The following are excerpts from Johannes Brahms as Man, Teacher and Artist, written in German by Brahms' pupil Gustav Jenner in 1905

The complete translation is available here.

"It was at the end of December in the year 1887, that I came to know Brahms in Leipzig. He came there, in order to have two of his most recent works, the Double Concerto and the C Minor Trio, performed in Leipzig, and he knew that I would be coming from Kiel to look him up for the purpose of requesting his assessment of my musical aptitude, on the basis of some of my compositions.

On the advice of one of my teachers, I had sent more of my Lieder [art songs] to Simrock in Berlin, with the inquiry, as to whether he were inclined to publish them. Simrock himself wrote back that he was on the verge of taking off for a summer resort, and hence could not give me a reply until autumn. Then, one day Klaus Groth, who was very attached to me and a faithful advisor in all things, summoned me. I can still see him standing at the gate to his garden, and beckoning to me already from a distance: "Come quickly!", he called to me, "there is good news for you here!" And, beaming, he presented me with a letter, from which I came to know that Simrock, on his summer vacation, had sought out Brahms in Thun, and there showed him my Lieder manuscripts. They had awakened his interest, but he had advised Simrock not to publish them. Now he wished to hear more from me, and to see me some time, when the opportunity arose."

"...I had come to Brahms with the intention of asking his advice, which was Klaus Groth's idea as well. Neither to him, nor to me, could have occurred the audacious thought, to ask Brahms that he take me on as his pupil; for we both knew that Brahms led a private life in Vienna. I sought only confirmation from him that I were not without talent, as counsel for the immediate future. It caught me by surprise when Brahms, upon reviewing my work, repeatedly used the expression, uttering the first syllable in his characteristic clipped and energetic way: "Yes, I could perhaps be of some use to you." Yet I knew not for certain how I should take these words; in any event, I timidly did not make so bold as to construe them as if he were ready to give me lessons, and so I asked him shyly for his advice. After a close examination of what I had thus far generally pursued, Brahms said: "Look, in music you have still not learned anything to speak of, for everything you tell me of harmonic studies, compositional efforts, instrumentation and so on, I consider to be nothing." Then he asked me how old I was, and when he heard that I had just finished my 22nd year, he did not conceal from me his assessment that it were still not too late, and then proceeded further: "First, seek out a teacher that can teach you rigorous counterpoint; one finds the best ones among the old cantors in the villages; he doesn't have to be as famous as Mr. X " (he named a well-known name,) "it is absolutely necessary that one looks at the world a good long time through these spectacles. That will give you plenty to do for some years. But write to me."

"...One of the experiences of those days that I fondly recall, I'd like to briefly mention here, for under other circumstances, it could have given the course of my entire life a different direction, and perhaps has remained not without influence on my decisions: for a brief time in Hamburg, I got to know Tchaikovsky.

In those days, he was also in Leipzig. I saw him there in the directors' box of the Gewandhaus during the New Year's Concert. He than began a tour of the principle cities of Germany, to have his compositions performed. So now he had come to Hamburg, and I was introduced to him at a grand function, organized for him by von Bernuth in honor of his concert. He was a distinguished and likable figure; he combined a refined and worldly demeanor with a bewitching charm, through which one was immediately drawn to him. Tchaikovsky invited me, in a friendly way, to visit him upon the following morning, and to show him some of my compositions, and so I brought him the same works that I had just put before Brahms in Leipzig. Tchaikovsky appeared to take an interest in them, yet it was very instructive for me to see how he arrived at his judgment by way of such different things, than did Brahms. He spoke far more than Brahms, but in far less specific figures of speech. It was much more of the lovely mood of expression, and general things that were manifest in the character of the music at hand. Brahms, in contrast, tackled the construction of the piece from the ground up, and with steady gaze, laid bare the weaknesses of the musical structure, so that the whole must be very well put together if he were not to seem to dispense with all the positive attributes, and all the lovely dreams, and with them the "lovely mood" and enthusiasm, were scattered into nothing before this merciless gaze. Somewhat abruptly, Tchaikovsky invited me to go with him to Petersburg. The friendly nobility of his likable and uncommonly sensitive character appealed to me; alone the calm, superior security of the Brahmsian nature stayed in my mind, I had perceived a breath of his clear spirit too clearly, as if I had been capable only of weighing these thoughts earnestly, although at that time, as I have said, I was in no way resolved with respect to what would become of me in the immediate future. Brahms had spoken hardly a word from which I could draw any immediate benefit; Brahms had rendered me an almost invaluable service, in that he had consolidated in me the unshakable conviction that my works were without value. Tchaikovsky did all he could, to cause this conviction to waver, but I felt distinctly that his judgment held nothing that would advance me, and it was in this regard fully unfruitful and useless: I could learn nothing from it.

