Monthly Archives: July 2014

Brahms and friendship

I do love the music of Brahms. Last week I had the pleasure of hearing his Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 performed by the Orion String Quartet with Peter Serkin, piano. And it was lovely to hear it live! I’m looking forward to hearing a couple more Brahms pieces during our upcoming season – Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1 played by the Belcea Quartet in October and then Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 played by Simon Trpčeski in November.

Brahms started to tour in his early twenties and that is when he met many influential musicians and composers including Joseph Joachim, Franz Liszt, and the Schumanns. Robert and Clara Schumann had a life long influence on Johannes. Robert Schumann’s praise of the young Brahms helped bring him to the notice of the general public. They both encouraged him in his work. Brahms and the Schumann’s developed a strong and lasting friendship. When Robert was confined to a sanatorium, Johannes returned and moved into an upper apartment in the Schumann home to help out. He was allowed to visit Robert at the sanatorium (whereas Clara was not until just before his death) so he could keep them both apprised of what was happening. His friendship with Clara continued for many years after Robert’s death. There are many accounts of Brahms begin in love with Clara and her not returning his feelings but I’m not sure how important that is. It is obvious they had a strong friendship and respect for each other and that they supported and inspired artist creations as good friends should.

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Brahms’ childhood

The Brahms family was not a rich family initially. Johann Jakob and Christiane worked hard to provide for themselves and their growing family. As mentioned in last week’s post, when they married they didn’t have much between them but they were both hard workers.

They had three children and Johannes was the middle child. He had an older sister and a younger brother. Though his father broke tradition and did not follow in his own father’s footsteps, initially Johannes started to learn music to learn his father’s craft and follow in the new family tradition of being a musician. Johannes talent became evident fairly quickly and he moved on to proper lessons at a young age. Making him into a child prodigy was discouraged by one of his teachers. And instead of sending Johannes out on a grand tour at a young age, his parents continued his lessons. Though the family did not have a lot, his parents did what they could to foster his talent. Johannes started contributing to the household finances as soon as he was able by playing in local taverns and dance halls.

By all accounts, while his childhood was not luxurious, it was loving. He was shown the value of hard work by example and was raised by parents who wanted the best for their children. Johannes had a close relationship with both of his parents and kept in touch with them both over the years. After his mother’s death, his father remarried with Johannes’ blessing and no animosity towards his new stepmother (though he was well past the age of needing a mother figure at that point). His upbringing gave him the foundation for his future and it seems like a pretty solid foundation to me.

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Brahms’ parents

Johannes Brahms is a well known name in classical music. Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833 and his family background had a big influence in his life. Let’s take a brief look at his parents.

His father, Johann Jakob, was born into a family of carpenters, wheelwrights, and tradesmen. His father ran a general store in Heide. Johann Jakob did not follow in his father’s footsteps. He became a musician instead. His was an apprentice for 3 years with Theodor Muller and when finished, at the age of 19, he left for Hamburg to look for work as a musician.  He played several instruments with most of his work coming from his skill on the horn and the double bass. Much of his work was in dance halls initially. He did become a bugler with the town guard and played his double bass in the Philharmonic Orchestra of Hamburg later in his life.

At the age of 24, Johann Jakob married Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen, as seamstress 17 years older than him. She had been born in Hamburg. She had started work sewing at the age of 13 and eventually worked as a general servant. The two met when Johann Jakob rented a room from her parents. They married in 1830 with not much to their name. But they made do and worked hard. Their marriage lasted until 1864 when they separated. Christiane died in 1865 and Johann Jakob remarried in 1866, with the blessing of his famous son.

Next week we’ll take a closer look at his childhood!

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A final note on Chopin

In spite of his short life, his ill health, and a relatively small number of public performances, Chopin is someone who achieved great popular status, similar to today’s pop stars superstar status! Chopin spent most of his life living as an artist. He paid the bills with his art form – music. Teaching, performing, composing, and publishing all played a part in his lifestyle from the age of 20 until his death at age 39. And his artistic lifestyle had an impact on his personal life.

In 1835 Chopin met old friends of his family from Poland. Their daughter, Maria Wodzińska, was now 16. He pursued her and proposed in the fall of 1836. Initially her family supported this proposition, however, they were concerned about Chopin’s health. He was prone to illness. By early 1837, Countess Wodzińska, Maria’s mother, had written to Chopin to let him know that the engagement would not end with a marriage. Aside some his ill health, there is speculation that his prospective mother-in-law did not approve of his lifestyle or his associations with other women.

In 1836, through mutual friends, Chopin had met Aurore Dedevant, the French writer known as George Sand. At that point, Chopin’s romantic interests lay with Maria. However, after the engagement and his heart were broken, the friendship between Chopin and Sand deepened and they became a couple from 1838 to 1847. They never married but did live together for much of this time. The early part of the relationship seems happy. And while he was often ill, Sand did a lot to aid in his convalescence over the years – moving them into her estate outside of Paris, and trips to warmer climates in particular. Chopin ended the relationship in 1847 and died 2 years later of tuberculosis, with his sister and Sand’s daughter at his side.

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Chopin in his twenties

As mentioned last week, Chopin continued to compose and perform while completing his studies in his late teens. A few weeks after finishing his formal studies, Chopin gave his first concerts in Vienna. The two concerts included a premiere of one of his own pieces. They were successful concerts with favourable reviews. His combined successes in Warsaw and Vienna gave him more opportunities in Europe and at the age of twenty, he left Poland intending to travel to Italy via Austria.

Shortly after he left, war broke out in Poland. His friend and travelling companion decided to return home to enlist. Staying in Vienna on his own, the following year found Chopin on his way to France instead of Italy. He ended up in Paris at the age of 21, stayed, and became a French citizen at the age of 25. He never returned to Poland but did communicate frequently by letter to his family.

He established himself as a musician and became part of the artistic community in Paris. During his years there, he gained the respect of his artistic peers and the favour of the public. Chopin was able to support himself by publishing his compositions and by providing piano lessons. His public performances lessened as he preferred the more intimate salon settings and private house concerts for playing. Chopin led what I think of as an artist’s life – involved in his art form entirely. Next week we’ll take a look at the impact that had on his personal life.

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