Brahms is one of the greats of musical history. He had a gift for combining the more complex harmonic practices of the Romantic era with the clear musical structures of the Classical era. Because he composed primarily absolute music (as opposed to the program music that had become so popular in the 19th century) he is considered a more conservative composer. As you read, pay special attention to his interactions with other composers we have studied such as Robert Schumann and Anton Dvorak.
Johannes Brahms (7 May 1833–3 April 1897) was a German composer and pianist. Born in Hamburg into a Lutheran family, Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria. In his lifetime, Brahms’s popularity and influence were considerable. He is sometimes grouped with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the “Three Bs,” a comment originally made by the nineteenth-century conductor Hans von Bülow.
Brahms composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works. He worked with some of the leading performers of his time, including the pianist Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim (the three were close friends). Many of his works have become staples of the modern concert repertoire. Brahms, an uncompromising perfectionist, destroyed some of his works and left others unpublished.
Brahms is often considered both 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 art for which Johann Sebastian Bach is famous, and of development, a compositional ethos pioneered by Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and other composers. 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 Arnold Schoenberg and 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 in 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, a small street near 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. Owing to the family’s poverty, the adolescent Brahms had to contribute to the family’s income by playing the piano in dance halls. Early biographers found this shocking and played down this portion of his life. Some modern writers have suggested that this early experience warped Brahms’s later relations with women, but Brahms scholars Styra Avins and Kurt Hoffmann have questioned the possibility. Jan Swafford has contributed to the discussion.
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
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, had been destroyed. 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 the Schumanns
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 28 October 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 impressed people who were admirers of Robert or Clara Schumann; for example, in Hamburg, a music publisher and the conductor of the Philharmonic, but it was received with some skepticism by others. It may have increased Brahms’s self-critical need to perfect his works. He wrote to Robert, “Revered Master,” in November 1853, that his praise “Will arouse such extraordinary expectations by the public that I don’t know how I can begin to fulfil them …” 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 – Free but Lonely” (German: Frei aber einsam). Schumann’s wife, the composer and pianist Clara, wrote in her diary about his first visit that
[Brahms] is one of those who comes as if straight from God. – He played us sonatas, scherzos etc. of his own, all of them showing exuberant imagination, depth of feeling, and mastery of form … what he played to us is so masterly that one cannot but think that the good God sent him into the world ready-made. He has a great future before him, for he will first find the true field for his genius when he begins to write for the orchestra.
After Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide and subsequent confinement in a mental sanatorium near Bonn in February 1854, Clara was “in despair,” expecting the Schumanns’ eighth child. Brahms hurried to Düsseldorf. He and/or Joachim, Dietrich, and Julius Otto Grimm visited Clara often in March 1854, to divert her mind from Robert’s tragedy by playing music for or with her. Clara wrote in her diary
that good Brahms always shows himself a most sympathetic friend. He does not say much, but one can see in his face . . . how he grieves with me for the loved one whom he so highly reveres. Besides, he is so kind in seizing every opportunity of cheering me by means of anything musical. From so young a man I cannot but be doubly conscious of the sacrifice, for a sacrifice it undoubtedly is for anyone to be with me now.
Later, to help Clara and her many children, Brahms lodged above the Schumann apartment in a three-storey house, setting his musical career aside temporarily. Clara was not allowed to visit Robert until two days before his death. Brahms was able to visit him several times and so could act as a go-between. The Schumanns employed a housekeeper, “Bertha” in Düsseldorf, later Elisabeth Werner in Berlin. There was also a hired cook, in Berlin “Josephine.” When the Schumanns’ oldest child and daughter, Marie, born 1841, was of age, she took over as housekeeper and when needed, as cook. Clara was often away on concert tours, some lasting months, or sometimes in the summer for cures, and in 1854–1856 Brahms also was away part of the time, leaving the staff to manage the household. Clara much appreciated Brahms’s support as a kindred musical spirit.
In a concert in Leipzig in October 1854, Clara played the Andante and Scherzo from Brahms’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 5, “the first time his music was played in public.”
Brahms and Clara had a very close and lifelong but unusual relationship. They had great affection but also respect for one another. Brahms urged in 1887 that all his and Clara’s letters to each other should be destroyed. Actually Clara kept quite a number of letters Brahms had sent her, and at Marie’s urging, refrained from destroying many of the letters Brahms had returned. Eventually correspondence between Clara and Brahms in German was published. Some of Brahms’s earliest letters to Clara show him deeply in love with her. Clara’s preserved letters to Brahms, except for one, begin much later, in 1858. Selected letters or excerpts from them, some to or from Brahms, and diary entries of Clara’s have been translated into English. The earliest excerpted and translated letter from Brahms to Clara was in October 1854. Hans Gál cautions that the preserved correspondence may have “passed through Clara’s censorship.”