I spent almost an entire day alone with Tchaikovsky. Naturally, I had the frequent inclination to speak with him about Brahms, but I noted that the topic of Brahms was uncomfortable for him, he felt clearly repulsed by his personality."

"...Immediately upon my arrival, as if something might intervene, I came to the resolution that had grown out of all the deliberations during my journey: I wrote a letter to Brahms in which I trustingly poured out my heart, and conclusively asked him to make an exception for me, and take me on as his pupil. Only then did I go to Klaus Groth to tell him. We remained not long in uncertainty. Brahms answered immediately from Vienna, with the following lines:

'Honored and Dear Sir!

I must overcome some shyness - but ultimately I know of nothing better, nothing other to advise you, than to come here and study with Mr. Eusebius Mandyczewski. Mr. M is a young, very competent man, that will be, as well, very sympathetic to you in every respect. That which you may wish from me stands in full measure at your service. I had high hopes that you might quickly resolve to come, so that you might yet avail yourself of the rest of the winter! The summer will most likely be a long break!

In great haste and with heartfelt greetings to you and Klaus Groth,

Your devoted

Joh. Brahms.'

The most decisive turn in my life had occurred. Thanks to the willing self-sacrifice of honored friends in Kiel, whose names I have kept under my hat to this very day, I was able to soon depart for Vienna, where on the morning of the 13th of February, 1988, I went directly from the train to Brahms in his rooms.

Once again it was early morning, once again he offered me one of the fine cigars out of the informal case, already known to me, and once again I could not prevent it from repeatedly going out, during the course of the explanations. But by the time the second match had been struck, Brahms said: 'A good cigar appears to be of no value to you,' and never again, to the day of his death, have I received another of the 'genuine ones', but instead, in contrast, one of the others, with the Austrian government-seal, was always pawned off on me. Soon I should see, how the words in his letters were intended: 'That which you may wish from me, stands in full measure at your service.' Next, he introduced me, in the archives of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music), to Mr. Eusebius Mandyczewski, my counterpoint instructor; then, I ate lunch with him for the first time at the 'Red Hedgehog', and afterwards he went apartment-hunting with me, where he showed a preference for the old dwellings. During this wandering through the city, he made conscious for me, upon what holy ground we found ourselves. In front of one house it went: 'Here is "the Eye of God",' and before another: 'Hats off, here is where the "Figaro" was written!'"

"...In March began my actual studies with Brahms. The first hour will remain unforgettable to me: it was bitter. On the same day on which he had so nicely encouraged me to send off my works, he requested that I once again bring the Lieder that I had shown him in Leipzig, so that he might discuss them with me more thoroughly. During the lesson he sat always at the piano, my work lay on the music stand, and I sat next to him. Yet never was a note struck on the piano, except when he wanted to demonstrate bad notes, or other transgressions in the composition, directly through their ugly effect. With one single exception, where Rottenberg and I played, in Ischl, four-handed variations of mine for him at his behest, I have never been allowed to perform my compositions for him at the piano. Because Brahms had judged the Lieder in Leipzig with relative mildness, I had hoped to hear kind words. But now he abruptly changed his tone. He took up one song after another, showing me mercilessly, with severe figures of speech, but always appealing only to my understanding, how bad these Lieder were, and criticized my poor pampered babies so thoroughly that not one good measure remained in them, and tears came to my eyes. And that was only the introduction, I was to feel his pedagogical rod of correction with yet more humiliation. He stood up and got some loose, yellowed pages. They were the manuscript of those songs by Robert Schumann that Brahms himself had published somewhat later, in a supplementary volume of Schumann's works. Then he seated himself again at the piano, and played and sang for me, especially that moving song 'To Anna' whose melody Schumann employed in the F minor sonata, with such passionate devotion, that he could not hold back the tears of inspiration that came easily to him. 'Yes,' he said as he arose, 'Schumann wrote that, when he was eighteen years old; one must have talent, everything else gets you nowhere.' Then, as if the humiliation had not yet reached full measure, he gave me back the so badly rumpled, and so quickly withered bouquet of my songs, that had seemed so graceful to me, and whose intoxicating fragrance I had so often ardently inhaled, and dismissed me with the ironic words: 'So, young man, do not amuse yourself further in this way!', a figure of speech much beloved by Brahms, that I have often had to swallow from him.

