Johannes Brahms

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Biography

Johannes Brahms was a German composer and pianist of the Romantic period. Born in Hamburg into a Lutheran family, Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria. His reputation and status as a composer is such that he is sometimes grouped with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the "Three Bs" of music, a comment originally made by the nineteenth-century conductor Hans von Bülow.

Brahms composed for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, piano, organ, and 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. An uncompromising perfectionist, Brahms destroyed some of his works and left others unpublished.

Brahms has been considered, by his contemporaries and by later writers, both a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Classical masters. 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. Embedded within his meticulous structures, however, are deeply romantic motifs.

Early Years: 1833–1850

Brahms's father, Johann Jakob Brahms (1806–72), was from the town of Heide in Holstein. The family name was also sometimes spelled 'Brahmst' or 'Brams', and derives from 'Bram', the German word for the shrub broom. Against the family's will, Johann Jakob pursued a career in music, arriving in Hamburg in 1826, where he found work as a jobbing musician and a string and wind player. In 1830, he married Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen (1789–1865), a seamstress 17 years older than he was. In the same year he was appointed as a horn player in the Hamburg militia. Eventually he became a double-bass player in the Hamburg Stadttheater and the Hamburg Philharmonic Society. As Johann Jakob prospered, the family moved over the years to ever better accommodations in Hamburg. Johannes Brahms was born in 1833; his sister Elisabeth (Elise) had been born in 1831, and a younger brother Fritz Friedrich (Fritz) was born in 1835. Fritz also became a pianist; overshadowed by his brother he emigrated to Caracas in 1867, and later returned to Hamburg as a teacher.

Johann Jakob gave his son his first musical training; Johannes also learned to play the violin and the basics of playing the cello. From 1840 he studied piano with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel (1813–1865). Cossel complained in 1842 that Brahms "could be such a good player, but he will not stop his never-ending composing." At the age of 10, Brahms made his debut as a performer in a private concert including Beethoven's quintet for piano and winds, Op. 16, and a piano quartet by Mozart. He also played as a solo work an étude of Henri Herz. By 1845 he had written a piano sonata in G minor. Brahms's parents disapproved of his early efforts as a composer, feeling that he had better career prospects as a performer.

From 1845 to 1848 Brahms studied with Cossel's teacher, the pianist and composer Eduard Marxsen (1806–1887). Marxsen had been a personal acquaintance of Beethoven and Schubert, admired the works of Mozart and Haydn, and was a devotee of the music of J. S. Bach. Marxsen conveyed to Brahms the tradition of these composers and ensured that Brahms's own compositions were grounded in that tradition. In 1847, Brahms made his first public appearance as a solo pianist in Hamburg, playing a Fantasy of Sigismund Thalberg. His first full piano recital, in 1848, included a fugue by Bach as well as works by Marxsen and contemporary virtuosi such as Jacob Rosenhain. A second recital in April 1849 included Beethoven's Waldstein sonata and a waltz fantasia of his own composition, and garnered favorable newspaper reviews.

Brahms's compositions at this period are known to have included piano music, chamber music and works for male voice choir. Under the pseudonym 'G.W. Marks' some piano arrangements and fantasies were published by the Hamburg firm of Cranz in 1849. The earliest of Brahms's works which he acknowledged (his Scherzo, Op. 4, and the song Heimkehr, Op. 7 no. 6) date from 1851. However, Brahms was later assiduous in eliminating all his early works; even as late as 1880 he wrote to his friend Elise Giesemann to send him his manuscripts of choral music so that they could be destroyed.

Lurid stories of the impoverished adolescent Brahms playing in bars and brothels have only anecdotal provenance, and modern scholars dismiss them; the Brahms family was relatively prosperous, and Hamburg legislation in any case very strictly forbade music in, or the admittance of minors to, brothels.

Early Career: 1850–1862

In 1850, Brahms met with the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi and accompanied him in a number of recitals over the next few years. This was Brahms's introduction to "gypsy-style" music such as the czardas, which was later to prove the foundation of his most lucrative and popular compositions, the two sets of Hungarian Dances (1869 and 1880). 1850 also marked Brahms's first contact (albeit a failed one) with Robert Schumann; during Schumann's visit to Hamburg that year, friends persuaded Brahms to send the former some of his compositions, but the package was returned unopened.

