The most poignant picture ever taken of Johannes Brahms

The most poignant picture ever taken of Johannes Brahms


norman lebrecht

March 23, 2015

Andrea Bambace has published a picture of almost mythical power and importance.

It shows Johannes Brahms with three others, shortly after the funeral of Clara Schumann, his eternal beloved.

brahms at clara's funeral

The poignant point of the picture is that Brahms all but missed Clara’s funeral.

Clara died, after a prolonged illness, on May 20, 1896. According to Richard Specht’s 1928 biography of Brahms, drawn from people who knew the composer well, Brahms ‘was quite unprepared for the news… What is worse, it reached him a day late. His landlady in Vienna had left the telegram unopened and forwarded it to him by letter.’

Brahms caught the first train from Bad Ischl to Frankfurt, fell asleep and woke up found himself travelling in the wrong direction after missing a connection. He arrived ‘half-dead in Frankfurt, only to learn that the funeral was not taking place there, but at Bonn, Clara having expressed a wish to rest at Robert Schumann’s side.’

When he reached the cemetery in Bonn, ‘bathed in perspiration, he found that he was too late for the service at the chapel; he met the funeral procession on is way to the grave… But he could not bear to remain among the mourners: he took refuge behind a bush and let his tears flow at the side of his friend, Rudolf von der Leyen.’

This may be the moment we are seeing here.

On his return to Bad Ischl, friends remarked that his face had turned yellow. Brahms died of liver cancerelevn months later.

The picture itself tells much of this story.

Discover more here.


  • Tor Frømyhr says:

    Brahms will always be my muse. A sad but wonderful story with such a captivating picture that I have now looked at so many times this evening. Thanks for posting Norman.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    Suggestion… find some way to incorporate pictures in this blog that does not leave them as only a reduced-size preview.

    I’m sure there’s a larger version of that and nearly every image ever posted here, but even if I right-click on it and choose “view image”, which on almost all other venues displays an image in its original larger size and resolution, I still get only the tiny version that appeared inline in the article.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Great picture.

    If only they had cell phones in those days.

  • Daniel says:

    Thanks Norman for these beatiful and moving picture of JB. Best regards

  • Brad Cresswell says:

    Remarkable! I also found four more photos from the same gathering in the University of Buffalo archives, including one (and you can zoom in on the photos).

  • James says:

    Even stranger is this link:
    which purports to show Brahms attending to a bird dropping on the jacket of Alwin von Beckerath after the funeral of Clara Schuman.

  • JAMA11 says:

    Even knowing every bit of the context, this photograph doesn’t communicate very much. It just looks like four expressionless men with beards standing in a clump. If we had a large, hi-res version of this photo, would you be able to spy a single tear emerging from Brahms’s eye? If you showed a bunch of people this picture, they would probably think “oh cool, Brahms and some other people.” But then you spin a tragic story, and suddenly everyone says the pic is “captivating” and “moving” and so on. I don’t personally know if this was the single most tragic day in Brahms’s life, but this picture kind of makes it look like he’s telling his friends a knock-knock joke.

    • cabbagejuice says:

      Agreed, I don’t detect any special emotion either here. Also, how do we know JB is attending to a bird dropping in the other picture?

  • Brian b says:

    Poor Brahms! The story adds a whole new meaning to Schumann’s query, “Where is Johannes?”

  • Rob van der Hilst says:

    Impressive, indeed.

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

    [Redacted] This was indeed taken shortly after Clara Schumann’s funeral but not behind the cemetery bushes so poor Johannes could have a good cry. Brahms was very much devastated by the her passing and to have a distraction from such, he accepted an invite from a private music festival being held at the Weyermann Estate known as Hagerhof Castle in Krefeld, Germany. His music was featured which must have helped and he enjoyed it so much that he extended his stay for a bit. The photos were taken by a then 20 year-old Heinz von Beckerath (1876-1940). Brahms appreciated the rare candid shots (surprisingly) in a letter to the young man and further, expressed the hope to able to thank him once more in a years’ time. It was not to be as Brahms died 11 months later of probable liver cancer. The photo is a pretty good reproduction and – I assume – comes from your archive or Tully Potter’s? Other copies of the shots are to be had – as aforementioned – at the online digital archive of the University at Buffalo N.Y. (U.S.A.) All seem to be inferior copies from the collection to be found at . Those appear to be very hi rez scans of original photographic prints and close examination disputes the assertion that Brahms was emotionally incapacitated when the shutter was clicked. They actually give credence that indeed he was helping get SOMETHING off a fellows coat.(In another frame he is flirting and mugging for the camera with Mrs. Weyermann, the wife of his host.) If you zoom in another one of the shots the “bereaved” composer is clearly smoking a cigar and even wearing spectacles while working on his companion’s jacket! I think it is the only photo of Brahms wearing specs. Another shot the man’s coat can be fully seen and a spot on it does indeed look like…well… a bird dropping. Honestly Norman I like your story better but the evidence strongly indicates otherwise and also illuminates other aspects of Brahms’ personality and life not immediately apparent if one just glances at the material. Thanks for the post.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      My source is plainly stated. Yours?