It was as if I had fallen from the clouds. The gravity of the situation could not have been brought home to me in a more harsh or heart-wrenching way. Just previously he had called my works talented, and had done everything to raise my self-esteem. Why, then, had he called me back to Vienna, only to say to me that I were without talent? It was necessary, in the time to follow, that I keep this clearly before my eyes, if I didn't want to give myself over to despair. For, I'd like to interject here, I have never, from this day forward, heard an encouraging word from Brahms, let alone praise for my works. And what is more, from that day on, his outward manner toward me never changed. Perhaps, if we were alone, he remained, as before, the old, dear, fatherly friend to me, yet in a larger group I soon learned to keep quiet, for I could be certain that upon my first ever-so-harmlessly uttered word, he would bring me up short with an infinitely disdainful, 'You are indeed still very young', or 'That is indeed not so important'. I will not deny that there were times of total dejection for me, yes, of despair, when I believed that I would have to succumb. Of not trifling importance was the fact that the contrapuntal studies with [Eusebius] Mandyczewski were also very laborious for me. The result of long hours of toilsome work, was often only a few measures, and for a very long time I could not detect the beneficial influence upon my free works, so that I had to doubt my aptitude, however valiantly I might defend myself; serenity threatened to depart from me at my work, and make place for an unsteady, nervous haste, through which I wanted to quickly force significant results. So it was for a long time until I learned to really work. Not until a full year later did Brahms say to me casually, 'You will never hear a word of praise from me. If you cannot endure that, then that something which you have is worthy only of ruin.' These words were, for me, a deliverance. Why Brahms employed this strict and harsh style of educating with me, whether he had found something frivolous, presumptuous, or even arrogant in my person, I do not know. It is certain, that he practiced his maxim, uttered countless times: 'One must not coddle the youngsters.' It may well be that he thought of his own youth, how he had victoriously fought many a hard battle on the way to his salvation: 'It's not likely, that anyone has had it as hard as I,' he said to me once, as I sat alone with him in the Eagle on the evening of his birthday; and then he told me sad things, that were to an extent known to me, from Klaus Groth's accounts. 'If my father still lived today,' said Brahms, 'and I were by chance to play the first chair second violin in some orchestra, at least then I could say to him, that I had become something.' He could speak thus, in justified pride: for everything that he was, he had done for himself.

Yet, from time to time, he struck a milder tone. Later on he would express his satisfaction to me, in that he showed me, following the lessons, the loveliest treasures of his collection, played pieces, unknown to me, by C.P.E. Bach, Scarlatti, and others, or read aloud to me foolish letters he had received, such as, for example, from someone unknown to him in Kapstadt, who wanted another piano, for he was very satisfied with the one previously delivered - which was subsequently revealed to be the clumsy ruse of an autograph-hunter, with respect to which Brahms was not exactly obliging; or he showed me gifts from equally unknown admirers, and asked me to keep them. Occasionally, on a beautiful Spring morn, he was ready to give away everything that lay about in his dwelling. Only with books was he very particular. But once, as he returned to me a song-cycle setting of Rückert's poems, he bestowed upon me a volume of Rückert's poetry, that he loved very much. The book came with a dedication and his signature. The former he scratched out with a knife, but let the name stand, and said only, 'Well, just a bit deeper.' Also, I soon noticed, that when passages were silently passed over, or works went entirely without comment, that these were the least objectionable. Most likely I heard nothing about their value, and it was not to be ruled out that they were entirely insignificant. For only in a roundabout way would I occasionally hear, namely from Rottenberg, whether the content of my works had interested him. Respecting myself, it was for him entirely and solely a question of the degree of perfection.

