Johannes Brahms

The German composer, pianist, and conductor Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was one of the most significant composers of the 19th century. His works greatly enriched the romantic repertory.

Johannes Brahms stands midway between the conservative purveyors of the classic tradition, that is, the imitators of Felix Mendelssohn, and the so-called musicians of the future such as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. Brahms infused the traditional forms with romantic melody and harmony, respecting the inheritance of the past but making it relevant to his own age. His position of moderation effected a necessary balance in the creative output of the romantic century and led to high critical esteem by his contemporaries.

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833, the son of Johann Jakob and Christina Nissen Brahms. The father, an innkeeper and a musician of moderate ability, earned a precarious living for his family of five. Johannes received his first music instruction from his father.

At the age of seven Johannes began studying piano. He played a private subscription concert at the age of 10 to obtain funds for his future education. He also learned theory and composition and began to improvise compositions at the piano. To help out with family finances, Brahms played the piano in sailors' haunts and local dance salons. This contact with the seamier side of life may have conditioned his lifelong revulsion from physical intimacy with the women he idealized and loved.


Early Works

The late hours proved taxing to the 14-year-old boy and impaired his health. Brahms was offered a long recuperative holiday at Winsen-an-der-Luhe, where he conducted a small male choir for whom he wrote his first choral compositions. On his return to Hamburg he gave several concerts, but, failing to win recognition, he continued to play at humble places of amusement, gave inexpensive piano lessons, and began the hackwork of arranging popular music for piano.

In 1850 Brahms became acquainted with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi, who introduced him to the rich tradition of gypsy dance tunes that were to be influential in his mature compositions. In the next few years Brahms composed several works for piano that are still in the repertoire: the Scherzo in E-flat Minor (1851), the Sonata in F-sharp Minor (1852), and the Sonata in C Major (1853). Reményi and Brahms embarked on several successful concert tours in 1853. At Hanover they met one of the greatest German violinists, Joseph Joachim, who arranged for them to play before the King of Hanover and gave them an introduction to Liszt at Weimar. Joachim also wrote a glowing letter to Robert Schumann expressing his enthusiasm for the young composer.

The next move was obviously to visit Weimar, where Liszt received them warmly and was greatly impressed with Brahms's compositions. Liszt hoped to recruit him for his coterie of composers, but Brahms could not adapt to the superficiality of Liszt's music. Although no open breach occurred, the two musicians did draw apart.


Friendship with the Schumanns

In 1853 Brahms wrote the Piano Sonata in F Minor. Later that year he met Schumann and his wife, Clara, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. Schumann's enthusiasm for the young composer knew no bounds. In a long article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Schumann wrote of him, "I thought that someone would have to appear suddenly who was called upon to utter the highest expression of his time in an ideal manner…." Schumann also arranged for Brahm's first compositions to be published. During 1854 he wrote the Piano Trio No. 1, the Variations on a Theme of Schumann for piano, and the Ballades for piano.

Brahms was summoned to Düsseldorf in 1854, when Schumann had a mental breakdown and attempted suicide. For the next few years he stayed close to the Schumanns, assisting Clara in whatever way he could and remaining near her even after Schumann's death in 1856. To earn his living, he taught piano privately but also spent some time on concert tours. Two concerts given with the singer Julius Stockhausen served to establish Brahms as an important song composer.

In 1857 Brahms went to the court of Lippe-Detmold, where he taught the piano to Princess Friederike and conducted the choral society. Many of his folk-song arrangements were made for this choir. During the summer he went to Göttingen to be near Clara Schumann, for whose children he also arranged several folk songs. There can be no question but that he was in love with Clara, 14 years older than he, but either her wisdom prevailed and the idyllic relationship terminated or Brahms suffered from his lifelong inability to consummate his love for a woman he idealized. Whatever the reason, it speaks well for both of them that love was replaced by a warm friendship that lasted to Clara's death. While at Göttingen he became passionately interested in the soprano Agatha von Siebold, but this romance, although it brought him nearer to marriage than any other, soon terminated.


Works of the Middle Years

Brahms's Piano Concerto in D Minor (1858) was performed the next year with Joachim conducting at Hanover, Leipzig, and Hamburg. Only in Hamburg was it favorably received. During the Lippe-Detmold period Brahms produced the two Serenades for small orchestra, an evocation of an 18th-century form. He was also appointed conductor of a ladies' choir in Hamburg, for whom he wrote the Marienlieder.

In 1860 Brahms became enraged at the propaganda that the avant-garde theories of the "New German" school headed by Liszt were being accepted by all musicians of consequence and took part in a press manifesto against this group of musicians. During this period Brahms moved to Hamburg and buried himself in compositional activities with frequent public appearances sandwiched in. In the year of the manifesto he completed the Sextet for Strings in B-flat Major and the Variations on an Original Theme for piano, performed by Clara Schumann; the next year, the Piano Quartets in G Minor and A Major and the well-known Variations on a Theme of Handel for piano.

