JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Early days: Johannes Brahms was born on 7 May 1833 in Hamburg, Germany, the son of an orchestral string bass player, Johann Jakob Brahms. His mother’s maiden name was Christiane Nissen, a skilled seamstress, who was 17 years younger than her husband. Brahms’ parents married in 1830. Johannes Brahms was the second child, with an older sister, Elise, and a younger brother, Fritz. His father learned to play several instruments, and earned a living playing in local dance halls. In childhood, Johannes was taught to play the violin by his father, the piano by Otto Cossel from the age of 7, and composition by Eduard Marxsen from the age of 12. He made his piano playing debut at the age of ten. The family was poor, and in order to help financially, from the age of 13, young Brahms earned his living by playing at theatres and festivities, and in taverns and more seedy establishments on the rougher side of Hamburg (known as "adulterers' wharf").
The beginnings of his musical career: He made his public début as a pianist in Hamburg in September 1848. By the age of 16, he was performing throughout Europe as a concert pianist. During his concert tours, Brahms met many famous musicians and composers who recognized his outstanding musical talent. In 1853 he accompanied the Hungarian violin virtuoso, Reményi, on a concert tour. While in Hanover, he became a friend of the great violinist, Joseph Joachim, (who remained a life long friend and musical colleague) who was impressed by the young Brahms’ compositions. Joachim gave him a letter of introduction to meet Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. Schumann, as well as being an accomplished composer, was the editor of a major German music journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Schumann was so impressed with Brahms that he proclaimed him as a genius in his famous article: "Neue Bahnen" (New Paths) in the October 1853 edition of the journal. This glowing report catapulted Brahms into the public arena. Robert, and his famous pianist/composer wife Clara Schumann, decided to allow Brahms, age 20, to take up residence with them in their home in Düsseldorf. In 1854, however, Brahms moved away to become Director of Court Concerts and Choral Society for the Prince of Lippe-Detmold. In February 1854 Robert Schumann attempted suicide, and Brahms returned to Düsseldorf. Schumann spent the next two years and 5 months in a mental asylum. During this time, Brahms helped with household chores and visited Robert Schumann regularly in the asylum. Robert Schumann died at the age of 46, in July 1856. The following shows a picture of the young Brahms and Clara Schumann.
Personal life: After the death of Robert Schumann, Brahms continued his friendship with Clara, and remained at the Schumann home, while taking up the family’s financial burdens until Clara Schumann was able to cope by a resumption of her piano-playing career. Such was his devotion that this involved a temporary suspension of his professional career. Clara was one of the 19th Century’s most gifted pianists, and a competent composer, and Brahms eventually fell in love with her. He remained a bachelor all of his life, although he had several romances with others. This love for Clara later mellowed into veneration of her, and they remained very close friends and musical colleagues until their deaths in the 1890’s. They used to write to each other regularly, and to meet occasionally, and scarcely would Brahms compose a piece of music without consulting Clara over it. It was not long before Clara realised that some of his music was dedicated to her, in the same way that much of her deceased husband’s music was also dedicated to her. Despite persistent rumours of an even closer relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann, it being one of the major scandals in the musical world for a time, there is no reason to believe that Clara was unfaithful and she remained devoted to her deceased husband, Robert. She was undoubtedly one of the 19 th Century's greatest piano performers, and majored on the works of Schumann and Brahms in her highly regarded European-wide concert performances.
Resumption of career: In 1857 Clara moved to Berlin, and Brahms returned to Hamburg where he worked as the court pianist, chamber musician, and Conductor of the Court Choir. In 1860 he signed a famous manifesto opposing the ‘new music’ methods adopted by Franz Liszt and his followers, and thereafter Brahms was in the vanguard of opposition to the Wagnerian school in German music. He later applied for the post of conductor in Hamburg but was rejected.
Move to Vienna 1862: Vienna was the city of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and it attracted Brahms who first moved there in 1862 on a semi-permanent basis. He later travelled to other cities but finally settled in Vienna in 1868, where he lived for most of the following 29 years. He conducted the Vienna Singakademie during the 1863-4 season. In 1865 his mother died, and in 1872 his father too. In 1872 he succeeded Rubinstein as the artistic director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, holding this post until 1875 when he resigned. Thereafter, he did not hold any official posts, in order that he could be in a position to dedicate himself completely to composing and touring as a concert pianist.
Personality/life-style: He was a touchy individual at times, and some thought of him as rather prickly. He liked his privacy and his opinions were precise. However, he was very sociable and had many friends, but never wanted to be the centre of attention. He is said to have dressed shabbily, often in cheap, worn clothing. He lived modestly, content with simple living quarters spending most of his time in a small, three-room lodging in Vienna. He had a favourite tavern, The Red Hedgehog, in Vienna. He grew his beard around 1878. Although Brahms was an atheist, nevertheless he kept a Bible by his bedside.
