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The Three B's: Brahms, Bruckner, and beef.

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

This is the story of how a society of music lovers in Vienna rented out a restaurant as a performance venue, served delicious food, and ended up building one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world.

The year is 1872. Brahms has been living in Vienna for almost a decade and has just been made director of the Musikverein (the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde). If the internet had been around back then, a snarky comment might have appeared in the twitter-verse to the likes of: “I wonder… how much is Brahms's consumption of gulasch related to his appointment as director?” It was a well-known fact that Brahms had rather peculiar eating habits, insisting on dining almost exclusively at the “Rother Igel.” The “Red Hedgehog” was a restaurant that became a center of Viennese social music making when it was rented (and later purchased in 1829) as a performance venue and restaurant by the very same Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.

(Image courtesy of the Mahler Foundation)

The “Rother Igel” was frequented by a veritable who-is-who of music including Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, and countless critics. The food seemed to have conciliatory powers. Only at the “Rother Igel” were Brahms and Anton Bruckner able to put aside their differences over a plate of Rindsgulasch (beef gulash) [1], [2] or Rinderpilaw (beef pilaf) and a generous glass of beer. Vienna was a melting pot of cultures and Brahms’s choice of favorite foods reflected this diversity: gulash from Hungary and beef pilaf that originated in India and was introduced to Europe by the Turks.[3] And Brahms’s music also reflects the cultures that he encountered in food as well. His 21 Hungarian Dances were in fact so influenced by the music he heard in local cafés that only three of them can be claimed as being entirely by Brahms.[4] And even the Haydn Variations, which he premiered as the new music director of the Orchestra of the Musikverein in 1873, show Hungarian stylizations in the second variation: sudden dynamic shifts, plucked (pizzicato) lower string lines that are reminiscent of gypsy bands, and dotted rhythms.

(If you are in a hurry, the 2nd variation starts at 4:06.)

The premiere, however, was not held in the red hedgehog restaurant, but in the brand-new Musikverein building that showed off all the wealth of the Austrian Empire. It is the same space that the Vienna Philharmonic regularly performs in today.

So, over the course of some 60 years, a society for music lovers went from nothing (with the support of the Emporor, of course), to owning a restaurant, and finally to building one of the most famous concert halls in the world.

The lesson to be learned from all of this? If you make the best food in town and bring in foodie composers, you, too, can build a professional orchestra and concert hall. Oh, and you need an emperor.


Now to the main topic: beef.

Gulash is Hungarian beef stew: slightly sweet, smoky, and fiery when requested. There are many variants of gulash but the basic recipe is the same and relies on three main ingredients: beef, paprika, and marjoram. It is served with any kind of starchy side, though perennial favorites are flat egg noodles and Spätzle.

Because this is a dish that uses ingredients that I had readily at home, I decided to make this myself and adjust the rather sparse recipe that the good Marie Dorminger in her Bürgerliches Wiener Kochbuch from 1906 suggests. (I used as the starting point her "Best Gulash" recipe.[5] Though the title makes you wonder why you would publish the other recipes, if they are truly inferior...)


1.5 lbs of beef stew meat

2-3 cups of beef stock

1.5 cups of dry red wine (like a Shiraz to bring out the smoky paprika)

1 medium onion, finely diced

3 tsp tomato paste

2 cloves of garlic, minced

3 tbsp butter

3 tsp sweet paprika (not the spicy kind)

1 tsp of marjoram

1. In a heavy stock pot, melt 2 tsp of butter and brown the beef in batches, making sure to use high heat. Once brown, remove the beef cubes and set aside.

2. Melt the remaining tsp of butter in the same stock pot and sauté the onions and garlic until the onions are glassy.

3. Deglaze the stock pot with the wine, making sure to gently scrape off the crusty bits on the bottom. Reduce to about 3/4 cups of liquid.

4. Reduce the heat, add the tomato paste, spices, and beef. Mix well so that the beef is evenly coated and the tomato paste fully dissolved.

5. Add the beef stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover, and cook for about 2 hours or until the beef is fork tender. Salt and pepper to taste

6. Serve over your carb of choice with a good red wine or beer.

As the Austrians would say... Mahlzeit!


[1] Alfred von Ehrmann and Barbara Lattimer, "Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf: A Biographical Parallel," The Musical Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 4 (Oct., 1943), 460.

[2] Annette Ungar, "Brahms und Bruckner im Roten Igel,"

[3]“History of Pilaf,” [4] Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years, 1811–1847, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987) 341.

[5] Marie Dorminger, Bürgerliches Wiener Kochbuch, (Vienna: self-published, 1906) 137.



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