Brahms resided at No. 4 Karlsgasse, upstairs, door number 8, 3 rooms. One entered through the bedroom, a frequent bad habit in Vienna; I have often dwelt in such a fashion, that I had to pass through my landlord's bedchamber to arrive at my own: "If it doesn't bother the master, it doesn't bother us," the saying went. Over his bed hung an engraving of Joh. Seb. Bach. Through some glass doors, one entered a simply furnished living room in which were located a the piano and desk; over the latter hung a medallion-portrait of Robert and Clara Schumann, with a lovely dedication to Brahms from Schumann, in his own hand. To the side lay the library, in which there also stood a standing-desk. The windows in the living room and library, at the front of the dwelling, were always closed, while the rooms of the bedroom, that looked across the court of the "Technik," were open day and night. During the lessons, Brahms was dressed always in slippers, trousers and a woolen shirt. He wore as well, for he was very nearsighted, a pair of glasses, which he exchanged for a pince-nez when he went out.

Because everyone knew that Brahms was fairly certain to be found at home before mid-day, we were often disturbed by visitors. As soon as we could discern, from the piano, the approach of such a visitor through the draperies of the glass doors, Brahms fled with great bounds into the library, where I made clear to him, using pre-arranged sign language, whether or not he ought to put on a robe. This he did always, if a lady came. It were a mistake to think, I would say, that Brahms were polite with respect to all his visitors. On the contrary, I have experienced, namely during visits from unfamiliar artists that didn't interest him, very embarrassing scenes. If he felt, that one came only out of curiosity, or that someone wanted something from him that he was not disposed to grant, or was to make an unreasonable request of him, he knew how to usher out the visitor in a stunningly short time. Brahms has acquired, not without reason, the reputation for being a grump, even though few could also be as lovable as he. Recently an acclaimed artist told me, that he would only visit Brahms if he were certain that he would not find him at home."

"...Brahms' mode of speech had something short and abrupt about it. It was not for him to express himself broadly and comfortably upon a subject. In contrast to so-called eloquent people, who give an impression, in speaking, that they delight in their own words, one received the impression from him that he spoke only reluctantly, and only that which was absolutely necessary. He framed his sentences precisely and acutely, hitting the nail always on the head; but he withheld far more, indeed often the main point, without which his words could not be properly understood. Anyone who has been close to Brahms knows how disparagingly, almost contemptuously, he could speak of his own works; it was just in this area, that it was harder than otherwise, to understand him correctly. He was thoroughly conscious of the value of his works, but his modest, manly nature made it infinitely difficult for him to speak of himself. He often tried to rescue himself with a joke, which it was impossible to always correctly understand, and often an uneasy atmosphere developed out of this. Mostly, when he spoke of himself in earnest, he found himself in an embarrassing predicament, to which was added anger as well, whenever someone, to whom he did not concede the right to do so, pressed him. If, as was the rule, he did not have, from the very start, the full confidence that he would be understood, and when a general esteem for the person, with whom he spoke, did not hold him back, he was capable of perpetrating the most appalling things with a perfectly straight face. If he was convinced that someone had, in some fashion, a false opinion of him, it gave him the greatest pleasure to reinforce it. The saying, 'Because truth is a pearl, cast it not before swine,' as Theodor Storm has it, was holy to him; and there were but few who were not occasionally reckoned among these 'swine.' But he tolerated it, as I have often personally experienced, when someone rebelled and strove vigorously to fight his way out of this hardly agreeable state of affairs. If someone succeeded, in this manner, to gain his confidence, then he could be considered worthy of the truth."