In 1853, Brahms went on a concert tour with Reményi. In late May the two visited the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim at Hanover. Brahms had earlier heard Joachim playing the solo part in Beethoven's violin concerto and been deeply impressed. Brahms played some of his own solo piano pieces for Joachim, who remembered fifty years later: "Never in the course of my artist's life have I been more completely overwhelmed." This was the beginning of a friendship which was lifelong, albeit temporarily derailed when Brahms took the side of Joachim's wife in their divorce proceedings of 1883. Brahms also admired Joachim as a composer, and in 1856 they were to embark on a mutual training exercise to improve their skills in (in Brahms's words) "double counterpoint, canons, fugues, preludes or whatever." Bozarth notes that products of Brahms's study of counterpoint and early music over the next few years included "dance pieces, preludes and fugues for organ, and neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque choral works."

After meeting Joachim, Brahms and Reményi visited Weimar, where Brahms met Franz Liszt, Peter Cornelius, and Joachim Raff, and where Liszt performed Brahms's Op. 4 Scherzo at sight. Reményi claimed that Brahms then slept during Liszt's performance of his own Sonata in B minor; this and other disagreements led Reményi and Brahms to part company.

Brahms visited Düsseldorf in October 1853, and, with a letter of introduction from Joachim, was welcomed by Schumann and his wife Clara. Schumann, greatly impressed and delighted by the 20-year-old's talent, published an article entitled "Neue Bahne" (New Paths) in the October 28 issue of the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, nominating Brahms as one who was "fated to give expression to the times in the highest and most ideal manner." This praise may have aggravated Brahms's self-critical standards of perfection and dented his confidence. He wrote to Schumann 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 in Düsseldorf, Brahms participated with Schumann and Schumann's pupil Albert Dietrich in writing a movement each of a violin sonata for Joachim, the "F-A-E Sonata," the letters representing the initials of Joachim's personal motto Frei aber einsam (Free but alone).

Schumann's accolade led to the first publication of Brahms' works under his own name. Brahms went to Leipzig where Breitkopf & Härtel published his Opp. 1–4 (the Piano Sonatas nos. 1 and 2, the Six Songs Op. 3, and the Scherzo Op. 4), whilst Bartholf Senff published the Third Piano Sonata Op. 5 and the Six Songs Op. 6. In Leipzig, he gave recitals including his own first two piano sonatas, and met with, among others, Ferdinand David, Ignaz Moscheles, and Hector Berlioz.

After Schumann's attempted suicide and subsequent confinement in a mental sanatorium near Bonn in February 1854 (where he would die of pneumonia in 1856), Brahms based himself in Düsseldorf, where he supported the household and dealt with business matters on Clara's behalf. Clara was not allowed to visit Robert until two days before his death, but Brahms was able to visit him and acted as a go-between. Brahms began to feel deeply for Clara, who to him represented an ideal of womanhood. Their intensely emotional relationship, which however seems never to have moved beyond close friendship, would last until Clara's death. In June 1854, Brahms dedicated to Clara his Op. 9, the Variations on a Theme of Schumann. Clara continued to support Brahms's career by programming his music in her recitals.

After the publication of his Op. 10 Ballades for piano, Brahms published no further works until 1860. His major project of this period was the Piano Concerto in D minor, which he had begun as a work for two pianos in 1854 but soon realized needed a larger-scale format. Based in Hamburg at this time, he gained, with Clara's support, a position as musician to the tiny court of Detmold, the capital of the Principality of Lippe, where he spent the winters of 1857 to 1860 and for which he wrote his two Serenades (1858 and 1859, Opp. 11 and 16). In Hamburg he established a women's choir for which he wrote music and conducted. To this period also belong his first two Piano Quartets (Op. 25 and Op. 26) and the first movement of the third Piano Quartet, which eventually appeared in 1875.

