Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was a German composer of Romantic music best known for his symphonies, songs, and orchestral, chamber, and piano music. A great student of the history of music, Brahms was convinced that only by working within the established parameters of his art could his own music have merit and longevity. In this, he was right since he remains today amongst the most widely performed of all the great composers.
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg on 7 May 1833. His father was Johann Jakob Brahms who earned a living playing the double bass, first in more humble theatre orchestras and then as a member of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra. His mother, Christiane Nissen, earned a living as a seamstress and was 17 years older than his father, for whom she had once been his housekeeper. Brahms was the middle of three children.
Brahms took to piano playing early, learning from age seven and studying composition from age 12. At age 15, Brahms gave his first public piano recital. One of his early teachers was Otto Cossel, and then he was passed on to Edward Marxsen (1806-1887). The latter was so impressed with Brahms' talent that he taught him for free and encouraged him to study past classical music, especially the works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Brahms would later dedicate his Piano Concerto in B-flat to Marxsen. Perhaps not always attending school because of his parents' constrained finances, Brahms helped augment the family income by playing piano in taverns.
In 1853, Brahms joined with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi (1830-1898) to tour German lands giving performances in various cities. It was this year that Brahms published his first of many songs, Liebestreu ('Faithful in Love'). In Hanover, the wandering musicians met the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) – Brahms would later dedicate his Violin Concerto and Double Concerto to Joachim, widely considered the greatest violinist of the period. When he reached Weimar, Brahms met the Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886), who played one of the young man's piano compositions. Brahms then visited Düsseldorf where he met and impressed the composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Brahms seemed to have the knack of meeting the right people at the right time, and his reputation spread wider than it otherwise would have.
Schumann promoted Brahms' work in his influential music magazine Neue Zeitschrift für Musik which he had founded in 1834, and he persuaded a publisher in Leipzig to publish some of Brahms' compositions. Schumann once stated, "I believe Johannes to be the true Apostle, who will also write Revelations" (Thompson, 154). Schumann gave Brahms the nickname, "the young eagle". Brahms repaid Schumann's friendship by caring for his wife Clara (1819-1896), a piano virtuoso in her own right, when Schumann suffered a nervous breakdown in 1854. Brahms returned to Düsseldorf to support Clara. The relationship was an ambiguous one, and there may have been nothing more than good friendship, but Brahms fell in love, as attested by his letters. Schumann died in 1856, and Clara and Brahms remained close for the rest of their lives, Brahms spending summers near Clara's home in the fashionable resort of Baden-Baden in southwest Germany from 1865 to 1874.
Character & Appearance
Brahms was not an easy character to get along with. The music historian C. Schonberg notes that the composer was:
…an uncompromising personality. Prickly, tough, ultrasensitive, cynical, bad-tempered…He never had any hesitation speaking his mind, and sometimes his comments could be brutally contemptuous…Even Brahms's closest friends could be impaled on the spike of Brahms's testiness.
According to one legend, Brahms once exclaimed as he left a room full of people in Vienna: "If I haven't offended someone here, I apologise!" (Hayes). The historian D. Arnold notes that it is difficult "to explain why he possessed so many friends; for he was gruff, often to the point of rudeness" (254). Brahms once said, "I am a severely melancholic person…black wings are constantly flapping above us" (Hayes). The composer was certainly generous to those he admired, and he financially helped out friends from his younger days in Hamburg and elsewhere.
Another peculiarity of the composer was his appearance. He wore old clothes, which were often repaired since he disliked buying new ones. He wore a long beard when in middle age, walked with a stoop and hands behind his back, carried a hat but seldom wore it, and only rarely did he not have a cigar in his mouth. He lived simply, preferring to eat in the cheap restaurants he had become accustomed to in his youth, while his favourite drinks were coffee and beer. His single indulgence was collecting rare musical manuscripts. Brahms was not one for snobbery and empty honours. During his career, the composer was twice offered an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University and once by the University of Breslau, but he refused to attend the ceremonies. He did, though, accept the Freedom of Hamburg in 1889.
Detmold to Vienna
In 1857, Brahms premiered two serenades in the ducal court of Detmold (capital of the small principality of Lippe), where he had been appointed the musical director of the choir and orchestra. The composer had time to regularly return to his native Hamburg, where he initially concentrated on choral works which were performed by the female choir he created there. After missing out on the position of conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic Society, Brahms decided to move on. Another reason for a change of scene was the breakdown of his brief engagement to the soprano singer Agathe von Siebold; it seems that Brahms had shied away from being tied down by marriage.
