiral staircases to the mezzanine. Notes on Wagner’s preferences for pink and blue, his fanciful dress. Liszt occasionally. I think about his holding court here to Wagner’s annoyance, his unhappiness and neglect and death in this house. Nietzsche looks on, caught briefly in this web of power and grand ideas. I realise I am moving backwards through Wagner’s life having gone the wrong way round. I need to read Nietzsche’s piece on Wagner, need to know what he thought of all this.
Nothing about Hitler here, though he loved this house.
On to Siegfried’s, Winifred’s house, a beautiful long and low art-deco house on the left as you stare down to Wahnfried’s front. They expanded the gardener’s house facing it so it wouldn’t be too ruinous to Wahnfried’s symmetry. It is wood paneled and dark with windows at the end looking out over a fountain. My first impression of a lovely house of the kind I could imagine living in. A great stone fireplace at which Hitler once stood ranting about the greatness of Wagner and Germany. He is in footage and in pictures, this is where the Wagner museum has chosen to deal with him. It is mostly about Winifred, the support the festival received, Winifred’s two appearances at Nuremburg. After all, Cosima and Siegfried died in 1930, before Hitler’s rise.
I knew some of it then, not all of it. I hadn’t finished Cosima’s biography. I don’t think it would have stopped me from going, curious to know evil a little better, understand the power of fascism to better fight it. Or just curious. I don’t know I would have expected it to affect me so much, but learning some of that while there in that space — it did. A sick feeling in my stomach, a kind of nausea that made me want to shake all over. A feeling I needed to throw up, vomit out. A physical feeling that took a long time to leave me, and that returns as I write. I couldn’t watch all the footage like the only other visitor there with me. He sat grimly on every bench and watched each film commentary through. He understood German — or he didn’t care to understand. I wonder what he was feeling. Looking back it occurs to me that someone might as easily go there to enjoy this place. Shrug off the tut tutting. Revel in the hatred that once filled these four walls to overflowing.
This feeling crept into my view of the rest of the day, the rest of the town. I tried to exorcise it looking up heroes of the resistance and finding one born here: Wilhelm Leuschner, social democrat, trade unionist, but above all he fought the good fight against fascism. He was executed in 1944. The tenement where he was born into poverty is long gone, and now there remains only a single-story building dedicated to him:
Hard to find, I walked past it first. Not like Wahnfried. Not like the statues of Wagner everywhere. I wish instead that I had been able to escape the conference on Saturday to see other things.
I also read (most of) the memoirs of Wilhelmine, Margravine of Bayreuth. She was here earlier, composed some music and held salons, built some of the massive piles of 18th Century architecture and the fabulous opera house, which drew Wagner here in the first place. Though it was too small for him. There is little in her tales of palace intrigue about Bayreuth itself, but I didn’t want to let the Wagners completely overshadow her. So I suppose I will have one more post on this place.
And from now on finally, whatever else I do, I will NOT mention the war.
This biography of Cosima Wagner was very difficult to read on many levels. Mark was being flown to Bayreuth for a workshop and I picked it up as part of my tradition of exploring a place — I confess I was utterly ignorant of Cosima Wagner’s history, or Richard Wagner’s history or the role that this city where they made a home played in the formation of Hitler’s pseudophilosophy, his social circle, and his base of power. Because this family made a home here in Bayreuth at Wahnfried.
That I found most difficult.
But there was also the author Oliver Hilmes… his tone, what he singled out, his commentary were all quite contrary to my own style and feeling. This can hardly be a criticism of course, because we do not all think the same. I thought it best to signal it — and that said, numerous times I think he did actually let the family off the hook for some fairly vile little foibles of theirs.
So from the beginning I felt that while I might perhaps agree broadly that Marie d’Agoult was not the nicest of women or very present for her children, yet my critique of her would be directed differently. I would have made more of her support for women’s equality, I might have mentioned her wider friendships with other women such as Georges Sand, and my sympathy would certainly have been much more engaged. Cosima’s father Franz Liszt did simply take the children away from Marie after Paris followed her mother in rejecting them all from polite society (their ideas of free love being greatly frowned upon then but thank god they fought for them), and he did refuse to let her see them. Hilmes then describes Liszt as under the sway of his new life-long lover and companion Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein — and that kind of language always worries me. Yet at her direction Liszt’s three children were removed from the home they had made with Lizst’s mother Anna and placed under the care of a horrible governess of the ancien regime, Madame Patersi de Fossombroni and her sister. Here is Cosima standing.
It’s as though 1848 never happened, in this book. I found that curious. But Madame Patersi had been a governess for many princesses of soon-to-be-relegated-to-history principalities, and so I imagine in that house even the gains of the French Revolution were steadfastly ignored.
This book also and again reinforced the realisation that the education of European aristocratic youth consisted (and still consists to some extent) of breaking children into small pieces to rebuild them as heartless, stony-faced, charming individuals who know much about etiquette but have had all feeling for humanity destroyed. How better to maintain power and obscene privilege as though it were right and natural? Reading about such upbringings you are almost sorry for them.
I was sorry for Cosima too, in reading Hans von Bülow’s official request to Liszt for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
It is more than love I feel for her… Rather, the idea of drawing even closer to you, whom I regard as the principal instigator and animator of my present and future existence, sums up all the happiness that I can expect to feel here on earth. In my eyes Cosima Liszt towers over all other women not only because she bears your name but also because she resembles you so much and because so many of her qualities make her a faithful reflection of your own person. (39-40)
The creepiest declaration of love I have ever read, and hardly a solid foundation for a happy marriage, though she did marry him.
