Monday, December 1, 2008
Turning Everything to the Purpose
As my readers know, I love Brahms. Like many of the great composers, however, it must be acknowledged that he was not much of a mensch. His well-known apology for not having offended each person present at a dinner-party was a bit of a self-effacing joke on his part; he was notorious for his barbed, even cruel, wit and his heedless egotism, and, according to a friend of his youth, Brahms was "sehr herbe in Wesen": very bitter in his essence. This bitterness was tempered later, when, as one of the only composers in history to be acclaimed and handsomely remunerated in his own lifetime, he was able and eager to show extraordinarily generosity to those in need.
It has often been speculated that Brahms's personal problems were the result of childhood trauma. Although his home life seems to have been happy, his family struggled in poverty, and the young Brahms was forced to quit school and bring in an income to help out. So, from the age of twelve, Johannes played piano in the dockside brothels of his native Hamburg, the Animierlokale ("stimulation pubs"), providing music for the dancing of the St. Pauli Girls and their sailor clients.
Brahms was a virtuoso pianist and musician, and he was able to play the waltzes, polkas, and mazurkas that his employers demanded from rote memory, while at the same time reading from a novel or a book of poetry that he had propped up on the music rack of the whorehouse piano. But, as his biographer Jan Swafford writes,
the effects of the Lokale on him were deep and indelible. For the rest of his life, with friends or in his cups, Brahms would recall those nights as dark and shameful . . . . He told one beloved that "he saw things and recieved impressions which left a deep shadow on his mind" . . . . Between dances the women would sit the prepubescent teenager on their laps and pour beer into him, and pull down his pants and hand him around to be played with, to general hilarity.
And Swafford continues, in an aside which drew mocking derision from Charles Rosen when he reviewed the Brahms biography in The New York Review of Books in 1998:
There may have been worse from the sailors. Johannes was as fair and pretty as a girl [see the sketch of him, at twenty, above].
As Swafford notes philosophically:
Everything that happens plays a part in an artist's life. What elevates one and not another to the level of genius is not only talent and ambition and luck, but a gift for turning everything to the purpose. Many first-rank creators have had traumas in their lives -- Beethoven's drunken father and his chronic illness and deafness, Robert Schumann's mental illness . . . With Brahms, it was first of all the lowlife of Hamburg. The [St. Pauli] Girls shaped him along with the training in music, the novels and poetry. The . . . squalor of his home and the Lokale . . . and . . . the idealistic intensity of his studies and his reading -- all that is one with the story of his music.
I've been thinking about Brahms lately in light of my friend Fallen Sparrow's recent brutally honest posts about his struggles with intimacy. Fallen and I had a discussion about his use of the word "monstrous" to describe some of the women he'd been involved with before he found sobriety. His violation as a teenager by an older woman is monstrous indeed, and I hope and pray that, as Brahms was able to do, Fallen will be able to temper the poison that was given him into medicine that he might use to heal the sick. There are people around him who need that medicine, and who need to receive it from him in particular.