Brahms the Freethinker by Dan Barker (May 2002)

Vol. 19 No. 4 – Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. – May 2002

Music Was His Religion
By Dan Barker

How many parents, soothing their children to sleep with “Brahms’s Lullaby,” know they are singing a melody written by a freethinker?

Johannes Brahms, the great German composer known as the “3rd B” (after Bach and Beethoven), did not believe in a god.

Born in 1833–the same year as American freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll–Brahms shed his Christian upbringing early, though not without being fully informed. Jan Swafford, in Johannes Brahms: A Biography, writes of the young composer: “Though he was to be a freethinker in religion, Johannes pored over the Bible beyond the requirements for his Protestant confirmation.” From then on, “Music was Brahms’s religion.”

In his teens, Brahms would prop books of poetry on the piano to divert himself while playing for drunken sailors in a Hamburg bar. His favorite poet, from whom many of his lyrics sprang, was the anticlerical G. F. Daumer, described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as an “enemy of Christianity” who “strove to substitute a new religion ‘of love and peace.’ ” (In later years, Daumer converted to Catholicism.) Brahms’s works were also influenced by philosophy and literature, including Hoffman, Schiller, Robert Burns, Jean Paul, and Friedrich Hölderlin. He had a keen interest in science, and could hold his own debating politics, literature, religion and philosophy.

An avid hiker who loved the outdoors, Brahms often turned to nature for ideas. “A great deal of his music,” writes Swafford, “in its inspiration and spirit, rose from mountains and forests and open sky.” The melody for the finale of the C-minor Symphony actually traces the shape of the Alps, as Brahms viewed them during a hike.

Brahms occasionally used biblical texts, but only for artistic reasons. After the death of his mother, he wrote the popular Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem, 1867), but was careful to select only those biblical lyrics that relate to this life and to those who grieve. The Requiem starts with “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” and avoids talk of eternal salvation. Noticing this secular spin, conductor Karl Reinthaler, who had studied theology and was working closely with Brahms on the Easter Week premiere, wrote to Brahms: “Forgive me, but I wondered if it might not be possible to extend the work in some way that would bring it closer to a Good Friday service . . . what is lacking, at least for a Christian consciousness, is the pivotal point: the salvation in the death of our Lord. . . .”

In other words, what about Jesus?

“Brahms was not about to put up with that sort of thing,” Swafford writes. “He was a humanist and an agnostic, and his requiem was going to express that, Reinthaler or no. . . . With the title A German Requiem he intended to convey that this is not the liturgical requiem mass in Latin, nor a German translation of it, but a personal testament, a requiem. Brahms avoided dogma in the piece for the same reason . . . even if the words come from the Bible, this was his response to death as a secular, skeptical, modern man.”

Brahms responded politely but firmly to Reinthaler: “As far as the text is concerned, I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and instead use Human; also with my best knowledge and will I would dispense with places like John 3:16. On the other hand, I have chosen one thing or another because I am a musician, because I needed it, and because with my venerable authors I can’t delete or dispute anything. But I had better stop before I say too much.”

He had already said enough! The verse Brahms explicitly discards is central to Christianity: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Swafford concludes: “Brahms means that he could do without that verse and that dogma, in Ein deutsches Requiem and in his life. If he was a North German Protestant by tradition and temperament, he was not in his faith, which like all his convictions Brahms held close to his chest. For himself he would not call Christ a particular son of God. Meanwhile, to Reinthaler he downplays the theology of some verses he does use, saying, ‘I can’t delete or dispute anything’ from Scripture. With that he obliquely confesses that even the hints of resurrection lingering in his texts are not his own sentiments. At the end of his Requiem, the dead are not reborn but released: ‘they rest from their labors.’ It is that rest from his own lonely labors that Brahms yearned for someday, as his mother rested from her life of poverty and toil.”

When Brahms sometimes spoke of immortality, it was metaphorically, jokingly. To his publisher, he once wrote: “Done! What is done? The violin concerto? No. . . . One knows nothing definite; even the most credulous doesn’t. . . . And I am credulous. Indeed, I believe in immortality–; I believe that when an immortal dies, people will keep on for 50,000 years and more, talking idiotically and badly about him–thus I believe in immortality, without which beautiful and agreeable attribute I have the honor to be–Your J. Br.”

To his friend Richard Heuberger, Brahms, who never married, said, “Apart from Frau Schumann I’m not attached to anybody with my whole soul! And truly that is terrible and one should neither think such a thing nor say it. Is that not a lonely life! Yet we can’t believe in immortality on the other side. The only true immortality lies in one’s children.”

Clara Schumann, by the way, the virtuoso pianist and composer who was a true life-long friend of Brahms, also had little use for the church. “Performing was her religion,” Swafford observes. “The world saw Clara Schumann as a priestess, something like a saint. If there is such a thing as a secular saint, surely she was one.”

Brahms also used non-biblical gods for his own purposes. The text for Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates, 1882) is from Goethe’s Iphigenia: “Let the race of man, Fear the gods! They hold the power, In eternal hands, And they use it, As they please. . . .” However, Swafford notes that Brahms’s own “gods” were earthly, not supernatural: “When he said to George Henschel, ‘As much as we men . . . are above the creeping things of the earth, so these gods are above us!’ the gods he spoke of were his personal ones, his real religion: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and the others. Now he approached his age with the gods of the earth vanished, and the ones in the heavens silent and unapproachable.”

