The Great Burns of Brahms

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Johannes Brahms was and remains one of the most important and towering figures of the Romantic period of music. He rose from squalor as the son of a bassist and a seamstress.

Brahms got his start playing the piano in whore houses and dance halls as a boy, and many historians point at the subsequent fondling by drunken sailors as the reason he would never form a stable romantic relationship in his life.

Unless of course the rumors about him banging Clara Schumann are true.

Brahms met composer Robert Schumann and his wife at age 20 and became a close friend of the family and supporters of each other's work. Unfortunately, Schumann suffered from hallucination that started off as voices of angels inspiring music and turned into visions of devils tormenting him. Fearing he might harm his wife, Schumann threw himself off a bridge in 1854, only to be rescued by a passing ferryman. He remained in a sanitarium for the rest of his life.

Brahms served as the go-between for Clara and Robert, and abandoned his music career to take care of Clara for two years after Schumann died. The fact that Brahms burned all of his letters from Clara indicate that the two might have become romantically involved. On the other hand, Brahms was such an insane perfectionist that he burned more things than he wrote just to keep people from seeing things he deemed inadequate. Maybe he was just destroying the evidence of poor spelling and grammar.

That Brahms was a fierce friend to those who were close to him is indisputable. However, he was slightly better known for being a completely grumpy sourpuss to those who annoyed him.

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One story goes that Norwegian pianist and composer Edvard Grieg once visited Brahms at his home, determined to show the master his own compositions. Brahms complied, but as he listened he would walk constantly back and forth to the window and wave to people who passed by.

Eventually, this got on Grieg's nerves, and he demanded to know what the hell Brahms was doing.

Brahms said, "You see, I usually play the piano around this time. I don't want anyone getting the wrong idea."

He also once said, "If there's anyone here I have not offended I beg his pardon."

The masterpiec of snark from Brahms though comes at the sake of a lesser-known composer named Hugo Wolf. Despite having an awesome name, Wolf is not celebrated these days. He was a born prodigy, but something of a slacker who tended to get by on innate talent rather than any kind of hard work. He was known to be quite charming, at least charming enough to borrow a nice dose of syphilis that eventually killed him in 1898.

Wolf refused to attend any performances of Brahms's works, or any social function Brahms, a fellow Vienna resident, might attend. All because he once sent Brahms a score. Wolf asked Brahms to make a cross wherever he thought the score was faulty.

Brahms sent the score back unread.

"I don't want to make a cemetery out of your composition," he said.


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