The notion that classical music is a stuffy kind of art received a severe knock this last week when the Radio Times informed its four million readers that Brahms, when young, had earned a living playing the piano in brothels in Hamburg. This came as a shock both to the pop fraternity, who thought that only the Beatles ever got started in Hamburg, and to jazz fans, who were under the impression that only Jelly Roll Morton got started in a brothel.
Morton, who had a diamond set in his teeth, played champion pool, pimped, claimed to have invented jazz and had a long-running rivalry with Duke Ellington, was actually a pale character when set beside Brahms. It is often forgotten that Brahms, too, claimed to have discovered jazz though this was due to a misunderstanding for which he was not responsible.
It happened in the cotton fields near Budapest one day, when Brahms was out for a walk, trying to dream up another trick to play on Wagner – the Duke Ellington of his day. He gradually became aware that the workers in the field were singing alluring and dangerously exciting rhythms as they turned the cotton into drip-dry tunics for the Imperial Court. Brahms’s fingers snapped and his eyes sparkled.
‘Hey, what do you call that kind of music?’ he asked one of the singers.
‘What do we call dat music?’ said the man thus addressed, played by the young Louis Armstrong. ‘Why, we calls dat music jazz!’
This was a mischievous invention on his part, as they actually called it Hungarian folk music, but he reckoned that the young man with the mane of white hair and huge grey beards would fall for it. He was right. Hastily establishing that the folk tunes were not in copyright, Brahms turned them into concert display pieces and played them in brothels all over the world. At the end of the programme, he would slam the keyboard lid shut, jump up and shout: ‘And that’s jazz!’
As nobody knew what he was talking about, they preferred to call it Hungarian Dances, but either way, as they put it back in the cotton fields, they done stole our music again.
Brahms was always secretly disappointed that the stuffed-shirt audiences didn’t show more reaction, and he would often break off in the middle of a piece and observe drily to the listeners: ‘This piece is licensed for dancing, you know.’
Brahms liked to be in tip=top physical shape, mostly because he was waiting for the promised twelve-round contest against Wagner that the latter seemed afraid to turn up for. ‘I’ll get that Hun, by the end of round one,’ Brahms used to taunt him. ‘Just get me in the Ring with Wagner,’ he boasted to friends, ‘and I’ll eat him for coffee break.’ Once the threatened fight did actually take place, but, unbeknownst to Brahms, Wagner had hired Bruno Walter, the Bavarian Mauler, to take his place. Brahms only found out after twelve gruelling rounds which the judges scored six to Brahms and six to his opponent, with Brahms winning the encore on points.
‘Just Typical of Wagner,’ growled Brahms afterwards, ‘to send in a dep for a big gig.’ He later got his own back when he thrashed Wagner at snooker in the big Bayreuth Finals, sixteen frames to three, and went on to meet the Russian champion, Tchaikovsky, whom he always considered rather too effete to be a really good snooker player.
Brahms was a larger-than-life character who had diamonds set in all the white keys of his travelling piano. Before he breezed into town, the place would be plastered with posters saying: ‘Brahms is coming! All pianists are requested to leave town for their own safety.’ And then the great man himself would arrive, in a white suit, surrounded by bodyguards and attended personally by the Abbé Liszt. The first thing he would ask on arrival was the address of the best brothel in town, and there he would sit for hours, strumming at the piano those old tunes he had learned back on the Danube levées and maybe accompanied by the singing of the madame (played by the young Billie Holiday). Then he would proceed to the concert hall and, in his own words, knock ‘em in the aisles.
At the end of his life, when he was fat and heavy, he opened a bar in Vienna and became a bit of a nostalgia bore. I prefer to think of the Johannes Brahms with his razor-crease suits, his rakish straw hat and the slim cheroot, thrashing hell out of the eighty-eight ivories and leaping into the audience to pummel any critic he spotted writing something adverse about him. Men still talk about the time he beat up three reviewers and issued four proposals of marriage during a performance of his first piano concerto, without missing a single note.
Forget about the BBC celebrations. Let’s go out tonight and get drunk in his memory.