Brahms' First Piano Concerto, which he had been working on for some years, received its premiere in Hanover in 1859. The work is complex, even heavy and overly serious, and critics disliked Brahms' subservience of the piano to the role of the orchestra. As with many of Brahms' works, though, time would tell and the concerto remains one of the most popular today. What it did show at the time was here was a composer of serious talent but one who would not bend to anyone's will or taste but his own.
Brahms saw himself as a continuance of the traditional music of the German composers, which included such titans as Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). He certainly publicly distanced himself from what some called the "New German School", which included such composers as Liszt and Richard Wagner (1813-1883). This may explain the rejection of Brahms' works by the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel. In reality, Brahms was not all that traditional, and his identification with a conservative approach to music is misleading. Brahms was a traditionalist in that he preferred the established four-movement structure for his symphonies and he worked within recognizable classical forms and the range of instruments in the established classical orchestra (new instruments were being added throughout the 19th century), but his compositions were nevertheless a product of the evolution of music which was ongoing in his lifetime.
In 1863, Brahms moved to Vienna. He was soon appointed the director of the Vienna Singakademie choir, but he gave up the position after only a few months; Brahms was a composer, not an administrator. When his mother became ill in 1864, Brahms returned to Hamburg. The composer's parents separated, and his mother died in January 1865.
In 1868, Brahms returned to Vienna, which he would now make his permanent home. In the same year, he completed his epic Deutsches Requiem. Brahms had been working on this piece since 1857, and it was performed for the first time in Bremen Cathedral and in complete form in Leipzig in February 1869. The success of the Requiem and a contract with the publisher Fritz Simrock gave Brahms the financial independence to give up teaching and devote more time to composing. Brahms also performed in concert tours of Europe in this period, usually in the spring and autumn. 1868 was also the year that he wrote one of his most recorded pieces, popularly known as 'Brahms' Lullaby'. The piece, a gentle, slowed-down waltz, blends German folk poetry with a Viennese love melody. The work was written to honour the birth of his friend Bertha Faber's son.
In 1871, Brahms composed his Triumphlied ('Song of Triumph'), which commemorated Germany's victory in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The work was dedicated to the German Emperor, William I (r. 1871-1888). In 1872, Brahms was appointed the conductor of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde ('Society of the Friends of Music'), a position he held for three seasons until 1875. This meant that Brahms conducted regularly in the new Musikverein (opened in 1870), which is today most famous as the venue of the Vienna New Year's Concert. During his tenure, Brahms often promoted forgotten or unfamiliar baroque music. Brahms' style of conducting had been publicly attacked in an article written by Richard Wagner back in 1869, and, once again, there were murmurings from the critics who disliked Brahms' choice of works. In any case, Brahms preferred to concentrate on making his own music rather than conduct that of others.
In 1876, Brahms completed his First Symphony, a work that had been two decades in the making. The reaction after its premiere in Vienna encouraged Brahms to begin work on his Second Symphony. The First Symphony was even popularly dubbed 'Beethoven's Tenth' (Beethoven composed nine symphonies in his lifetime), but the title, though flattering, is misleading since "the differences between the two composers are greater than the similarities" (Arnold, 253). The Classical Music Encyclopedia notes that the First Symphony carries Brahms's own particular musical vision: "Brahms here recreates vocal music in purely orchestral guise and blends it with Romantic imagery taken from nature (the finale's horn call imitates an Alpine shepherd's horn)" (323).
The Second Symphony took much less time than the First and was completed in 1877. Brahms had by now found his writing rhythm by devoting the summer months to composition. His favourite writing retreat was in southern Austria at Pörtschach am Wörthersee. It was here that Brahms wrote the Second Symphony, Violin Concerto, the G major Violin Sonata, two Rhapsodies, and eight Piano Pieces. After 1880, he spent his next few summers in the spa town of Bad Ischl in Upper Austria, where he continued to compose piano, chamber, and choral works, including the Second Piano Concerto. Brahms seems to have been irresistibly attracted to the combination of water and mountains as other summer stays came later at Wiesbaden in Germany and Hofstetten in Switzerland.
In 1883, Brahms completed his Third Symphony and the Fourth Symphony in 1885. The latter received its premiere in the autumn of 1885 when it was conducted by Hans von Bülow (1830-1894) and played by the Meningen court orchestra. Bülow became a strong supporter of Brahms and helped perpetuate Brahms's international reputation.
