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A Biography
By Jan Swafford
700 pages, $35

Johannes Brahms was like a miracle. He came out of nowhere. Born in 1833, he grew up in the slums of Hamburg, where poverty forced him to play the piano in the seamy St. Pauli brothels. He awed his teachers and puzzled his parents until, at age 20, he found himself suddenly famous.

He came out of nowhere, and he went back to nowhere. By the time he died in 1897 -- hidden behind his huge, trademark beard and heaps of awards, citations and honorary degrees -- he was more revered than any musician alive. But the world knew little about him, and found out little in the years that followed.

The mysteries surrounding Brahms are old as the century, and Jan Swafford's stunning new biography is long overdue.

It's significant that the book's cover shows a young, clean-shaven, handsome Brahms. This is the composer unmasked. Swafford analyzes letters and combs various sources to clear the cobwebs from Brahms' life. He shows us a new Brahms: a man who put work before everything; whose youth left him mistrustful of women; who fanatically guarded his privacy, keeping even posterity at bay.

The book reads like a novel. In an introduction, we see Brahms at the end of his life:

The little husky figure had bustled through the streets of Vienna for as long as most of this audience could remember, had stood before them in countless performances. . . . Even the old ones may have forgotten what Brahms looked like when he first came to the city in 1862, his music unknown there but his name already legendary. In those days his beautiful North German face was as beardless and fresh as a boy's. Since then the magisterial beard had become part of the city's landscape like a monument, his quips repeated in cafes, his approvals and disapprovals the stuff of daily gossip, and so for years the Viennese had hardly given him a glance and only the tourists stared.

In the course of the book, secrets are revealed and myths are overturned.

Twelve interesting glimpses of Johannes Brahms:

1. Brahms' childhood, though poor, was happy in many ways. His father, Johann Jakob Brahms, was an amiable loser: "He lost a good deal of the family savings playing the lottery, and tried raising chickens, rabbits and pigeons, all with unfortunate results." A sister, Elise, was sickly (Brahms' mother called her, affectionately we hope, "the fat dumb peasant"). An easygoing brother, Fritz, showed some piano talent, but was so overshadowed by Johannes that he was stuck with the nickname of "the wrong Brahms."

After Brahms made it big in Vienna, he took pride in showing his parents around, delighting in their provincial ways and giving them money.

2. Brahms was influenced by what he heard growing up in the slums. Folk songs, street bands, gypsy tunes -- all later echoed in his compositions. (Swafford, a composer himself, discusses Brahms' works throughout the book lucidly and entertainingly.)

It's no secret that as a boy, Brahms played the piano in brothels. Swafford, however, makes a case that the whores abused him, mentally and physically, and this abuse left Brahms mistrustful toward women. Brahms was devastatingly handsome in his younger years. Women became smitten with him, and he often reciprocated. But he had a madonna/whore complex; he saw a physical relationship with a "good" woman as out of the question, resorting to prostitutes instead.

3. Brahms could be tender, and he could be cruel. A childhood friend described him as "harsh and bitter." And a nasty chapter tells the story of a girl to whom Brahms was briefly engaged. Brahms wrote to her: "I love you! But I cannot wear fetters! Write to me, whether I am to come back, to take you in my arms, to kiss you and tell you I love you." (Swafford adds, "That says, I will romance you, sleep with you, but will not marry you.")

4. Robert Schumann, who championed Brahms, also left him in a tough position. The weird, dreamy Schumann had a typically Romantic yearning for a musical savior, and cast Brahms in that role. Though these accolades boosted Brahms' career, they also shadowed him, as he struggled to fulfill Schumann's prophecies.

5. About Clara Schumann: The world has long wondered about exactly what was Brahms' relationship with the famous pianist, and widow of Robert. Swafford confronts the matter head-on. Working from letters and Clara Schumann's journal, he recounts, with Gothic flair, the pair's repressions and ambiguities:

Clara began with Johannes' help to sort through Robert's letters, burning the ones that seemed too personal to leave to history. She noticed that Johannes' eyes shone with pleasure as he watched names and intimate words curl up and vanish . . .

Brahms wrote to Clara: "What have you done to me? Can't you remove the spell you have cast over me?"