She did very much resemble Liszt. He met his end in Beyreuth, in her home. She made it a hard and painful one refusing medical help for him at the end and refusing to allow anyone in to see him as she would be the one to nurse him — and then finding herself too busy to nurse him. Liszt’s pupil watched through the window from the bushes after being expelled from the sickroom, heard his dying groans. Almost you can feel sorry for him. But I get ahead of myself.
There are a number of brilliant quotes here. I thought this one very telling.
‘What she says is almost always intelligent,’ recalled one contemporary, ‘in other words, it is well thought through; but one has the feeling that it has been thought through for a long time in advance, so that the ideas are inflexible and fail to adapt to the actual conversation.’ (49)
Hilmes blames this on the limitations of her otherwise flawless German, but seems more a characteristic of mind perhaps. In her younger years she wrote for a monthly magazine, though always under pseudonyms and this memory not encouraged by family hagiographers — not something for women to do. Her mother had fought long and hard for women’s rights to be authors.
Cosima met Wagner as a child as he was a friend of Liszt — they moved in the same artistic and often radical circles as did Liszt’s student Hans von Bülow. Wagner, however, did not notice her until her marriage brought her within his orbit, and his failing marriage left him without the feminine support he believed he needed. This book fails to mentions Wagner’s time on Dresden’s barricades in 1849, his arrest. I learned that at Wahnfried… a fact hard to guess because some of Wagner’s quotes? Wow.
Mine is a different kind of organism, I have sensitive nerves, I must have beautify. radiance and light. The world owes me a living! I can’t live the miserable life of an organist like your Master Bach! Is it such as outrageous demand to say that I deserve the little bit of luxury that I can bear? I, who can give pleasure to thousands?
— letter to mistress Eliza Wille (65)
He had many many mistresses. And a wife, named Minna. She had a hard time I believe. I know I am doing none of them justice, I apologise.
There are Wagner’s terrible letters to King Ludovic II, who was utterly smitten with him and known to be gay. Every age has its idiom and this may be reflected here, yet if they weren’t lovers this could be worse, as Wagner must have known very well what he was about in using such language to get land, money and influence. This is only a taste.
‘My beloved has often wanted to know more about my political views. I have already divulged certain things. Would my beloved know more?’ … Ludwig begged the ‘light of his life’ to inform him of his own opinion … (70)
Wagner did inform him, in the form of journal entries, and they were distributed as policy documents to Ludwig’s ministers.
I’m not saying that his obsessive fashion sense and his extreme care in interior decoration says anything definitive about the breadth of his sexuality, but, well. He loved pastels, loved to wear silk and satin and velvet (who doesn’t, I know), and here is a description of Wagner’s interior decoration sense from his villa in Munich bestowed upon him by Ludwig:
To the right a door led to the composer’s holy of holies, his ‘satin chamber’. The select few who were permitted to enter this study were generally overwhelmed by what they found here, for the room’s furnishings — entirely Wagner’s own creation — were a riot of light and colour and an orgy of velvet and satin. The walls were lined with yellow satin, while the pink silk curtains in front of the windows bathed the room in a roseate glow. Through the room were draperies, artificial roses and decorations made from precious fabrics such as damask and satin. In the middle of the study was a couch covered with a floral moire fabric. (77)
The von Bülows moved to Munich, just around the corner, in 1864. in April, 1865 Wagner’s first daughter Isolde was born to Cosima. Hilmes notes that it is not certain that von Bülow knew it was Wagner’s child — which could mean Cosima was sleeping with both at the same time! I almost laughed at the shock implied in the sentence discounting such as thing.
It is impossible to laugh, however, at the letter she wrote in November of 1867 to protest Ludwig hiring Paul Heyse as artistic director of his theatre company.
My objections to him are as follows: 1) his Jewish extraction — in this respect I beg our august and dear friend most humbly not to see a harsh prejudice but a profoundly well-justified fear of a race that has caused the Germans much harm … (90)
Meanwhile Wagner was about to cross the line with old Ludwig… you’d have thought that journal escapade would have done it, but no. Or that time he called Ludwig ‘my lad’. But after glorious days in which Wagner organised concerts in the morning then read to Bavaria’s king from his memoirs after which the two of them would head off to sport in the countryside, Wagner went so far as to demand the resignations of the cabinet secretary and the prime minister. And so, Hilmes describes it as involuntary exile.
After much passionate recrimination, Cosima finally obtained a divorce from von Bülow, and married Wagner in 1870. She would dedicate her life in his service, and in service to her son…an oddly dictatorial service to be sure, or to their myth as she interpreted it. How better to summarise the role she saw for her life than this picture?
There is a quote here that is fairly terrifying from her private journals (though she wrote them as testaments to her service, and they were always meant to be read by her children, particularly Siegfried):
Spoke very seriously with the children, wept and prayed with them, brought them to the point of asking me for punishment. (107)
Hilmes ties her strange streak of self-sacrifice to her husband’s myth and her sadomasochism that emerged from her upbringing to her anti-semitism. I find his psychoanalysis a little simple perhaps, but the roots of it are all here. It’s not surprising that Wagner reissued a little pamphlet he had written about the Jews the year of their marriage in 1870 — I haven’t yet read it. I suppose I will. I am curious. But all of it brings on nausea.
In 1871 they moved to Bayreuth, gifted land and money to build a home by Ludwig it was known as Wahnfried (from wahn and fried which mean roughly delusion and freedom), and written upon it Wagner’s motto:
“Hier wo mein Wähnen Frieden fand – Wahnfried – sei dieses Haus von mir benannt.” (“Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.”)
Oh the delusions that this home would help spawn.