The end of the decade brought professional setbacks for Brahms. The premiere of the First Piano Concerto in Hamburg on January 22, 1859, with the composer as soloist, was poorly received. Brahms wrote to Joachim that the performance was "a brilliant and decisive – failure...[I]t forces one to concentrate one's thoughts and increases one's courage...But the hissing was too much of a good thing..." At a second performance, audience reaction was so hostile that Brahms had to be restrained from leaving the stage after the first movement. As a consequence of these reactions Breitkopf and Härtel declined to take on his new compositions. Brahms consequently established a relationship with other publishers, including Simrock, who eventually became his major publishing partner. Brahms further made an intervention in 1860 in the debate on the future of German music which seriously misfired. Together with Joachim and others, he prepared an attack on Liszt's followers, the so-called "New German School" (although Brahms himself was sympathetic to the music of Richard Wagner, the School's leading light). In particular they objected to the rejection of traditional musical forms and to the "rank, miserable weeds growing from Liszt-like fantasias." A draft was leaked to the press, and the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik published a parody which ridiculed Brahms and his associates as backward-looking. Brahms never again ventured into public musical polemics.

Brahms's personal life was also troubled. In 1859 he became engaged to Agathe von Siebold. The engagement was soon broken off, but even after this Brahms wrote to her: "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." They never saw one another again, and Brahms later confirmed to a friend that Agathe was his "last love."

Maturity: 1862–1876

Brahms had hoped to be given the conductorship of the Hamburg Philharmonic, but in 1862 this post was given to the baritone Julius Stockhausen. (Brahms continued to hope for the post; but when he was finally offered the directorship in 1893, he demurred as he had "got used to the idea of having to go along other paths.") In autumn 1862 Brahms made his first visit to Vienna, staying there over the winter. There he became an associate of two close members of Wagner's circle, his earlier friend Peter Cornelius, and Karl Tausig, and of Joseph Hellmesberger Sr. and Julius Epstein, respectively the Director and head of violin studies, and the head of piano studies, at the Vienna Conservatoire. Brahms's circle grew to include the notable critic (and opponent of the 'New German School') Eduard Hanslick, the conductor Hermann Levi and the surgeon Theodor Billroth, who were to become amongst his greatest advocates.

In January 1863 came Brahms's first meeting with Richard Wagner, for whom he played his Handel Variations Op. 24, which he had completed the previous year. The meeting was cordial, although Wagner was in later years to make critical, and even insulting, comments on Brahms's music. Brahms, however, retained at this time and later a keen interest in Wagner's music, helping with preparations for Wagner's Vienna concerts in 1862-63, and being rewarded by Tausig with a manuscript of part of Wagner's Tannhäuser (which Wagner demanded back in 1875). The Handel Variations also were featured, together with the first Piano Quartet, in Brahms's first Viennese recitals, in which his performances were better received by the public and critics than his music.

Although Brahms entertained the idea of taking up conducting posts elsewhere, he based himself increasingly in Vienna and soon made it his home. In 1863, he was appointed conductor of the Vienna Singakademie. He surprised his audiences by programming much work of the early German masters such as J. S. Bach and Heinrich Schütz and other early composers such as Giovanni Gabrieli; more recent music was represented by works of Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn. He also wrote works for the choir, including his Op. 29 "Motet". Finding however that the post encroached on the time he needed for composing, he left the choir in June 1864. From 1864 to 1876 he spent many of his summers in Lichtental, today part of Baden-Baden, where Clara Schumann and her family also spent some time. His house in Lichtental (where he worked on many of his major compositions, including A German Requiem and his middle-period chamber works) is today preserved as a museum.

In February 1865, Brahms's mother died, and he began to compose his large choral work A German Requiem, Op. 45, of which six movements were completed by 1866. Premieres of the first three movements were given in Vienna, but the complete work was first given in Bremen in 1868 to great acclaim. A seventh movement (the soprano solo "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit") was added for the equally successful Leipzig premiere (February 1869), and the work went on to receive concert and critical acclaim throughout Germany and also in England, Switzerland and Russia, marking effectively Brahms's arrival on the world stage. Brahms also experienced at this period popular success with works such as his first set of Hungarian Dances (1869), the Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52 (1868-69), and his collections of lieder (Opp. 43 and 46–49). Following such successes he finally completed a number of works that he had wrestled with over many years such as the cantata Rinaldo (1863–1868), his first two string quartets, Op. 51 nos. 1 and 2 (1865–1873), the third piano quartet (1855–1875), and most notably, his first symphony which appeared in 1876, but which had been begun as early as 1855.

