Along with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms is one of the “Three Bs”, who are considered to be among the world’s greatest composers of classical music. He was a brilliant virtuoso pianist who also composed for symphony orchestras, chamber ensembles, piano, organ, violin, voice, and chorus. Unfortunately, he was also famous for saying that he would never decline a good meal, and ate his lunch always with many friends at the same restaurant every day. His favorite meals contained beef goulash and beef pilaf, a jug or two of beer and the finest Hungarian tokay whiskey. After lunch he would sit for hours sipping coffee and a glass of cognac. As a result, he was obese with a massive belly that kept him more than a foot away from the piano when he played.
In May, 1896 at age 63, Brahms started to lose his appetite and alternated periods of overeating and not eating at all. He started to lose weight and his eyes turned yellow. He itched all over, bled into his skin, developed belly pain and then became bedridden. He was incorrectly diagnosed with liver cancer. In March 1897, he suffered a massive bleed into his intestines and he died in April 1897 of pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver (ESMO Open, Aug 23, 2016;1(4):e000095).
Early Years and Personal Life
Johannes Brahms was born in 1833 in Hamburg, Germany, into a prosperous musical family. His father taught him to play the violin, cello and piano, and he began to perform at age 10. He gave his first full recital in 1848, at age 15, but he soon found that composing was more important to him than performing.
In 1854, when Brahms was 21, a close friend and fellow composer and musician, Robert Schumann, attempted suicide and was confined to a mental sanatorium near Bonn. Schumann’s wife, Clara, was not allowed to visit him until two days before his death, but Brahms was able to visit him regularly. In 1856, when Schumann died from pneumonia, Brahms helped to support Clara and managed her business matters. She was a gifted musician and played music written by Brahms in her own performances. He appeared to have loved her deeply and asked her to marry him, but she refused.
He certainly was interested in women. After the sadness caused by the refusal for marriage by the love-of-his-life, Clara Schuman, his other relationships failed:
• In 1859, at age 26, he was engaged to Agathe von Siebold and after she called off the engagement, he wrote to her: “I love you! I must see you again, but I am incapable of bearing fetters. I may come again to clasp you in my arms, to kiss you, and tell you that I love you.” Brahms told friends that she was his “last love”.
• In 1869, at age 36, Brahms fell in love with Robert and Clara Schumann’s daughter, 24-year-old Julie. However, when she became engaged to another man, he sent Clara, the manuscript of his Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53. Clara wrote in her diary that “he called it his wedding song” and noted “the profound pain in the text and the music.”
• In 1890, the 57-year-old Brahms was turned down after he proposed marriage to the 28-year-old mezzo-soprano Alice Barbi.
Did Brahms Have Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a serious disorder in which a person repeatedly stops breathing for at least 10 seconds during sleep, causing low blood levels of oxygen. Complications include high blood pressure, heart disease, heart failure, headaches, accidents, depression, strokes, diabetes, weight gain, metabolic syndrome, adult asthma, acid reflux, brain fog, daytime sleepiness and memory loss.
Sleep apnea was not named and described until the 1960s, but Brahms appears to have had all of the symptoms (Chest, March 1, 2001;119(3):985-986). He was overweight with abdominal obesity, and snored horribly when he slept. He had many of the conditions that are associated with sleep apnea:
• Diabetes: Brahms had massive abdominal obesity. He drank too much alcohol and ate too much food, consisting mainly of meat, sugar and flour. He barely moved all day and never exercised.
• Tired all the time: In his later years, he often fell asleep in his theater box or at the dinner table.
• Noisy breathing during sleep: Fellow musician George Henschel reported that Brahms’ snoring drove him from a room they shared on a concert tour. One of the reasons that he never married may have been his snoring.
• Personality changes: Biographers describe his prickly personality and note that he is supposed to have said, on leaving a party, “If there is anyone here I have not offended, I apologize.” Sleep apnea often deprives the brain of oxygen to make a person irritable and depressed. With all of his sleep problems, he wrote the most famous lullaby ever.
If You Think You May Have Sleep Apnea
Talk to your doctor about getting sleep studies if you have any combination of these symptoms:
• loud snoring
• waking up with a sore throat
• dry mouth
• a feeling of choking
• repeatedly waking up or inability to stay asleep
• daytime sleepiness
• feeling like you are going fall asleep while you drive
• mood swings
• loss of interest in sex
• stopping breathing while you sleep (reported by your partner)
May 7, 1833 – April 3, 1897