Gifted land from the council they built the Festspielhaus, a new opera house for the festival they would begin — Wagner found the town’s incredible baroque opera house too small for the orchestras he needed.
I think for me, one of the most terrible substories in the book is that of Hermann Levi, an enormously gifted conductor (poet, composer) who was court kapellmeister to Ludwig in Munich, and whom Ludwig himself insisted be first conductor for Wagner’s recently finished Parsifal. The book is clear that Wagner objected, on the grounds he was a jew, only to be overruled. Hilmes writes:
Among Wagner’s less attractive qualities was his insistence on repeatedly tormenting his new in-house conductor with anti-Semitic barbs. (145)
He notes Levi tried to break his ties to the Wagners many times. Yet in spite of this, Levi is referred to consistently thereafter as a family friend… it seems to me that whatever this complicated relationship might have been, friendship is not quite the right term for it. His relationship with Cosima far less so, it hurts my soul to read of it.
In 1883 Wagner died while in Vienna. There were scenes of operatic horror as Cosima lay by the side of his decomposing corpse and refused to be removed, kept slipping in to be with his body, cut off all of her hair and sewed it into a pillow to be buried with Wagner. From here she would dedicate her life to his myth, his music, and his festival in Bayreuth. Everything was sacrificed to that cause, but only as she defined it and controlled it. She never released power, and she never forgave those who challenged her. Wahnfried in Bayreuth became a shrine to her dead husband and the family and to Germany as she imagined it. She placed glass over Wagner’s desk to keep it always as he left it, people described the chair that could not be sat in, the many ornaments and the piano that could never be touched. This is what she tried to do on a much grander scale across Germany itself, making of his life, work and thought a kind of museum performed over and over again through the festival, yet at the same a living force in music and in German nationalism. She tried to control it all, keep Wagner at the pinnacle of musical achievement (a strange madness for anyone who loved music) as well as relevance for the ideal of the German people. It is terrifying how effective she was.
I loved this quote about the Beyreuth festival from Brahms’s pupil Elisabeth von Herzogenberg — and of course I had forgotten that Brahms and the Wagnerians were sworn enemies, I like Brahms even more now. But this sums up the feeling that you get from all of this — Cosima’s relentless rule in the house, her children’s desperately unhappy lives in service of her will and Wagner’s myth and the way that any one and everyone was also pulled into that service who could be of any use:
People like that go to Parsifal just as Catholics visit graves on Good Friday, it has become a church service for them. The whole bunch of them are in an unnaturally heightened, hysterically enraptured state like Ribera’s saints, with their eyes raised aloft so that one can see only the whites of them, and under their shirts they all have carefully tended stigmata. I tell you, the whole thing has a really bad smell to it, like a church that has never been aired or like a butcher’s display of meat in summer: a blood-thirstiness and musty smell of incense, a sultry sensuality with terribly serious gestures, a heaviness and a bombast otherwise unprecedented in art weighs down on one, its brooding intensity taking one’s breath away. (194)
This is the antisemitic and German nationalist atmosphere that drew Houston Chamberlain here in quest of one of Wagner’s daughters — he ended up marrying Eva. He is perhaps best known for writing the innocuous sounding Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century), a favourite of Hitler’s. While de Gobineau had been long in favour in Wahnfried circles, Cosima and others felt that Chamberlain had updated these outdated ideas of race with more modern understandings of race for the new century. She was ecstatic at snagging such a mind to be in service to the family’s task and Germany itself. Meanwhile Siegfried had married Winifred, another English woman raised in Germany and friendly to the cause. She described Hitler’s first open visit in 1925. He continued to visit in secret over the next few years while still widely seen as the nasty little man he was, up through his successes in 1933, so as not to compromise the family. Hilmes writes:
Generally Hitler would turn up at Wahnfried after dark, Friedelind Wagner recalling that ‘late as it was, he never failed to come into the nursery and tell us gruesome tales of his adventure. We all sat up among the pillows in the half-light and listened while he made our flesh creep.’ Chamberlain too, could scarcely wait for Hitler’s flying visits: ‘Visits by A.H. highly enjoyable & enthralling, eyes wide open & directed at him.’
Joseph Goebbels came along to visit the great man Chamberlain as well, though he was already very ill. He would die in 1927 — very possibly of late-stage syphilis. One can only hope, it is most unpleasant. Cosima died in 1930, Siegfried followed soon after, Winifred was left to run the festival which she did most ably with great support from Hitler himself until the end of the war.
It is hard to say what I feel finishing this… horror certainly. Amazement at what have always seemed to me to be such different times, such different worlds spanned by Cosima’s life — from the rebellion of Liszt and d’Agoult and the romantic period and 1848 smashed against an ancien regime governess’s rocks through to Wagner and Brahms and then to the rise of Hitler in Germany … it is almost inconceivable really. Yet her life shows how these things tied together, how far Nazi Germany was from being a strange bubble, shows the depths of its roots. She was such a force. I need to read more of Wagner to get a better grip on how much she shaped his legacy, but I’m not sure I have the stomach for it.
Tucson was good to us last night. Club Congress, beautiful old hotel and bar, old for Tucson anyways, where gangster Dillinger was once chased down and arrested in prohibition days and there once were bullet holes in the wooden paneling of the bar but not any longer and this is not a place that just trades on history, but is full of good music. And still has liquor. Of course.
I’ve seen Justin Townes Earle play here, one of my all time favourites though he was drunker than he should have been that night. But tonight it was Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears and they were amazing live. My brother said they were, and he didn’t lie. Old time blues with some funk and some Jimi Hendrix, some rawness and some rhythm and dude plays the harmonica as well as guitar and so much energy and two saxes and a trumpet up on stage, and that Joe Lewis born in Tucson and his family all over the place and it meant that crowd was most diverse and I loved Tucson.
