The Ragtime Brahms

As promised, here’s a remarkable tale of Johannes Brahms and his thoughts on music. This is quite a rare insight, as Brahms was very tight-lipped about his work, and was more likely to respond with a cryptic joke or a withering insult when queried about philosophy or process. But, at least one man got him to open up.

These paragraphs come from the book The Unknown Brahms, 1933, by Robert Haven Schauffler. “Why another life of Brahms?” Schauffler asks. “Because at the approach of this his Centenary year, I found in my hands a large amount of unpublished information and illustrative material which taught me much about this rich personality, this extraordinary amalgam of opposites, unsuspected by those who have written about him or edited his letters.” And, for sure, we are given a ton of anecdotal info from Brahms’ intimates and those close to those who were close. And it does give fascinating insight into the elusive Master. But the gem, I think, is this recollection, hopefully true.

Mr. Arthur Abell, an American violinist, was one of the few who could make the Master talk intimately about his own work: “A year before Brahms died,” said Mr. Abell, “he asked me whether I played the banjo. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘Why?’ ‘Because at Klengel’s I met an American girl who played for me, on that curious instrument, a sort of music which she called Ragtime. Do you know this?’ – And he hummed the well known tune which goes to the words:

If you refuse me,

Honey, you lose me.

‘Well,’ the Master continued, with a far-away look in his eyes, ‘I thought I would use, not the stupid tunes, but the interesting rhythms of this Ragtime. But I do not know whether I shall ever get around to it. My ideas no longer flow as easily as they used to.’

“This remark gave me an opening for certain questions that I had longed to ask him ever since I had first met him five years before – questions concerning his mental processes while composing. Joachim had told me that Brahms was exceedingly difficult to draw out on the subject of his inspirations, but the illustrious composer’s mood was right, the setting ideal, so I ventured and won.

“‘Apropos of your flow of ideas,’ I asked, ‘do you ever have, when composing, sensations such as those described by Mozart in a letter to a friend? He wrote: “The process with me in like a vivid dream.”‘

“‘Yes, I do,’ replied Brahms. ‘Mozart is right. When at my best it is a dreamlike state, and in that condition the ideas flow much more easily.’

“‘Are you conscious when in this state?’

“‘Certainly, fully conscious, otherwise I would not be able to write the ideas down as they come. It is important to get them on paper immediately,’

“‘Do you ever lose consciousness while in this mental condition?’

“‘Yes, sometimes I become so drowsy that I fall asleep, and then I lose the ideas.’

“‘Can you do anything to induce this dreamlike state?’

“‘Yes, I early discovered that to obtain good results certain conditions had to be met. First of all, I have to be absolutely alone and undisturbed. Without these two requisites I cannot even think of trying to compose.’

“‘Do you mean that you always have to be locked up in your room?’

“‘By no means; if I am alone and free from intrusion, I often get themes when out walking, especially when I am in the country. But I always have to jot them down immediately, otherwise they quickly fade.’

“‘Do you work these ideas out on paper as soon as you return home?’

“‘Not always. I let them germinate, sometimes for years, but I occasionally look at them again. This habit is important, for it engenders the same state of mind that gave birth to them, and in this way the original thoughts grow and expand.’

“‘Are there any other requirements for entering this mysterious realm, aside from isolation and freedom from disturbance?’

“‘Yes, concentration to the point of complete absorption seems to be the key that unlocks the door to the soul realm, once I have the other requisites.’

“‘Then you do not believe that composing is purely an intellectual process?’

“‘It is an intellectual process as far as the mechanics of composing are concerned. It requires patience and much hard work to acquire technical skill, but that has nothing to do with inspiration, which is a spiritual process.’

“‘Then you would not endorse Carlyle’s famous definition of genius?’

“‘Certainly not. I consider it a very faulty definition. If taking great pains were all there is to genius, any patient plodder could become a Mozart or a Beethoven. I never could understand how so keen an observer as Carlyle could fall into such an error.’

“‘Who in your opinion, was a perfect type of the creative genius?’

“‘Beethoven. He has lofty inspirations, and at the same tine he was an indefatigable worker. We all have to work hard.’

“‘Have you ever been disturbed when in this dreamlike state of which you speak?’

“‘Yes, often, especially in the early years of my work, and then the ideas took wings and flew away. They deserted me completely and they never came back. Those experiences forced me to the conclusion that the Muse is a jealous patroness, like Jehovah in the second commandment.'”