Categories
Arts Classical Music Music

Min Kwon: Moving Music and Musicians Forward 


Min Kwon is much more than an accomplished pianist and performer. The Korean-born artist who came to America at the age of 14 to pursue her musical dreams has checked every box of success in her field: advanced degrees from the best conservatories in the country; solo performances with prestigious orchestras at venerated venues around the world; and critical acclaim, with accolades like Steinway Artist to her credit.

About halfway through her career however, Kwon realized there was more to being a musician than playing and performing at the highest possible level. With immense gratitude for the guidance she had been given in her life and a desire to help others, Kwon founded the Center for Musical Excellence in 2010 to provide high-caliber training and mentorship to gifted young musicians. A decade later in 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, Kwon’s charitable and innovative instinct was once again ignited, and she conceived the America/Beautiful project as an antidote to the despair and divisiveness transpiring in her adopted country.

In this Q+A, Kwon talks more about how America/Beautiful and the Center for Musical Excellence came about, her music-filled childhood and training, some of her performance highlights, her self-care practices, and more. As this accomplished musician proves, a truly radiant life is one in which the spotlight shines not only on oneself but is turned outward toward others.

AM: At what age did your piano training start, and how much of your childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood were dedicated to practice and study?

MK: I was 3 when I first touched a piano. I grew up in Korea with a mother who ran a music school from home specializing in young children, so I was exposed to the sound of music literally from the womb. My mother noticed that as a young child I had perfect pitch, and when I would hear students making a mistake or playing a wrong note, I would grimace. Also at a very young age I started to be able to play back what I was hearing.

My mother started me with piano lessons first and then violin and cello, as well as singing in the choir. This was a huge part of my childhood, and I was playing in the orchestra and practicing constantly. By sixth grade, my mother said I need to pick one instrument to focus on, so I chose piano. That year I auditioned for a middle-school competitive art school, almost like a mini Juilliard (that had visual art, dance, and music), and I studied there for one year.

I had been reading about conservatories in America, specifically The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and The Juilliard School in New York City, and it became my dream to train there. That year my father’s business, which had a branch in New Jersey, transferred him to America. So when I was 14 we moved to the States, and I auditioned for Curtis and got accepted. I graduated at 19 with a bachelor’s degree in music and then went on to get a masters and doctorate from Juilliard.

Min Kwon
(Photo by Gail Hadani)

AM: As you went through your schooling and moved up the ranks in these very competitive environments, did you ever doubt your decision or want to change career paths?

MK: There were definitely difficult and challenging times, but never a moment when I doubted being a musician. There was just no question in my mind that this was what I was meant to do and this was my destiny. I knew it from a young age because, for me, music — whether playing it or listening to it — felt as natural and necessary as breathing.

Yes, the standard is extremely high at conservatories like Curtis and Juilliard, but ultimately you’re not competing with everyone else. You’re competing with yourself. You’re constantly stretching yourself and pushing the limits to see how far you can take this talent. That path can be a very lonely road. Sometimes you do want to give up and just go have fun and do what everyone else is doing. One needs very strong determination and passion more than anything to stay committed.

AM: What has been one of your proudest moments as a piano soloist in your career?

MK: As a performer, every concert is meaningful. I find just as much joy and reward playing for a few patients at the hospital as I do playing for a full house at Carnegie Hall. It’s very difficult to pick one, but if I had to, it would be when I made my debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at 16 while at Curtis because that signaled to me that I could do what I love in my new home in America. It meant so much to me to be playing with one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world at such a young age. I remember going in to the rehearsals prior to the concert and everyone played so incredibly from beginning to end, we had a perfect run through. It felt like a performance! The whole experience was like a dream.

Min Kwon
(Photo by Gail Hadani)

AM: You started the Center for Musical Excellence in 2010 to mentor and support young musicians. How did this come about, and why do you think it’s important for budding professionals to have a support system around them as they prepare for a career in the arts?

MK: Creating the Center for Musical Excellence came at a defining moment for me well into my career. I was asking myself what should I do with this music and [the] opportunities I’ve been given. Playing piano requires so many solitary hours honing skills and practicing. My whole life I wanted to prove I could do this at the highest level, so I trained at the highest level and wanted to play the hardest pieces. But what it finally came down to is, how can I be happy doing this? I realized the answer was helping others. Because I came to America to fulfill a dream with music and had so many guiding lights and people who helped me, I felt I could do the same for others and help mentor young musicians, open doors for them, and support and encourage them.