In 1890, Brahms declared he would retire from composing, although he did write several more clarinet works after he became a fan of the clarinet virtuoso Richard Mühlfeld (1856-1907). In 1895, the composer was hailed in a festival at Meiningen as one of the three 'Bs' of classical music: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. When his beloved Clara Schumann died in May 1896, Brahms wrote a musical tribute in the form of his Vier ernste Gesänge ('Four Serious Songs') which were written to biblical texts. This was the last composition made by Brahms as his own health rapidly declined.
Brahms' Noted Works
The most famous works by Johannes Brahms, with composition dates noted in brackets, include:
- Four symphonies
- Two piano concertos
- Around 250 songs
- Rinaldo (1868)
- Deutsches Requiem (1868)
- Alto Rhapsody (1869)
- Triumphlied (1871)
- St. Anthony Variations aka Variations on a Theme of Haydn (1873)
- Violin Concerto (1878)
- 21 Hungarian Dances (1879)
- Academic Festival Overture (1880)
- Song of the Fates (1882)
- Double Concerto for Violin and Cello (1887)
- Clarinet Quintet (1891)
- Vier ernste Gesänge (1896)
In addition to the above, Brahms also wrote many other works of chamber music and pieces for solo piano, particularly towards the end of his composing career.
Brahm's Musical Style
Brahms was a great student of earlier music, he collected sheet music from all periods and was more aware of what had gone before in his field than the majority of his contemporaries. He was particularly influenced by Beethoven whose symphonies created models for all that followed. Brahms was also influenced by the lyricism of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and German folk songs. The works of both Schumann and George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) inspired Brahms to produce piano variations on themes by both composers. Brahms also produced orchestral variations based on a work by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), and his fourth Symphony pays homage to Bach in its finale. This eclectic mix of influences resulted in Brahms producing "a powerful new musical synthesis" (Sadie, 271).
Brahms was a composer of Romantic music (1790-1910), which is defined as follows by The New Oxford Companion to Music:
Romanticism emphasized the apparent domination of emotion over reason, of feeling and impulse over form and order…new value was set upon novelty and sensation, upon technical innovation and experiment, and upon the cross-fertilization of ideas from different disciplines, both within and without the arts.
D. Arnold gives the following summary of Brahms' musical style:
Brahms was a lyricist who preferred lengthy melodies which could be worked into sonata form…Brahms is an uniliterary, apolitical thinker in music, whose abstract patterns are sometimes very complex, either in texture (he uses cross-rhythms and dense counterpoint a great deal) or in thematic transformation (his Second Symphony is almost monothematic)…he is interested not so much in effects as in the projection of a melodic or textural idea.
Death & Legacy
In his final year, Brahms suffered from the effects of liver cancer (just as his father had done), and on 3 April 1897, he died in his home of a quarter of a century, number 4 Karlgasse, Vienna. In his home, Brahms had a bust of Beethoven and a picture of Bach above his bed. The third 'B' was buried in the main cemetery of Vienna.
Not only did his own music live on but Brahms also left a noticeable influence on other composers. Brahms had been something of a mentor to the young Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). Brahms had been a member of a competition jury in 1875 which awarded Dvořák first prize for his symphony composition. The German composer had also put in a good word for the Czech with his publisher, which resulted in Dvořák being commissioned some work. The result of this commission was eight orchestral Slavonic Dances and three Slavonic Rhapsodies which were published and became very popular.
Many other composers were influenced by Brahms, including the German Richard Strauss (1864-1949), the Hungarian Béla Bartók (1881-1945), the Austrian Anton Webern (1883-1945), and the Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), who dedicated his six Etudes for piano to Brahms.
Nevertheless, Brahms was really the end of an era in music, what Schonberg describes as "the twilight of Romanticism" (337). Rather, it was the group he had once opposed, spearheaded by Liszt and Wagner, that would dictate the new direction of classical music as it entered the new and more experimental landscapes of the 20th century. In contrast to his status with music historians keen to find the threads of evolution that run through music, Brahms has stood the test of time like few others in regard to public popularity. Brahms' works are still so widely performed that perhaps only Beethoven can stand as his rival in this respect. As Schonberg notes, "considering that great reputations have come and gone, Brahms' record is amazing. Clearly he had something to say to future generations" (322).