Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Death of Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms on his deathbed, April 1897
Johannes Brahms on his deathbed, April 1897

We mark the death on April 3, 1897 – 126 years ago today – of the German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms at the age of 63.  One of the great ones and along with Sebastian Bach and Louis van Beethoven one of the three bees – the killer bees – Brahms was born in the Hanseatic port city of Hamburg on May 7, 1833.

We will get to Maestro Brahms in just a moment but first – with appropriate fanfare – I offer up this edition of “This Day in Music History Stupid.”

Ashes to Ashes; Dust to Dust; Be Kind to My Ashes, Though Snort if You Must

On April 3, 2007 – 16 years ago today – the Reuters news agency reported that Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards (born December 18, 1943) admitted in a soon-to-be published interview with NME (New Musical Express) magazine that he had snorted his father’s ashes during a drug binge. 

Keith Richards (born 1943)
Keith Richards (born 1943)

I think we’ve all wondered the same thing at some point or another: given his personal habits and corpse-like appearance, how and why is Keith Richards still alive, yet still performing at nearly 80 years of age?

Richards would seem to be as surprised as we are that he is still among the living.  For decades he has expressed his (dubious) pride at having survived his legendary lifestyle.  Back in his sixties Richards told an interviewer:

“I was number one on the ‘Who’s Likely to Die’ list for 10 years. I mean, I was really disappointed when I fell off the list.  Some doctor told me I had six months to live and I went to his funeral.”

According to an NME magazine spokesperson, the interview in which Richards claimed to have snorted his father’s ashes was genuine and not a late April Fool’s joke. During that interview, Richards was asked what the strangest thing was he ever snorted.  His response:

“The strangest thing I’ve tried to snort?  My father. I snorted my father. He was cremated and I couldn’t resist grinding him up with a little bit of blow. My dad wouldn’t have cared. It went down pretty well and I’m still alive.”

For our information, Keith Richards’ father, Bert Richards, died in 2002 at the age of 84.  Will his son Keith outlive him? On this we’ll simply have to wait and see.

Johannes Brahms Approaching 60

Johannes Brahms in 1889, at the age of 56
Johannes Brahms in 1889, at the age of 56

Johannes Brahms in his late-fifties was a picture of ruddy good health.  

His schedule remained fixed: vacation in Italy during the early spring; compose in the countryside during the late spring and summer; return to Vienna in the fall to polish what he had written during the summer, conduct, or simply loaf around, as he pleased.  Despite his bulky physique, Brahms remained quite spry, and despite the countless cigars and the gallons of beer and wine he consumed he remained a picture of health.  

While in Vienna, he dined religiously – lunch and dinner – at the Zum rotten Igel – “The Red Hedgehog” – in the Wildpretmarkt.  As far as he was concerned, the Hedgehog served the best cheap food in Vienna, a double positive if there ever was one, something he never tired of telling his less frugal friends and associates.  

What Brahms did spend his money on were the Viennese ladies of the evening, with whom – we are told – he was kindly, caring, and generous, sometimes to a fault.  Of the older Brahms writes biographer Jan Swafford:

“In his fashion, Brahms remained modest and generous and often self-deprecating, but he did not escape the effects of fame.  In his age he could not abide being contradicted, took for granted that he was the center of every company.  He maintained his chosen masks:  the Master to be approached at peril; the gruff, hard drinking bourgeois man preferring the company of men or in mixed company telling naughty stories to the ladies.  He played the old scamp, the old rogue, flirting with every pretty face and everyone’s daughter.  But he looked, and did not touch, beyond a playful squeeze, laughed and held forth and gave lavish gifts but in the end gave nothing of himself beyond his art.  Ruthlessly, he had sunk his fair features and moonstruck young soul under the patriarchal beard and forbidding bark of Herr Doktor Brahms.” 

By the late 1880s and early 1890s, the awards, laurels, and prizes began to pour into Brahms’ Viennese flat, unbidden but not unwelcome.  Brahms kept the lid on his grand piano down, and instead of the usual family photographs, he covered the piano with a rotating display of his medals and certificates.  By far the most welcome honor to come his way arrived in May 1889:  Brahms was informed that his hometown of Hamburg was to award him the “Freedom of Hamburg” prize, the city’s greatest honor.  Only twelve people had ever received the prize, the most recent two being Otto von Bismarck and the Prussian general Helmut von Moltke. …

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