I attended the best schools and received the finest education, but no one taught me how to find my way once I graduated and actually make a life of this. This is an extremely important tool to give to aspiring artists and musicians. I believe the happier and healthier you are, the better you’re able to communicate through music, as that is your voice. Being a musician is all-consuming and requires physical, emotional, and mental strength. There’s a great quote I heard once that has stuck with me because it is so true: “To be a great musician you need the mind of an architect, the heart of a poet, and the body of an athlete.” So that means all of those aspects of your being must be aligned and healthy. I want to help these young people not only play music at their best but also make sure they are grounded, well-adjusted human beings that feel supported socially.

AM: Tell us a little bit about the America/Beautiful project: how and why you started it, and what future plans you have for it.

MK: The project was born out of the pandemic. My husband is a doctor, and every day I watched him come home from the hospital more depleted than the day before. At the same time my work came to a screeching halt and I was craving human connection. Every day was just Zoom meetings and virtual learning with my two daughters, and a lot of dark news and events. I started thinking there has to be something more helpful I can do as a musician at this extremely difficult time. As a doctor or first responder, you can go out into the world and physically help people. But an artist’s responsibility has always been putting a lens on humanity. I wanted to create something so that my daughters or the next generation reading about this time in America would not just see all the death and destruction and the country in shambles. I wanted to birth something hopeful.

I reached out to nearly 100 composers that I considered to be some of the most powerful, relevant voices of our time. 75 of them were eager to participate (some said no, they couldn’t even imagine America Beautiful at that time), and I asked them each to compose a variation of the classic “America the Beautiful” anthem based on either the tune or the words. Everybody was home and in distress  so this gave them something to focus on and put their creativity to. I asked them to think about what America means at its essence and core. Even though not all the pieces are beautiful, it’s important to express the entire picture so we can see it and learn from it.

These composers come from such diverse backgrounds and range in age from 23 to 93. They represent over 30 different cultures and countries because when their parents or grandparents immigrated to America they brought their traditions and culture with them. It became this powerful snapshot of the time America was in and it helped us to share this experience and process it together. I started jokingly calling this the United Composers of America — in this group were Grammy winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, all of these extremely accomplished people who came together around a common goal. I wanted to symbolize that although we are all very different and there are many of us, we can be one. A Latin phrase became the motto for this project: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

Min Kwon with a piano
(Photo by Gail Hadani)

I then performed seven of these composers’ pieces live and/or live streamed at various venues, including at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, beginning on July 4 2021 and continuing at other locations through the summer and fall. Live-stream videos were filmed at such venues as the Catacombs at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn; the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts, where the view from the piano overlooked the Atlantic Ocean; and the majestic hills of Somerset Hills, New Jersey. I hope and plan to continue premiering the rest of the pieces for live audiences in 2022 and beyond.

AM: In what ways do you think music, especially classical music, can be uplifting and therapeutic during difficult times?

MK: Although there are so many incredible qualities in other art forms like writing and fine art, I think music can more directly touch people because it’s sonic. The melody and harmony and vibrations are all moving and breathing. A painting is painted once and then it’s static. Music is alive. Even the same piece of music played at a different time can sound and be received differently, which is incredible.

Min Kwon
(Photo by Gail Hadani)

AM: How do you juggle the demands of professional musician, teacher, mentor, and mother? What are some of your go-to wellness or self-care practices?

MK: I make sure I create time and space for myself. And that could mean anything from going to a yoga class or workout to just sitting quietly. The world is full of noise and, especially as a musician, my ears are always perked up to every sound around me. So sometimes just sitting in stillness and silence is the best self-care. I also really enjoy spending quality time with my young daughters, it is very life-affirming for me. They are dancers and they inspire me by the lovely shapes they make and how they move to the music. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.

AM: What is the most important lesson or example you hope to one day pass on to your daughters and the artists you mentor?

MK: I want my daughters and young musicians to understand that we all need one another in this life. It’s all about relating, and the more you learn about the other, the better equipped you’ll be. As musicians, we’re trained to really listen — listen to different voices, listen to each other. As a pianist, my left has to relate to the right hand. I think choirs and orchestras are such a beautiful form of musical expression for that reason. They have to harmonize and blend, even if the instruments are different. It goes back to the America/Beautiful theme: out of many, there is one sound. That’s what an orchestra is, and that’s what community and society could be. It is a beautiful thing to “belong,” and I believe music helps us do this in the most magical way.

