The Vagabond


He was born in Hamburg, the son of a double-bass player in the city orchestra. In his early years he was known as a piano virtuoso. At twenty he was slim, stooped, with fair hair and flashing blue eyes; among strangers he acted as shy, as embarrassed, as deferential as Charles Butterworth. His musical idols were Bach and Beethoven, and his weighty style bore traces of both.

In 1853 he arranged to meet the well-known artist Schumann. It happened something like this: "Guten Morgen, I am glad to know you. Won't you come in?" The two moved into the living room, where the visitor's eyes immediately rested upon the piano. Schumann hastened to ask: "Won't you please play something of your own composition?" Without more encouragement the gauche musician sat down and began to play his C major Sonata. Before he had proceeded far, his host cried: "Wait, Gott im Himmel, Clara must listen to this!"

Fetching his wife, he brought her to the pianist and said: "Here, my dear Clara, you will hear music such as you have never heard before; now begin the piece again, young man!" In a few minutes Schumann could not resist praising the genius and foretelling a brilliant future for him. For days he repeated to his friends: "One has come from whom we may expect all kinds of wonders. His name is Johannes Brahms."

From the levelling and standardization of industrialism in the mid-nineteenth century, Brahms stood out as the most heroic of composers. In spite of the machine civilization, for years he wrote and conducted great symphonies. When in 1896 he came to Berlin he little suspected it was the last time he would grasp a baton. His friend Joachim, the famous protege of Mendelssohn, gave a dinner for him before the performance. By now he showed many marks of age; his much-admired "St. John's head" and his full white beard combined to make him quite leonine. Children, whom he said he loved better than adults, called him "the little round gentleman." He preferred old clothes, hated stiff collars and all ties, and felt constrained in dress shirts. Especially did he detest fame and the limelight.

Today the Vagabond hears Professor Davison continue to lecture on Brahms in Paine Hall at ten o'clock.