Brahms’ relationships with women were troubled at best. While he more or less worshipped Clara Schumann, his attitude to others he encountered was often less than enlightened. “I have a powerful prejudice against women pianists and anxiously avoid listening to them,” he wrote in a letter to Ferdinand Hiller.

Brahms Johannes Brahms

English composer Ethel Smyth observed this at first hand. “To see him with Lili Wach, Frau Schumann and her daughters, or other links with his great predecessors was to see him at his best, so gentle and respectful was his bearing; in fact to Frau Schumann he behaved as might a particularly delightful old-world son,” she wrote in her memoir. “His ways with other women-folk – or to use the detestable word forever on his lips, ‘Weibsbilder’ – were less admirable. If they did not appeal to him he was incredibly awkward and ungracious; if they were pretty he had an unpleasant way of leaning back in his chair, pouting out his lips, stroking his moustache, and staring at them as a greedy boy stares at jam tartlets.”

Brahms’ own excuse for this attitude towards women was bad experiences as a teenager in...

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