While Schumann languished in the mental hospital, Brahms wrote to him, amazingly, "How long the separation from your wife seemed to me! I had grown so used to her uplifting presence and had spent such a magnificent summer with her . . . " (Swafford remarks, "Maybe this unconstrained letter was less than helpful to Schumann.")

The passion smoldered for a few years after Schumann's death in 1856, but seems to have ended on a trip to Switzerland.

We can only imagine the look in Clara's eyes when she realized that after all the misery and joy they had shared over the last two years, and the overpowering love that rose out of it, there would be no marriage.

"He broke away ruthlessly," her daughter Eugenie was to write. "My mother had suffered all the more as she could not understand the change in him."

The dour Clara Schumann was a survivor. Sternly capable in finance, for years she served as Brahms' investment banker. Their stormy friendship lasted all their lives.

6. Musically, Brahms looked backward, torn between the Romanticism of Schumann and the older styles of Mozart and Bach. But he also looked forward, Swafford asserts, predicting in works such as the Fourth Symphony the turmoil of our century.

7. Though defined as Wagner's big rival, Brahms was privately a Wagner admirer (the feeling was not mutual), and even treasured a few Wagner manuscripts. Hearing of Wagner's death, Brahms ended a rehearsal early. "Today we sing no more," he said. "A master has died."

Brahms also admired other colorful contemporaries, among them Dvorak, Johann Strauss and Bizet.

8. The book overflows with great characters, including mercurial violinist Joseph Joachim, acrid critic Eduard Hanslick and eccentric conductor Hans von Bulow. But Brahms also maintained friendships with amateur musicians, who previewed his work and offered opinions. Of this interaction -- one of the most delightful aspects of the book -- Swafford rhapsodizes, "So artist and public fortified one another, when music was in its glory."

9. Brahms supported other musicians, though he maintained a gruff demeanor. (When Grieg heard that Brahms admired his piano playing, he muttered, "Oh, that's just one of his stupid jokes.") A funny tale involves the young composer Alexander von Zemlinsky:

Zemlinsky sent Brahms a sonata and was summoned for the verdict. He found the master seated ominously before his score, with an open score of Bach to the left and Beethoven to the right. Brahms proceeded to tear the sonata to pieces bar by bar, with unpleasant comparisons to the flanking masters. This went on until the victim cried: "Under these circumstances, one should really quit composing!" Brahms stuck his face in Zemlinsky's and roared, "Indeed, one should!"

With that little episode out of the way, they became friends. Brahms gave Zemlinsky a monthly stipend to allow him to compose.

10. Brahms' crusty exterior, it appears, hid a heart of gold. He made gifts generally anonymously. Stories of his generosity abound:

One day a carpenter's shop in his house erupted in flames. Brahms ran to join the bucket brigade. Someone pulled him aside and told him his papers were threatened by the blaze. Brahms thought it over for a second, then returned to the buckets. (A friend) finally extracted the key to his room and ran to save the Fourth Symphony.

11. About religion, Brahms remained ambiguous. Dvorak, overcome after a conversation with him, burst out, "Such a fine soul -- and he believes in nothing!"

12. About that beard: It was, Swafford says, a deliberate disguise. When he grew the beard, at 43, the privacy-craving Brahms reveled in the anonymity it provided, even going incognito at parties as "Kapellmeister Mueller from Braunchweig." Even a few of his friends were fooled. Swafford writes, "The disguise was complete at last."

No matter how much we know, it's never enough. There's no pithy sentence that can sum up Johannes Brahms, and in many ways the stunning Alto Rhapsody, or the passionate slow movement from the Clarinet Quintet, remain as elusive and mysterious as ever.

Swafford admits to unanswered questions of his own. "Why were there doors inside Brahms that he never opened for anyone? Never opened in his golden-boy childhood, nor in his gruff maturity?" he wonders. "It is one of the great questions of his life. Only some of it can be accounted for."

His puzzlement is understandable. Even after reading almost 700 pages on Brahms, it's easy to sympathize with Clara Schumann, who, even after her long acquaintance with him, burst into tears of frustration. "Johannes has never told me anything about what makes him upset or excited," she reportedly sobbed. "I don't know him any better than I did 25 years ago."

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