Was Brahms a wiseass?

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Oct. 2 2006 5:18 PM

Classic Put-Downs

Was Brahms a wiseass?

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Hanslick proudly cited this letter in a memoir. Now, Brahms was a brutally honest man, with himself and others. He despised hypocrisy and lying. Was he being a hypocrite with Hanslick? Not as such, no. The letter is a marvelously subtle dismissal. "Every page invites one to build further," i.e. You don't go very far. He hopes for "excellent instruction on other subjects," i.e. Don't write this kind of thing anymore; you're not the man for it.

Is Brahms' irony reflected in his music? Perhaps not, though sunlight turns up in his generally dark-hued work more often than one might think. First hearing the ebullient opening of the G Major String Quintet, Kalbeck exclaimed, "Brahms in the Prater!" meaning the famous Vienna amusement park. "You've got it!" Brahms replied, adding roguishly, "And all the pretty girls there, eh?" But Haydn and Mozart had been the masters of irony in music, and Beethoven had his distinctive rough jokes, and Brahms did not try to challenge them.

On his deathbed, fading with cancer, bleary with morphine, Brahms did not lose his wit. When his housekeeper got him up for sessions at the washstand, he called it "bathing with police escort." Finally, he barked at her, "You want to give me my last bath? I'm not a baby!" In tears, she replied that she was just trying to save him trouble. Brahms relented and whispered, "You're a sensible woman. One can negotiate with you." Shortly after that last, gentle joke, he died.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.