Academic journal article Fontes Artis Musicae

Myth in Brahms Biography, or, What I Learned from Quantum Mechanics

Academic journal article Fontes Artis Musicae

Myth in Brahms Biography, or, What I Learned from Quantum Mechanics

Article excerpt

On the face of it, this essay is about the complex of myth found in a large number of biographies of Johannes Brahms, myth which centers on the circumstances of his childhood and early working life, and in some accounts extends to the effects of those purported circumstances on the rest of his life. I call it the Poverty Myth, and discuss how it arose, why it persists so stubbornly, how it could have been avoided, and how it may be laid to rest. To be clear, I am defining myth here as a widely-held but false idea about something.

The underlying subject of this essay, however, is epistemological: a renewed look at methods used in scientific research to approach truth, and what we may profitably take from them in our practice as (music) historians and biographers--or put differently, more emphatically, what good historical/biographical methodology needs to have in common with fruitful scientific research if it is to succeed in leading to an understanding of past happenings that is more than just the subjective view of a particular person. (2)

For some my theme is contentious. Isn't talk of scientific method in the humanities outdated? And haven't the methods of science been fundamentally discredited? Hasn't science been shown to have feet of clay, merely a construct of a given society with results that have no special claim to "truth"? Even so distinguished a historiographer as Ernst Breisach tells us that we must learn to live without the possibility of finding truths which are valid for all human beings, and carry on without the comfort of " ...Newton's physics with its certainties that have long been abandoned." (3)

I will make a case for finding this view of science in general, and of Newton in particular, deeply flawed, and hope to show that in our search for a valid historical view, science offers us a useful model after all.

If Brahms had been more cooperative with his early biographers, he would not be the jumping-off place for this essay. Instead, he was no help at all, causing his biographers to scratch around for whatever they could find or surmise about his early years.

In 1880, his friend Hermann Deiters, a distinguished music journalist, undertook to write a biographical sketch of Brahms, whom he had known since 1855. Deiter's request for personal information reached Brahms while he was on holiday in Ischl, and his response must have disappointed Deiters considerably:

Joh. Brahms to Hermann Deiters

Ischl, 8 August 1880 (4)

      ... I really know absolutely no dates or years with regard to
   myself; and here, naturally, I can't attempt to look up old
   letters, etc. In that regard, I hardly need to add that I dislike
   speaking about myself, and also dislike reading anything that
   concerns me personally.

      I think it would be wonderful if every artist, great or small,
   would quite seriously provide a confidential chronicle--I don't
   have time for it, but it's a pity! But with regard to what La Mara,
   etc., professes to tell about me--I do not appreciate it and fail
   to see why it is told from time to time. (5)

      ... I do understand, of course, that it is necessary for your
   purposes, but even with my best intentions I just cannot answer
   your specific questions.

      Except: J.B., born 1834 in Altona on the 7th of March (not as
   often stated, 7th of May 33 in Hamburg), I read that often, to my
   amusement, and what is in the parentheses is correct.

      My father has unfortunately died (after 1870, as evidence of my
   inability to answer)! I became Dr in Breslau (two or three years
   ago!). Before that (several years) I was awarded the title in
   Cambridge. In such a case thanks to Parliament, one must suffer
   through certain ceremonies there in person--I preferred to be
   impolite, and so it did not come to pass. (6)

      The stories about the C and A minor sonatas might be true, for
   all I know. … 
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