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The Boy Brahms

Boman Desai
19th-Century Music
Vol. 27, No. 2 (Fall 2003), pp. 132-136
DOI: 10.1525/ncm.2003.27.2.132
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Page Count: 5
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The Boy Brahms
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During the late twentieth century, the veracity of a particular aspect of Johannes Brahms's boyhood came under challenge. Had he played the piano in Hamburg's dockside bars as many of his biographers had recorded, or had he not? The two sides of the story were debated in the spring 2001 issue of 19th-Century Music. Jan Swafford, Brahms's definitive biographer in English, provided the case for the status quo, citing all the known instances of times when Brahms himself had mentioned the story to friends and biographers. Styra Avins, a translator of many of Brahms's heretofore untranslated letters into English, provided evidence to the contrary by saying all the friends and biographers were mistaken. Swafford's inventory of sources is complete, but there remained more to be said. In "The Boy Brahms" I have attempted to show how Avins's evidence is strictly circumstantial and speculative. At this remove from the incidents in question it can be nothing more. I have attempted to refute the conclusions she has drawn from the young Brahms's handwriting, the testimony of neighbors, and the laws governing attendance in the bars, among other things. I have also attempted to show inconsistencies in Avins's arguments that throw into question her thesis and support the veracity of the original story.

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