Saturday, May 09, 2009


Hamburg is home to Johannes-Brahms-Museum, one of many museums throughout Europe devoted to the great composer.

Hamburg has a deeper claim to Brahms than any other city, and this is because Brahms was born and raised in the city of Hamburg.

It was in this house on Peterstrasse that Brahms was born in 1833. The Brahms family lived on the first floor, on the left side of the building. The photograph was taken in 1891, six years before Brahms’s death.

The house no longer stands—it was destroyed in the 1943 firestorm—but Peterstrasse was recreated in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and an attempt was made to restore Peterstrasse to its ancient pre-war form, which dated back to the Renaissance and Baroque Periods.

The Johannes-Brahms-Museum lies on Peterstrasse, but not on the actual site of the birth home. The museum, with an unmarked and nondescript entrance, is a few doors down from where the Brahms birth home formerly stood.

The museum is small, and seldom visited (or so we were informed by museum personnel). It occupies only a few rooms and has very constricted hours. In both regards, it very much reminded me of the Puccini museum in Puccini’s family home in Lucca.

The Johannes-Brahms-Museum displays a collection of keepsakes that illustrates the life and work of the composer. Letters, photographs, autographs, concert programs, books, periodicals, artworks and sheet music are on display.

The composer’s writing desk is housed in the museum, as is one of Brahms’s pianos.

The bust of Brahms in the photograph below was sculpted by Ilse Conrat and is on loan from Hamburg’s Kunsthalle. It is one of many busts of Brahms that Conrat created, including the famous bust that lies over Brahms’s grave in Vienna.

Brahms’s family was very poor, and did not spend much time in Brahms’s birth home. The Brahms family lived in a proliferation of different homes in Hamburg’s poorer neighborhoods, changing abodes every few months either because the family could not afford to pay its rent or because the family needed to relocate to ever-cheaper lodgings.

Brahms’s father held a wide variety of jobs—among other things, he played bass in the orchestra of the Hamburg Opera—but the family was never able to accumulate any money.

Brahms continued to return to Hamburg with some frequency until he was in his mid-forties, by which time his visits to his hometown became sporadic.

Oddly, there is no street in Hamburg named after Brahms.

At least the plaza in front of nearby Laeiszhalle, Hamburg’s primary concert hall, is now named after the city’s most famous native son. However, the plaza was not christened Brahmsplatz until 1997, the centenary of the composer’s death. Given the German love for music, I am surprised it took 100 years for Hamburg to name a street or plaza for such a seminal figure that arose from the city’s slums.

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