For more information on Min Kwon, visit minkwon.net, cmemusic.org, and america-beautiful.com.

Allison Malafronte is a writer, editor, and artist based in New Jersey. For more information, visit artindependentllc.com

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Composers Arts Classical Music

The Red Priest

Legend has it that composer Antonio Vivaldi was born during an earthquake. For an Italian, he was also remarkable in that he possessed a head of flaming red hair. This rock star of the baroque era, known as the “Red Priest,” would enjoy a meteoric rise, and then fade into obscurity. But this Venetian, a contemporary of Bach and Handel, would eventually go on to surpass their fame—and double their record sales.

While Vivaldi would die in poverty in 1741, he achieved great fame and success during his lifetime. Just like the pop stars of today, those flames seldom burn for very long, and there were no recordings or radio stations back then to carry his name forward. More often than not, there would be just one handwritten manuscript for each work of the great composers, and we are very lucky any survived at all.

Vivaldi wrote some of the most beautiful, passionate, dramatic, and some even said “dangerous” music of the era. He was a virtuoso violinist who played with an almost pyrotechnical fervor.  One tourist pamphlet from that time actually listed him as “one of the great things to see while in Venice.”

In his time, he was a cult figure who lived in a mansion overlooking Venice’s Grand Canal, which is pretty swanky for a musician. In the end, those who could recall his name, a handful of music historians, remembered him as a somewhat eccentric cleric and a freakishly good violinist who, along with his exquisite music—almost 800 works of incomparable beauty—had somehow vanished into the mists of time. This was the baroque era, and who knows what else was lost to that interminable mist. But such it was for the Red Priest, and for almost 200 years, no one spoke his name.

In the autumn of 1926, Alberto Gentili, a music professor at the University of Turin, was sent to the Salesian College of San Carlo to evaluate a collection of music. In a basement vault, Gentili was presented with an enormous library of little-known musical texts. There, the professor discovered 14 volumes of dust-covered compositions bearing the name of Antonio Vivaldi—the Red Priest.

It is almost impossible to imagine today, given Vivaldi’s fame and enormous popularity, that until as late as Gentili’s discovery in 1926, Vivaldi and his incredible work had virtually vanished from history. Gentili was able to deduce, by the numbering conventions on the manuscripts, that there must be more of Vivaldi’s work to be found. Vivaldi had divided his inheritance, but, after much work, Alberto Gentili was able to secure Vivaldi’s remaining works from his various heirs. There are now 27 volumes kept at the National Museum of Turin.

In 1948, we saw the arrival of the LP, or long-playing record. Louis Kaufman, an American violinist who had played on many movie hits, including “Gone With the Wind,” was the first to record Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” in 1947, and it went straight to the top of the classical music charts. Vivaldi had been reborn, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” thus became one of the first-ever “concept” albums, and he actually made notes on the sheet music to indicate his intent, such as, “Summer, chirping birds, including cuckoos and turtle doves and … barking dogs.” Yes, barking dogs. Then come the tempestuous winds of summer storms, all duly notated with heart-stirring arpeggios of such intricate, flurrying beauty that you can almost feel the hot wind on your cheek. And then winter, complete with chattering teeth, stamping feet, and a pizzicato (plucked strings) of falling rain.

Vivaldi is thought to have suffered with asthma; he depicts not only the beauty of summer, but the oppressive heat and the air filled with annoying insects. Those too, are named on the score in detail: bluebottles, mosquitos, and gnats. He wrote a series of sonnets to accompany the musical works, and while the imagery is palpable, it is often somewhat bleak. But his glittering musical technique, stunning harmonic melodies, and pure passion are at once beguiling and intoxicating, often blistering, and absolutely astonishing.

“The Four Seasons” is one of the most played pieces of classical music in the world; it has featured in countless movies and commercials, and thus could be so familiar that one might easily pass it by. But I would implore you to take the time to give it your full attention.

I always recommend finding performances by quintets or small orchestras. It is always so much easier to feel the emotion and hear the detailed ornamentation of the work, and this is maybe truer for Vivaldi. Without the passionate attack of the violins, which is so often lost among a full orchestra, the melodies of the main themes can seem a little sweet; perhaps that’s why they became so popular.

Vivaldi was a virtuoso violinist and composer of uncanny skill who undoubtedly wanted every detail of his expression to be heard, and it is entirely worth letting your ear catch every note. Who would want to miss a single barking dog or annoying bluebottle fly?

