Magazine article The Spectator

Booze and the Great Composers

Magazine article The Spectator

Booze and the Great Composers

Article excerpt

'Brahms and Liszt' is a lovely bit of rhyming slang, but it doesn't have the ring of authenticity. Can you really imagine cockney barrow boys whistling tunes from the Tragic Overture and the Transcendental Études ? Also, the Oxford English Dictionary reckons it only dates back to the 1930s. It always made me snigger, though, because it conjured up an implausible vision of pompous beardy Johannes and the social-climbing Abbé rolling around legless.

Not so implausible, it turns out. The other day I was reading a review of a new life of Liszt by Oliver Hilmes that reveals 'hair-raising episodes of drunkenness' in his later years. For some reason these were left out of the three-volume biography by Alan Walker, who admitted that the composer drank a bottle of cognac a day (and sometimes two bottles of wine) but didn't think he was an alcoholic. Liszt's pupils were under no such illusion -- a 'confirmed alcoholic', said Felix Weingartner.

That made me curious about Brahms, who as a young man famously played the piano in brothels and pubs -- just to earn money, according to sanitised accounts of his life, but in fact he was a lifelong customer of both types of establishment. Prostitutes found him charming; innkeepers less so, though Brahms reserved his worst behaviour for respectable gatherings. At one party, he 'got drunk and branded all women with a word so shocking that it broke up the occasion'. Guests at Johann Strauss's soirées came to dread Brahms's slurred insults.

So 'Brahms and Liszt' is a well-chosen euphemism: both of them were piss artists. Probably only the latter was an alcoholic -- though we can't be sure, because the word 'alcoholism' was only invented in 1849 and has never been satisfactorily defined. Applying it to historical figures is bound to be tendentious.

What we do know is that a surprising number of great composers were fond of the bottle. Schubert, for example. There are several accounts of his 'deplorable and embarrassing conduct while a guest at private functions in respectable family homes'. Even as a teenager he could be a nasty drunk. In later years, according to his friend Schober, 'he let himself go to pieces ...frequented the city outskirts [of Vienna] and roamed around in taverns'.

That sounds awfully like Beethoven, who was doing exactly the same thing; they may even have staggered past each other in the street without realising it, since they were both short-sighted. But you really can't blame either of them. The older man was stone-deaf; the younger one had syphilis and must have been terrified of the paranoid insanity associated with the disease.

He died before tertiary syphilis could set in, but Schumann lived long enough to go horribly mad. …

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