Conflicts: Brahms was famous for disliking the music of Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner and (to a lesser extent) Mahler. One early incident was when when Brahms fell asleep during Liszt's own performance of his Piano Sonata in B Minor. While he admired Liszt's technical abilities as a pianist, Brahms strongly disapproved of Liszt's music style and what he perceived as the sycophancy of his followers. Many later controversies arose, especially involving Bruckner and Wagner. In this dislike, he was strongly supported by Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim, and the three formed the centrepiece of a triumvirate opposed to progressive "music of the future". They were backed by Eduard Hanslick, famous music critic and journalist of the time, in the so-called "War of the Romantics", resulting in polarisation of the public's views and tastes between the two opposing Brahms and Wagnerian camps. Indeed, such polarisation still exists to some extent today. Some of the much publicised conflicts of the time may have exaggerated the true hostility between the main protagonists, even though the public exchanges were quite heated at times. The only important composer of the late 19th century who really could not stand Brahms’ music (and vice versa), and who stated so very clearly, was Tchaikovsky.
Infuences and Musical coverage: Brahms was essentially a romantic character, and yet he was musically conservative veering much more towards the traditions of Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann than later manifestations of the Romantic era (Liszt, Wagner). He admired both Bach and Robert Schumann, but above all others his great hero was Beethoven. A bust of Beethoven bore down on him in his study. He composed works in every musical genre, except opera. He produced monumental works in all of these areas. In all, he wrote 122 opus numbered works, spanning the period 1851-1896, and several works without opus numbers. These works include four symphonies, two piano concertos, overtures, a violin concerto, a violin and cello concerto, solo work for piano and other instruments, a considerable amount of chamber music including his famous piano quintet, choral works like the German Requiem and almost 200 songs.
Perfectionist: Brahms was a perfectionist in his music. He was a meticulous composer who was rarely satisfied with his work until he had poured over it repeatedly so that it met his exceedingly high standards. For many years he probably suffered a kind of inferiority complex lest he should fail to live up to the great things expected of him in the wake of Schumann’s famous prophesy about him, and, of course, out of Brahms' own deep reverence towards Beethoven. His First Piano Concerto had been a failure at its premiere in Leipzig on 27January 1859, and it was not until nearly 10 years later that he achieved a major success with Ein Deutsches Requiem (i.e. German Requiem). He started work on his First Symphony in the early 1860s (some say even earlier) but it did not appear until 1876, and was not premiered in Vienna, but in Karlsruhe. Brahms felt that Vienna, which at this time worshipped Beethoven, might have found it unacceptable. The premiere actually went quite well, with the main criticism coming from Brahms himself who described his new symphony as "long and not especially amiable." Today, of course, and for many decades, his First Symphony is seen as one of his finest musical creations, indeed, as one of the finest symphonies by any composer of any time. It is sometimes referred to as Beethoven's 10th Symphony.
Style: He despised “programme music,” and wrote only “absolute” music. His study of the music of earlier composers, including those of the Renaissance, added to the more conservative elements of his music. Compared to Beethoven, Brahms' music has a warmer tone. Excellent examples of this warmth are in the final section of the "Alto Rhapsody", in the finale of his Symphony No. 1, the slow movement of the Symphony No. 4, in many parts of the German Requiem, and the famous Piano Quintet Op. 34. Like Beethoven, one of Brahms' chief talents lies in his ability to craft melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and structural functions into a unified whole. His compositions are rich in complexity, be it in form, counterpoint, harmony, or development. Seldom will there be found any rough edges, or carelessness in composition, in any of Brahms' works. His four symphonies are prime examples of how to introduce novel thematic developments within the classical symphony architecture. His numerous chamber music works are masterpieces almost without exception. His four concertos (two for piano, one for violin and one for violin and cello) are indispensable cornerstones of the concerto repertoire. All these qualities combine to make Brahms one of the truly distinctive voices of the late nineteenth century. The pictures below show Brahms at the peak of his composing career, and a further one of Clara Schumann in later life.
