Playing one of Brahms’ muses

In 1996, Annabel Capper took a small role playing Elisabeth von Herzogenberg (née von Stockhausen) in the controversial film, Brahms & the Little Singing Girls, with respected director Tony Palmer. (if you thought Between the Sheets was pornographic, I’d recommend that you avoid this film like the plague. According to the blurb in the DVD container, the film’s never been shown in Britain, and someone at the BBC is quoted as remarking that the film is “disgusting.”). Ms. Capper’s work was uncredited (in contrast to that of the Little Singing Girls, who appear topless, repeatedly, and are credited. Capper bears a passing resemblance to one of them — but it’s not her breasts we are seeing. Whew! Given the film’s preoccupation with the more prurient aspects of Brahms’s life — his stories about working as a teenager as a brothel musician, his aborted engagement to Agathe von Siebold, and his intense but apparently unfulfilled attachment to Clara Schumann — I was wondering whether the filmmaker was trying to make a point by having the same actress play both a prostitute and Herzogenberg, but I’ve watched those scenes closely a few times and I am pretty sure it’s a different actress; plus the credits say it’s a different actress). In a way it’s too bad if it’s never been shown in England — it’s artistically a strong production, I think, but if no one saw it, that doesn’t help her out much, does it? What makes it artistically strong? I think the script does a good job of integrating various Brahms compositions into a basic life narrative of the composer, and the musical performances, many of them by the NDR Symphony Orchestra and Choir, one of my favorite German ensembles, are very strong. Taken together, the narrative of the film and the interspersed musical performances give us a good sense both of the way that life-long passions affected Brahms’s work, and of the energies of the late Romantic period in central European music altogether. And the film shows rather than telling, which I always appreciate.

Annabel Capper in Brahms & the Little Singing Girls

Brahms met Elisabeth when he worked briefly as her piano teacher; she was an accomplished pianist and seems to have written a few song settings herself, which were published together with those of her husband, Heinrich, who was a well-known and prolific composer in his own age but whose work is now mostly forgotten or seen as imitative of Brahms’ oeuvre. In the film, we get our first glance of her for just a second, playing a musical instrument, possibly a banjo of some kind, and cut into a scene of the Schumann family Christmas, which is a bit confusing — she was a pianist, first of all, and it seems unlikely she’d have spent Christmas with the Schumanns. It’s just a brief cut.

Later, we see her out walking on a country picnic with the great composer himself, played by Warren Mitchell. She’s supposed to be quite young in this scene, apparently in her late teens.

Brahms dedicated several works to Elisabeth and kept her picture on his desk. He respected her critical opinion more than that of her husband. Ms. Capper looks beautiful in this sequence; she doesn’t have to do much, but she definitely hits the target of the beauty ideal of the mid- to late-nineteenth-century young woman right on the money. She’s got both the body for it, and the dramatic energy. Too bad we couldn’t see more of her here. (More acting. Not more skin.)

~ by Servetus on December 15, 2010.

22 Responses to “Playing one of Brahms’ muses”

  1. How clever of you to have found this film.

    In the few other photos we’ve seen of Ms. Capper, her face is very strong. In these clips, it is much softer, with a charming smile, and a mischievous eye. Very nice.


    • it’s not hard to find — I just think people haven’t really been looking very hard.

      She’s *really* pretty, I think. A lot of chin, but really pretty, and as you say, there’s a bit of mischief in that glance.


      • She looks like someone I would like to know. Mischief appeals to me, as if this is a surprise to you all.
        This is the first I have ever heard of the movie, which I suspect is the case for a lot of people. I will have to visit Amazon, where I am much loved.


  2. Yes to MORE!! Acting of course! I love these kinds of productions. It would be curious to see whether the one library in my system with an extensive foreign collection will have it!


  3. Hmmm, interesting post


  4. She does look so relaxed and rather mischievous and mildly flirtatious in this sequence, which is different from what I had seen in previous photos. Lovely with the upswept hair, too. Thank you for sharing this, Sevetus, and now, I, too, would really like to see this film–not for the semi-naked crumpet, of course, but for its artistic strengths you pointed out.


    • It’s probably mainly worthwhile if you like Brahms. From the director’s point of view, there’s a certain shock value to all of this, but not so much for me speaking as a historian.


      • I like Brahms . . . also fond of biopics in general (and reading bios).
        I’m not terribly easy to shock anymore, especially if I have some idea what I am getting into. ( ;


  5. Very interesting indeed! You must have done some digging to unearth this. I think the film sounds fascinating. I love biopics about artistic people. Heck, I like biopics in general!


    • seriously, I bought the film off amazon … but it is a nice biopic. It doesn’t say explicitly that it’s a German co-production but it is, and that influences its form a great deal, I think.


  6. If it’s never been shown in the UK, might be down to exactly how graphic it is, as in showing people’s “bits”. You can only do that if it’s meant to be educational or something like that. And/or, well, non-sexual. So if it has “bits” in, that might be why. Just a thought.

    Indeed an interesting post. She does look a bit mischievous – and pretty! Would love to see some of her acting, as I’ve only seen her on pictures, and this is probably the first pictures where I’ve seen her actually in a role! 🙂


    • yeah. Full disclosure: the second or third scene has an extended panorama of four topless women as we look at the teenage Brahms. In the sequences with Agathe von Siebold, which stretch over several minutes, we see both female and male completely nude, first in a sort of nudist / nature section and then initiating sex with each other. And then toward the end we again see the four topless women, this time frolicking with the aged Brahms. From the U.S. perspective, this would be really gratuitous. Ms. Capper is fully clothed each time she appears.

      I’d clip the sequence with Ms. Capper, but it’s really only something like a minute at most, and all we see her do is walk across the screen and sip from her wine glass. This is shown at the moment where she enters the narrative, and then again when the narrative announces her death.


  7. […] really wanted to learn about Capper. This time her role is credited, although as with her work as Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, it is an extremely short appearance. The character herself appears in a few scenes of […]


  8. This is great! I must admit I have been curious about Annabel’s performances. I’ve only seen a little clip of her in in ‘Sensitive Skin’ (no pun intended LOL!), and I would love to see more of her acting. 😀


  9. […] to her work here as woman on the job with hidden depths of passion, we’ve seen her as composer’s muse and grieving sister in non-speaking roles, and as Shakespearean siren, and as whatever you want to […]


  10. Brahms is important because of his….duh…..MUSIC. Where is the music? What was the music? Was music played in this film? For heaven’s sake.


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