Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms ( [joːˈhanəs ˈbʁaːms] ) (May 7, 1833 – April 3, 1897) was a German composer of the Romantic period. He was born in Hamburg and in his later years he settled in Vienna, Austria. Along with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven (see Three Bs), Brahms is often considered among the greatest and most influential composers of all time.


Early years

Brahms's father, Johann Jakob Brahms, came to Hamburg from Schleswig-Holstein, seeking a career as a town musician. He was proficient on several instruments, but found employment mostly playing the horn and double bass. He married Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen, a seamstress, who was seventeen years older than he was. Initially, they lived near the city docks, in the Gängeviertel quarter of Hamburg, for six months before moving to a small house on the Dammtorwall, located on the northern perimeter of Hamburg in the Inner Alster.

Johann Jakob gave his son his first musical training. He studied piano from the age of seven with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel. It is a long-told tale that Brahms was forced in his early teens to play the piano in bars that doubled as brothels; recently Brahms scholar Kurt Hoffman has suggested that this legend is false. Since Brahms himself clearly originated the story, however, some have questioned Hoffman's theory. [Kurt Hoffman, "Johannes Brahms und Hamburg" (Reinbek, 1986) (in German: includes detailed refutation of the traditional story of Brahms playing piano in brothels, using the writings of those who knew the young Brahms, as well as evidence of the Hamburg's close regulation of those places, preventing the employment of children)] [cite journal |last= Swafford|first= Jan |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=2001|month= |title= Did the Young Brahms Play Piano in Waterfront Bars?|journal=19th-century Music |volume= Vol. 24|issue=No. 3|pages= pp. 268–275|id= |url=|accessdate= 2007-10-30|doi= 10.1525/ncm.2001.24.3.268]

For a time, Brahms also learned the cello, although his progress was cut short when his teacher absconded with Brahms' instrument.Fact|date=May 2008 After his early piano lessons with Otto Cossel, Brahms studied piano with Eduard Marxsen, who had studied in Vienna with Ignaz von Seyfried (a pupil of Mozart) and Carl Maria von Bocklet (a close friend of Schubert). The young Brahms gave a few public concerts in Hamburg, but did not become well known as a pianist until he made a concert tour at the age of nineteen. In later life, he frequently took part in the performance of his own works, whether as soloist, accompanist, or participant in chamber music. He was the soloist at the premieres of both his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1859 and his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1881. He conducted choirs from his early teens, and became a proficient choral and orchestral conductor.

Meeting Joachim and Liszt

He began to compose quite early in life, but later destroyed most copies of his first works; for instance, Louise Japha, a fellow-pupil of Marxsen, reported a piano sonata that Brahms had played or improvised at the age of 11. His compositions did not receive public acclaim until he went on a concert tour as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi in April and May 1853. On this tour he met Joseph Joachim at Hanover, and went on to the Court of Weimar where he met Franz Liszt, Peter Cornelius, and Joachim Raff. According to several witnesses of Brahms' meeting with Liszt (at which Liszt performed Brahms' "Scherzo", Op. 4 at sight), Reményi was offended by Brahms' failure to praise Liszt's Sonata in B minor wholeheartedly (Brahms supposedly fell asleep during a performance of the recently composed work), and they parted company shortly afterwards. Brahms later excused himself, saying that he could not help it, having been exhausted by his travels.

