Johannes Brahms

Composer Johannes Brahms

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
May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany
April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria
Performed As:
pianist and conductor
During 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
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
  • Symphonies: There are three orchestral masterworks that are often paired with the symphonies: the Academic Festival Overture, Tragic Overture, and Variation on a Theme by Haydn.
    • Complete Symphonies (nos. 1-4)
      • North German Radio Symphony/ Günter Wand (RCA 2001).
      • Houston Symphony/ Christoph Eschenbach (Virgin (EMI), 2002).
      • Bargain hunters can stop here. Each of these sets is moderately priced and contains the overtures and Variations, and the Alto Rhapsody. The recordings are recent and in good sound and the performance quality is reasonably even (there are no clunkers.)
    • Symphony No. 1   
      • London Philharmonic /Marin Alsop (Naxos, 2005). With the two overtures.
      • Pittsburgh Symphony/ Marek Janowski (Pentatone, 2007). With the Haydn Variations
    • Symphony No. 2/ Symphony No. 3
      • Pittsburgh Symphony/ Marek Janowski (Pentatone, 2008)
      • New York Philharmonic/ Leonard Bernstein (Sony, 1999)
    • Symphony No. 3
      • London Philharmonic /Marin Alsop (Naxos, 2007). With the Haydn Variations.
    • Symphony No. 4
      • Pittsburgh Symphony/ Marek Janowski (Pentatone, 2008). With Hungarian Dances orchestrated by Brahms and Dvorak.
      • Vienna Philharmonic/ Carlos Kleiber (DG, 1998). The consensus first choice, but with no other music on the CD.
  • Other orchestral:
    • Academic Festival Overture, Tragic Overture, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Serenades Nos. 1 and 2, Alto Rhapsody
      • London Philharmonic/ Adrian Boult. (2 CDs, EMI, 2006)
    • Serenades Nos. 1 and 2
      • Scottish Chamber Orchestra/ Charles Mackerras (Telarc, 1999)
  • Concertos:
    • Violin Concerto
      • Gil Shaham/ Berlin Philharmonic/ Claudio Abbado (DG, 2002). With Double Concerto (Jian Wang, cello)
      • Jascha Heifetz/ Chicago Symphony/ Fritz Reiner (RCA, 2005).
    • “Double” Concerto for Violin and Cello
      • David Oistrakh/ Mtsislav Rostropovich/ Cleveland Orchestra/ George Szell (EMI 1999). With Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Sviatoslav Richter/ Berlin Philharmonic/ Herbert von Karajan)
    • Piano Concerto No. 2
      • Leon Fleisher/ Cleveland Orchestra/ George Szell. With Piano Concerto No. 1 ( 2 CDs, Sony, 1997).    
    • Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem)
      • Monteverdi Choir/ Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique/ John Eliot Gardiner (Philips, 1991). On period instruments, but it is many critics’ first choice recording.
      • Elisabeth Schwarzkopf/ Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/ Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus/ Otto Klemperer (EMI, 1999). A classic from the golden age of stereo.
  • Chamber music
    • Piano Quartets, Nos. 1-3: Emmanuel Ax/ Isaac Stern/ Jaime Laredo/ Yo-Yo Ma (Sony, 1990)
    • String Quartets Nos. 1-4: Emerson String Quartet (DG, 2007). With Piano Quintet, Op. 34, Leon Fleisher, piano.
    • Clarinet Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2: Jon Manasse/ Jon Nakamatsu (Harmonia Mundi, 2008)
    • Clarinet Quintet: Emerson String Quartet/ David Shifrin (DG, 1999).
    • Violin Sonatas: Nikolaj Znaider/ Yefim Bronfman (RCA, 2007)
    • Trio for Horn, Violin, and Piano: Barry Tuckwell/ Itzhak Perlman/ Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 2007).
  • Piano works
    • Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, Intermezzos, Op. 117 and 118, 4 Pieces, Op. 119. Radu Lupu, piano (London, 1990)