Brahms’ Ingratitude


He was a twenty-year-old who spent long nights playing the piano in Hamburg’s tawdry taverns. Among the first to promote his career as a composer was Franz Liszt, but on one occasion the young pianist accepted Liszt’s help less than graciously.

The American pianist William Mason tells the story this way:

“One evening in 1853 Liszt sent us word to come up to his place the next morning as he expected a visit from a young man who was said to have great talent as a pianist and composer, and whose name was Johannes Brahms.

“After some general conversation Liszt turned to Brahms and said, ‘We are interested to hear some of your compositions whenever you are ready and feel inclined to play them.’

“Brhams, who was evidently very nervous, protested that it was quite impossible for him to play while in such a disconcerted state. Liszt, seeing that no progress was being made, went over to the table, and taking up the first piece at hand — Brahms’ illegible Scherzo in E-Flat — said, ‘Well, I shall have to play,’ and placed the manuscript on the piano desk.

“He read it off in such a marvelous way — at the same time carrying on a running accompaniment of audible criticism of the music — that Brahms was amazed and delighted. A little later some one asked Liszt to play his own sonata, a work which was quite recent at that time, and of which he was very fond. Without hesitation, he sat down and began playing. As he progressed he came to a very expressive part of the sonata, which he always imbued with extreme pathos, and in which he looked for the especial interest and sympathy of his listeners. Casting a glance at Brahms, Liszt saw that the young composer was dozing in his chair.”

No stranger to the strenuous life himself, Liszt, apparently, was unfazed by the slight, because during the next thirty-five years, he continued to champion the music of Johannes Brahms.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Related Stories