Brahms felt a strong conflict between love of Clara and respect for her and Robert, leading him to allude at one point to suicidal thoughts. Not long after Robert died, Brahms decided he had to break away from the Schumann household. He took leave rather brusquely, leaving Clara feeling hurt. But Brahms and Clara kept up correspondence. Brahms joined Clara and some of her children for some summer sojourns. In 1862, Clara bought a house in Lichtental, then adjoining, since 1909 included in Baden-Baden, and lived there with her remaining family from 1863 to 1873. Brahms from 1865 to 1874 spent some time summers living in an apartment nearby in a house which is now a museum, the “Brahmshaus” (Brahms house). Brahms appears in later years as a rather avuncular figure in Eugenie Schumann’s account. Clara and Brahms took a concert tour together, in November–December 1868 in Vienna, then in early 1869 to England, then Holland; the tour ended in April 1869. After Clara moved from Lichtental to Berlin in 1873, the two saw each other less often, as Brahms had his home in Vienna since 1863.
Clara was 14 years older than Brahms. In a letter to her 24 May 1856, two and a half years after meeting her, and after two years either together or corresponding, Brahms wrote that he continued to call her the German polite form “Sie” of “you” and hesitated to use the familiar form “Du.” Clara agreed that they call one another “Du,” writing in her diary “I could not refuse, for indeed I love him like a son.” Brahms wrote on 31 May:
“I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you, and do as many good things for you, as you would like. You are so infinitely dear to me that I can hardly express it. I should like to call you darling and lots of other names, without ever getting enough of adoring you.”
The rest of that letter, and most later preserved letters, are about music and musical people, updating one another about their travels and experiences. Brahms much valued Clara’s opinions as a composer. “There was no composition by Brahms that was not shown to Clara the moment it was in shape to be communicated. She remained his faithfully devoted adviser.” In a letter to Joachim in 1859, three years after Robert’s death, Brahms wrote about Clara:
“I believe that I do not respect and admire her so much as I love her and am under her spell. Often I must forcibly restrain myself from just quietly putting my arms around her and even—I don’t know, it seems so natural that she would not take it ill.”
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. It seems that Brahms was rather indiscreet about the relationship while it lasted, which troubled his friends. After breaking off the engagement, Brahms wrote to Agathe: ‘I love you! I must see you again, but I am incapable of bearing fetters. Please write me whether I may come again to clasp you in my arms, to kiss you, and tell you that I love you.’ But they never saw one another again.
Detmold and Hamburg
After Robert Schumann’s death at the sanatorium in 1856, Brahms divided his time between Hamburg, where he formed and conducted a ladies’ choir, and Detmold in the Principality of Lippe, where he was court music-teacher and conductor. He was the soloist at the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 1, his first orchestral composition to be performed publicly, 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 the University of Cambridge in 1877, but accepted one from theUniversity 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 first Piano Concerto 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 Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, and Hector Berlioz. 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, Joachim, 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 Meiningen 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, in Pest.
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 1889, Brahms was named an honorary citizen of Hamburg, until 1948 the only one born in Hamburg.
Brahms and Dvořák
In 1875, the composer Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) was still virtually unknown outside the Prague region. Brahms was on the jury which awarded the Vienna State Prize for composition to Dvořák three times, first in February 1875, and later in 1876 and 1877. Brahms also recommended Dvořák to his publisher, Simrock, who commissioned the highly successful Slavonic Dances. Within a few years, Dvořák gained world renown. In 1892 he was appointed Director of the newly established National Conservatory in New York.
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 Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), 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 last appearance in public was on 3 March 1897, when he saw Hans Richter conduct his Symphony No. 4. There was an ovation after each of the four movements. His condition gradually worsened and he died a month later, on 3 April 1897, aged 63. Brahms is buried in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, under a monument by Victor Horta and the sculptor Ilse von Twardowski-Conrat.
Later that year, the British composer Hubert Parry, who considered Brahms the greatest artist of the time, wrote an orchestral Elegy for Brahms. This was never played in Parry’s lifetime, receiving its first performance at a memorial concert for Parry himself in 1918.
From 1904 to 1914, Brahms’s friend, the music critic Max Kalbeck published an eight-volume biography of Brahms, but this has never been translated into English. Between 1906 and 1922, the Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft (German Brahms Society) published 16 numbered volumes of Brahms’s correspondence, at least 7 of which were edited by Kalbeck. An additional 7 volumes of Brahms’s correspondence were published later, including two volumes with Clara Schumann, edited by Marie Schumann.
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 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. Brahms’s First Symphony bears strongly the influence of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, as the two works are both inC minor, and end in the struggle towards a C major triumph. The main theme of the finale of 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 dunce could see that. In 1876, when the work was premiered in Vienna, it was immediately hailed as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. However, the similarity of Brahms’s music to that of late Beethoven had first been noted as early as November 1853, in a letter from Albert Dietrich to Ernst Naumann.
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.
Brahms loved the Classical composers Mozart and Haydn. He collected first editions and autographs of their works, and edited performing editions. He studied the music of pre-classical composers, including Giovanni Gabrieli, Johann Adolph Hasse, Heinrich Schütz, Domenico Scarlatti, George Frideric Handel, and, especially, Johann Sebastian Bach. His friends included leading musicologists, and, with Friedrich Chrysander, he edited an edition of the works of François Couperin. Brahms also edited works by C. P. E. and W. F. Bach. He looked to older music for inspiration in the art of 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 had a major influence on Brahms, particularly Schumann, who encouraged Brahms as a young composer. 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. The influence of Chopin and Mendelssohn on Brahms is less obvious, although occasionally one can find in his works what seems to be an allusion to one of theirs (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, 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.