The townhouse at 18 Belgrave Square consisted of 74 living rooms, salons, corridors, servants’ pantries, staircases, anterooms, and closets, and in 1866 it was deemed suitable to become the new London residence of the Austrian ambassador. The commodious townhouse had gone up early in the century as part of Thomas Cubitt’s development of Belgrave Square, and it was thus an eyewitness to the most crucial period in the development of a refined form of entertainment that we know as classical music.
When the Austrian embassy was moving to its new address, Johannes Brahms, who had migrated to Vienna from his native Hamburg, was at work on A German Requiem, a composition that would bring him world fame. A few years after its Bremen premiere, Cambridge University proffered the composer an honorary doctorate of music, which he unaccountably declined. There were no airports, but Bremen was closer to Cambridge in those days, and Vienna to London, than they are today. There was no television, no telephone, and no internet, but in the Belgravia of the intellect news of genius traveled more quickly.
The endless Victorian century dividing the modern denizen of Britain from the cultural climate that prevailed here until well after World War II may be viewed, as a furtive reflection in miniature, through the windows of the grand townhouses of Belgravia. Walking its streets nowadays, one almost never hears the sound of a piano, and it is most rare to glimpse, through half-open shutters, that lacquered, elongated, black form resembling an opera glove, whose very sheen once betokened sensual pleasure. The Bösendorfers and the Bechsteins that animated these homes have been replaced with Orwellian telescreens, by turns iridescent and irksome, that vaunt their flatness as if formlessness were a virtue, and plasma—a feast for the senses.
A few months ago, the British Red Cross asked my wife, Olga Domnina, to play a recital for some of its supporters at the Austrian embassy, and I found myself among the guests of Ambassador Emil Brix and Dr. Elisabeth Brix. I was walking the vast rooms, decorated with pictures on loan from the Vienna State Museum, with the nervousness of a new father pacing the hospital corridors, when I heard the first sounds from the old Bösendorfer.
She was warming up to play Brahms, his Sonata in F minor, written when the composer was barely 20, yet a maddeningly demanding work. Its five movements add up to nearly three quarters of an hour of merciless emotional variegation, seesawing between sober melancholy and drunken gregariousness, omniscient anxiety and blind triumph, abject depression and ethereal joy. The spectacle of a human being, to say nothing of a young woman in evening décolleté, grabbing the minotaur by the horns and riding it until he falls to the ground, breathless and covered in foam, yet inwardly fulfilled and contented, is more dramatic than anything one witnesses in the bullfighting arenas of Spain. Moreover, one’s mind simply refuses to accept that until recently this drawing-room corrida was commonplace in just about every upper-middle-class home in Europe. By 1939, the American-owned German piano manufacturer Steinway had alone built over 300,000 pianos.
Franz Liszt used to say that Bösendorfer was the only piano strong enough to withstand his attack. The Imperial Grand, constructed for Busoni’s transcriptions of Bach—with nine additional bass keys covered by a little hinged panel at the left-hand end-cheek of the instrument—is a veritable monster, whose additional strings resonate even when the corresponding keys are not played, making it seem still more huge, dark, and menacing. The sound of her playing brought to mind the original King Kong poster, with Fay Wray in those unforgettably hirsute arms.
There was a formal dinner after the concert, which looked passably like a scene from one of the pictures on the embassy walls, with a table set for 48 and none of those seated in drag, in jeans, or in cocaine-induced delirium. There the Red Cross was lauded, the performer toasted, and the Hamburg-born Brahms once again proclaimed an honorary citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Anschluss of culture is as swift as it is irreversible.
As we were going in to dinner, I remarked to my old friend Andrew Wynn, whose wife, Nada, was instrumental in organizing the event, that the only person present who had a clear moral right to enjoy such music was the ambassador himself. My wife and I are Russian, Andrew is American, Nada is Lebanese. A vast majority of the British Red Cross supporters in evidence were likewise from beyond the confines of the Europe of Brahms and Cubitt. Only the ambassadorial couple lived in 2011 as if it were still the 1870’s, as if every drawing room in Belgravia yet gleamed with a concert grand and news of A German Requiem had only now reached Cambridge.