Fourth avenue too, full of young beautiful things (but oh, such a relief from the more contoured and sculpted, more predictable beautiful things of LA and London), and us older things, and even some much older folks. All of us out tonight, living life well. We headed to Shay’s after, and then to the R Bar to meet an old friend of my brothers’, dude went to elementary with T and plays soccer with Dan and his family owned the liquor store on 22nd and the freeway–I don’t know how many times we have driven past that liquor store. Now he’s getting his PhD on arid land ecologies and I almost waxed lyrical on Masanobu Fukuoka whose final philosophical manifesto of sowing seeds in the desert I just finished reading. But I didn’t wax too much. He’s a bit out there I guess from some of the the hard science points of view, and this PhD is all data. I think we talked too much about economics, racism and police brutality, but a good night because we were all on the side of the righteous. And there was cider.
Walking down under the bridge and along 4th, behind some cholos walking their walk with their tube socks pulled up and long shorts pulled down and then past some large women wearing very little and damn they were pretty impressive and you know, you got it flaunt it, and a whole mix of everyone wearing whatever the hell they felt like from long skirts to short skirts, jeans to short shorts to little black dresses to hippy dresses, stupidly high heels and flip flops and cowboy boots, all ages and races and degrees of sobriety and I was pretty happy here in my home town. I realised I been missing cholos walking their walk. Been missing walking too. If only Tucson had a public transportation system that worked well enough to get us the whole way home (or anywhere else we needed to go). But this little piece of this sprawling unsustainable city feels like a real place, it has everything you need to bring different people together, get people walking, talking, meeting. So many people out and about walking and laughing it feels safe, so many different kinds of people it feels vibrant, it feels good. American cities are so segregated and Tucson isn’t that much different (though it’s got nothing on LA), but here everyone was out enjoying themselves. Together.
The planner geographer side of me could tell a lot of that had to do with this old core of an old walkable downtown, its mixed use and cluster of bars and the old Rialto theatre (with Michael Franti playing) and restaurants and taco trucks and the redevelopment of 4th avenue bridge with its purple lights and wide sidewalks and art making it no longer a scary-ass place to walk into so you can get from the vibrance of 4th Ave proper to that awesome strip along Congress and everyone is on the move between them. I like seeing the streetcars too, though I know they were hell of controversial.
Gives you a bit of hope. All except for the clusters of cops on a few of the corners, but they mainly seemed to be breathalizing people before they were anywhere near a car, and there was some laughter and people were talking to them voluntarily (though that confuses me and cops generally make me feel the opposite of safe), so it seems maybe they were just on a mission of prevention. But the crowds just flowed right around them.
But when? Not on one of the two nights we’re there, I know it.
Shall we go?
[Mark, can we go? Shall we go?]
We walked around, posters everywhere for Swedish bands I don’t know and couldn’t care less about, finally we found Joe:
This shit is real. Joe Bataan has meant a whole lot to me over the years, from latin soul to above all boogaloo. I can’t believe I got to see him play in Stockholm.
The email said the concert started at 8 and the doors opened at 9. That was a little confusing. we compromised by showing up around 8:40. We got a little table getting there that early, and a good spot for seeing and dancing.
This 19th Century concert hall called Nalen was brilliant, though like everywhere in this puritanical paradise, the drinks were SO goddamn expensive. Finally, late, quite late, I mean the band played three songs before he got there late, but then finally damn. Joe Bataan.
He started with the Lord’s prayer, that was somewhat unexpected. Nice though, even to my atheistic self. He played Good Feelings, of course, one of my very favourites:
So much more, Setenta the backing band and they were pretty awesome. I missed the brass section, but the rhythm section was fierce. A little
Encore was Subway Joe.
Amazing. Joe Bataan is still amazing at 73, still young (at heart) gifted and brown. He rocked Stockholm.
Also, Mark now knows I will never go back to Georgia. He just doesn’t know why.
‘How can I most quickly improve?’ I asked him one day later on. ‘You must walk constantly in the forest,’ he answered; and he meant what he said to be taken literally. It was his own favourite prescription that he advised for my application.
Brahms’ became Florence May’s teacher through the recommendation of Clara Schumann, and her well researched biography of him is a lovely read. It is, of course, very much caught up in the romanticism of the time — the more I read of it, like E.T.A. Hoffman’s work and his character Kriesler whom Brahms particularly loved, the clearer it all becomes.
Brahms didn’t like playing very much in front of people, especially his own work. May begs him to and he finally did — she describes it and thus gives us a lovely picture of her time with him that you can almost enter:
I never listen to it [string Sextet in B flat] without being carried back in thought to the gardener’s house on the slope of the Caecilienberg where, in my blue-papered, carpetless little room, Brahms sat at the piano and played it to me. The scent of flowers was borne in through the open lattice-windows, of which the green outside sun shutters were closed on one side of the room to keep out the blazing August sun, and open on another to views of the beautiful scenery.
He especially loved Schubert. Me too.
Perhaps one of the things I enjoyed most about May’s biography is how much insight it gives not just into the hopeful romanticism of the period, but also into their approaches to music. I played a little in my youth, but don’t really understand much of this and similar passages discussing the technical aspects of the work, or if we would still consider it true. Regardless, I am fascinated by them, especially in listening to Brahms’ music now:
He had always been extremely careful, when selecting music for me to work at, to choose what would develop my technical power without straining my hands, and when I had wished to study something of his had answered that his compositions were unfit for me for the present, as they required too much physical strength and grasp. He fancied, indeed, at that time that nearly all of them were beyond a woman’s strength. When I asked why it was that he composed only such enormously difficult things for the pianoforte, he said they came to him naturally, and he could not compose otherwise (‘Ich kann nicht anders’).