On the composition of the Lied: "Whenever he discussed a Lied with me, it began with an inquiry into whether the musical form corresponded in every detail to the text. Mistakes in this area he reproved in an especially caustic way, as a defect in artistic understanding, or a consequence of an insufficient mastery of the text. In general, he demanded that when the text allowed a strophic treatment, that such a treatment be employed. In order to be clear on this question, as to which texts might be handled strophically, and which not, he recommended an exacting study of the collected songs of Franz Schubert, whose sharp artistic insight into such things revealed itself even in those Lieder where it seemed least apparent: 'There is no song by Schubert from which one cannot learn something.'

...The strictest form of the strophic song is that in which the same melody returns with likewise identical accompanyment for each individual strophe of the poet's, as in countless examples by Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, among others. One of the finest examples, with only the freedom of an introduction that occurs only once at the outset, is 'Nähe des Geliebten', one of the most beautiful German songs by Goethe and Schubert, a Lied born of longing, in tone and word. In view of this song, it is unedifying to paint a picture of how one of those dull-witted authors of so-called songs, dazzled by the abundant imagery of the text, might come to terms with this poem musically! What theatre we should have to endure! Schubert wrote, for this text, a simple melody contained within few measures. But he errs greatly, who maintains that this melody were somehow composed to the first strophe of Goethe's poem, after which the remaining verses should be merely chanted to the same melody. O no, this melody sprang from the same deep, unified sentiment, from which the imagery of the poet, manifold and yet united, always with something new to say, streams forth. It is a musical expression of that, which the entire poem produced as an impression in the composer, and thus it happens, as always with Schubert, that with each new strophe, it seems to say something new and incandescent, because it brings, with the new text, the fundamental idea ever more intensively and clearly to expression. It is perhaps in this way that through the musician's art, the melody points to specific words in the various strophes of the text with such flexibility, that no dissonances arise, that could disturb the sensitivity of the Whole.

As my teacher, Eusebius Mandyczewski, worked on the critical collected works of Schubert Lieder, he showed me how Schubert changed a melody, that he had written to the words of the first strophe of the text, so that it was more favorable to a text-placement of a later strophe, and then chose that changed melody for the first strophe, despite the fact that the early melody better suited that strophe. But it was clear to him, that in order to produce a strict strophic song, and this his artistic sense told him, the effect in the details must escalate, rather than ease off.

...If at first Brahms recommended, one way or the other, that I write strophic or some other kind of Lieder, he allowed me the latitude to experiment. Naturally, I chose my own texts, and on my request, he shared with me poetry collections. In his bedroom stood a cabinet, that was stuffed, from top to bottom, with "lyrics." He knew and read pretty much everything that there was; yet he told me once that he had almost never bought a book. In that cabinet there disappeared, as well, those volumes that modern-day poets had sent to him, always without success. Yet I have often had the proof in my hands, that he had read even the most miserable and paltry scribblings. was certainly in no way sufficient for Brahms when there was nothing more present than a pretty, well-accompanied melody. In a case where, for him, my melody did not meet the requirements of the text, he said: 'Compose another text for yourself under this.' Brahms set great store by that, which one can call, for short, 'word-expression.' Often one finds in his Lieder pregnant turns of melody, that are clearly brought about by single, particular words of the text. Far from disturbing the melodic flow, these turns are essential components of the melody, indeed they are often like motivic seed-crystals, from out of which the entire melody appears to grow. It is instructive to study which portions of the text Brahms treats this way in his songs, while passing over others, that to another composer might seem no less deserving of such characteristic treatment. One will find, that his sharp gaze has always differentiated the essential from the non-essential. But the so-called 'mood-poems,' that are just thrown together from an accumulation of word-painting, he has never composed. If the direction of the melody was excessively oriented to the particular word-expression, this he would rebuke with the words, 'More from the whole!', thereby penetrating to the heart of the matter."