In 1862 his friend Stockhausen was appointed conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic and the Singakadamie. Although Brahms was happy for his friend, he deeply resented being passed over for these important posts. He became more and more attracted to Vienna, and in 1863 he gave a concert there to introduce his songs to the Austrian public. They were well received, especially by the critic Eduard Hanslick, with whom Brahms became a fast friend. Brahms also met Wagner at this time, and, although the famous manifesto of 1860 made relations between the two composers difficult, each was still on occasion able to admire some things in the other's work.

In 1863 Brahms became conductor of the Singakademie in Vienna. A year later he resigned, but for the rest of his life Vienna was home to him. He began to do what he had always wished—to make composing the main source of his income—and as his fame and popularity grew, he composed more and more with only some occasional teaching and performing. In Baden-Baden in 1864 on a visit to Clara Schumann, he wrote the Piano Quintet in F Minor, and a year later the Horn Trio in E-flat Major.

In 1865 Brahms's mother, long estranged from her husband, died. During the next year he worked on the German Requiem in her memory.

The next years saw a proliferation of activity as a composer. His most important publications were the Variations on a Theme of Paganini for piano, the String Sextet in G Major, and several song collections. It is not always possible to date Brahms's compositions exactly because of his penchant for revising a work or adding to it frequently. Thus, the German Requiem, practically finished in 1866, was not published in its final form until 1869 and given its first complete performance that year. Yet some of the germinal material used in the Requiem dates back to the period around Schumann's final illness and death. The year 1869 also witnessed the composition of the Liebeslieder Waltzes for piano duet and vocal quartet and the Alto Rhapsody for contralto, male chorus, and orchestra, as well as the publication of his Hungarian Dances for piano duet.


Late Masterpieces

Brahms's father died in 1872. After a short holiday at Baden-Baden, Brahms accepted the post of artistic director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Friends of Music) in Vienna. Imposing masterpieces continued to pour from his pen. In 1873 came the Variations on a Theme of Haydn in two versions, one for orchestra and the other for two pianos; the String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2; and the Songs, Op. 59. The next year produced the Piano Quartet No. 3; the Songs, Op. 63; and the Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes. Against this background of activity the details of his everyday life seem trivial. He composed, went on concert tours chiefly to foster his own music, and took long holidays.

During his earlier years Brahms had helped support both his mother and father. Now with that obligation over and with money coming in from all sides, he was exceedingly well off financially and could do as he pleased. He resigned the conductorship of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in 1875, for even those duties were onerous to him. That summer he worked on his Symphony No. 1 and sketched the Symphony No. 2.

In 1880 the University of Breslau offered Brahms a doctorate, in appreciation of which he wrote the Academic Festival Overture and, for good measure, the companion Tragic Overture. During the intervening years he had discovered Italy, and for the rest of his life he vacationed there frequently. Vacations for Brahms meant composing, and masterpiece now followed masterpiece: the Violin Concerto in D Major (1878), the Violin Sonata in G Major (1879), the two Rhapsodies for piano (1880), the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major (1881), the Symphony No. 3 (1883), and the Symphony No. 4 (1884). These are the highlights of years filled with innumerable other compositions and publications.

Much of the credit for the universal acceptance of Brahms's orchestral works was due to the activities of their great interpreter, Hans von Bülow, who had transferred his allegiance from the Liszt-Wagner camp to Brahms. In the composer's works he felt the logical continuation of the Beethoven tradition to be manifest, and Bülow lavished tremendous energy in seeing that these compositions received properly executed performances.

In his later works Brahms showed an austerity that is in a sense a reflection of his own growing inwardness. Always self-critical and impatient with insincerity, he now translated this reserve into the sparseness and restraint of his own compositions. This can be observed in the sonatas for various instrumental combinations written in 1886, the Concerto for Violin and Cello (1887), and the Violin and Piano Sonata No. 3 (1888).

His native Hamburg gave Brahms the keys to the city in 1889. As a thank offering, he composed the Deutsche Festund Gedenksprüche for eight-part chorus. He also became acquainted with the superb clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, for whom he wrote his exquisite clarinet works. They performed these compositions all over Germany.

When he was about 60 years old, Brahms began to age rapidly and the range of his production was noticeably reduced. He often spoke of having arrived at the end of his creative activity. Nonetheless, the works of this last period are awesome in their grandeur and concentration, and the last of his published works, the Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), are among the high points of his creativity.

Brahms's already precarious health was impaired even further by the news of the death of Clara Schumann in 1896. On April 3, 1897, he died, ravaged by cancer of the liver. He was buried next to Beethoven and Schubert, honored by all Vienna and the entire musical world.


Further Reading on Johannes Brahms

A full treatment of Brahms's works is in Edwin Evans, Historical, Descriptive and Analytical Account of the Entire Works of Johannes Brahms (4 vols., 1912-1936). For personal reminiscences of Brahms see Florence May, The Life of Johannes Brahms (2 vols., 1905; new ed. 1948), and George Henschel, Personal Recollections of Johannes Brahms (1907). The best general work on Brahms is Karl Geiringer, Brahms: His Life and Work (1936; rev. ed. 1947). Also very useful is the short work in the Master Musicians Series by Peter Latham, Brahms (1948). Daniel Gregory Mason, From Grieg to Brahms: Studies of Some Modern Composers and Their Art (1921; rev. ed. 1927), gives historical background.