Unlike Wagner, Mahler, or Schoenberg, Johannes Brahms is often absent from discussions of Viennese fin-de-siècle psychological theories and their intersections with musical culture. The privileged context depicting an aging Brahms resistant to new trends in politics and the arts discourages the notion that he would have known and been influenced by any such developments in the developing field of psychology or psychological arts. As a case study exploring Brahms’s potential engagement in these areas, this article reexamines the contested “legend” of Brahms playing piano in dive bars as an adolescent, not to determine its veracity, but in part to reveal how this motif functions in two different narrative models of Brahms biographies to about 1933. In the first model, the composer emerges spotless from the trials of a low-income childhood; in the second, however, he remains scarred by the unhealthy sexual climate of the bars. I argue that cultural-intellectual contexts in fin-de-siècle Vienna influenced Brahms’s attempts to shape his biographical narratives and that both models could have originated with Brahms himself. From Paolo Mantegazza’s sexology treatises to Hermann Bahr’s scandalous plays, the Viennese reading public was confronted with both scientific and literary material that conflated psychology, sexuality, and personal identity, while other artists such as Max Klinger sought to explore the unconscious motivations behind behaviors. In this context, we may reevaluate anecdotal evidence in which Brahms accords his adult problems to a traumatic childhood experience of playing piano in dangerous establishments: it suggests that Brahms could have taken part in fin-de-siècle trends of self-analysis and psychologized autobiography.

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