May 7

There are 3 entries for this date: Johannes Brahms Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky Robert Browning

    Johannes Brahms

    Johannes Brahms

    On this date in 1833, Johannes Brahms was born into a Lutheran family in  Hamburg, Germany.  His father gave him his first musical training on the violin and cello. He studied piano at age 7 with Otto Friedrich Cossel, who complained in 1842 that Brahms “could be such a good player, but he will not stop his never-ending composing.” By 1845 he had written a piano sonata in G minor. His parents disapproved of his early efforts as a composer, feeling that he had better career prospects as a performer.

    His reputation and status as a Romantic composer and a master of counterpoint, rhythm and meter are such that he is sometimes grouped with J.S. Bach and Beethoven as one of the “Three Bs” of music.

    Brahms was well-read in philosophy and science and was an avid hiker who took inspiration from nature. When a conductor requested a greater religious consciousness in the text of some liturgical music, Brahms responded that he would prefer to “dispense with passages like John 3:16” and “gladly omit even the word German and instead use Human.” (Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms: A Biography, 1997.)

    A liberal, Brahms ardently opposed anti-Semitism, was approachable even at the height of his fame, and was always generous with his time and charity. Swafford wrote, “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’ religion.” According to Swafford, Brahms was “a humanist and an agnostic.”

    He never married although it was obvious he loved children. Scholars have observed that he thought himself as unfit emotionally for marriage. He died of liver cancer at age 63. (D. 1897)

    PHOTO: Brahms at age 20.

    “Yet we can’t believe in immortality on the other side. The only true immortality lies in one’s children.”
    —Brahms' letter to composer Richard Heuberger, "Johannes Brahms: A Biography" by Jan Swafford (1997)

    Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

    Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

    On this date in 1840, Pyotr “Peter” Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Russia. A musical prodigy, he started piano lessons at age 5. Although he was initially educated as a civil servant, studied law and was appointed to the Ministry of Justice in 1859, Tchaikovsky jettisoned that career, studying music for three years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Anton Rubenstein, Nikolai Zaremba and other teachers.

    This prolific and most lyrical of the classical composers wrote “Romeo and Juliet” (1869), “Piano Concerto in B Flat Minor” (1875), “Swan Lake” (1876), “The Year 1812, Solemn Overture” (aka the “1812 Overture,” 1880), “The Sleeping Beauty” (1890), “The Nutcracker” (1892) and “Symphony No. 6 in B Minor” (“Pathetique,” 1893).

    His letters show an interest in religious questions, which, according to freethought encyclopedist Joseph McCabe, gravitated toward agnosticism by the end of his life. Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, which made him a “transgressor” in the 19th century, may have played a role in his religious migration. (D. 1893)

    “I have found some astonishing answers to my questioning as to God and religion in his book.”

    —Tchaikovsky letter to his brother Modest about reading freethinker Flaubert, "Life and Letters of P.I. Tchaikovsky" (ed. Rosa Newmarch, 1906)

    Robert Browning

    Robert Browning

    On this date in 1812, Robert Browning was born in London. The precocious child began writing poetry at age 12, attended London University College for a year at age 16 and eventually established his reputation as a major poet by 1845. One of his most famous writings is “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” Although Browning’s mother was a devout evangelical, Robert announced at age 13 after reading “Queen Mab” by Shelley that he was (at least briefly) an atheist.

    At a more mature age, Browning began reevaluating religion once more during his friendship with W.J. Fox, the former Unitarian minister at London’s famous South Place Chapel. “Who knows most, doubts most,” Browning wrote (cited in 2000 Years of Disbelief by James A. Haught).

    Browning’s famous correspondence and whirlwind romance with poet Elizabeth Barrett resulted in their marriage in 1846. They settled in Italy for the benefit of Elizabeth, an invalid. They had a son, Robert (“Pen”) Jr., in 1849. At the death of his wife in 1861, Browning was said to have discarded any remaining Christian beliefs, although the degree of his skepticism is debated by academics. In The Ring and the Book, iv., Browning wrote: “Mothers, wives, and maids / There be the tools wherewith priests manage men.” (D. 1889)

    “It is a lie — their Priests, their Pope,
    Their Saints, their … all they fear or hope
    Are lies, and lies — there! through my door
    And ceiling, there! and walls and floor,
    There, lies, they lie, shall still be hurled
    Till spite of them I reach the world!”

    —Browning, "The Confessional" (1845)

Freedom From Religion Foundation