Years later they meet again, and she relates to him her continuing efforts to play his music regardless of difficulty:
I told him I had lately been getting up the same B flat Concerto which he had played at the time, and had performed it in London before a private audience. He was interested in hearing the particulars of the occasion, and when I said, laughingly, that the fatigue entailed by the practice of its enormous difficulties had given me all sorts of aches and pains, and made it necessary for me to go into the country for change of air after the performance was over, he replied in the same vein: ‘But that is very dangerous; one must not compose such things. It is too dangerous!’
It is, of course, funny to me to think of a single piece being so difficult for a privileged musician that they have to retire to the country after playing it. But still, I find this understanding of music’s power and its toll on the body fascinating.
Johannes Brahms was the son of Jacob Brahms — an impoverished guild musician, whose own career in contrast to that of his son offers some insight into the difference between everyday musical cultures and high culture, and the many links between guild musicians and age-old folk melodies and new music hall tunes, standing in very distinct contrast to high classical standards and the classical compositions demanded by royalty and high society.
There existed, not far from his home, a representative of the old ‘Stadt Pfeifereien,’ establishments descended directly from the musicians’ guilds of the Middle Ages, whose traditions lingered on in the rural districts of Germany for some time after the original institutions had become extinct. The ‘Stadt Pfeiferei’ was recognised as the official musical establishment of its neighbourhood, and was presided over by the town-musician, who retained certain ancient privileges. He held a monopoly for providing the music for all open-air festivities in the villages, hamlets, and small townships within his district, and formed his band or bands from apprenticed pupils, who paid a trifling sum of money, often helped with their manual labour in the work of his house and the cultivation of his garden or farm, and, in return, lived with him as part of his family and received musical instruction from himself and his assistants. At the termination of their apprenticeship he provided his scholars with indentures of character and efficiency, according to desert, and dismissed them to follow their fortunes. Country lads with ambition, who desired to see something of the world, or to attain a better position than that of a peasant or journeyman, would persuade their parents to place them in one of these establishments. They were expected to acquire a practical knowledge of several instruments, so as to be able to take part upon either as occasion might demand, and the bands thus formed were available for all local functions.
And here we have the Hamburg of Jacob Brahms, one long ago lost to us but some of which Florence May could still see and experience:
It is not easy to imagine the feelings of this youth of nineteen or twenty on his arrival, fresh from the simple life of the Ditmarsh peasants, in the great commercial fortress-city, still the old Hamburg of the day, with its harbour and shipping and busy river scenes; its walls and city gates, locked at sunset; its water-ways and bridges; its churches and exchange; its tall, gabled houses; its dim, tortuous alleys. Refined ease and sordid revelry were well represented there; the one might be contemplated on the pleasant, shady Jungfernstieg, the fashionable promenade where rich merchants and fine ladies and gay officers sat and sipped punch or coffee, wine or lemonade, served to them by the nimble waiters of the Alster Pavilion, the high-class refreshment-house on the lake hard by; the other, in the so-called Hamburger Berg, the sailors’ quarter, abounding in booths and shows, small public-houses, and noisy dancing-saloons, in which scenes of low-life gaiety were regularly enacted. Johann Jakob Brahms was destined to appear, in the course of his career as a musician, in both localities. He made his debut in the latter.
An aside, I quite love how she compares this to East London:
Thrown entirely on his own resources, with a mere pittance in his pocket for immediate needs, he had to pick up a bare existence, as best he could, in the courtyards and dancing-saloons of the Hamburg Wapping.
The street where Brahms was born is also long gone, so it is wonderful to have such a description of it, along with an old photograph.
The house in which Johannes Brahms was born still stands as it was seventy years ago, and is now known as 60, Speckstrasse. The street itself, which has since been changed and widened, was then Speck-lane, and formed part of the Gaenge-Viertel, the ‘Lane-quarter’ of the old Hamburg. Want of space within the city walls had led to the construction of rows of houses along a number of lanes adjacent to one another, which had once been public thoroughfares through gardens. A neighbourhood of very dark and narrow streets was thus formed, for the houses were tall and gabled, and arranged to hold several families. They were generally built of brick, loam, and wood, and were thrown up with the object of packing as many human beings as possible into a given area. The Lane-quarter exists no longer, but many of the old houses remain, and some are well kept and picturesque to the eye of the passer-by. Not so 60, Speckstrasse. This house does not form part of the main street, but stands as it did in 1833, in a small dismal court behind, which is entered through a close passage, and was formerly called Schlueter’s-court. It would be impossible for the most imaginative person, on arriving at this spot, to indulge in any of the picturesque fancies supposed to be appropriate to a poet’s birthplace; the house and its surroundings testify only to the commonplace reality of a bare and repulsive poverty. A steep wooden staircase in the centre, closed in at night by gates, leads right and left, directly from the court, to the various stories of the building. Each of its habitations is planned exactly as every other, excepting that those near the top are contracted by the sloping roof. Jakob and Johanna lived in the first-floor dwelling to the left on facing the house. On entering it, it is difficult to repress a shiver of bewilderment and dismay. The staircase door opens on to a diminutive space, half kitchen, half lobby, where some cooking may be done and a child’s bed made up, and which has a second door leading to the living-room. This communicates with the sleeping-closet, which has its own window, but is so tiny it can scarcely be called a room. There is nothing else, neither corner nor cupboard. Where Jakob kept his instruments and how he managed to practise are mysteries which the ordinary mind cannot satisfactorily penetrate, but it is probable that his easy-going temperament helped him over these and other difficulties, and that he was fairly content with his lot. If Johanna took life a little more hardly, it is certain that husband and wife resembled each other in their affection for the children, and that the strong tie of love which bound the renowned composer of after-years to father and mother alike, had its earliest beginning in the fondness and pride which attended his cradle in the obscure abode in Schlueter’s-court.