Brahms and Schumann

Joachim had given Brahms a letter of introduction to Robert Schumann, and after a walking tour in the Rhineland Brahms took the train to Düsseldorf, and was welcomed into the Schumann family on arrival there. Schumann, amazed by the 20 year-old's talent, published an article entitled "Neue Bahnen" (New Paths) in the October 28, 1853 issue of the journal "Neue Zeitschrift für Musik" alerting the public to the young man who he claimed was "destined to give ideal expression to the times."cite web
title=Robert Schumann's Artikel Neue Bahnen
] This pronouncement was received with some skepticism outside Schumann's immediate circle, and may have increased Brahms' naturally self-critical need to perfect his works and technique. While he was in Düsseldorf, Brahms participated with Schumann and Albert Dietrich in writing a sonata for Joachim; this is known as the "F-A-E Sonata". He became very attached to Schumann's wife, the composer and pianist Clara, fourteen years his senior, with whom he would carry on a lifelong, emotionally passionate, but probably platonic, relationship. Brahms never married, despite strong feelings for several women and despite entering into an engagement, soon broken off, with Agathe von Siebold in Göttingen in 1859. After Schumann's attempted suicide and subsequent confinement in a mental sanatorium near Bonn in February 1854, Brahms was the main intercessor between Clara and her husband, and found himself virtually head of the household.

Detmold and Hamburg

After Schumann's death at the sanatorium in 1856, Brahms divided his time between Hamburg, where he formed and conducted a ladies' choir, and the principality of Detmold, where he was court music-teacher and conductor. He first visited Vienna in 1862, staying there over the winter, and in 1863 was appointed conductor of the Vienna Singakademie. Though he resigned the position the following year and entertained the idea of taking up conducting posts elsewhere, he based himself increasingly in Vienna and soon made his home there. From 1872 to 1875 he was director of the concerts of the Vienna "Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde"; afterwards he accepted no formal position. He declined an honorary doctorate of music from University of Cambridge in 1877, but accepted one from the University of Breslau in 1879, and composed the "Academic Festival Overture" as a gesture of appreciation.

He had been composing steadily throughout the 1850s and 60s, but his music had evoked divided critical responses and the Piano Concerto No. 1 had been badly received in some of its early performances. His works were labelled old-fashioned by the 'New German School' whose principal figures included Liszt and Richard Wagner. Brahms admired some of Wagner's music and admired Liszt as a great pianist, but the conflict between the two schools, known as the War of the Romantics, soon embroiled all of musical Europe. In the Brahms camp were his close friends: Clara Schumann, the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick and the leading Viennese surgeon Theodor Billroth. In 1860 Brahms attempted to organize a public protest against some of the wilder excesses of their music.Fact|date=January 2007 His manifesto, which was published prematurely with only three supporting signatures, was a failure and he never engaged in public polemics again.

Years of popularity

It was the premiere of "Ein deutsches Requiem", his largest choral work, in Bremen in 1868 that confirmed Brahms' European reputation and led many to accept that he had fulfilled Schumann's prophecy. This may have given him the confidence finally to complete a number of works that he had wrestled with over many years, such as the cantata "Rinaldo", his first string quartet, third piano quartet, and most notably his first symphony. This appeared in 1876, though it had been begun (and a version of the first movement seen by some of his friends) in the early 1860s. The other three symphonies then followed in 1877, 1883, and 1885. From 1881 he was able to try out his new orchestral works with the court orchestra of the Duke of Meiningen, whose conductor was Hans von Bülow.

Brahms frequently traveled, for both business (concert tours) and pleasure. From 1878 onwards he often visited Italy in the springtime, and usually sought out a pleasant rural location in which to compose during the summer. He was a great walker and especially enjoyed spending time in the open air, where he felt that he could think more clearly.

In 1889, one Theo Wangemann, a representative of American inventor Thomas Edison visited the composer in Vienna and invited him to make an experimental recording. He played an abbreviated version of his first Hungarian dance on the piano. The recording was later issued on an LP of early piano performances (compiled by Gregor Benko); while the spoken introduction to the short piece of music is quite clear, the piano playing is largely inaudible due to heavy surface noise. Nevertheless, this remains the earliest recording made by a major composer. Analysts and scholars remain divided, however, as to whether the voice that introduces the piece is that of Wangemann or of Brahms. [YouTube|BZXL3I7GPCY|J. Brahms plays excerpt of Hungarian Dance No. 1 (2:10)]