From 1872 to 1875, Brahms was director of the concerts of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. He ensured that the orchestra was staffed only by professionals, and conducted a repertoire which ran from Bach to the nineteenth century composers who were not of the 'New German School;' these included Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Joachim, Ferdinand Hiller, Max Bruch, and himself (notably his large scale choral works, the German Requiem, the Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53, and the patriotic Triumphlied, Op. 55, which celebrated Prussia's victory in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. 1873 saw the premiere of his orchestral Variations on a Theme by Haydn, originally conceived for two pianos, which has become one of his most popular works.

Years of Fame: 1876–1890

Brahms's first symphony, Op. 68, appeared in 1876, though it had been begun (and a version of the first movement had been announced by Brahms to Clara and to Albert Dietrich) in the early 1860s. During the decade it evolved very gradually; the finale may not have begun its conception until 1868. Brahms was cautious and typically self-deprecating about the symphony during its creation, writing to his friends that it was "long and difficult," "not exactly charming" and, significantly "long and in C Minor," which, as Richard Taruskin points out, made it clear "that Brahms was taking on the model of models [for a symphony]: Beethoven's Fifth."

In May 1876, Cambridge University offered to grant honorary degrees of Doctor of Music to both Brahms and Joachim, provided that they composed new pieces as "theses" and were present in Cambridge to receive their degrees. Brahms was averse to traveling to England, and requested to receive the degree 'in absentia,' offering as his thesis the previously performed (November 1876) symphony. But of the two, only Joachim went to England and only he was granted a degree. Brahms "acknowledged the invitation" by giving the manuscript score and parts of his first symphony to Joachim, who led the performance at Cambridge on March 8, 1877.

Despite the warm reception the first symphony received, Brahms remained dissatisfied and extensively revised the second movement before the work was published. There followed a succession of well-received orchestral works; the Second Symphony, Op. 73 (1877), the Violin concerto, Op. 77 (1878), dedicated to Joachim who was consulted closely during its composition, the Academic Festival Overture (written following the conferring of an honorary degree by the University of Breslau) and Tragic Overture of 1880. The commendation of Brahms by Breslau as "the leader in the art of serious music in Germany today" led to a bilious comment from Wagner in his essay "On Poetry and Composition": "I know of some famous composers who in their concert masquerades don the disguise of a street-singer one day, the hallelujah periwig of Handel the next, the dress of a Jewish Czardas-fiddler another time, and then again the guise of a highly respectable symphony dressed up as Number Ten" (referring to Brahms's First Symphony as a putative tenth symphony of Beethoven).

Brahms was now recognized as a major figure in the world of music. He had been on the jury which awarded the Vienna State Prize to the (then little-known) composer Antonín Dvořák three times, first in February 1875, and later in 1876 and 1877, and had successfully recommended Dvořák to his publisher, Simrock. The two men met for the first time in 1877, and Dvořák dedicated to Brahms his String Quartet, Op. 44 of that year. He also began to be the recipient of a variety of honors; Ludwig II of Bavaria awarded him the Maximilian Order for Science and Art in 1874, and the music loving Duke George of Meiningen awarded him in 1881 the Commander's Cross of the Order of the House of Meiningen.

At this time Brahms also chose to change his image. Having been always clean-shaven, in 1878 he surprised his friends by growing a beard, writing in September to the conductor Bernhard Scholz "I am coming with a large beard! Prepare your wife for a most awful sight." The singer George Henschel recalled that after a concert "I saw a man unknown to me, rather stout, of middle height, with long hair and a full beard. In a very deep and hoarse voice he introduced himself as 'Musikdirektor Müller'... an instant later, we all found ourselves laughing heartily at the perfect success of Brahms's disguise." The incident also displays Brahms's love of practical jokes.