Coming from this background, Brahms was able to acheive all he did with the help of his father and the musicians guild, who not only taught him, but also raised funds so that he could be more classically trained.
The upshot of these things was that, a few months after the interview with Marxsen, a private subscription concert was arranged ‘for the benefit of the further musical education’ of Johannes, which took place in the assembly-room of the Zum Alten Rabe, a first-class refreshment-house, long since pulled down, that stood in its own pleasure-garden near the Dammthor. The programme included a Mozart quartet for pianoforte and strings, Beethoven’s quintet for pianoforte and wind, and some pianoforte solos, amongst them a bravura piece by Herz, the execution of which, by the youthful concert-giver, seems to have caused immense sensation in the circle of his admiring friends.
And so the door begin to open just a little. One of the other lovely features of May’s book is a glimpse into the lives and views and battles of Brahms’ contemporaries, beginning with Brahms’ first teacher, Marxsen:
To us, who belong to a generation that has been educated on the purist principles first made widely acceptable by Mendelssohn’s influence and since popularized by the genius of a few famous executants, with Clara Schumann, Rubinstein, and Joachim at their head, it is difficult to realize the revolution that has taken place in the general condition of musical art since the days when Marxsen, three years Mendelssohn’s senior, was young. Many things were then accepted and admired in Vienna, in Berlin, in Leipzig, in London, which would now be regarded as impossible atrocities. Marxsen was capable of setting the Kreutzer Sonata for full orchestra, but this is hardly so surprising as that the Leipzig authorities should have produced the arrangement at one of the Gewandhaus concerts, or that Schumann should have mentioned it indulgently, on whatever grounds, in the Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik.
I love that May also gives the kind of teaching Brahms obtained under Marxsen, the musical traditions he was taught:
it may be said that as a teacher of free composition, and especially of the art of building up the forms which may be studied in the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, he was great—the more so that he did not educate his pupils merely by setting them to imitate the outward shape of classical models. He began by teaching them to form a texture, by training them radically in the art of developing a theme. Taking a phrase or a figure from one or other of the great masters, he would desire the pupil to exhibit the same idea in every imaginable variety of form, and would make him persevere in this exercise until he had gained facility in perceiving the possibilities lying in a given subject, and ingenuity in presenting them. Pursuing the same method with material of the pupil’s own invention, he aimed at bringing him to feel, as by intuition, whether a musical subject were or were not suitable for whatever immediate purpose might be in view. 
‘Teaching them to form a texture…’ I quite love seeing music like that. Under Marxsen’s tutelage he gave his first public concert, and May is delightful enough to not just give the playlist, but her commentary.
It was on September 21 that Johannes made his fresh start in life by giving a concert of his own, thus presenting himself to his circle as a musician who was now to stand on an independent footing. It took place in the familiar room of the ‘Old Raven,’ ‘Herr Honnef’s Hall,’ with the assistance of Marxsen’s friends, Madame and Fraeulein Cornet, and some instrumentalists of Hamburg. The price of tickets was one mark (about a shilling), and the programme, as printed in the Hamburger Nachrichten of the 20th, was as follows:
1. Adagio and rondo from Rosenhain’s Concerto in A major for Piano, performed by the concert-giver.
2. Duet from Mozart’s ‘Figaro,’ sung by Mad. and Fraeul. Cornet.
3. Variations for Violin, by Artot, performed by Herr Risch.
4. ‘Das Schwabenmaedchen,’ Lied, sung by Mad. Cornet.
5. Fantasia on Themes from Rossini’s ‘Tell,’ for Piano, by Doehler, performed by the concert-giver.
6. Introduction and Variations for Clarinet, by Herzog, performed by Herr Glade.
7. Aria from Mozart’s ‘Figaro,’ sung by Frl. Cornet.
8. Fantasia for Violoncello, composed and performed by Herr
9. a) ‘Der Tanz’ } Lieder, sung by Mad.
b) ‘Der Fischer auf dem Meer’ } Cornet.
10. a) Fugue by Sebastian Bach
b) Serenade for left hand only, by E. Marxsen
c) Etude by Herz, performed by the concert-giver.
Unattractive as it now seems, this selection of pieces was no doubt made with a view to the taste of the day, and the inclusion of a single Bach fugue was probably a rather daring concession to that of the concert-giver and his teacher.
Bach’s Fugue as a concession, not as a crowd pleaser! That’s interesting. But emerging thus as a ‘professional’ musician was not enough to climb out of poverty, instead he entered into the hard narrow life of a low-level musician:
The four or five years immediately succeeding his formal entry into life were, perhaps, the darkest of Brahms’ career. Money had to be earned, and the young Bach-Mozart-Beethoven enthusiast earned it by giving wretchedly-paid lessons to pupils who lacked both talent and wish to learn, and by his night drudgery amid the sordid surroundings of the Hamburg dancing-saloons.