In 1889 Brahms was named an honorary citizen of Hamburg, until 1948 the only one born in Hamburg. [ [ Stadt Hamburg Ehrenbürger] de icon Retrieved on June 17, 2008]

Later years

In 1890, the 57 year-old Brahms resolved to give up composing. However, as it turned out, he was unable to abide by his decision, and in the years before his death he produced a number of acknowledged masterpieces. His admiration for Richard Mühlfeld, clarinetist with the Meiningen orchestra, moved him to compose the Clarinet Trio Op. 114, Clarinet Quintet Op. 115 (1891), and the two Clarinet Sonatas Op. 120 (1894). He also wrote several cycles of piano pieces, Opp. 116-119, the Four Serious Songs ("Vier ernste Gesänge"), Op. 121 (1896), and the Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ, Op. 122 (1896).

While completing the Op. 121 songs, Brahms developed cancer (sources differ on whether this was of the liver or pancreas). His condition gradually worsened and he died on April 3, 1897. Brahms is buried in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna.

Music of Brahms


Brahms wrote a number of major works for orchestra, including two serenades, four symphonies, two piano concertos (No. 1 in D minor; No. 2 in B flat major), a Violin Concerto, a Double Concerto for violin and cello, and two orchestral overtures, the Academic Festival Overture and the Tragic Overture.

His large choral work "Ein deutsches Requiem" ("A German Requiem") is not a setting of the liturgical "Missa pro defunctis", but a setting of texts which Brahms selected from the Lutheran Bible. The work was composed in three major periods of his life. An early version of the second movement was first composed in 1854, not long after Robert Schumann's attempted suicide, and this was later used in his first piano concerto. The majority of the Requiem was composed after his mother's death in 1865. The fifth movement was added after the official premiere in 1868, and the work was published in 1869.

Brahms' works in variation form include the "Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel" and the "Paganini Variations", both for solo piano, and the "Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn" in versions for two pianos and for orchestra. The final movement of the Fourth Symphony (Op. 98) is formally a passacaglia.

His chamber works include three string quartets, two string quintets and two string sextets, a clarinet quintet, a clarinet trio, a horn trio, a piano quintet, three piano quartets and four piano trios (the fourth being "opus posthumous"). He composed several instrumental sonatas with piano, including three for violin, two for cello and two for clarinet (which were subsequently arranged for viola by the composer). His solo piano works range from his early piano sonatas and ballades to his late sets of character pieces. Brahms was a significant Lieder composer, who wrote over 200 songs. His chorale preludes for organ op. 122, which he wrote shortly before his death, have become an important part of the organist's repertoire.

Brahms strongly preferred writing absolute music that does not refer to an explicit scene or narrative, and he never wrote an opera or a symphonic poem.

Despite his reputation as a serious composer of large, complex musical structures, some of Brahms' most widely known and most commercially successful compositions during his life were small-scale works of popular intent aimed at the thriving contemporary market for domestic music-making; indeed, during the 20th century the influential American critic B. H. Haggin, rejecting more mainstream views, argued in his various guides to recorded music that Brahms was at his best in such works and much less successful in larger forms. Among the most cherished of these lighter works by Brahms are his sets of popular dances—the Hungarian Dances, the "Waltzes" Op. 39 for piano duet, and the "Liebeslieder Waltzes" for vocal quartet and piano—and some of his many songs, notably the "Wiegenlied", Op. 49 No. 4 (published in 1868). This last was written (to a folk text) to celebrate the birth of a son to Brahms' friend Bertha Faber and is universally known as "Brahms' Lullaby".

tyle and influences

Brahms maintained a Classical sense of form and order in his works – in contrast to the opulence of the music of many of his contemporaries. Thus many admirers (though not necessarily Brahms himself) saw him as the champion of traditional forms and "pure music," as opposed to the New German embrace of program music.

