Brahms came into the world at the same time as the science of photography was being perfected. He was one of the first classical composers to be captured by “drawing with light”.
The Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) invented heliography, which he used to make the earliest known permanent photograph, “View from the Window at Le Gras” (c. 1826). The process used Bitumen of Judea (or Syrian asphalt) as a coating on glass. Exposed to light it hardened and, when the plate was washed with oil of lavender, only the image remained (together, one assumes, with a pleasant odour).
Louis Daguerre (1789-1851), who had worked with Niépce, came up with the first practical photographic process in 1837: the daguerrotype. A thin silver-plated copper sheet was sensitized with iodine vapour and exposed to light in a camera for several minutes. A latent negative image was then subjected to a further process to create a positive image.
At the Royal Society in London in 1841 the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot described his own invention, the calotype. Using paper coated with silver iodide, he found he could develop a fully visible image. Although inferior in quality to the daguerreotype, the calotype had the advantage of allowing multiple copies to be made, including photographic “visiting cards” –invented by French photographer André Adolphe Disdéri in 1854.
Born in 1833, the composer Johannes Brahms grew up in a world in which ordinary people could own images of themselves. The first photo of Brahms, dated 1853 and taken on a trip to Leipzig, depicts the already successful young pianist. Many more photos were taken throughout his life. According to J. Lawrence Erb in one the earliest biographies, Brahms (1905):
“Amateur photographs, especially snapshots of him taken without his knowledge, gave him great pleasure. Perhaps the best of these was by Frau Fellinger of Vienna, whose house was a true home for Brahms in his last years. One of his peculiarities was that he did not use a mirror, urging as a reason that he saw his face so often in pictures that he had no need of one.”
Brahms was close friends with Dr Richard Fellinger and his artist wife, Maria, at whose house in Vienna he was a frequent guest. In 1889 it was at the Fellinger house that he met Thomas Edison’s agent, Theo Wangemann, who was collecting the voices of famous men and women. One story has it that, fascinated by the invention of the phonograph, Brahms turned to the primitive trumpet of the cylinder recording machine and said, “Grüsse an Herrn Doktor Edison. I am Doctor Brahms. Johannes Brahms.” Others believe the voice is actually Wangemann introducing Brahms. It is, however, followed by one minute of Brahms at the piano playing an excerpt from his Hungarian Dance No. 1 – unfortunately the only recording of Brahms that exists.
A famous photo was taken in 1894 with Johann Strauss Jr. at his villa in the former Austrian imperial spa resort of Bad Ischl. Here, at a party, Brahms is said to have signed the fan of Strauss’s stepdaughter with a quotation from “The Blue Danube” waltz, writing underneath, “Alas, not by Johannes Brahms.” Two years earlier, Strauss had dedicated his waltz “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” to him.
A set of eight portrait photographs of the composer was taken by Maria Fellinger between September 1893 and June 1896. One of the last before his death in 1897 shows Brahms seated in a garden, but there is also a poignant final photo of him on his death-bed. Just three years later, Eastman Kodak marketed the Brownie camera under its slogan “You push the button, we do the rest.” It popularised the domestic snapshot and made ordinary lives remarkable.