In 1882, Brahms completed his Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 83, dedicated to his teacher Marxsen. Brahms was invited by Hans von Bülow to undertake a premiere of the work with the Meiningen Court Orchestra; this was the beginning of his collaboration with Meiningen and with von Bülow, who was to rank Brahms as one of the 'Three Bs'; in a letter to his wife he wrote "You know what I think of Brahms: after Bach and Beethoven the greatest, the most sublime of all composers." The following years saw the premieres of his Third Symphony, Op. 90 (1883) and his Fourth Symphony, Op. 98 (1885). Richard Strauss, who had been appointed assistant to von Bülow at Meiningen, and had been uncertain about Brahms's music, found himself converted by the Third Symphony and was enthusiastic about the Fourth: "a giant work, great in concept and invention." Another, but cautious, supporter from the younger generation was Gustav Mahler, who first met Brahms in 1884 and remained a close acquaintance; he rated Brahms as superior to Anton Bruckner, but more earth-bound than Wagner and Beethoven.

In 1889, Theo Wangemann, a representative of the 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 and of Josef Strauss's Die Libelle on the piano. Although the spoken introduction to the short piece of music is quite clear, the piano playing is largely inaudible due to heavy surface noise. In the same year, Brahms was named an honorary citizen of Hamburg, until 1948 the only one born in Hamburg.

Last Years: 1890–1897

Brahms had become acquainted with Johann Strauss II, who was eight years his senior, in the 1870s, but their close friendship belongs to the years 1889 and after. Brahms admired much of Strauss's music, and encouraged the composer to sign up with his publisher Simrock. In autographing a fan for Strauss's wife Adele, Brahms wrote the opening notes of The Blue Danube waltz, adding the words "unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms."

After the successful Vienna premiere of his Second String Quintet, Op. 111, in 1890, the 57-year-old Brahms came to think that he might retire from composition, telling a friend that he "had achieved enough; here I had before me a carefree old age and could enjoy it in peace." He also began to find solace in escorting the mezzo-soprano Alice Barbi and may have proposed to her (she was only 28). His admiration for Richard Mühlfeld, clarinettist with the Meiningen orchestra, revived his interest in composing and led him to write the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 (1891), and the two Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120 (1894). Brahms also wrote at this time his final cycles of piano pieces, Opp. 116–19, the Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), Op. 121 (1896) (which were prompted by the death of Clara Schumann), and the Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ, Op. 122 (1896). Many of these works were written in his house in Bad Ischl, where Brahms had first visited in 1882 and where he spent every summer from 1889 onwards.

In the summer of 1896 Brahms was diagnosed as having jaundice, but later in the year his Viennese doctor diagnosed him as having cancer of the liver (from which his father Jakob had died). Brahms's last public appearance was on March 3, 1897, when he saw Hans Richter conduct his Symphony No. 4. There was an ovation after each of the four movements. He made the effort, three weeks before his death, to attend the premiere of Johann Strauss's operetta Die Göttin der Vernunft (The Goddess of Reason) in March 1897. His condition gradually worsened and he died a month later, on April 3, 1897, aged 63. At some point during his final weeks, Brahms turned to J. S. Bach for inspiration in composing 11 organ settings of German chorales. The last of these is a setting of "O Welt ich muss dich lassen" ("O world I now must leave thee"), and are the last notes that Brahms wrote. Brahms is buried in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, under a monument designed by Victor Horta and the sculptor Ilse von Twardowski-Conrat.

Recent Additions

Brahms Symphony 4 - Victor De Sabata - 1° Movement (part1)

Brahms Symphony 4 - Victor De Sabata - 1° Movement (part1)

Johannes Brahms - op.49, Nr 4 (Lullaby) - Romantic guitar

Johannes Brahms - op.49, Nr 4 (Lullaby) - Romantic guitar

Andor Földes plays Brahms Intermezzo op.117 no.1

Andor Földes plays Brahms Intermezzo op.117 no.1

Johannes Brahms, Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77, part 2 - Adagio

Johannes Brahms, Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77, part 2 - Adagio

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