Brahms venerated Beethoven: in the composer's home, a marble bust of Beethoven looked down on the spot where he composed, and some passages in his works are reminiscent of Beethoven's style. The main theme of the finale of Brahms's First Symphony is reminiscent of the main theme of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth, and when this resemblance was pointed out to Brahms he replied that any ass – "jeder Esel" – could see that.

"Ein deutsches Requiem" was partially inspired by his mother's death in 1865, but also incorporates material from a Symphony he started in 1854, but abandoned following Schumann's suicide attempt. He once wrote that the Requiem "belonged to Schumann". The first movement of this abandoned Symphony was re-worked as the first movement of the First Piano Concerto.

Brahms also loved the Classical composers Mozart and Haydn. He collected first editions and autographs of their works, and edited performing editions. He also studied the music of pre-classical composers, including Giovanni Gabrieli, Johann Adolph Hasse, Heinrich Schütz and especially Johann Sebastian Bach. His friends included leading musicologists, and with Friedrich Chrysander he edited an edition of the works of François Couperin. He looked to older music for inspiration in the arts of strict counterpoint; the themes of some of his works are modelled on Baroque sources, such as Bach's The Art of Fugue in the fugal finale of Cello Sonata No. 1, or the same composer's Cantata No. 150 in the passacaglia theme of the Fourth Symphony's "finale".

The early Romantic composers also had a major influence on Brahms, particularly Schumann who encouraged Brahms as a young composer. Brahms often met Robert and Clara Schumann. During his stay in Vienna in 1862-3, Brahms became particularly interested in the music of Franz Schubert.James Webster, "Schubert's sonata form and Brahms' first maturity (II)", "19th-century Music" 3(1) (1979), pp. 52-71.] The latter's influence may be identified in works by Brahms dating from the period, such as the two piano quartets Op. 25 & Op. 26, and the Piano Quintet which alludes to Schubert's String Quintet and Grand Duo for piano four hands. [Donald Francis Tovey, "Franz Schubert" (1927), rpt. in "Essays and Lectures on Music" (London, 1949), p. 123. Cf. his similar remarks in "Tonality in Schubert" (1928), rpt. ibid., p. 151.] There is less evidence for influence of Chopin and Mendelssohn on Brahms, although occasionally one can find in his works what seems to be an allusion to one of their works (for example, Brahms' Scherzo Op. 4 alludes to Chopin's Scherzo in B-flat minor; [Charles Rosen, "Influence: plagiarism and inspiration", "19th-century Music" 4(2) (1980), pp. 87-100.] the scherzo movement in Brahms' piano sonata in F minor, Op. 5 alludes to the finale of Mendelssohn's piano trio in C minor [H. V. Spanner, "What is originality?", "The Musical Times" 93(1313) (1952), pp. 310-311.] ).

Brahms considered giving up composition when it seemed that other composers' innovations in extended tonality would result in the rule of tonality being broken altogether. Although Wagner became fiercely critical of Brahms as the latter grew in stature and popularity, he was enthusiastically receptive of the early Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel; Brahms himself, according to many sources (Swafford, 1999), deeply admired Wagner's music, confining his ambivalence only to the dramaturgical precepts of Wagner's theory.

Brahms wrote settings for piano and voice of 144 German folk songs, and many of his lieder reflect folk themes or depict scenes of rural life. His "Hungarian dances" were among his most profitable compositions.

Although Brahms' religious views are not clear, one of his greatest influences was the Bible. He read especially Luther's translation. His "Requiem" employs biblical texts to convey a humanist message, and focus on the living rather than the dead. Author Walter Niemann declared, "The fact that Brahms began his creative activity with the German folk song and closed with the Bible reveals...the true religious creed of this great man of the people." Others see Brahms as more of a cultural Lutheran who embraced the cultural aspects of his upbringing but may or may not have adopted the religious beliefs. [Beller-McKenna, Daniel. "Brahms and the German Spirit." Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2004, ISBN 0-674-01318-2]

Writing in The New Oxford Companion to Music, Denis Arnold concludes, '...his appeal to musicians lies in the quality of his craftsmanship. His wider appeal surely lies in the essential conflict between the depth of emotion so often evident yet hidden behind his natural reserve. ...'


