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Why Brahms Must Have Been Fat

Johannes Brahms

"Why Brahms must have been fat" is a ridiculous subject, but the gritty reality of great artists interests me very much. There's something about playing classical piano that seems to give you the feeling of what it was like to be that composer. Certainly that's true in an emotional sense, but what about physically?

We've all seen photographs of many famous composers, so we know that Brahms was fat. Photos of him in the 1880's in old age show a rumpled man with a beard, cigar and overcoat. He was short, fat, stout, bearded and not a little curmudgeonly. But his piano music is full of awkward stretches between the fingers.

Not long stretches, just not formed as any other composer does. For example, the chords of Beethoven and Schubert are remarkably similar. They both loved the octave position, with the middle fingers filling in the inner voices.

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Brahms Had Strange Hands

But Brahms liked to leave one or more members of the chord out entirely. This gives a spare, lean quality to his "octave" position. And when arpeggiated, those same chords sit awkwardly within the square rhythm patterns he prefers.

As I play a composer, I sometimes have visions of what his fingers could have been like. I see Liszt the showman, knowing where the next dollar was and going after it with the best music that he could muster. His fingers were long and unbelievably strong, and capable of great control.

His object was to dazzle. Chopin seems the recluse, not like the outgoing Liszt, but a passionate and private man haunted by some mysterious secret. If Liszt's music is grand, Chopin's is personal and secret.

Brahms Was Very German

But Brahms was ever the German, a nationalist to the end without ever really caring to be anything else but himself. And that honest German character is at times dour and dramatic. Brahms's early and middle music could be grand and warm too, but with the last period he became suffused in a golden twilight.

His pieces become smaller, shorter, subtler, almost like Alban Berg in their stripped down simplicity, still done with ineffable love and charm. So play a late Brahms Intermezzo one evening, and imagine as I do a rather fat, happy bearded man playing dreams of love in his olden days.

If you've ever seen the famous engraving of Brahms at eighteen, you'll have seen one of the most noble and elegant faces you have ever encountered.


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