      • Styra Avins says:

        It is known with certainty when and where this photo was taken. It was several days after Clara Schumann’s funeral, at a coincidental gathering of friends at an estate on the Rhine. His friends got together every year to play three days of chamber music at one person or other’s homes (wealthy people all of them). When news of the funeral reached the house party, a few people attended it with the specific purpose of bringing Brahms back to the gathering with them, to help him over this very sad moment. The photo has nothing to do with Brahms getting on the wrong train,nor of bird droppings, although another photo take at the same time does. All that is known because the gathering was written up by five of the people who were there (I’ve published an article about it in the News Letter of the American Brahms Society, Volume XXVI, No. 2, Fall 2008, “Brahms’s Last Whitsuntide”.
        It’s really interesting to see the things people make up!
        Styra Avins, (author, Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters).

    • Styra Avins says:

      Tom Sudholt is quite correct, except that Brahms’s music was not featured at the Weyerman’s house party, but only added to the pre-organized program once Brahms actually showed up — and then only those few pieces in which he joined in the music-making. Interestingly, Brahms had his Four Serious Songs with him in his suitcase, and performed them only for a few chosen people at a time during the weekend, in a distant room in the mansion, playing the little practice piano there and singing/talking through the vocal part in his rough voice.
      As for the fantastical stories that are spun around a little picture, I never know whether to laugh or cry at the idea that it’s OK to make such fantasies up, and have them pass as history. Rather, the truly remarkable aspect of that post-funeral weekend is the comfort Brahms was able to take in friendship — another myth about Brahms is that he was a loner — well yes, he liked to be alone at times, but he had a lot of friends who loved him (that’s why there is such a rich correspondence of Brahms’s letters) — and he required friendship. If you are able to read the letters he sent to a friend after this weekend, you will find how much he felt it did him good. He actually had a good time. The “Philistine” who pictures Brahms having made his pile and then enjoyed it is actually right on the mark. He enjoyed giving money to friends who needed it, to his family, to charitable funds — he did tell jolly stories, and even raunchy stories to at least one friend. He loved practical jokes. Funny, the biographies don’t mention anything of the sort. You have to read his letters!!
      Yes, Brahms did flirt with Mrs. Weyermann, and had a rousing good time with an old aristocratic lady who arrived as a guest in her little donkey cart.
      As for the jaundice and yellow face, nobody noticed anything at all odd about him at that time except for the violinist and conductor Julius Barth, who had known him since he (Barth) was a boy. He noticed Brahms’s skin was a bit dark, and thought it was because Brahms spent a lot of time in the sun. No one understood Brahms was ill, least of all himself. He seemed in fine shape. He died of cancer of the pancreas, most likely, which must have begun well before Clara Schumann died. Brahms died 10 months after she did, not 6. It was only in the middle of the summer that friends noticed something was amiss.
      Regarding the picture, the people in it are, L to R, Gustav Ophüls, Brahms, Brahm Eldering, the great violinist, and Alwin von Beckerath, fine amateur violinist and a great friend of Brahms, and related to Emmy Weyerling, the hostess of the weekend at the Hagerhof estate. The entire set of photos was taken in the gardens, during a walk one afternoon. There are five eye-witness accounts of the weekend, written by various guests. Those accounts all agree that Brahms would rise early, take his coffee, and walk in those gardens before the rest of the guests were up. Confusing the picture is the fact that the author of the most famous biographer of Brahms, who was not there, has written his own account of the weekend and it is quite fictitious. There was a time when it was OK to write biography like that!
      Styra Avins
      [author, Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, Ox. U. Press, and the chapter “Brahms the Godfather” in Brahms and His World, Princeton U. Press].

  • Erwin Poelstra says:

    On Andrea Bambace’s Facebook-site there is a very sharp reproduction of this photograph:
    Brahms doesn’t look as if he is overcome by grief here: he’s holding a cigar in his left hand and seems to be chatting with the three other gentlemen who are smiling a bit.

  • Eric W. Boon. says:

    I’m only a Philistine but I have always liked the thought of Brahms being a successful person who made a decent pile of the necessary and enjoyed his life. With his unruly beard and shaggy locks, photographs of him always give me the impression that he looks like someone’s slightly disreputable uncle who is fond of a mildly off colour story and can be relied upon to cause a raised eyebrow among the prudish.
    In that image he looks like he is going to regale the others in the group with a jolly story about ” the three priests on a train” or something in a similar vein.
    It’s one of the reasons I like his music so much. Whatever the tone of the piece one gains the impression that it is the work of someone who lived a full life.
    I would have loved to go to lunch with him. I think that it would have been a merry time.

  • Patrick says:

    Was it common at this time to attend funeral in white jacket and pants?

  • Dick Morris says:

    Does anybody know how much Brahms left? I know he gave a lot of money away, but her must still have been a wealth man by the standards of his times.