A little more about his poverty as he remembered it:
We have read in Widmann’s pages of the spirit in which the great composer, a few years before his death, recalled these passages of his struggling youth:
‘He could not, he said, wish that it had been less rough and austere. He had certainly earned his first money by arranging marches and dances for garden orchestras, or orchestral music for the piano, but it gave him pleasure even now, when he came across one of these anonymously circulating pieces, to think that he had devoted faithful labour and all the knowledge at his command, to such hireling’s work. He did not even regard as useless experience that he had often had to accompany wretched singers or to play dance music in Lokals, whilst he was longing for the quiet morning hours during which he should be able to write down his own thoughts. “The prettiest songs came to me as I blacked my boots before daybreak.”‘
It was partly luck that changed his circumstances, a meeting with Hungarian refugee Edward Reményi — the commentary from such a time on the influx of refugees is itself fascinating in its parallels with today:
It happened as a natural consequence of the political revolution which took place early in the year 1848 in Germany and Austria, that, during the year or two following its speedy termination, there was an influx into Hamburg and its neighbourhood of refugees on their way to America. Conspicuous among them were a number of Hungarians of various sorts and degrees, who found such sympathetic welcome in the rich, free merchant-city that they were in no hurry to leave it. Some of them remained there for many months on one pretext or another, and amongst these was the violinist Edward Reményi, a German-Hungarian Jew whose real name was Hoffmann. (92 – 93)
Particularly in migrants’ shifting relationship with authority.
The violinist had connections of his own in the neighbourhood. Begas, a Hungarian magnate, had settled down into a large villa at Dehensen, on the Lüneburg Heath, that had been placed at his disposal for as long a time as he should find it possible to elude or cajole the police authorities, and kept open house for his compatriots and their friends. To his circle Brahms was introduced, and much visiting ensued between Dehensen and Winsen, for one or two musicians staying with Begas were pleased to come and make music with Reményi and Johannes, and to partake of the Giesemanns’ hospitality. (93)
It was to be Reményi, refugee that he was, who would make it possible for Brahms to gain introduction to those who would champion his talent and make it possible for him to find the time and space to perfect his skill and compose music.
No doubt Brahms’ heart beat fast when he left home on this his first quest of adventure, and probably not the least ardent of his anticipations was that of making the personal acquaintance of the celebrated violinist whose first appearance in Hamburg at the Philharmonic concert of March 11, 1848, with Beethoven’s Concerto, remained vividly in his remembrance as one of the few great musical events of his own life. (96)
On to more of the politics of the German music world!
The musical world of Leipzig, the city raised by the leadership of Mendelssohn to be the recognised capital of classical art, had become split after the death of the master in November, 1847, into two factions, both without an active head. The Schumannites, whilst receiving no encouragement from the great composer whose art they championed, decried Mendelssohn as a pedant and a phrase-maker, who, having nothing particular to say, had covered his lack of meaning by facility of workmanship. The Mendelssohnians, on the other hand, declared Schumann to be wanting in mastery of form, and perceived in his works a tendency to subordinate the objective, to the subjective, side of musical art. The division soon spread beyond Leipzig throughout Germany, and, in the course of years, to England, with the result that Mendelssohn, once a popular idol, is now rarely represented in a concert programme.
Meanwhile Franz Liszt, perhaps the greatest pianoforte executant of all times, and one of the most magnetic personalities of his own, had exchanged his brilliant career of virtuoso for the position of conductor of the orchestra of the Weimar court theatre, with the avowed noble purpose of bringing to a hearing such works of genius as had little chance of being performed elsewhere. He declared himself the advocate of the ‘New-German’ school, and, making active propaganda for the creeds of Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner, succeeded in attracting to his standard some of the most talented of the younger generation of artists, amongst whom Joachim, Raff, and the gifted and generous Hans von Bülow, were some of the first converts. There were, therefore, three different schools of serious musical thought in the year 1853, each of which boasted numerous and distinguished adherents.(100- 101)
A world where youth was catapulted into fame as prodigy, like Joseph Joachim, student of Mendelssohn and friends with Liszt, who was to become one of Brahms’ greatest friends and champions:
The loss of Mendelssohn left him, at the age of sixteen, lonely and disconsolate, in spite of his being himself already a distinguished personality and a universal favourite. (103)
Brahms in fact meets Liszt in this first halcyon trip along the Rhine where it seems as the whole world opens up to him. Apparently this first meeting is famous and they didn’t get along. But did Brahms nod off? It didn’t really matter, he was a hit, and from there he would only move up from recognition to recognition.
Why I love him? Because he never forgot where he was from:
He certainly touched Joachim’s heart by his loving talk of Hamburg, rich in proud traditions, and not without art memories of its own, associated with the great names of Klopstock and Lessing, of Telemann and Keiser, of Handel and Mattheson and Emanuel Bach.
Upon his return after this trip where fame first touched him, he began a tradition:
As to Johannes himself, the feelings he had not been able to describe in his letter to Schumann were probably strong enough within his heart to touch the joy of the first home embraces with a gravity that did not immediately admit of speech. The first emotions over, however, an exuberant mirthfulness asserted itself in the bearing of the happy young fellow. He established at this time a custom from which he never afterwards departed. The first visit paid by him after his arrival was to Marxsen. One to the Cossels soon followed, and, on this occasion of his return from a first real absence, he went the round of several Lokals, where he had been accustomed to work regularly, and in his lightness of heart flourished on some of the instruments that had been the sign of his bondage, in very joy at his emancipation. (143-144)
Brahms was to become deeply involved with, and indeed practically part of Schumann’s household, taking care of his wife and family after he committed himself to a mental asylum. In a book written at this time, you can see the helplessness in the face of unknown and terrifying mental illness:
Schumann was already in an advanced stage of the disease which, technically described under different learned names, according to its many varieties, is known to the layman as softening of the brain. (196)
We haven’t many better words for Schumann’s illness today, but he died within three years. After this, Brahms gained employment for a petty German prince (see his mockery of high society here, again following in the footsteps of Johannes Kreisler). Volume 1 ends after he has resigned his post and is getting ready to leave for Vienna. May writes of his leave-taking:
‘Father,’ said Brahms, looking slyly at his father as he said good-bye, ‘if things should be going badly with you, music is always the best consolation; go and study my old “Saul”—you will find comfort there.’
