Johannes Brahms and Eduard Remény (seated)
“My father was a dear old man, very simple-minded, and most unsophisticated.” Those words are from Johannes Brahms. They help to explain why, while studying not just music, but also Latin and classics in school, Brahms had to help pay the family’s bills by playing the piano. In dirty Hamburg, the places that paid were the bars and brothels in his neighborhood.
Playing mood or dance music, mostly ignoring the activities around him, he was paid in coins dropped in a stein on the piano (and given as much beer as he wanted). He was only 12 years old. The ‘ladies’ would hang around waiting for business, teasing the cute little boy, but staying clear of improprieties.
Within a couple of years, Brahms was finding work elsewhere in town – not just as a pianist, but also as an arranger for small ensembles in which he was often participating.
By the age of 15, Brahms was able make his official premiere as a concert pianist. That was 1848 and Hamburg was experiencing the overflow of Hungarian refugees trying to get to the United States. During the summer, the Austrian and Russian governments had crushed a revolution in Hungary. Those trying to get out of the mess were passing through the port of Hamburg.
While waiting, Hungarians (including gypsies from the area) would entertain themselves and passers-by with their songs, quite ready to accept cash for these impromptu performances. Young Johannes made his way to the docks for this wonderful music.
About two years later, a violinist born Eduard Hoffmann changed his name to Reményi – essentially a Hungarian translation of his name – out of love for his homeland. He was among those Hungarian refugees in Hamburg. Brahms heard this young phenom, and before long the two were performing around Hamburg.
A rumor started circulating that there was an arrest warrant out for Reményi, so the fun was over for the time being. Reményi was off the U.S. for two years, only to return with bigger plans in mind. The two would tour Europe. It would be a chance of a lifetime for the young unknown Brahms. He would be touring with a true Hungarian violinist at a time when the popularity of that country’s music was peaking. They were a hit.
But the young Brahms was so good that the more famous Reményi became jealous. Their friendship soured. When Brahms published his Hungarian Dances, Reményi claimed that Brahms had stolen pieces that the violinist had actually originated. Brahms responded that they were indeed folk tunes and therefore basically ‘public domain.’
But I’m getting ahead of myself. While the two were on one of their tours, they met other famous musicians. One of them was the Jewish-Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. Reményi and Joachim were close friends and both had that feeling for the music of their people.
Let me stop for a moment and take us to another place and time. You are in the back of a bar in New York City – maybe the Village Vanguard. The year is 1959. The Dave Brubeck Quartet or Miles Davis are playing the latest take on this heavily styled genre of music. You can hear it better than you can see it, thanks to the grey haze of smoke – smoke that over the years has glazed the place with a light shade of ochre-brown. Your beer is warm, but your company is cool, as you are completely mesmerized by what you hear.
That’s what it was like in many of Europe’s hip taverns in the mid-nineteenth century. The Jazz of the day was variations on Hungarian or Gypsy music. Even when Brahms wasn’t playing it with Reményi, he could certainly hear it close by.
About five years later, this time on his own and better known, Brahms would find himself at the piano at the center of a small crowd waiting for his next tune. He’d play these ‘out-there’ gypsy-style pieces. Before long, these ideas ended up on paper, one Hungarian dance at a time, until his friend Clara Schumann started adding them to her concerts.
By 1868, Brahms had penned ten of these Hungarian dances in a scoring for two pianos. He and Clara performed them in a concert. The he gave them to his publisher, Fritz Simrock. They proved to be very popular.
Four years later, another publication – this time for single piano – sold even better. Brahms then orchestrated three of the dances. Simrock made a ton of money from these dances. Before long, he had the brilliant idea of asking Brahms to come up with more. Brahms obliged.
In time, other versions appeared, and Brahms’s good friend Antonín Dvořák orchestrated the last four Hungarian Dances of Book Four. He may have done this partly as thanks to Brahms for hooking him up with the publisher Simrock. (Simrock’s first request to Dvořák was a set of Slavonic Dances – which made Simrock even more money).
The 21 Hungarian Dances brought in cash for Brahms too, not just for his publisher. But what was more important to Brahms was that now he had leverage with Simrock. Now Brahms could ask Simrock to publish his more ‘serious’ music, which both knew would be less profitable.
Brahms’ Hungarian Dances may not have been his greatest work. But by helping to bring his other works to light, they may have been some of the most important pieces of music he ever composed.