Johannes Brahms

(7 May 1833 - 3 April 1897)

Johannes Brahms was one of the most prolific musicians in the history of western music. He was extremely influential in his highly disciplined, rich compositional style and has been a source of inspiration for generations of composers and performers.

Brahms was born in 1833 in Hamburg to a town musician and a seamstress. In his youth, due to his family’s poverty, he contributed to the household income by playing piano at dance halls and giving public piano recitals, eventually finding recognition at the age of nineteen when he made a concert tour.

At the age of 20, Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann who were very impressed with his playing technique. Clara wrote in her diary that ‘…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.’ Brahms began to compose early in life but destroyed most copies of his early works. He was an extreme perfectionist and was known to have destroyed 20 string quartets before introducing in public his first string quartet at age of 40.

Brahms’s early compositions were dominated by the piano. His first set of piano pieces, op. 1, op. 2, op. 4 and op. 5, composed between 1851 and 1853 show a strong poetic affinity, large-scale structures, a flair for thematic transformation and Beethoven-like motivic development. The slow movements of these piano works are effectively songs without words, reflecting the folk themes seen in Brahms earlier songs.

Straight-away the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God. Not only do I see distinct themes in my mind's eye, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies, and orchestration.

Brahms had long wished to become the conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonische Konzertgesellschaft, but was overlooked for the position twice. Brahms first visited Vienna in 1862 and was appointed conductor of the Vienna Singakademie, a position he only kept for a year, followed by the role of concert director at the Vienna Gesellschaft für Musikfreunde and after this ended in 1875, he no longer sought out any formal positions, in order to preserve his freedom to compose. He did however accept an honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau and in return composed the Academic Festival Overture.

In the 1860s, Brahms wrote his set of 16 Waltzes op.39, variations based on popular genres such as the Ländler, style hongrois and kept in line with the mood of the Biedermeier era, in which the middle classes grew and the arts began to appeal increasingly to common sensibilities. In the same decade, Brahms also paid homage to the gypsy style. In 1869 the first of his Hungarian Dances were issued. He composed four books of Hungarian Dances for four hands, based largely on pre-existing gypsy melodies, and later arranged ten of the dances for solo piano and three for orchestra. In these dances, it is impressive how effortlessly he is able to combine gypsy folk music with high art.

It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table.

Artist Picture

His large choral work The German Requiem is a setting of texts that Brahms selected from the Lutheran Bible. The majority of the Requiem was written after the death of his mother. The first three movements were performed in Vienna to a mixed reaction, but after its official premiere as a seven movement work in 1869, Brahms was finally praised as a critically acclaimed composer throughout Germany and also in Switzerland, the Netherlands, England and Russia. This reaction established him as a composer of significant importance.

Brahms dedicated some time to purely orchestral music in 1873, working on Variations on a Theme by Haydn, followed soon after by his first symphony.

In 1889, a representative of the inventor Thomas Edison visited Brahms in Vienna and gave him the opportunity to make a recording of his first Hungarian Dance on the piano, which was later released on LP. Unfortunately, although the spoken introduction is of audible quality, Brahm’s piano playing is almost impossible to hear due to surface noise. Efforts to remove the noise from the recording were attempted at Stanford University but it is still not a great quality recording.

His late works show vividly the connectedness between the old and the new at the centre of Brahm’s style

In 1890, Brahms declared that he has given up composing. However, his admiration of Richard Muhlfeld, clarinettist in the Meiningen Orchestra caused him to retract his statement and resume his composing: the result was his Clarinet Trio op 114, his Clarinet Quintet, op. 115 and the two Clarinet Sonatas, op. 120. In this period he also composed a number of cycles of piano pieces and Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs) op. 121. Brahms’s Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ, op.122 were published posthumously in 1902. Thoughts about his mortality are perceived clearly in the setting of O Welt, ich muss dich lassen. These last works show vividly the connectedness between the old and the new at the centre of Brahm’s style.

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