Ludwig Berger, About Johannes Brahms the Man. Commemorative Speech Given at a Celebration Hosted by the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg on the Occasion of Johannes Brahms’ 125th Birthday on May 7, 1958, Hamburg

English Translation

    Mr. Mayor, Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen who are gathered here in celebration,
    Allow me to speak of Johannes Brahms the man, as his works speak for themselves, have long become common knowledge not only in Germany but worldwide and therefore require no commentary.
    [Let me speak] of the shyness, humor and sensitivity of this Hamburg citizen and of the nobility of character of this simple musician's son, which expressed itself in pride and modesty, and of his mastering a life in which coincidence, love and solitude intersected in the most magical ways.
    There is no sentiment among the German people, no tender yearning and no deliberate privation that has not been consolidated and romanticized in the face and the vision of the man we are celebrating today. Johannes Brahms is a great son of the city of Hamburg, but beyond that he is a true son of Germany. The portrait of him as a young man, which shows an expression of Hölderlinesque purity and romantic reflection that seems caught in a dream, is just as German as the later caricatures of the pudgy elderly gentleman who hides his great kindness behind a big bushy beard and who prefers to joke with those he holds dear as if they were children so that he can avoid revealing the emotions flowing dramatically and earnestly, lovingly and melancholy into the heart of the world.
    In England, “planta genista,” the scrubby, gray-green common broom with its golden yellow flowers, features on the crest of a royal house, the “Planta genet;” in Germany planta genista is still called “Brahm” where it grows naturally, in the regions of Dithmarschen and Holstein. And “Brahms,” or actually “Brahmst,” with a “t” at the end, means “son of the heath.” Thus the landscape that becomes the primal source of this North German master's strength is already embedded in his name.
    Descended from an old family of farmers, his likable kindness often swings into rudeness, which is nothing but a cloak the aging man drapes around himself because he essentially remains helpless against the world and its people. []
    His shyness of other people always stood in his way. Whenever he could, he would avoid unexpected encounters, and the more famous he became, the more mischievous he got. One day as he was leaving his apartment in Vienna, he met a young man downstairs at the gates. “Does Master Brahms live here?,” the stranger inquired. “Certainly, Sir, on the third floor,” Brahms replied with particular kindness and fled as fast as he could. Was that Hamburg in his blood?
    It is moving how this son of Hamburg has courted and struggled for the love of his home town, how he keeps coming home, always hoping that the place where he belongs will give him an opportunity to work there, and how the angels eventually carried him, disappointed, to an entirely different place, to the more tender gardens of Vienna, where his genius could unfold its inherent grace to its full bloom, for the best men of this time had been gifted with gracefulness despite their martial full beards, and behind the wildest manes there often were children's eyes looking devoutly and starry-eyed out at the world. This also explains the unending love for folk songs that has inspired these heirs to Romanticism. It is not a sign of resignation when the penultimate major work that Brahms publishes as he is nearing his end consists of seven volumes of folk songs, in fact it is a confession of faith. The folk song, the clarinet, the love for which Mühlfeld had awakened in him, and the biblical text of the solemn vocals all conclude the masterpiece of a life which the bearer of this life had imagined very differently.
    He would have liked, as he said, to have been a decent, bourgeois man, he would have liked to marry and live like others. “Now I am a vagabond,” he grumbles about the injustice of the world that denied him the permanent employment he longed for; but despite this longing for a home and a hearth the happiness he sacrificed became a boon to his oeuvre. []

    Source Description

    On May 7, 1958 Ludwig Berger, a once celebrated theater director and author largely forgotten today, gave a commemorative address at Hamburg’s Musikhalle as part of the “Brahms Festwoche” festival held on the occasion of Johannes Brahms’ 125th birthday. Berger’s roughly 60-minute long speech was distributed as an LP by Hamburg record company Teldec in a limited edition and also published in print, first by the Hamburg senate and later by the Tübingen-based Wunderlich publishing house. The fact that a German artist with Jewish roots was invited as a speaker by Hamburg’s office of cultural affairs may have been a result of efforts to distance the event from the “Reichs-Brahmsfest” held 25 years earlier, on the occasion of Brahms’ centennial in May 1933. Although its planning went back to 1931, this celebration had been appropriated at least in part for nationalist purposes by the recently installed Nazi regime.

    In the context of the 1933 “Reichs-Brahmsfest” rumors had emerged that the Hamburg composer was of Jewish descent (his last name was supposed to have been derived from “Abrahamson”). Peri Arndt, Das Gerücht über Brahms’ jüdische Abstammung, in: Arbeitsgruppe Exilmusik am Musikwissenschaftlichen Institut der Universität Hamburg (ed.), Das „Reichs-Brahmsfest“ 1933 in Hamburg. Rekonstruktion und Dokumentation, Hamburg 1997, pp. 119–120. Whether Berger knew of these rumors is not known, interestingly though, he also discusses the origins of the Brahms family name in his speech.

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    Recommended Citation

    Ludwig Berger, About Johannes Brahms the Man. Commemorative Speech Given at a Celebration Hosted by the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg on the Occasion of Johannes Brahms’ 125th Birthday on May 7, 1958, Hamburg (translated by Insa Kummer), edited in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, <> [April 17, 2024].