On the composition of Theme and Variations: "'Writing variations is the most intelligent thing you can do, for the time being,' Brahms had said to me, right at the beginning of the lessons, and so one of the first works that I brought to him, was a Theme and Variations for piano. I had premised these variations on a poem, whose four strophes had a defining influence on an equal number of variation-groups, in the sense, that each individual strophe was placed at the head of its group as a motto. Brahms was pleased with this idea and said to me that he once had pursued the same idea, yet nothing had come of it. He then found fault with the far too great number of variations, that must necessarily undermine the idea. 'The fewer variations, the better; yet they must also say all, that there is to say.' The variations themselves were altogether too free for him; for with this form he was very exacting. He always recommended the greatest caution with regard to the choice of the theme: 'For only a few themes are suitable.' Despite the fact that I had succeeded in inventing one myself that he considered suitable, he advised that next time I would do better to seek one from Schubert or the like. He cited as an example Beethoven's variations, that I could never study to the point where I had learned all there was to learn. Today everyone knows, that Brahms himself has scarcely a rival in this realm. But Brahms has never, during the time he instructed me, drawn upon his own works for instructive purposes. It was as if they didn't exist at all. The anecdote is well known, how when someone showed Beethoven a composition and reproached him, that he himself had committed the same indicated errors in his own works, Beethoven replied with vexation, 'I may do that, not you!' It is known to me, that one time Brahms, in a similar case, said -- not to me, for I was always very cautious in these things -- but to someone: 'Have I ever put forward my own compositions as an example to you?'

...No form is as well suited for teaching the beginner to differentiate between the essential and the non-essential, to instruct him in artistic, strictly logical thinking, to protect the directed imagination from arbitrary wandering, and to refine the sense of pure form. It is certainly not sufficient to adorn the melody of the theme with arabesques, but rather one must penetrate into the kernel of the theme and invent something new out of it, without violating the form of the theme. To begin with, Brahms directed my attention to the bass of the theme. "The bass is more important than the melody," he said. Which is not to say that the bass must be maintained under all circumstances. But through the complementary and explanatory melody of the bass, the melody of the upper voice acquires first a certain physiognomy, and a variation of the bass can more strongly modify the entire character of the melody than a variation of this melody itself. Therefore Brahms strictly maintained that the variation of the bass, despite new turns of the sense and character of the original path of modulation, may never be arbitrarily destroyed, and this goes as well for cases where, as it often goes with Brahms, the path and the destination of the modulation changes. The variation extends itself not only to the melody, but as well to the rhythm and harmony of the the theme; here too must that which is varied be developed from the given material, if the whole is not to acquire that stamp of the Arbitrary. 'You must always keep your goal firmly before your eyes, and that is only possible, when the bass is fixed, otherwise you are hanging in the air; and now make straightaway, and without digressions, to the goal!' admonished Brahms."

On the Composition of the Sonata: "I brought to Brahms in Ischl the first sonata that I wrote in Vienna. Near the beginning of my studies, Brahms recommended to me, as mentioned earlier, that I ought to subject the sonata-movements of Mozart and especially Beethoven to the closest scrutiny, so as to dissect their construction down to the smallest detail, to account for every note, and finally to make the attempt to faithfully re-create it with my own themes. Naturally he did not expect that something valuable would come to light in this way, but rather he sought, through this work of re-creating, to sharpen my understanding, refine my musical sensibility, and develop my sense of form: in short, I should learn think musically logically."

"...The first sonata movement that I brought to Brahms he called an attempt that must come to naught, because the main theme was in no way suited to a sonata. He advised me to diligently study Beethoven's sonata themes, and to observe their influence in the construction of the movement, approaching them as well in comparison with those of Schubert. Just how instructive such a comparison is, from which one can learn far more than from a theoretical demonstration, would take me too far afield if I were to go through it. But this touches precisely the essence of the matter. For that Brahms came to this not only in the outward sense of the purity of form, were superfluous to emphasize. If there was some fault to be found in this regard, he simply said, 'That is poorly done,' and on the other hand, when I once had employed, in the trio of the Scherzo movement of a violin sonata, a complicated, yet successful canon, that could be easily recognized as one delighting in one's technical accomplishments, he dismissed it simply with the dry observation, 'Yes, that is a canon.' For in the question of form, for him, the form should necessarily correspond to the idea. Music in sonata-form, and a sonata, are indeed very different things."

Posted by permission of the translator ~ © 1998

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