“The Four Seasons,” truly an iconic masterpiece, is thrilling and dramatic, and the world is so much richer for its resurgence. It is difficult to fathom that it was written as early as it was, and that it almost faded into oblivion. There is some irony in the fact that it was so ahead of its time.

Vivaldi’s story highlights the somewhat precarious nature of life. That idea, however, exists alongside the notion that great mysteries are actually very real, and that sparkling jewels are still out there in the great hidden treasure trove of our existence, waiting to be discovered.

Pete McGrain is a professional writer/director/composer best known for the film “Ethos,” which stars Woody Harrelson. Currently living in Los Angeles, Pete hails from Dublin, Ireland, where he studied at Trinity College.

 

Categories
Classical Music Arts

Ode to Joy – Beethoven Symphony No. 9

Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op.125 – IV. Presto – Allegro Assai

Paintings used in this video:
00:00 Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of Arizona from Hermit Rim Road
02:45 Thomas Moran, American (born England) – Grand Canyon of the Colorado River
04:13 Thomas Cole, Distant View of Niagara Falls 1830 Thomas Cole
06:13 Frederic Edwin Church – Niagara Falls
09:52 Thomas Moran, Green River Cliffs, Wyoming, 1881, oil on canvas
13:20 Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California
19:59 Albert Bierstadt, Rocky Mountains, “Lander’s Peak”

Categories
Arts Classical Music

The Genius of Mozart

As we look back through time, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember the names of the famous. At a certain point in history, we seem only able to recollect the names of a handful of kings or queens. Recalling musicians, you might only make it back as far as The Beatles before memories begin to fade. How many names can you remember before Elvis or Frank Sinatra? What about the 1930’s? And what about 200 years ago?

Once we get back that far, the fog gets really thick. We might be able to remember the names of three or four scientists, and about the same number of writers and painters. But I’ll wager that even the average person will come up with the names of at least two composers: Mozart and Beethoven.

Am I alone in thinking that if someone is still famous after 200 years, they must have done something pretty interesting? The truth is that if people are still talking about your work two centuries later, you must have been some kind of genius. Of all of the great composers, Mozart (1756–1791) was particularly remarkable. His contribution to the art of music is almost beyond measure, and his work can still be heard to this very day. And that is extraordinary.

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolour by Louis Carrogis dit Carmontelle, ca. 1763. (Public Domain)

It might be fanciful to imagine that without Mozart, you can’t actually get to The Beatles. But we can certainly say that Mozart played an enormous role in laying the groundwork for just about everything that would come after him. If we remove the compositions of Mozart, and the contributions he made to musical structure, harmony, and melody, musical history would be very different. Thankfully, there is an incredible catalogue of recorded music that we can all listen to—all written well before the gramophone was invented.

The idea that there is something stuffy, highbrow, or elitist about classical music is still prevalent, and concerts can seem quite formal; there are certainly no mosh pits. But classical music has its own versions of frivolous pop songs, rock ballads, mischievous innuendos, protest music, and tear-jerkers. Mozart was the master of them all, and arguably invented some of these thematic genres.

It is easy to draw a parallel between the early pop songs of Mozart and The Beatles; they all seem somewhat frivolous and gay. But just as The Beatles did not stop at “Love Me Do,” and matured to write much more complex works like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” so did Mozart. Most experts are completely astonished at how quickly and how far he actually progressed.

Photograph by Bernard Gotfryd of the Beatles performing, 1964. (Public Domain)

But here’s the thing: Just like Mozart, The Beatles’ early works—those catchy little pop songs everyone can whistle—are not actually simple at all. In fact, as any musician will tell you, they only sound simple—until you try to write one. To write great music that simple, it turns out, is a really rare gift.

Mozart’s seemingly endless capacity for writing memorable melodies displays his tremendous genius. Because, just like The Beatles, when you start breaking down those simple-sounding compositions, you begin to notice the changing time signatures and sophisticated harmonies and counterpoints that are not simple at all, but seamlessly executed musical acrobatics. It is this hidden complexity that adds satisfying substance to a composition that might otherwise seem light and full of air.

To illustrate the difficulty of this feat, it is worth noting that the experts of the time thought Mozart’s work was far too complex; he was criticized for being too cerebral, and they said that the “common people” would never be able understand his music. And yet, the common people were thrilled at his work, and he was adored across the whole of Europe. For the experts, this was a complete enigma; it turned out that ordinary people are far more instinctively musical than they believed.

