Of maestros and men

Music in 1853: The Biography of a Year, by Hugh Macdonald, Boydell Press, RRP£25, 224 pages

Newly arrived in Weimar, an impecunious 19-year-old named Johannes Brahms takes up Liszt’s offer of accommodation and is introduced to the celebrated Hungarian musician’s entourage. “We are interested in hearing some of your compositions,” he is told. Liszt picks up one of Brahms’s barely legible manuscripts and proceeds to sight-read it fluently at the piano. He follows it with an account of his own newly composed Sonata in B minor.

We know this because Brahms’s encounter with Liszt in June 1853 is noted in the diary of William Mason, an American who witnessed it. Who among us would not have been a fly on the wall? In Hugh Macdonald’s highly readable Music in 1853, musical colossi are bumping into each other on almost every page.

On October 1, for example, the day Schumann finishes his Violin Concerto, he is visited for the first time by Brahms, who spends the next day acquainting himself with the older composer’s family and playing his own and Schumann’s music. Schumann promptly writes an encomium in the leading musical journal of the day, and Brahms becomes an overnight celebrity.

Switch to Paris nine days later and we find Wagner reading his prose poem for Götterdämmerung to Liszt and Berlioz, on the eve of Verdi’s arrival in the French capital to make preparations for Les Vêpres siciliennes. There’s a cameo role for Cosima, daughter of Liszt and later to be Wagner’s second wife and Bayreuth matriarch. We capture her at their first meeting, “in the throes of adolescence: tall, angular and fair-skinned, with a large mouth, and long nose, the very image of her father”.

Despite their momentous musical legacy, most great composers led ordinary lives. Wagner complained constantly of bowel pains. Berlioz spent the early 1850s living off his journalism. Neither wrote any music for three years. But it’s the human element, not the musicological, that concerns Macdonald, a US-based English academic renowned for his Berlioz studies. His enthusiasm for the various characters in his book is infectious, for “curiosity about their works leads to a curiosity about their lives,” he writes, “and it is a small step from there to a delight in details which themselves may have little to do with art. Those details in cumulation delineate the personalities in whom great thoughts took shape.”

While such thoughts took shape almost exclusively on German soil, Macdonald takes us on brief but entertaining excursions to Switzerland, where Wagner had been exiled since the failed Dresden revolution; to England, where Berlioz endured yet another fiasco with his opera Benvenuto Cellini; and to the Netherlands, where Schumann and his wife Clara enjoyed an idyllic concert tour before his descent into madness.

By documenting the minutiae, Macdonald creates a picture of real-life personalities. Liszt is “boisterous and rowdy”, while his partner, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, “smokes cigars like a trooper and has teeth as black as the bottom of a frying pan”. Wagner is “a heartless egoist”, his conversation that “of a Vesuvius throwing out streaks of flame alternating with bouquets of roses”. The various pen-portraits of Brahms – a shy teenager, all girlish looks, high-pitched voice and long fair hair – contrast with the image of bearded veteran by which posterity has come to know him.

On September 13, the Schumanns’ 13th wedding anniversary, Clara is presented with flowers, a new piano and a collection of compositions Robert has secretly been accumulating for her. “Am I not truly the happiest wife in the world?” she writes in her diary. Barely five months later, Robert tries to commit suicide, and is confined to the asylum where he would end his days.

Andrew Clark is the FT’s music critic

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