Letters from and to Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms’ correspondence can be considered a typical example of middle class letter writing in the 19th century, often called the “age of the letter”. Around 11,000 letters to and from the composer are documented in the Brahms-Briefwechsel-Verzeichnis (BBV) of the Brahms-Institut, distributed among archives, libraries, and private collections. The Brahms-Institut has been able to collect around 240 original copies of letters from and to the composer. Brahms wrote 200 of these letters himself, and 40 were addressed to him. The number of writers and addressees is around 90.

The Lübeck letter collection is quite representative of Brahms’ life. It covers a time span that stretches from the Rhine trip of the 20 year old in September 1853 (letter to Arnold Wehner) until the last days before his death in April 1897. Brahms’ correspondence partners included outstanding figures of cultural and academic life of his time, for example Robert and Clara Schumann, Joseph Joachim, Hans von Bülow, Max Klinger, Philipp Spitta, and Theodor Billroth. Often they are “support materials” for the written word. They reflect the development of the letter as a medium, which was complemented during the second half of the nineteenth century with correspondence cards, postcards, and telegrams.

While the postal service expanding enormously during the last third of the nineteenth century, Brahms was considered during his lifetime a “lazy letter writer” (Robert Schumann). The composer himself even joked about his supposed distance from letter writing during his life, one could even speak of a topos of Brahms’ characteristics as a letter-writer. The twenty-one-year old already said to Clara Schumann, “Excuse my horrible writing, but I cannot control my hand while writing letters, I can draw notes much better.” Unlike Felix Mendelssohn, who could write letters fluently, even brilliantly, Brahms was not considered a gifted epistolarian. But this image requires revision, for it was in fact Brahms who “most virtuosically mastered the arts of irony, ambivalence, concealment, and role playing” (Ludwig Finscher).

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