Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, the son of Johann Jakob Brahms, a musician. His father was his first music teacher, instructing him on violin and cello. He studied piano with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel, who complained that the boy “could be such a good player, but he will not stop his never-ending composing.” At age 10, Brahms made his debut as a performer in a private concert. 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. Marxsen had been a personal acquaintance of Beethoven and Schubert, and admired the compositions of Mozart, Haydn, and J. S. Bach. Marxsen taught Brahms the works of these composers and ensured that Brahms’ own compositions were grounded in their musical traditions.
In 1850 Brahms met with the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi and became his accompanist. Reményi introduced Brahms 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).
Brahms at age 20
In 1853 Brahms and Reményi went on a concert tour. In late May the two visited the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim at Hanover, who had earlier impressed Brahms with his rendition of Beethoven’s violin concerto. Brahms played some of his own solo piano pieces for Joachim, who recalled fifty years later, “Never in the course of my artist’s life have I been more completely overwhelmed.” Thus began a lifelong friendship.
Brahms visited Düsseldorf in October 1853, and, with a letter of introduction from Joachim, was welcomed by Robert Schumann and his wife Clara. Schumann, greatly impressed and delighted by the 20-year-old’s talent, wrote an article entitled “Neue Bahnen” (“New Paths”) published in the October 28 issue of the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik citing Brahms as one who was “fated to give expression to the times in the highest and most ideal manner.” Schumann’s endorsement led to the first publication of Brahms’ works.
In February, 1854, Schumann attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge. He was rescued, but due to extreme psychiatric impairment, he was committed to a sanatorium near Bonn (where he died of pneumonia in 1856). To be of help to the family (including Robert and Clara’s seven children), Brahms moved to Düsseldorf, where he supported the household and dealt with business matters on Clara’s behalf. The doctors at the sanatorium would not allow Clara to visit Robert until two days before his death (due to his unstable condition), but Brahms was able to visit him and acted as a go-between, carrying notes and messages back and forth. Brahms developed deep feelings for Clara, who to him represented an ideal of womanhood. 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 performing his music in her recitals. Their intensely emotional, though platonic, relationship lasted until Clara’s death.
His large choral work A German Requiem is not a setting of the Catholic Mass for the dead. An agnostic and a humanist, Brahms instead selected his text from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. 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 complete work successfully premiered in 1868 and went on to receive critical acclaim throughout Germany and elsewhere in Europe and Russia, essentially giving Brahms worldwide recognition.
Brahms’ life was marked by professional and personal drama. For example, the premiere of his First Piano Concerto in Hamburg on January 22, 1859, with the composer as soloist, flopped. Brahms wrote in a letter 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.
In 1860, in the debate on the future of German music, Brahms attacked Liszt’s followers, the so-called “New German School” (although Brahms himself was sympathetic to the music of Richard Wagner, the School’s star). He objected to their rejection of traditional musical forms and to the “rank, miserable weeds growing from Liszt-like fantasias.” The Neue Zeitschrift für Musik ridiculed Brahms and his associates as backward-looking. Brahms henceforth avoided public musical controversy.
In 1859 Brahms asked Agathe von Siebold for her hand in marriage. The engagement was stormy and soon dissolved, but even after Brahms wrote to her of his love and longing for her. Though they never saw one another again, Brahms later confirmed to a friend that Agathe was his “last love.”
In January, 1863, Brahms met Richard Wagner, for whom he played his Handel Variations Op. 24, which he had completed the previous year. Although the meeting was cordial, in later years Wagner made critical, even insulting, comments about Brahms’ music. Brahms still maintained a keen interest in Wagner’s music.
In 1880, the University of Breslau offered Brahms an honorary doctorate in philosophy. Hoping to avoid public fanfare, Brahms responded with a letter of acknowledgement. However, conductor Bernard Scholz, who had nominated him for the degree, informed him that protocol required a grander gesture of gratitude. “Compose a fine symphony for us!” he wrote.
Brahms, a well-known joker, orchestrated a medley of student drinking songs he called the Academic Festival Overture, which, along with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, is played for graduation ceremonies to this day, as well as in concert.
The commendation of Brahms by Breslau as “the leader in the art of serious music in Germany today” led to a harsh comment from Wagner: “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”.
Brahms held a deep reverence for Beethoven; in his home, a marble bust of Beethoven looked down on the spot where he composed. Brahms’s First Symphony bears a strong resemblance to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The main theme of the finale of the First Symphony is reminiscent of the main theme of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, a resemblance Brahms acknowledged. In 1876, when the work was premiered in Vienna, it was hailed as “Beethoven’s Tenth”.
In the summer of 1896 Brahms was diagnosed as having jaundice, but later that year his diagnosis was changed to cancer of the liver. He passed away on April 3, 1897.
Johannes Brahms, both a traditionalist and an innovator, is considered one of the greatest composers of the Romantic period. A confirmed perfectionist, Brahms destroyed many of his works and left others unpublished. He wrote for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, piano, organ, and voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works. 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. Despite his mastery of large, complex musical structures, some of Brahms’s most popular compositions during his lifetime were small-scale works that were readily playable by amateur musicians at home, such as the Hungarian Dances, the Waltzes for piano duet (Op. 39), and the Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52. He worked with some of the leading performers of his day. Many of his works are staples of the modern concert repertoire.
Information for this article was taken from Wikipedia.
Click here to read about the correspondence between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann.