Brahms composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works; he also worked with the leading performers of his time, including the pianist Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim. Many of his works have become staples of the modern concert repertoire. Brahms, an uncompromising perfectionist, destroyed many of his works and left some of them unpublished.
Brahms was at once a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Baroque and Classical masters. He was a master of counterpoint, the complex and highly disciplined method of composition for which Bach is famous, and also of development, a compositional ethos pioneered by Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Beethoven. Brahms aimed to honour the "purity" of these venerable "German" structures and advance them into a Romantic idiom, in the process creating bold new approaches to harmony and melody. While many contemporaries found his music too academic, his contribution and craftsmanship have been admired by subsequent figures as diverse as the progressive Arnold Schoenberg and the conservative Edward Elgar. The diligent, highly constructed nature of Brahms's works was a starting point and an inspiration for a generation of composers.
Brahms's father, Johann Jakob Brahms (1806–72), came to Hamburg from Dithmarschen, seeking a career as a town musician. He was proficient on several instruments, but found employment mostly playing the horn and double bass. In 1830, he married Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen (1789–1865), a seamstress never previously married, who was seventeen years older than he was. Johannes Brahms had an older sister and a younger brother. 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.
Photograph from 1891 of the building in Hamburg where Brahms was born. Brahms's family occupied part of the first floor, behind the two double windows on the left hand side.
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.
For a time, Brahms also learned the cello. 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 conducted choirs from his early teens, and became a proficient choral and orchestral conductor.
Meeting Joachim and Liszt
Brahms in 1853
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's meeting with Liszt (at which Liszt performed Brahms's Scherzo, Op. 4, at sight), Reményi was offended by Brahms's 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." This pronouncement was received with some scepticism outside of Schumann's immediate circle, and may have increased Brahms's 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" (German: Frei aber einsam). 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 was the soloist at the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1859. 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 the Wagnerians' music. This took the form of a manifesto, written by Brahms and Joachim jointly. The 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 A German Requiem, his largest choral work, in Bremen, in 1868, that confirmed Brahms's European reputation and led many to accept that he had conquered Beethoven and the symphony. 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. He was the soloist at the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1881.
Brahms frequently travelled, both for business (concert tours) and pleasure. From 1878 onwards, he often visited Italy in the springtime, and he 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. Brahms 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). Although 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. Several attempts have been made to improve the quality of this historic recording; a "denoised" version was produced at Stanford University which claims to solve the mystery.
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.
His large choral work 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.
His chamber works include three string quartets, two string quintets, 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 published posthumously). 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.
Despite his reputation as a serious composer of large, complex musical structures, some of Brahms's 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's friend Bertha Faber and is universally known as Brahms's Lullaby.
Style 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 programme 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. Brahms's First Symphony bears strongly a homage (or influence) from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as the two works are both in a formidable C Minor, and end in the struggle towards a C Major triumph. The main theme of the finale the First Symphony is also 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. In 1876, when the work was premiered in Vienna, it was immediately hailed as "Beethoven's Tenth".
A German Requiem was partially inspired by his mother's death in 1865 (at which time he composed a funeral march that was to become the basis of Part Two, Denn alles Fleisch), but it also incorporates material from a Symphony which 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.
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 1862–63, Brahms became particularly interested in the music of Franz Schubert. The latter's influence may be identified in works by Brahms dating from the period, such as the two piano quartets Op. 25 and Op. 26, and the Piano Quintet which alludes to Schubert's String Quintet and Grand Duo for piano four hands. 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's Scherzo, Op. 4, alludes to Chopin's Scherzo in B-flat minor; the scherzo movement in Brahms's Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5, alludes to the finale of Mendelssohn's Piano Trio in C minor).
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.
Brahms and religion
Despite Brahms' humanist and sceptical tendencies, it is certain one of his musical influences was the Bible. He was reared to appreciate Luther's translation. His "Requiem" employs biblical texts to convey a humanist message, omitting words about salvation or immortality, and focuses 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." Some biographers and critics, however, 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. When asked by conductor Karl Reinthaler to add additional sectarian text to his "requiem", Brahms responded, "As far as the text is concerned, I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and instead use Human; also with my best knowledge and will I would dispense with passages like John 3:16. On the other hand, I have chosen one thing or another because I am a musician, because I needed it, and because with my venerable authors I can't delete or dispute anything. But I had better stop before I say too much."
There is reason to believe that Brahms was a religious freethinker. Being a star of his age, he would frequently say deceptive things to the public. This means that the most reliable accounts on Brahms's innermost feelings may come from the people in the close circle around him. Among these was the pious Antonín Dvořák, the closest Brahms ever would come to having a protégé. In a letter, Dvořák disclosed his concerns regarding Brahms's religious views: "Such a man, such a fine soul—and he believes in nothing! He believes in nothing!"
The question of Brahms and religiosity has been controversial and elicited accusations of fraud. One example is the book "Talks With Great Composers" by Arthur Abell which contains an unconfirmed interview with Brahms and Joseph Joachim replete with biblical references. The book was released in the 1950s and Brahms biographer Jan Swafford declared the interview fraudulent.
Brahms's point of view looked both backward and forward; his output was often bold in its exploration of harmony and rhythm. As a result, he was an influence on composers of both conservative and modernist tendencies. Within his lifetime, his idiom left an imprint on several composers within his personal circle, who were strong admirers of his music, such as Heinrich von Herzogenberg, Robert Fuchs, and Julius Röntgen, as well as on Gustav Jenner, who was Brahms's only formal composition pupil. Antonín Dvořák, who received substantial assistance from Brahms, deeply admired his music and was influenced by it in several works such as the Symphony No 7 in D minor and the F minor Piano Trio. Features of the 'Brahms style' were absorbed in a more complex synthesis with other contemporary (chiefly Wagnerian) trends by Hans Rott, Wilhelm Berger and Max Reger, whereas the British composers, Hubert Parry and Edward Elgar, and the Swede, Wilhelm Stenhammar, all testified to learning much from Brahms's example. It was Elgar who said, "I look at the Third Symphony of Brahms, and I feel like a pygmy."
Ferruccio Busoni's early music shows much Brahmsian influence, and Brahms took an interest in him, though Busoni later tended to disparage Brahms. Towards the end of his life, Brahms offered substantial encouragement to Ernő Dohnányi and also to Alexander von Zemlinsky. Their early chamber works (and those of Béla Bartók, who was friendly with Dohnányi,) show a thoroughgoing absorption of the Brahmsian idiom. Zemlinsky, moreover, was in turn the teacher of Arnold Schoenberg, and Brahms was apparently impressed by two movements of Schoenberg's early Quartet in D major which Zemlinsky showed him. In 1933, Schoenberg wrote an essay "Brahms the Progressive" (re-written 1947), which drew attention to Brahms's fondness for motivic saturation and irregularities of rhythm and phrase; in his last book (Structural Functions of Harmony, 1948), he analysed Brahms's "enriched harmony" and exploration of remote tonal regions. These efforts 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. Schoenberg's pupil Anton Webern, in his 1933 lectures, posthumously published under the title The Path to the New Music, claimed Brahms as one who had anticipated the developments of the Second Viennese School, and Webern's own Op. 1, an orchestral passacaglia, is clearly in part a homage to, and development of, the variation techniques of the passacaglia-finale of Brahms's Fourth Symphony.
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, with a bust by sculptor Milan Knobloch.
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. " 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 of 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's 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 Danubewaltz. An anecdote dating around the time Brahms became acquainted with Strauss is that when Strauss's 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 had 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 his first piano concerto. In another instance of devotion to detail, he laboured 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's 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's First Symphony was a product that was not reflective of Brahms's 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.
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's letters (some translated into English for the first time). Elucidates some previously contentious matters, such as Brahms's 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
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's career and in relation to 19th century ideas of melancholy. (1995, Harvard, ISBN 0-674-51175-1)
Johannes Brahms, His Work & Personality, by Hans Gal (Translated by Joseph Stein). Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1963.
^ 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)