Brahms was a perfectionist so overwhelmed by Beethoven’s influence that it took him twenty-one years to complete his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68.
My college music professor told me this story, and soon I’d embellished it with false details, for example that Brahms had been unable to perform in public until his fifties for fear of being accused of imitation. Years later I read a book that confirmed the influence of Beethoven but also noted that the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor was performed in 1859 when Brahms was 25.
Had there even been such a composer? I went through the list. Not Mahler or Schoenberg. It can’t have been Mendelssohn, who died aged 38, roughly the same age and time as Chopin. Mendelssohn’s nickname was the discontented Polish count. The phrase is an iambic tetrameter but still not terribly catchy in English, the language Mendelssohn would slip into during a fit, before collapsing in front of his horrified family. George Sand called the bed-ridden Chopin her beloved little corpse because he was seized like a half-opened pen knife in need of oil.
The Germans described this era as a time of Sturm und Drang, a phrase meaning storm and stress. I am grateful not to have been around when rigor was almost de rigueur.
Robert Schumann was the first to recognize the younger composer’s genius, christening him the heir to Beethoven. Years earlier he had returned a package containing Brahms’ works without opening it, a snub that could only have been deeply hurtful. Many of the major compositions would have a poor reception, and at age 57 Brahms retired, convinced by audiences that his creative powers had abandoned him.
Which of my recollections are real, and which are fiction? I had invented details for the Brahms story the way the German chemist Eduard Ritsert had invented Benzocaine, by synthesizing an ester of personal recollections. I found that it soothed the mid-life aches of failure like Anbesol, but then news arrived that I was the trial subject who’d all along been swallowing a placebo.
My Brahms contained details as far-fetched as the Søren Kierkegaard who marries his sweetheart Regine and lives happily-ever-after, the Schumann who does not attempt suicide nor dies two years later in a mental asylum, or the Chopin who does not languish at Place Vendôme 12 as Franchomme plays the cello and the physician bends to ask, “are you suffering greatly?”