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#353657 - 12/19/07 11:22 AM Brahms biography
pianojerome Offline
9000 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/01/05
Posts: 9868
I'm looking for a Brahms biography to read over my winter break. Good things have been said about Swafford's recent book -- although one reviewer at amazon suggests that it might be a little out-dated, even though it was published in '99 --

Swafford's Brahms biography is certainly readable, and the author displays great sympathy with his subject. The problem with this book is that the author perpetuates-- even exaggerates-- a picture of Brahms that is now under serious revision. I don't know if Swafford is entirely to blame, as it is difficult to know to which documents he had access at the time of his writing. But recent work by Kurt Hoffman, and Styra Avin's edition of Brahms's letters show that the usual conception of Brahms's childhood as poverty-stricken and neglected is very inaccurate; and Swafford takes off from this picture of a pitiful childhood as a central principle in Brahms's life, relationships, etc. Hoffman has shown that Brahms could not have played the piano in brothels as a boy, yet Swafford paints us a lugubrious picture of young Brahms possibly suffering sexual trauma at the hands of both the prostitutes and their patrons. Avins's translations of Brahms's letters show us that Brahms had a warm and affectionate relationship with his parents, who did depend upon him to augment the family income, but knew when enough was enough for the boy, and did their best to give him a good education, plenty of diversion and rest. Avins's book has an illustration of Brahms's exquisite handwriting at age nine, which clearly shows that he had been meticulously schooled. Swafford's book is clearly a labor of great love, but _caveat emptor_.

Any thoughts on the review, or of Swafford's book in general?

How about some other biographies?

I'll probably read Swafford's anyway, even with some others, too.

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#353658 - 12/19/07 11:51 AM Re: Brahms biography
Antonius Hamus Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/24/05
Posts: 2230
I wouldn't trust a three-star review of anything. Two and four star reviews are the most reliable, IN GENERAL. Often one-star reviews are very reliable. Sometimes five-star reviews are the most reliable. I have never yet encountered a three-star review that is even close to being reliable. But maybe the above reviewer meant to give it two stars. That is certainly human and conceivable.

#353659 - 12/19/07 01:03 PM Re: Brahms biography
Antonius Hamus Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/24/05
Posts: 2230
I forgot the smiley: \:\)

#353660 - 12/19/07 01:19 PM Re: Brahms biography
BruceD Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/26/01
Posts: 18623
Loc: Victoria, BC
Sam :

You might try :

MacDonald, Malcolm: Brahms, Oxford University Press, © 1990, (2001). It's a volume in the Oxford University Press' "Master Musicians" series.

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#353661 - 12/19/07 01:43 PM Re: Brahms biography
tomasino Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 03/24/05
Posts: 2039
Loc: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Every era has it's take on a figure like Brahms, but it doesn't necessarily make them final or somehow more true than the others. History is subject to constant revisionism, and it's usually a matter of emphasis rather than omission. For example, did Swafford not have access to the letters, or did he not have an example of Brahm's childhood handwriting. I'd guess he did. He just didn't emphasize or draw conclusions from them, such as good childhood handwriting prove Brahms was meticulously schooled. Historical revisionism will generally serve the needs and the biases of the era in which it was written. All history should be read with that in mind.

However, if there is indeed new factual information about Brahm's childhood, it may be very revealing, but it depends on the speculative skill and imagination of the biographer.

What I'm getting at, is that there is a recent trend in historical revisionism, which would pose questions like these: If it can be proved that Brahm's had a happy childhood, how then did the myth get started that he had an unhappy childhood? Did his publishers start it? Did Robert and Clara start it? Other friends? Why? How did they benefit? Did Brahms himself start it? If so, why? How did he benefit?

The answer to those questions could be very revealing.

"Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do so with all thy might." Ecclesiastes 9:10

#353662 - 12/19/07 04:51 PM Re: Brahms biography
Auntie Lynn Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/07/04
Posts: 1141
Loc: San Francisco, CA
I've got the Swafford - read it on the stairclimber at the gym a coupla years ago...

#353663 - 12/19/07 05:02 PM Re: Brahms biography
Janus K. Sachs Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/31/07
Posts: 1725
Loc: Betelgeuse, baby!
pianojerome, both the Swafford and Macdonald are my favorite modern Brahms biographies (the Swafford especially). If you don't mind going back, also try reading Florence May's two volume biography "The Life of Johannes Brahms", which is the first English biography of Brahms -- the author studied piano with both Clara Schumann and Brahms. If you can read German, there's always Kalbeck's biography, which has (unfortunately) never been translated into English in its entirety.
The whole thing about Brahms supposedly lying about his own childhood poverty is perhaps the "hottest" topic in Brahms biographical studies in recent years. Many arguments pro and con have been put forth by a number of distinguished Brahms scholars -- there was even a very enlightening double-article on this subject in the journal "Nineteenth Century Music" written a few years ago (spring 2001 issue if google is right). Read that for a good grounding of both sides of the argument, and make your own decision. For what it's worth, the latest (paperback) edition of Swafford's biography takes the new evidence into consideration and rejects it. The Avins volume of letters mentioned in the amazon review is also very good in getting a feel for Brahms in his own words.
Die Krebs gehn zurücke,
Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
Die Predigt vergessen.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie alle.

#353664 - 12/19/07 07:55 PM Re: Brahms biography
Kreisler Offline

Registered: 11/27/02
Posts: 13825
Loc: Iowa City, IA
I've read Swafford and MacDonald. Both are good. While some of Swafford's ideas may be worthy of revision, the book is beautifully written.

Something else you should seriously consider is a copy of Brahms's letters. They're wonderful. (I found my copy at the Dawn Treader for $15!)
"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." (John Holt)


#353665 - 12/19/07 08:26 PM Re: Brahms biography
pianojerome Offline
9000 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/01/05
Posts: 9868
I'm visiting my family for the next few weeks; so not having the music library around, I went to 2 bookstores and the local public library in search of a Brahms biography -- there was only one little book, at the library, from 1940 by a guy named Ralph Hill.

Anybody heard of this? It's part of a "Duckworth's Great Lives" series...

The entire stock of this famous series of short biographies was lost in 1940 by enemy action and the volumes cannot be immediately replaced. The following are those now available again or to be reprinted shortly: [13 titles out of at least 88]
Perhaps the enemy action was required to quash the rumors about Brahms playing for prostitutes. :p


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