On Brahms and bird-shit: what we didn’t know

On Brahms and bird-shit: what we didn’t know


norman lebrecht

March 24, 2015

The picture we published yesterday of the great composer at (or shortly after) the funeral of Clara Schumann in May 1896 has provoked a plethora of information from scholars and afficionados alike.

First we can identify the gentlemen standing with Johannes Brahms in the picture (thanks, Eleanor Hope). They are: Heinz and Erich von Beckerath, Gustav Ophüls, Brahms, Bram Eldering, Alwin von Beckerath.

A fine copy of the original picture can be found in the Henryk Szeryng collection at the Library of Congress. A further set is located at the university music library in Buffalo, NY. Its rarity is well-attested.

brahms birdshit

In the above shot from the same set, Brahms appears to be cleaning his friend’s jacket of bird droppings. The matter is comprehensively clarified in an essay by Ilias Chrissochoidis of Stanford University, who writes as follows:

Brahms’ last visit to the Rheinland in May 1896 is well documented. The death of Clara Schumann, the great love of his life, threw him into a railway adventure in search of her final resting place in Bonn, where he arrived just in time to attend the funeral procession. Emotionally devastated, he then sought refuge at a private music festival at Hagerhof, Walther Weyermann’s estate at Bad Honnef. Brahms’ strong links to the Mennonite community in the area went back as far as 1880…

Obvious as is their historical value, the photographs remain practically unknown to the public and have been only vaguely recalled by Brahms experts….

In contrast to the image of a master that we have long been accustomed to, von Beckerath’s photos capture only Brahms the man and, even worse, his unimpressive stature. Indeed, Gustav Ophüls singled out the first one as evidence of Brahms’ height. He being 1.82 cm tall and both men standing on the same line,  he estimated his friend to be around 1.70 cm. Surrounded by people considerably taller (and leaner) than himself, Brahms’ image suffers and what remains clearly visible of his monumental head is the long white beard. Equally alienating is his apparently flirtatious posture next to hostess Emmie Weyermann only a few days after Frau Schumann’s funeral, an image clashing with existing reports of a mourning Brahms.

Brahms and Emmy Weyermann

You can download Professor Chrissochoidis’s full essay here.

h/t: Roberta Cooper


  • steve says:

    Hmm, so Brahms and others who are “vertically challenged” have an “unimpressive stature”?

  • Gordon Davies says:

    1.70 cm. Wow. That *is* short.

  • M2N2K says:

    That is a good “point”! Seriously though, 170 cm may be short now, but back then it was almost average height for European men.

  • Milka says:

    It’s a snapshot and tells you nothing except Brahms is with 3 other gentlemen . That some one can from the group snap shots identify the other gentlemen is possible but it tells nothing else .
    The raised arm suggests nothing except that it partially raised -the bird droppings is nonsense,
    he could be poking the man in the chest in making a point . Anything supposedly gained from the photo is purely conjecture . But the comment on his abnormally “high” voice and
    his attempts to “lower” the voice and finally growing a beard in 1878 can lead to more
    speculations than one wants to entertain .

  • Robert Holmén says:

    As tall as Wagner, taller than Beethoven.

  • Stephen says:

    One’s height is something one is in no way responsible for and is not a subject for intelligent comment.

    • M2N2K says:

      There are plenty of things for which we are not responsible that can nevertheless be subjects of perfectly intelligent discussions.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The question of ‘why were the great composers of the past so short?’ can be answered as follows: being gifted with a body, more compressed than their contemparies, the creative faculties were forced to burst-out with more Schwung. With tall statures, the music becomes more chromatic and flabby, as the music of Alban Berg demonstrates.

  • Tom Sudholt, Radio Arts Foundation of St.Louis (Missouri, U.S.A.) says:

    Milka: Given the small scale of the rendering and its low resolution, you indeed cannot tell anything. If, however, you source this website you can see extremely high resolution, “zoomable” scans of what appears to be the original photographic prints. You will find MUCH more detail and will note that Brahms IS tending to something on the fellows coat – while smoking his cigar no less. Additionally,he would not be wearing his spectacles (as he is upon close examination) simply to make a point. I do think this is the only instance of Brahms being photographed wearing his glasses. Another photo shows Brahms’ companion examining the same area of his jacket that Brahms was tending to and a white spot is clearly seen. Given their outdoor locale, the bird dropping conjecture is quite likely.

  • Tom Sudholt, Radio Arts Foundation of St.Louis (Missouri, U.S.A.) says:

    The cited website is museen.thueringen.de

  • Milka says:

    Mr. Sudholt -To me it’s a long shot -the trajectory might have the poop landing on
    the gentleman’s head or shoulder ,hat, but on his chest is too iffy . Could it perhaps be cigar ash
    from Brahms own cigar while Brahms was trying to make a point in conversation . Being a student of the human condition I have yet to see anyone
    clean off bird shit with their bare hands , usually a handkerchief or tissue would be used . Most do not like to come into direct touch with bird droppings , unless Brahms is the
    exception . If he is holding a handkerchief it is quite likely you are correct otherwise
    it is still conjecture . Now if it were Wagner …………………………………..

    • John Borstlap says:

      But that is entirely likely: cigar ashes, you don’t need a tissue or handkerchief to wipe that from someone’s jacket.

      Wagner was a bit shorter than Brahms and hence, his fulminations against Brahms.

  • Tom Sudholt, Radio Arts Foundation of St.Louis (Missouri, U.S.A.) says:

    Ha!!! You may be right regarding Wagner! The only thing upping the chances on my conclusion is the other shot of the fellow’s coat which clearly has a white spot that is too bright for cigar ash and is clearly a source of concern for the wearer. Whatever the case, this was fun and the prints are fascinating glimpses of Brahms unguarded albeit not as poignant as Mr.Lebrecht thought. (I’m SURE Brahms used a handkerchief…of course he did…)

  • Milka says:

    Of course Mr. Lebrecht has ruined it for the composer ,..it will take some time to think of Brahms without bird droppings coming to mind , handkerchief or not .

  • Terhi Dostal says:

    As far as I know, Brahms was 1m 68 cm tall. Certainly not taller than 1m 70cm. But here’s something many of you don’t know: his shoe size was 42. I have had his slippers in my hand and of course, I had to check it out. 🙂

  • Michael Beckerman says:

    Was very surprised to see this since I published an article on this subject in 1998 (“Brahms, Birdshit and History,” making the same “discovery” about the photo, and another one in 2010 in a collection called “Vitalizing History” which referred to it in the context of what I called “the birdshit theory of history.” Again, surprised that someone would claim to have “discovered it” when they could easily have discovered it in my articles!

  • Common sense flautist says:

    1.70cm. Ummmmm I don’t think that’s HUMANLY possible. It could be 170cm. Maybe try again lmao?