Brahms point of view looked both backward and forward; his output was often bold in its harmony and expression, prompting Arnold Schoenberg to write an essay "Brahms the Progressive" in 1933, which paved the way for a re-evaluation of Brahms's reputation in the 20th century. Schoenberg went so far as to orchestrate one of Brahms's piano quartets. Brahms offered substantial encouragement to Schoenberg's teacher Alexander Zemlinsky, and was apparently impressed by two movements of Schoenberg's early Quartet in D major which Zemlinsky showed him.

Brahms was honoured by the German Hall of Fame, the Walhalla temple. On 14 September 2000 he was introduced there as 126th "rühmlich ausgezeichneter Teutscher" and 13th composer among them, by a bust of sculptor Milan Knobloch. [cite web|url=|title=Johannes Brahms hält Einzug in die Walhalla|publisher=Bayerisches Staatsministerium für Wissenschaft, Forschung und Kunst|date=2000-09-14|accessdate=2008-04-23]


Like Beethoven, Brahms was fond of nature and often went walking in the woods around Vienna. He often brought penny candy with him to hand out to children. To adults Brahms was often brusque and sarcastic, and he sometimes alienated other people. His pupil Gustav Jenner wrote, "Brahms has acquired, not without reason, the reputation for being a grump, even though few could also be as lovable as he. [ [ Brahms as Man, Teacher, and Artist ] ] " He also had predictable habits which were noted by the Viennese press such as his daily visit to his favourite "Red Hedgehog" tavern in Vienna and the press also particularly took into account his style of walking with his hands firmly behind his back complete with a caricature of him in this pose walking alongside a red hedgehog. Those who remained his friends were very loyal to him, however, and he reciprocated with equal loyalty and generosity.

Brahms was a lifelong friend with Johann Strauss II though they were very different as composers. Brahms even struggled to get to the Theater an der Wien in Vienna for the premiere of Strauss' operetta Die Göttin der Vernunft in 1897 before his death. Perhaps the greatest tribute that Brahms could pay to Strauss was his remark that he would have given anything to have written "The Blue Danube" waltz. An anecdote dating around the time Brahms became acquainted with Strauss is that when Strauss' wife Adele asked Brahms to autograph her fan, he wrote a few notes from the "Blue Danube" waltz, and then cheekily inscribed the words "Alas, not by Brahms!"

Starting in the 1860s, when his works sold widely, Brahms was financially quite successful. He preferred a modest life style, however, living in a simple three-room apartment with a housekeeper. He gave away much of his money to relatives, and anonymously helped support a number of young musicians.

Brahms was an extreme perfectionist. He destroyed many early works - including a Violin Sonata he performed with Reményi and violinist Ferdinand David - and once claimed to have destroyed 20 string quartets before he issued his official First in 1873. Over the course of several years, he changed an original project for a Symphony in D minor into a piano concerto, his first. In another instance of devotion to detail, he labored over the official First Symphony for almost fifteen years, from about 1861 to 1876. Even after its first few performances, Brahms destroyed the original slow movement and substituted another before the score was published. (A conjectural restoration of the original slow movement has been published by Robert Pascall.) Another factor that contributed to Brahms' perfectionism was that Schumann had announced early on that Brahms was to become the next great composer like Beethoven, a prediction that Brahms was determined to live up to. This prediction hardly added to the composer's self-confidence, and may have contributed to the delay in producing the First Symphony. However, Clara Schumann noted before that Brahms' First Symphony was a product that was not reflective of Brahms' real nature. She felt that the final exuberant movement was "too brilliant," as she was encouraged by the dark and tempestuous opening movement she had seen in an early draft. However, she recanted in accepting the Second Symphony, which has often been seen in modern times as one of his sunniest works. Other contemporaries, however, found the first movement especially dark, and Reinhold Brinkmann, in a study of Symphony No.2 in relation to 19th century ideas of melancholy, has published a revealing letter from Brahms to the composer and conductor Vinzenz Lachner in which Brahms confesses to the melancholic side of his nature and comments on specific features of the movement that reflect this.