Mozart’s simplest melodies often have complex harmonies moving underneath them. Where the melodies are more complex, he usually kept the underlying structures simple, making the entire piece completely accessible, cohesive, and captivating to the ear. Mastering music at a young age, he was able to take sound—something as complex as Pythagorean mathematics—and make it touch people’s hearts, time and time again.

Further, he is known to have composed complete concertos in just four days, writing the complete musical score for an entire orchestra—upwards of 30 or 40 musicians. We can still see many of his original manuscripts; astonishingly, his drafts are written out from beginning to end without a single revision or correction, and Mozart didn’t make major revisions to these drafts. It is simply impossible to fathom his remarkable musical skill.

Mozart wrote his first compositions at age 5 and was touring and playing for royalty by age 6. He wrote more than 600 compositions, including symphonies, concertos, sonatas, and three famous operas—most of which are considered the pinnacles of their genres—all before his mysterious death at just 35.

Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), another famous composer of the time, wrote: “Posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years,” and I would say we’re still waiting. But, of course, all of this can seem completely academic without actually spending time listening to Mozart’s music.

“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” (“A Little Night Music”) is one of Mozart’s most popular works. From the jaunty opening Allegro to the delicate Romance Andante, it covers just about every possible emotion, and conveys the composer’s mind-blowing ability to combine engaging melodies with a myriad of seemingly effortless and surprising twists and turns that are very pleasing to the ear.

It is completely understandable why it was thought that Antonio Salieri (1750–1825), another composer of that era, murdered Mozart in a jealous, frustrated rage. This is entirely a myth, of course, but it illustrates how unbelievably good Mozart was at his craft.

It is well worth seeking out his works written for string quartet or quintet. Full orchestral performances are wonderful, but the genius of the details is much easier to grasp with just four or five players. It is more proof of Mozart’s genius that even when played by a small group of musicians, his work still really, really rocks.

I recommend tracking down any of the piano pieces performed by either Martha Argerich or Mitsuko Uchida. The second movement from Mozart’s Piano Concerto Number 21 will probably be familiar, and is beyond beautiful. And then there are the sonatas; the list is just endless.

Piano Sonata number 4 in E flat Major (k.282) is probably close to the top of my list; the Adagio is sublime. Though it is played just by solo piano, it encompasses a tremendously rich and complex expression of delightful musicality, yet the lilting passages are one of the reasons I hold out hope that God exists.

Life is not simple and is often a struggle, and even for the simplest “common” person, life is complicated. I hear that reality reflected in Mozart’s work. However sweet it can be in one moment, it is never cloying or patronizing, and it is only ever a heartbeat away from tragedy. And yet, in the middle of the tragedy, there will be an Adagio that takes your face in its hands and lifts it up. This is his genius, and the reason why, over 200 years later, we still remember his name: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

 

Categories
Arts Classical Music

Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66

Categories
Arts Classical Music Composers

Brahms, the Humble

The three B’s of classical music, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, lived in the baroque, classical, and romantic eras of music, respectively. While Ludwig van Beethoven’s music saw success during his life, he couldn’t fully enjoy that success, since by the end of his career, he was completely deaf. Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was neglected for years after his death until fellow composer Felix Mendelssohn brought it back to life. Johannes Brahms’s music wasn’t always accepted, but toward the end of his life, he was a celebrity in Vienna, and could walk down the street and be recognized by his fans.

Brahms’s Early Education

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897), the oldest of three children, grew up in a simple family. His father, Johann Jakob Brahms, was a struggling musician, and his mother was a seamstress.

As a child, studying piano with his first teacher, Otto Cossel, he already had the aspiration to compose. Cossel had no skill in teaching composition, so he introduced Brahms to Eduard Marxsen, his own teacher at one time. Marxsen recognized Brahms’s talent, but wanted him to focus on the piano; composing lessons would come in due time. But Brahms continued to prod Marxsen about it until he finally gave in.

Brahms, the Composer

According to “Brahms: A Biography” by Jan Swafford, Brahms was known to put himself at the forefront of his mind when composing. He composed for himself first, his friends second, and lastly for his audience.

He lived in an era when music was changing drastically. The “New German School” of music believed that music should convey a story; they felt that Beethoven was great, but that music should not stop progressing beyond Beethoven. The leading figures of this school were composers Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. Some of Liszt’s later works bordered on atonalism, and the New German School paved the way for impressionist composers like Claude Debussy.

