Johannes Brahms


Born: May 7, 1833. Hamburg, Germany Died: April 3, 1897. Vienna, Austria

In his own words...

"It is not hard to compose, but it is wonderfully hard to let the superfluous notes fall under the table." German composer. Brahms created a style that blended the lyrical and intellectual and served as a contrast to the progressive style of the New German School.

Johannes Brahms grew up surrounded by a practical world of music. His father was a double bass player, and Brahms took early lessons in piano, theory and composition. As a teenager, he gained intimate familiarity with serious and popular styles, arranging music for his father's orchestra and playing piano in local dance halls. At twenty he began touring as an accompanist and began to make important contacts. Among these were Robert and Clara Schumann, both of whom had a lasting effect on his life and career. Robert, in his role as a critic, first brought Brahms' name to the notice of the German public, calling him a "young eagle." Clara became an emotional focus for Brahms, one that would last throughout his life.

Brahms spent many years working as a conductor and pianist, hoping for a prestigious appointment that never materialized. He did, however, serve two years as director of the Berlin Singakademie. In 1868 he settled in Vienna, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He soon composed two works that assured him both fame and financial security: the German Requiem (premiered in 1869) and his orchestral Variations on a Theme by Haydn (1873). With this success behind him, he finally finished his first attempt at a symphony. The work was premiered in 1876 to great acclaim, and Brahms was hailed as the true successor of Beethoven. This was followed by three other symphonies, all of which have become standards of repertory, along with a large body of important works in virtually every genre (except for opera, which, like marriage, he consciously avoided throughout his life).

In 1890, at the age of fifty-seven, Brahms announced his retirement from composition. He was coaxed out of retirement by the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, for whom Brahms wrote some of his last (and greatest) chamber works. Brahms died of cancer in 1897, not long after the death of his one love and close friend, Clara Schumann.

Brahms is an important figure in German music, standing almost as a rock of classicism in the onrushing stream of the new styles created by Wagner, Liszt and others. His music is unshakably absolute, never drawing on extramusical images or ideas. His study of the music of earlier composers, including those of the Renaissance, added to the more conservative elements of his music. He often turned to older forms of expression, most notably that of variation. At the same time, his music has a strong personal aspect to it. His German Requiem, for example, is neither a sectarian religious work, nor a dramatic stage work (as was Berlioz's). Rather, it is a response to the subject of death, freely drawing passages from the Bible to create a piece that is both personal and national. All these qualities combine to make Brahms one of the truly distinctive voices of the late nineteenth century.


* Orchestral music, including 4 symphonies (1867, 1877, 1883, 1884-1885); Variations on a Theme by Haydn (1873); 2 overtures (Academic Festival, 1880 and Tragic, 1886); 4 concertos (2 for piano, 1858, 1881; 1 for violin, 1878; 1 double concerto for violin and cello, 1887)

* Chamber music, including string quartets, quintets, sextets; piano trios, quartets, and 1 quintet; 1 clarinet quintet; sonatas (violin, cello, clarinet/viola)

* Piano music, including sonatas, character pieces, dances and variation sets (on a theme by Handel, 1861; on a theme by Paganini, 1862-1863)

* Choral music, including A German Requiem (1868), Alto Rhapsody (1869), and part songs

* Lieder, including Vergebliches Ständchen (Futile Serenade, 1881), Four Serious Songs (1896), and folk song arrangements.

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