Tuesday, February 18, 2020

In a hammock with Brahms

‘I bought a strong hammock yesterday, and Brahms and I went into the lovely beech-wood and hung it up between two trees, on a spot from which through the foliage we could see the sea far below us. We both managed to climb into it simultaneously, an amusing, though by no means easy task to accomplish.’ This is from the diary of George Henschel, a naturalised British musician born 170 years ago today. Accomplished and famous during his lifetime, he is probably remembered mostly for his lifetime friendship with Johannes Brahms, and for the diary entries about him.

Henschel was born on 18 February 1850 in Breslau, Prussia (now part of Poland) and educated as a pianist, making his first public appearance in Berlin aged but 12. He subsequently took up singing, developing a fine baritone voice. In 1868, he sang the part of Hans Sachs in a concert performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Munich. And in 1874, while taking part in the Lower Rhenish Music Festival in Cologne, he met and became friends with the composer Brahms. Starting in 1877, he began a successful singing career in England. In 1881, he married the American soprano, Lilian Bailey; and the same year he became the first conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. While in Boston, the couple had a daughter, Helen, who would later become an accomplished recitalist and pianist, and who would also write a biography of her father.

In 1886, Henschel launched the London Symphony Concerts. In 1890, he took on British citizenship, and in 1893 he was the founder of the Scottish Orchestra (now the Royal Scottish National Orchestra). Henschel’s compositions are listed as including instrumental works, a fine Stabat Mater (Birmingham Festival, 1894), an opera, Nubia (Dresden, 1899), and Requiem (Boston, 1903). Lillian died in 1901, and in 1907 Henschel, married Amy Louis, one of his students at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School) in New York. They too had one daughter, born in 1910. Henschel was knighted in 1914. He died at Aviemore, Scotland, in 1934, and is buried in the local churchyard. Further information is available online at Wikipedia, Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

During his lifetime, Henschel published two autobiographical works (both freely available online at Internet Archive): Personal Recollections of Johannes Brahms: some of his letters to, and pages from a journal kept by George Henschel (Richard G. Badger, 1907); Musings and Memories of a Musician (Macmillan, 1918). The following are extracts from Henschel’s diaries taken from the former.

3 February 1876, Münster, Westphalia
‘Brahms arrived yesterday. I am glad my hoarseness is gradually disappearing, for the thought of singing, at the concert day after tomorrow, those high notes in his “Triumphal Hymn” for Double Chorus and Baritone Solo, rather troubled me. I asked him if eventually he would object to my altering some of the highest notes into more convenient ones on account of my cold, and he said: “Not in the least. As far as I am concerned, a thinking, sensible singer may, without hesitation, change a note which for some reason or other is for the time being out of his compass, into one which he can reach with comfort, provided always the declamation remains correct and the accentuation does not suffer.’

6 February 1876
‘Yesterday was the concert. Brahms played his Pianoforte Concerto in D Minor superbly. I especially noted his emphasizing each of those tremendous shakes in the first movement by placing a short rest between the last note of one and the first small note before the next. During those short stops he would lift his hands up high and let them come down on the keys with a force like that of a lion’s paw. It was grand.

Dear old Isegrim conducted and fairly chuckled with joy at every beautiful phrase. The glorious but horribly difficult “Triumphal Hymn” conducted by Brahms, went splendidly. It was a veritable triumph for the composer. The joy and gratification expressed in Brahms’ face at the end, when acknowledging the enthusiastic acclamations of audience, chorus, and orchestra, was evidently caused as much by the consciousness of having written a truly great work, as by its reception and appreciation; a most welcome change from the affected excess of modesty often exhibited on concert platforms.

My throat not being quite well yet, I changed, with Brahms’ approval, the dreaded phrase [line of music ] and sang it like this [line of music] by which Brahms’ intention of emphasizing the word “heavens” was still carried out, the note “c” remaining the highest of the phrase.’

8 July 1876, Sassnitz on Rügen island
‘Arrived here last night. The diligence was delayed by one of the heaviest thunderstorms I can remember, and I did not pull up at the little hostelry, which also contains the post office, until half-past eleven; but in spite of the inclemency of the weather and the late hour, Brahms was there to welcome me and we had an hour’s chat in the little coffee-room. Then he returned to his lodgings down in the village, whilst I came up here to the hotel on the Fahrnberg, where, however, to my great delight, Brahms is going to have his mid-day and evening meals regularly.’

10 July 1876
‘Yesterday afternoon I spent nearly three hours in Brahms’ rooms. He showed me new songs of his, asking me if I could suggest a short way of indicating that a certain phrase in one of them was not his own.

“I have,” he said, “taken a charming motive of Scarlatti’s [line of music] as the theme of a song I composed to one of Goethe’s poems, and should like to acknowledge my indebtedness.” I proposed, as the best and simplest way, that he should merely place Scarlatti’s name at the end of the phrase in question.

He also showed me the manuscript of an unpublished song and the first movement of a Requiem Mass, both by Schubert, enthusiastically commenting on their beauty. The first two issues of the Bach Society’s publication of cantatas were lying on his table, and he pointed out to me how badly the accompaniments were often arranged for the piano; how, in fact, the endeavor to bring out as nearly as possible every individual part of the orchestra had rendered the arrangement well nigh unplayable for any but a virtuoso.

“The chief aim,” he said, “of a pianoforte arrangement of orchestral accompaniments must always be to be easily playable. Whether the different parts move correctly, i. e., in strict accordance with the rules of counterpoint, does not matter in the least.”

Then we went together through the full score of Mozart’s “Requiem,” which he had undertaken to prepare for a new edition of that master’s works. I admired the great trouble he had taken in the revision of the score. Every note of Süssmayer’s was most carefully distinguished from Mozart’s own.

It was a wonderful experience to have this man’s company quite to myself for so long a time. During all these days Brahms has never spoken of anything which does not really interest him, never said anything superfluous or commonplace, except at the table d’hote, where he purposely talks of hackneyed things, such as the weather, food, the temperature of the water, excursions, etc., etc.’

11 July 1876
I bought a strong hammock yesterday, and Brahms and I went into the lovely beech-wood and hung it up between two trees, on a spot from which through the foliage we could see the sea far below us. We both managed to climb into it simultaneously, an amusing, though by no means easy task to accomplish. After having comfortably established ourselves in it, we enjoyed a very cozy, agreeable hour or two of dolce far niente. Brahms was in an angelic mood, and went from one charming, interesting story to another, in which the gentler sex played a not unimportant part.

In the afternoon we resolved to go on an expedition to find his bullfrog pond, of which he had spoken to me for some days. His sense of locality not being very great, we walked on and on across long stretches of waste moorland. Often we heard the weird call of bullfrogs in the distance, but he would say: “No, that’s not my pond yet,” and on we walked. At last we found it, a tiny little pool in the midst of a wide plain grown with heather. We had not met a human being the whole way, and this solitary spot seemed out of the world altogether.’

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