While working on Nänie, his commemoration of the death of his friend, the painter Anselm Feuerbach, Brahms wrote another friend: “Won’t you try to find me some words? . . . The ones in the Bible are not heathen enough for me. I’ve bought the Koran but can’t find anything there either.”

Brahms was not just a nominal unbeliever. He often had well-thought opinions on religion. Pastor and playwright Josef Widmann, who once expressed to Brahms his support of the Theological Reform movement in Switzerland, was surprised to find Brahms “not only cognizant of the issue but with forceful and contrary opinions about it.” Brahms pronounced it “a half-measure that would satisfy neither the pious nor the freethinkers,” Swafford writes.

Remarkable for that time and place, Brahms was never anti-Semitic. “Toward the end of his life,” Swafford notes, “responding to the antisemitism that had become endemic in Austrian politics, Brahms was heard to growl, ‘Next week I’m going to have myself circumcised!’ . . . Brahms may have idolized Bismarck and the authoritarian Prussians, but he remained a liberal and a democrat at heart.”

When the Christian Socialists finally elected Karl Lueger vice-mayor of Vienna in 1895, ending the long liberal rule, turning Austria formally anti-Semitic from then until Hitler, Brahms remarked to his friends: “Didn’t I tell you years ago that it was going to happen? You laughed at me then and everybody else did too. Now it’s here, and with it the priests’ economic system. If there was an ‘Anticlerical Party’–that would make sense! But antisemitism is madness!”

Brahms hated the music of Anton Bruckner, a devout believer whose works were later performed with gusto by the Nazis. “Everything is affectation with him, nothing is natural,” Brahms said. “As to his piety–that’s his business, it’s nothing to me.” (Bruckner himself cannot be accused of anti-Semitism.)

But Brahms admired the music of Dvorák, whom he had helped financially when the young Bohemian was a struggling writer. In later years, they had occasion to become well acquainted. “As the two of them talked,” Swafford writes about one of their long conversations, “Brahms rambled on about his agnosticism, his growing interest in Schopenhauer, the philosopher of pessimism (Wagner’s favorite). On the way back to his hotel with violinist Josef Suk, Dvorák was thoughtful and silent. Suddenly he exclaimed with real anguish, ‘Such a man, such a fine soul–and he believes in nothing! He believes in nothing!’ “

Dvorák’s “fine soul” assessment was not hyperbole. Brahms the unbeliever was always generous and helpful, sharing his wealth liberally, living simply and humbly, giving of his time and energies to others. Swafford relates an exciting and illuminating event when Brahms was spending the summer of 1885 in Mürzzuschlag:

“One day a carpenter’s shop in his house erupted in flames. Brahms ran from his workroom in shirtsleeves to join the bucket brigade to fight the fire, shouting at well-dressed passersby to lend a hand. In the confusion someone pulled him aside and told him his papers were threatened by the blaze. Brahms thought it over for a second, then returned to the buckets. Richard Fellinger finally extracted from him the key to his room and ran to save the score of the Fourth Symphony. When the fire was out–his rooms were not touched–Brahms shrugged off the threat to his manuscript with ‘Oh, the poor people needed help more than I did.’ He followed that up by slipping the carpenter money for rebuilding. (He could, after all, have rewritten the symphony from memory.)”

Not only was Brahms’s Lullaby (Wiegenlied) written by a freethinker, but its story might be considered scandalous by some Christians. The song was written in honor of the birth of a child of Brahms’s friends Bertha and Artur Faber in 1868. Years earlier, Brahms had briefly fallen in love with Bertha when she was a young visitor to his female choir in Hamburg, and during the playful courtship she used to sing him a lilting 3/4-time Viennese melody. The romance ended, but the friendship endured, and the melody that Brahms later composed for the private lullaby was a creative counterpoint to the earlier love song that the child’s mother would remember singing to the composer. When he presented the gift to the Fabers, Brahms included this note to her husband: “Frau Bertha will realize that I wrote the ‘Wiegenlied’ for her little one. She will find it quite in order . . . that while she is singing Hans to sleep, a love song is being sung to her.” Bertha was the first person to sing Brahms’s Lullaby, both love melodies dancing flirtatiously in her head.

Brahms enjoyed near perfect health until the last few months, not even reporting as much as a headache, rarely visiting a doctor. On the morning Brahms’s life ended in Vienna in 1897–he was almost 64, felled by liver cancer long before he was ready to go–there was no death-bed conversion, no regret for living a godless life. Artur Faber (Bertha’s husband), had come to the sick man’s bed that morning to give him a glass of wine for his thirst. “Oh that tasted fine. You’re a kind man,” Brahms said, his last recorded words.

Johannes Brahms did not seek immortality, but he got it anyway: not in children, not in heaven, but in the beauty he bequeathed to the world.

Source: Johannes Brahms: A Biography, by Jan Swafford (1997, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.)

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