He had thickly interlarded the volume with bank-notes. 
She ends with a summary in terms of his music, just how much Brahms had accomplished over this period of his life. Now to find evenings when I can sit and listen:
It is highly interesting to possess a clear conception of Brahms’ achievements as a composer, and, therewith, of his exact title to consideration at this important moment of his career. This will be best obtained by a glance at the list[Pg 281] of the chief completed works with which he was to present himself in the city associated with the most hallowed memories of his art. His departure for Vienna is by no means to be regarded as coincident with the close of any one period of his creative activity, though it emphatically marks the end, not only of a chapter, but of the first book of his life.
List of Brahms’ Chief Completed Works on his Departure for Vienna.
Variations on Schumann’s theme in F sharp minor.
Variations on an original theme.
Variations on a Hungarian song.
Variations and Fugue on Handel’s theme.
Pianoforte Duet: Variations on a theme by Schumann.
Pianoforte with Orchestra: Concerto in D minor.
Orchestral: Two Serenades.
Sextet in B flat for Strings.
Trio in B major for Pianoforte and Strings.
Quartet in G minor ” ” ” ”
Quartet in A major ” ” ” ”
Five books (thirty songs).
‘Magelone Romances’ (first six).
Vocal Duets: two books.
Three Vocal Quartets.
The 13th Psalm.
The newly-finished String Quintet is not included in the list, as the work was not published in this its first form. The Hungarian Dances, as being arrangements, are also omitted.
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.
E.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:
The 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.
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!
Came to LA again, played at Spaceland this time. And I see them every time they come, and I am always blown away.
Always. They’re just getting better and better in fact, though I’d have a hard time saying whether their latest album “Midnight at the Movies” or “Yuma” is my favourite. And I love “The Good Life” as well. The latest is less country I’d say, more folk, but we all know the distinction is a stupid one imposed by commercial interests, the tradition is the same one, and Woodie Guthrie, Hank Williams Senior, Steve Earle and Townes van Zandt and… the list goes on really, they all transcend definitions. I love them, and as young as he is, Justin can be added to the list on his own merit and not on the strength of a name given him at birth. He adds a new greatness to the decades of tradition, and I don’t think there is a higher compliment I could give anyone. His song lyrics are incredible, I love the deeply personal nature, the beauty of so many of them. And the good times, and the good food, his own flaws and the bad women. And the good ole working class traditions of work and struggle. And you can sing them in the shower, which to me is one of the ultimate tests of a good song.
Well when John Henry died, he lay lookin’ at the sun
He said Lord take me now my work is done, Lord, Lord
Lord, take me now my work is done
Yeah, but when they laid him out in that box of pine, boy
They laid that hammer by his side, Lord, Lord
laid that hammer by his side
Yeah Joe Hill, he worked any job he could find, boy
He’d rake your leaves, and pick your vine, Lord, Lord
Rake your leaves, and pick your vine
Yeah and they killed Joe Hill, put a bullet to his name
But that bullet made a martyr of the same, Lord, Lord
that bullet made a martyr of the same
Yeah, and my grandaddy worked his whole damn life, well
He never saved a nickle though he tried, Lord, Lord
Never saved a nickle though he tried
And he died in Tennessee but he couldn’t find no rest,
With that long road to Texas lyin’ ahead, Lord Lord,
that long road to Texas lyin’ ahead
So I ain’t no brave man, And Lord I expect to lead
A long life a’workin’ and you’re dead, Lord Lord
A long life a’workin’ and you’re dead
They killed John Henry, they killed John Henry
They killed John Henry, but they won’t kill me, Lord
They killed John Henry, they killed John Henry
They killed John Henry, but they won’t kill me.
And his favourite Van Zandt songs? Mr. Gold and Mr. Mudd, and Rex’s Blues, mine too, though I’d throw Dollar Bill Blues in there. And there’s a cover of him playing his Daddy’s Tom Ame’s Prayer…another of my favourites. And they did a Replacement’s cover, Can’t Hardly Wait…I love this song. And the Woody Guthrie song they always play, I Don’t Care…funny, it’s just funny. And explains why I love everything he writes. All the man needs are liner notes, then some of the hipsters who attended last night’s concert would find out who Townes, Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill and John Henry actually were.
Cory Younts is fucking incredible as well, the mandolin, the banjo, the harmonica…the man is a quick picking master, lyrical and gorgeous one minute, and then the best train you’ve ever heard, he can make your heart stop its beating. I almost prefer just the two of them together to the more orchestrated tracks on the albums, but then a CD can never speak to what it means to see someone play live. Go see them play. And buy their music here, more of it will go to the band and less to evil Amazon or itunes…
Frank Fairfield opened for them, and he was great too, he made me happy…like stepping back in time really, way back. And I couldn’t believe I was in L.A. The old school fiddle playing, banjo, guitar, the quaver in the voice, the shabby grey suit, the old Carter Family songs and pure death and desolation. There’s just something about him…you can hear him here, but contact him, stay up on where he’s playing, anything else? I’m afraid not…
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.