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Tales about Brahms
The German Romantic composer Johannes Brahms had said of his own music that "it is not hard to compose, but wonderfully difficult to let the superfluous notes fall under the table". Just what exactly did he mean by that? Was he saying that it was difficult to hide the notes that were not too essential, in order to bring out the main melody line? Or perhaps by that cryptic remark he was trying to mean that all the notes you heard in his music were important?
That sort of curt, cryptic remark was typically Brahms. Once, as he was departing from a party, he declared, "If there is anyone here whom I have not insulted, I beg his pardon." It is a strange way of apologising for not giving someone attention, or for suggesting that the only kind of attention one got from him was largely negative. Either way, it leaves one pondering what exactly he meant, and it isn't that great a way of endearing himself to others.
In many ways, Brahms was a sort of oddity. Like later composers who reverted to neo-classical styles, his music shows the influence of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, and could be said to be somewhat conservative in nature at a time when other composers were trying to be more innovative and spur the direction of music away from the influences of past centuries. The formal influences of the three composers are apparent, but Brahms would have been completely forgotten by history, and been one among the also-rans had his music not been inventive in its use of effects such as cross-rhythms. (The rhythmic tension caused by groups of threes set against groups of twos is a typical feature of Brahms's music.)
Brahms's quirkiness extended to his fashion sense as well. He is often described as wearing baggy trousers that were cut too short before the ankles. But considering the similarities with today's fashion, he may have just been a bit too far ahead of his time. Nonetheless, his fashion sense at times caused him some embarrassment. At one orchestral performance that he was conducting, his over-exuberant movements nearly resulted in his trousers falling down. On another occasion, the same fate was only narrowly avoided when he used his tie as a belt. Imagine what the audience must have thought as they saw him nonchalantly removing his tie between movements and threading it around his trousers! Perhaps if he had asked someone what they thought of his work, he might have received the cryptic remark: "Good work - keep it up!" Touche.
Wardrobe malfunctions are not the most incredulous stories featuring Brahms. Unlike the Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti, who composed a fugue based on notes pressed by his cat while walking along the keyboard, Brahms was known not to like felines.
An incredible story tells of how Brahms was presented with a bow and arrow-like device called a Bohemian "sparrow slayer" by Antonin Dvorak, and took to targeting cats from his apartment overlooking the Rhein, like a sailor with a harpoon; then reeling the wounded cats in, and transcribing their dying cries for use in his works. The allegation has subsequently been disproven and thought to have been propagated by his main musical rival, Wagner, but for many years the urban legend of Brahms as a ruthless, musical feline marksman was codified as factual truth by repeated publication without cross-reference.
Brahms wrote many piano works, and like Busoni he also arranged Bach's Chaconne in D minor, but for left hand only. The next time you listen to his piano works, you can be assured that no animals were harmed in its production!
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