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Lessons from Music History

Lesson 2--Johannes Brahms and Humility (1833-1897)


~Served with coffee, strong and black~


The German composer of great symphonies, songs, and chamber music was universally loved. And a principal, endearing quality was his unassuming modesty. Johannes Brahms would know world renown in is lifetime, becoming one of the most successful composers of the nineteenth century.

Yet even at the height of his fame, Brahms—who had been born in the slums of Hamburg—usually wore old, simple clothing; he enjoyed taking long country walks and eating in plain roadside cafes. He was a quiet benefactor to the poor around him, make friends easily and was particularly fond of children. A bachelor, Brahms was unpretentious in his lifestyle. In fact, he grew the long bushy beard so prominent in his best portraits because he was tired of shaving and wearing ties!

In the midst of his unsought fame, which puzzled and amused him, Brahms was modest and unassuming about his creations. He once mailed—unregistered—the only existing manuscript copy of his Fourth Symphony to a conductor.  In a fury, the conductor, Von Bulow, protested, “What would we have done had the packet gone astray?” Brahms simply stated, “In that case I would have to write the symphony anew.”

But most revealing of Brahms’ modesty are his comments comparing his music to that of other greats:

Concerning Mendelssohn, Brahms said, “I’d give all my compositions if I could have written such a piece as the Hebrides Overture”.

After playing a Bach sonata, Brahms threw a copy of his own sonata on the floor: “After that, who could play such stuff as this?”

And at a dinner during which his host was about to toast “the health of the greatest composer”, Brahms interrupted. Glass in hand he jumped to his feet and bellowed, “Quite right! Here’s to Mozart’s health!”

What a picture of unpretentious humility! Here is a man who had learned the profound truth of 1 Peter 5:5: “Clothe yourself with humility toward one another, because ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”

From Spiritual Moments with the Great Composers by Patrick Kavanaugh


Philippians 2:1-11

1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion,
2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.
3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,
4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature1 God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature2 of a servant, being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


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