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1833 1897

Johannes Brahms

Brahms, Johannes
  • Often called the successor to Beethoven, Brahms achieved greatness in a wide variety of genres. Despite his intellectual rigor, he is one of the most popular Romantic composers.

Vital Statistics

Born: May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria
Nationality: German
Genre: Romantic
Performed as: pianist and conductor
During the composer's lifetime: Otto von Bismarck forges the German Empire. The “Second Industrial Revolution” creates considerable middle- and upper-class wealth, spurring arts patronage and amateur music-making.

Biographical Outline

  • First gig, late 1840s: Pianist, performing at social gatherings and respectable entertainment halls. Develops love of books and scholarship while completing high school and studies with a leading, local piano teacher.
  • Friends for life, 1853: Brahms meets the composer Robert Schumann and his wife, pianist Clara Schumann. Robert writes a rave essay on Brahms and his music, gets him accepted by a major publisher.
  • Disaster and love, 1854: After Robert has a mental breakdown in 1854, Brahms helps Clara manage her seven-child household, taking charge while she earns money on concert tours. He falls in love with her, but after Robert’s death in1856 and a holiday along the Rhine with her, they separate, although  Clara remains his closest friend and advisor.
  • Chrysalis, 1855: Dissatisfied with his compositions, Brahms plunges into counterpoint exercises and study of early music. He emerges, several years later, with formidable composition technique and rewrites several works previously begun, particularly his first piano concerto. The concerto flops at its premiere in Leipzig in 1859 but endures today as one of the great works of the orchestral repertoire.
  • Vienna, 1862: Brahms sees Vienna for the first time and establishes a presence there. He becomes director of Vienna’s Singakademie (choral society). Moved by the death of his mother in 1865, he writes A German Requiem (1868), one of the major choral works of the century. On the success of  that and his Hungarian Dances (1868), Brahms becomes wealthy and famous.
  • Better late than never, 1873: Breaks a creative logjam by writing two string quartets that meet his exacting standards, and the Variations on a Theme of Haydn. Finally writes his First Symphony, 1876, and nearly all of his most famous orchestral works afterwards, the last in 1888. He continues to compose chamber masterpieces, and, in his last years, Brahms sees his music triumph throughout Europe and America.

Fun Facts

  • Whisker legacy: Brahms was famous for his large beard and portly appearance, but he was quite thin as a youth, with baby-smooth cheeks, and didn’t grow his beard until he was 45.
  • Personality: Brahms was shy and reserved, but he had many friends. Though he never married, he loved playing favorite uncle to the children in his circle.
  • Famous letters: The conductor Hans von Bülow once wrote that he liked the key of E-flat with its “three Bs, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms." “The Three Bs” has became a catch-phrase representing musical greatness.
  • Fine tobacco: Brahms loved a good cigar, but hated import duties on tobacco. He once was caught smuggling it, stuffed into stockings in his luggage.
  • Picky, picky: Brahms was ruthless about his own music, destroying scores that he felt were not his best even late in his career, along with all his sketches.
  • Where there’s no will...: Brahms died without a will, causing a legal dispute between rival claimants to his estate.

Recommended Biography

  • Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms: A Biography (Vintage, 1999).
  • Michael Musgrave, A Brahms Reader (Yale, 2001). Collection of reminiscences and letters from Brahms' contemporaries. Well laid out and fascinating.

Explore the Music

  • Brahms’ music covers a wide range. He loved intricate counterpoint and polyphony, but also simple folksong. He appreciated equally then-forgotten Baroque masters and Richard Wagner’s music dramas. He was influenced by the symphonies of Beethoven and the waltzes of his friend Johann Strauss II, whose orchestration he greatly admired. His compositions are an original synthesis of all of these possibilities, which is perhaps why they are so popular.

Recommended Websites

German Requiem look inside German Requiem By Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). For soprano voice solo, baritone voice solo, SATB choir and piano accompaniment. Op. 45 (Text Language: German). Romantic Period. Difficulty: medium-difficult. Vocal score. Choral notation and piano reduction. Opus 45. 96 pages. Duration circa 70 minutes. Published by Edition Peters (PE.P03672)

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Sonata for Piano and Violoncello E minor op. 38 look inside Sonata for Piano and Violoncello E minor op. 38 By Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Edited by Hans Munch-holland. For cello and piano. Violoncello. Henle Music Folios. Urtext edition-paper bound. Classical Period. Single piece and set of performance parts. Fingerings and bowings. 36 pages. G. Henle Verlag #HN18. Published by G. Henle Verlag (HL.51480018)

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