I’m reading a biography of a famous composer (after finishing ones on Beethoven and Mozart), and while I sort of knew the following information about him, I must have forgotten just how young he was when he experienced it.
Can you name this 19th century composer? Answer at the bottom of this post. I’m omitting a few easily identifiable details.
In the city where he grew up there were
waterfront places [known as] “stimulation pubs.” For their clients fresh from sailing ships the Lokale handily integrated the services of dancehall, bar, café, and whorehouse, integrated them also in the persons of the “Singing Girls” who served the food and drink, sang and danced with the customers, and took them upstairs for more intimate services. The […] girls hung around in a flock by the door, their low-cut dresses catching the attention of passing gents. Inside, the dancing was continuous. The house pianist sat at a clangy, out-of-tune piano playing songs and dances all night long.
[He] began playing in the Lokale […] before he turned thirteen, often playing until dawn. After a few months of it he was weak, anemic, tormented by migraines. But he was kept at the jobs until better came along, off and on through that year and maybe longer.
Once [his] fingers had learned the requisite waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, and such, he would place on the piano rack a novel or a volume of poetry and read the night away as he played, leaning into the book nearsightedly, the revels going on behind him. It sounds almost charming. But the effects of the Lokale on him were indelible. For the rest of his life, with friends or in his cups, [he] would recall those nights as dark and shameful. No one has had a harder time of it than I have, he would say, and narrate the shocking details. He told one beloved that “he saw things and received impressions which left a deep shadow on his mind.”
It had not been all polkas and poetry. [He] was surrounded by the stench of beer and unwashed sailors and bad food, the din of rough laughter and drunkenness and raving obscenity. He had to accompany the bawdy songs, he had to turn around and look sometimes at the drunken sailors fondling the half-naked Singing Girls, and he had to participate sometimes too. Between dances the women would sit the prepubescent teenager on their laps and pour beer into him, and pull down his pants and hand him around to be played with, to general hilarity. There may have been worse from the sailors. [He] was as fair and pretty as a girl.
Many years later, in Vienna, [as an old man he] got drunk and broke up a birthday dinner by branding all women with a word that nobody would repeat. Later that night, walking it off with a friend, he spoke disjointedly of what he had seen and suffered in those places. In a seizure of anguish and rage he cried out: “You tell me I should have the same respect, the same exalted homage for women that you have! You expect that of a man cursed with a childhood like mine!”
So, can you name him? Answer below.
It’s Johannes Brahms. The book I’m reading is Jan Swafford’s Johannes Brahms: A Biography.
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