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  • Further reading

    * "Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters", ISBN 0-19-816234-0 by Brahms himself, edited by Styra Avins, translated by Josef Eisinger (1998). A biography by way of comprehensive footnotes to a comprehensive collection of Brahms' letters (some translated into English for the first time). Elucidates some previously contentious matters, such as Brahms' reasons for declining the Cambridge invitation.
    * "Brahms, His Life and Work", by Karl Geiringer, photographs by Irene Geiringer (1987, ISBN 0-306-80223-6). A biog and discussion of his musical output, supplemented by and cross-referenced with the body of correspondence sent "to" Brahms.
    *Charles Rosen discusses a number of Brahms's imitations of Beethoven in Chapter 9 of his "Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New" (2000; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-17730-4).
    *"Brahms" by Malcolm MacDonald is a biography and also discussion of virtually everything Brahms composed, along with chapters examining his position in Romantic music, his devotion to Early Music, and his influence on later composers. (Dent 'Master Musicians' series, 1990; 2nd edition Oxford, 2001, ISBN 0-19-816484-X
    * "Johannes Brahms: A Biography", by Jan Swafford. A comprehensive (752 pages) look at the life and works of Brahms. (1999; Vintage, ISBN 0-679-74582-3)
    * "Late Idyll: The Second Symphony of Johannes Brahms", by Reinhold Brinkmann, translated by Peter Palmer. An analysis of Symphony No.2 and meditation of its position in Brahms' career and in relation to 19th century ideas of melancholy. (1995, Harvard, ISBN 0-674-51175-1)


    External links

    * [ "What's late about late Brahms?"] : an article in the [ TLS] by Peter Williams, November 7 2007
    * [ The Voice of Brahms] Dead link|date=January 2008 |url= and [ Brahms at the Piano] . Information about the recording made by Thomas Edison in 1889 of Brahms playing part of his Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor.
    * [ Johannes Brahms: list of works] from
    * [ Program notes] on Brahms's First Symphony by Michael Steinberg
    * [ Orchestral arrangement of Intermezzo from Six Piano Pieces Op 118 No 2.(also link to Opus 118 no 4)]
    * [ Photo of Brahms as a young man in 1853]

    Sheet music
    * [ Brahms's Complete Piano Works] dead link|date=August 2008 Free Public Domain Scores in PDF
    * [] Brahms' piano works
    *Free scores of Brahms' [ Lieder] and [ orchestral works] in GIF format from the [ Variations Project] at Indiana University. Last accessed 2008-08-14.

    * [ Free audio MP3 of some Brahms' works] OnClassical - Creative Commons BY-NC-SA, 1.0 - licensed
    * [ Johannes Brahms - Violin Sonatas] MP3 Creative Commons Recording
    * Kunst der Fuge: [ Johannes Brahms - MIDI files] Daily limit of 5 files.
    * [ Brahms cylinder recordings] , from the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara Library.
    * [ Works by Brahms performed on virtual organs]
    *Performances of works by Johannes Brahms in MIDI and MP3 formats at [ Logos Virtual Library]

    NAME= Brahms, Johannes
    SHORT DESCRIPTION= Composer, Conductor, Pianist
    DATE OF BIRTH= birth date|1833|5|7|mf=y
    PLACE OF BIRTH=Hamburg, Germany
    DATE OF DEATH= death date|1897|4|3|mf=y
    PLACE OF DEATH= Vienna, Austria

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