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.
Histories of progressive musical politics in mid-nineteenth-century Germany often center on the writings of Richard Wagner and Franz Brendel, relegating contributors such as the feminist and author Louise Otto (1819–95) to the periphery. However, Otto's lifelong engagement with music, including her two librettos, two essay collections on the arts, and numerous articles and feuilletons, demonstrates how one contemporary woman considered the progressive movements in music and in women's rights to be interrelated. A staunch advocate of Wagner, Otto contributed to numerous music journals, as well as her own women's journal, advising her female readers to engage with the music of the New German School. In the context of the middle-class women's movement, she saw music as a space for female advancement through both performance and the portrayals of women onstage. Her writings offer us a glimpse into the complex network of Wagner proponents who also supported women's rights, at the same time providing evidence for what some contemporary conservative critics saw as a concomitant social threat from both Wagnerian musical radicalism and the emancipated woman.