How’s your Brahms?

Letter from Brahms to Simrock
Source: http://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200184581

One of the greatest pleasures of musicology is reading the handwriting of long dead composers. The above image is a letter from Brahms to his publisher, Fritz Simrock, written in German. I thought I knew enough German to make heads or tails of something until I started actually reading handwriting like this. This is a fast, lovely writing known as Kurrentschrift, which was used throughout the nineteenth century, until in 1911 it was modified into the German script called Sütterlinschrift, which lasted until the 1970s.

It really does seem like no one talks about the fact that all German writing in the nineteenth century is perfectly illegible to someone who doesn’t know this special alphabet. It was just how you wrote in German. Notice that Brahms in that letter switches to Roman script when he writes “alienum” under the musical example.

In case you’re wondering what it says, here are the first few lines in modern script:

Lieber S. [Simrock],

Der alte Titel ist mir
recht—aber da ist ja kein
Platz mehr?
Die Lieder sind natürlich schon
bei Röder—sonst bitte ich,
dass Sie zu op. 71 Nr. 3 (4?)

I first came into contact with this kind of writing when going through an old Verdi manuscript that was used in Vienna and completely translated into German, in Kurrent, along the handwritten part in the full score. It really is quite alien at first glance, but I think quite beautiful.

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