Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
WAS BRAHMS gay? This wasn't a question that Chris de Souza asked in Composer of the Week - now, happily, back at its old time of nine in the morning. But it's unusual to hear it raised. Brahms, surely, is ripe for the sort of investigation fashionable among musicologists in the United States, which - to take one example - shattered the traditional image of Schubert as sweet, shy and sexless.

Brahms was born in the red-light district of Hamburg and as a boy earned money playing the piano in brothels. This, amateur psychologists say, messed up his chances of sexual relations with women for ever, which is why, when he did show interest in a possible partner, he shrank from commitment. De Souza repeated the familiar claim that Brahms was "in love" with Schumann's wife, who was 14 years older than Brahms. Brahms himself declared that he loved Clara more than anything or anybody in the world, but as the sharp-eyed Ethel Smyth observed, he treated Frau Schumann "as might a delightful old-world son".

No doubt Smyth had good reason to be repelled by the way Brahms ogled pretty women and referred to them patronisingly as weibsbilder, but then he called Richard Muhlfeld, who inspired some of his greatest chamber music, "Fraulein Klarinette". Which, in Brahms's high, squeaky voice, must have sounded interesting.

But the question that exercised De Souza was, how did a boy from the slums suddenly, at the age of 20, break into the charmed circle of the Schumanns and some of the greatest musicians of the time? Of course, the question was only rhetorical, and more interesting was his next question: how might Brahms have developed if he had not come under the Schumann influence?

Well, Brahms lost nothing in outgrowing the strenuous calisthenics of his three early piano sonatas (on Monday we heard the second, which was better than hearing the more familiar but bloated third), and he still had plenty of energy to spare. But a coarseness of sensibility - something Schumann was absolutely incapable of - remained, too, even in the last of the Opus 119 piano pieces (in today's programme), together with a reliance on thematic integration which, in a miniature, seems pompous.

The choice of Brahms's music through the week has been finely balanced in favour of less well-known works, including some for chorus and even an early organ fugue - a real rarity. The mix of genres has been intriguing, too, and everything chosen to represent an important aspect of Brahms's life. Most obviously, the only symphony included was the Third, which marked Brahms's 50th birthday, and, incorporating his musical cipher, F-A-F, standing for Frei Aber Froh (free but happy), seems to have been intended by the composer to affirm, if not his maturity, then perhaps that he had come to terms with himself.