Novelty: After Beethoven, it would be difficult to argue that any of Brahms' achievements involved completely new thinking, but he often took this ability to possibly new, higher levels. He was perhaps the consummate master of sonata form. For example, there is little to compare with the masterful first movement of his 4th Symphony. He often turned to older forms of expression, and he was almost certainly one of the greatest masters in writing variations in the piano solo area. His late piano pieces (Ops. 116-119) are some of the greatest short piano pieces of the whole repertoire. In addition, while he could write the most delicately beautiful slow pieces such as these Ops. 116-119, his Variations on a Theme by Paganini (Op. 35) rank alongside a handful of other compositions that can be considered among one of the most challenging, and yet high quality, in the repertoire. One criticism of Brahms, which is sometimes heard, is that he had difficulty writing good music unless it contained a piece for piano. This is not justified as, although he remained devoted to the piano, some of Brahms’ greatest works are for other instruments such as clarinet, violin, cello, horn.
Later Life: In his later life, just as he had earlier helped the Schumanns financially, so he did the same for Dvorák who may not have survived without him. But for this support, the musical world would have been denied the Czech composer's wonderful symphonies and one of the greatest Cello Concertos ever written. In 1889 Brahms was appointed a “Freeman of Hamburg.” By 1890, he had resolved to stop composing and started to abandon uncompleted works. However, he was coaxed out of retirement by the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, and in the period 1891-4 wrote some of his best instrumental pieces including works for clarinet and piano. It has been suggested that his late piano pieces, Ops. 116-119, were kept short so as not to tax too heavily the fragile Clara whose opinions he continued to seek right up to the end of his composing career.
The end: His sister died in 1892, and his brother in 1895. Brahms’ own 4th Symphony was the last major orchestral work of his own that he ever heard. It was included in a concert given 7 May 1896, to mark his sixty-third birthday. The composer attended, but did not conduct, for he was already fatally ill with liver cancer. Clara Schumann – the great love in the life of two superb composers, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms - died on 20 May 1896 after a stroke. Brahms was one of the pallbearers at her funeral. His own death followed 11 months later, age 63, on 3 April 1897. His funeral was a grand affair and he was buried next to both Schubert and Beethoven in the central cemetery, Vienna. He was a shrewd businessman with his music. After his death, he left a large estate worth more than $100,000, most of it from royalties on his published works. This is all the more remarkable since he was a composer who did not achieve great success until after the age of 40. The pictures below of Brahms show him in his study in 1892, and the other is the last one known, taken in 1896.
Legacy: Brahms is one of the true greats of classical music. He continued the style of Beethoven, his most admired predecessor, but added new dimensions of greater polish and more fluidity. Later notable composers influenced by him include Dvorak, Elgar, Mahler, Richard Strauss. Schöenberg professed a veneration regarding Brahms, and in 1947 he wrote a famous article "Brahms the Progressive”, albeit this was probably a disingenuous attempt to demonstrate a link between Brahms' method, and that of the modernists, including Schöenberg himself. The truth is that chronologically, while Brahms lived in the late 1800s, stylistically he clung mainly to the days of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, largely immune to the artistic developments of his own day. The great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler wrote in 1934 “There is little difference between the harmony of Brahms around the 90th year and that of Schubert in the 20th year of the same century”.
My favourite 20 Brahms compositions: in rough order (best first):
1 Symphony 1 Op. 68 – (1876) Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra
2 Piano Quintet Op. 34 – (1864) Van Cliburn/Borodin SQ
3 Symphony 3 Op. 90 – (1883) Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra
4 German Requiem Op. 45 - (1868) Klemperer/Fischer Dieskau, Schwarzkopf
5 Alto Rhapsody Op. 53 - (c. 1874) Sir Adrian Boult/LPO/Dame Janet Baker
6 Piano Concerto No 2 Op. 83 – (1881) Richter/Chicago SO
7 Symphony 4 Op. 98 – (1885) Harnoncourt/BPO
8 Clarinet Quintet Op. 115 – (1891) Ralph Manno
9 Violin & Piano Sonata 3 Op.108 - (c 1888) Anne Sophie Mutter
10 Piano Trio No 2 Op. 87 (1881) Yale String Quartet
11 Piano Concerto No 1 Op. 15 (1859) Gerhard Oppitz/Sir Colin Davis
12 Violin Concerto Op. 77 – (1878) Heifetz/Reiner
13 Academic Festival Overture Op. 80 – (1880) Sir Adrian Boult/LPO
14 Concerto for Violin and Cello Op. 102 – (1887) Heifetz/Reiner
15 Piano Sonata No 3 Op. 5 – (1853) Eric Le Sage
16 Symphony No. 2 Op. 90 – (1883) Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra
17 Variations on a Theme by Haydn Op. 56a – (1873) Giulini/Philharmonia
18 Piano Quartet No 1 Op. 25 – (1861) Rubinstein/Guarneri String Quartet
19 Rhapsody in B Min Op. 79/1 – (1879) Van Cliburn/Favourite Brahms
20 Four Pieces for Piano Op. 119 – (1893) Helene Grimaud[/SIZE]
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