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Cat Fishing and Brahms April 13, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Again apologies for cessation in email communications and posting, Beachcombing is on the mend and normal service should resume tomorrow.

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Not so long ago Beachcombing said something unwise about musicians, namely that  the classically inclined folk prior to the shamans of modern rock did not have particularly bizarre lives and that music was a poor field of study for bizarrists.

Slowly though Beachcombing is changing his opinion about the symphony-writing ones. True, most lived almost unbearably chaste and conceited lives. But there are a number – interestingly in the second rank – that had their eccentricities. Take Brahms and his cat fishing exploits: Beachcombing has already introduced his readers to horse fishing but cat fishing was an even more horrifying act of human ingenuity.

Brahms, so it is said, was an avowed enemy of the feline tribe. Unlike Scarlatti, who was passionately fond of chords of the diminished cats, the phlegmatic Johannes spent much of his time at the window, particularly of moonlit nights, practising counterpoint on the race of cats, the kind that infest backyards of dear old Vienna. Dr. Antonin Dvorik had made his beloved friend and master a present of a peculiar bow and arrow, which is used in Bohemia to slay sparrows. In and about Bohemia it is named in the native tongue, ‘Slugj hym inye nech’. With this formidable weapon did the composer of orchestral cathedrals spend his leisure moments. Little wonder that Wagner became an anti-vivisectionist, for he, too, had been up in Brahms’ backyard, but being near-sighted, usually missed his cat. Because of arduous practice Brahms always contrived to bring down his prey, and then – O diabolical device! – after spearing the poor brutes, he reeled them into his room after the manner of a trout fisher. Then so Wagner averred – he eagerly listened to the expiring groans of his victims and carefully jotted down in his note-book their ante-mortem remarks. Wagner declared that he [i.e. Brahms!] worked up these piteous utterances in to his chamber-music, but then Wagner had never liked Brahms…  (45)

Beachcombing should add at this point that most people never liked Brahms.

Is this story true? Can it be confirmed with reference to Brahms’ biographies? Beachcombing has no access at present. He is struck though by that very early modern theme, cat-hating that this blog has publicised on other occasions not least in the case of musical cat organs.

Beachcombing has just spent a minute staring out of the window wondering what Brahms’ version of hell look like. Certainly it will include very big moggies running up and down vast keyboards and Brahms tied to an out of time metronome…

Beachcombing is always on the look out for music bizarrism, but there is, sigh, so little about: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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16 April 2011: Chris writes in – ‘I assume you’ve seen this online debate about the Brahms/cat-fishing episodes? [No, shame-faced ed]  There is much in Brahms’ music that I admire and much in Wagner’s music and character that I dislike so I am eager to believe that Wagner would spread some distasteful story about Brahms. This phrase is particularly telling: ‘After consulting Styra Avins, editor of Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, MacDonald learned that in 1893 – when Brahms was still alive – a music critic for the New York Times, James Huneker, had cited the story of the composer’s hatred of cats as an example of how biography could be contaminated by deliberate fiction. Huneker named Wagner as the guilty man.’ Thanks Chris!

23 May 2012:  Radko writes ‘I’ve just came across your article on Brahms killing cats and since you asked I thought I’d answer. I don’t know whether Brahms disliked felines to the point of killing them for fun but the part about him killing them with an instrument from Bohemia called in native tongue ” Slugj hym inye nech ” is certainly made up. I come from Southern Bohemia and speak the native tongue – Czech. The name of the instrument doesn’t even sound close to any words in Czech language. There are various regional dialects but they are not as varied as to cause any confusion. The Czech language had not changed much and I can read texts 200 – 300 years old without much ciphering. I’ve never heard of a sparrow hunting weapon but I shall try to find one and if I can I shall forward what I learned to you.’ Thanks Radko!

24 May 2012: Radko continues ‘I’ve done many searches with various search terms and could not find any references to any bow and arrow like weapon for hunting in Bohemia. My mother has an old, very old cookbook containing a recipe for a soup from a flock of sparrows. It would be highly impractical to hunt sparrows one at a time for a soup or any other dish. The common method as I was I knew was to trap them using a lure (grain) under a large sieve generally used for sifting – once again – grain.’ Thanks again Radko!