Brahms and composer Robert Schumann, the leading figures of “absolute music,” believed that what the listener perceived in music should be up to them, and not determined by the composer—that music should be enjoyed purely for music’s sake. In other words, progressing toward impressionism or, dare they imagine, losing a tonal center, was out of the picture.

Brahms appreciated Liszt’s virtuosity—he knew he could never match Liszt in that regard—but he despised Liszt’s music. He thought it was too emotional and yet still lacked substance; it wasn’t music that made him feel good. He felt that music should convey pure emotions. “Now if things should be going badly with you, music is always the great consolation,” he would say.

When Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann in 1853, the couple immediately took a liking to the dashing young lad. The Brahms that we picture today is the older, plumper Johannes Brahms sporting a large beard. In fact, he had trouble growing facial hair in his younger days. He was lithe, boyish, and was a bundle of nerves when he played a piece he composed for the Schumanns.

The Schumanns loved his music, and it wasn’t long before Robert Schumann wrote about Brahms in a music journal, calling him the savior of German music and the successor of Beethoven. Schumann believed that Brahms would be the leader and the protector of the traditions that Beethoven and Mozart had left behind. Brahms adored these two composers.

Many expected Brahms to fill Beethoven’s shoes, and that led him to think and rethink his music. Brahms was compared to Beethoven all his life. His first symphony took him over 20 years from conception to completion, and conductor Hans von Bülow was the first to call it “Beethoven’s 10th.” In fact, Brahms took over 20 years to complete a piece not once, but thrice.

Critics of his music often alleged that he was trying to copy Beethoven. One reviewer said, “One of your themes was very similar to one of Beethoven’s.” And Brahms’s famous response was, “Of course it was. Everyone steals; the important thing is to do it brilliantly.”

Brahms, the Man

When Robert Schumann became ill, he developed hallucinations and threw himself into the Rhine River. After being rescued, he was sent to an asylum, where he died a year later. During this time, Brahms spent more and more time with Clara and her children. They fell in love, but never married. Brahms struggled with his feelings for talented women all of his life, but he was unable to devote his life to another.

After Brahms made his name in Vienna, he fully had the means to buy and furnish a comfortable and lavish home for himself. It was almost an expectation for a composer of Brahms’s caliber to live in luxury. Lavish apartments at the time were decked with peacock feathers and made to look exotic; Richard Wagner was said to be a great admirer of that style of decor. Brahms’s apartment however, resembled a student’s apartment, as described by Max Kalbeck, his chosen biographer. His landlady was also his housekeeper. She provided the furniture he used, and most of the furniture was old and shabby.

Brahms wasn’t poor, and could be considered one of the most financially stable composers of that time. He composed when he wanted to, and he didn’t have to bind himself to an employer or patron like many composers before him. It is entirely possible that his economic independence was directly related to his single status all of his life, as he didn’t have a wife or children to provide for.

After Robert Schumann’s death, Clara had to raise their children on her own. She was a spectacular pianist, and was able to support her children, as well as her husband in the asylum, with the money she received performing concerts. After she became ill and the pain in her hands grew too unbearable for her to continue performing, Brahms would sometimes transfer money to her secretly. They were good friends and Clara would have been embarrassed to ask for money, and Brahms’s generosity was undoubtedly appreciated.

Perhaps Brahms’s choice of living space was also connected to his preference for a very private life. After he read biographies about the composers who preceded him, particularly Beethoven, he was acutely aware and perhaps afraid that his name and life would befall the same fate, and that his secrets would literally be an open book for everyone to read. So, starting from his early days of composing, if he wasn’t satisfied with something he wrote, he would destroy it.

When Brahms gave his compositions to friends, on several occasions he asked for them to be returned. He would then destroy those compositions, as well. Near the end of his life, he also destroyed the letters that were sent to him, and wrote to Clara Schumann asking her to destroy his letters. Perhaps Clara refused, or maybe she forgot, as a portion of their correspondence has survived.

Brahms knew his shortcomings well. For instance, he knew he wasn’t strong in writing counterpoint, so he pored over Bach’s music to study the great master. He once famously said, “Study Bach. There you will find everything.”

Johannes Brahms was one of the greatest composers who ever lived. And while he had his fair share of imperfections, he had his great virtues, as well. He didn’t flaunt his wealth, lived a simple lifestyle, and was generous: He didn’t only help Clara Schumann in her struggling years, but also a number of young, promising artists. His legacy is the sublime music that he has left the world. As much as he wanted to avoid public speculation, the complexity of Brahms’s music speaks volumes about him.