Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)

Johannes Brahms was one of the best-known composers of the late Romantic period. He is the last of the “3 B’s” of classical music, along with Bach and Beethoven and is one in a long line of Austro-German symphonic composers stretching from Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. He composed in almost all the major forms except opera. His music drew on Baroque and Classical models, especially counterpoint, while adding the more overt emotionalism of the Romantic period. His adherence to traditional forms and structure placed him in sharp contrast to the operatic innovations of Wagner, and a polarization developed with contemporary musicians, admirers, and critics falling into one of the two camps. Brahms was also the first major composer to make a recording of his own music, under the supervision of one of Thomas Edison’s assistants.

Brahms was born in Hamburg. His father was a musician and began his son’s musical training. Brahms became an excellent pianist and also studied the cello in his early years. He began composing at an early age, but developed a perfectionist tendency that caused him to destroy many of his works throughout his lifetime, including almost all of his early compositions. While still in his teens, Brahms met Liszt, who sight-read one of his piano works, as well as the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, who in turn, arranged for him to meet Robert Schumann. Schumann became an early advocate and mentor to the young composer. Brahms became an important member of the Schumann household, and after Schumann’s attempted suicide and eventual death, he and Schumann’s widow Clara maintained a deep friendship and musical partnership. After Schumann’s death, he eventually moved to Vienna, where he lived out the rest of his life.

Brahms’ first published works consist almost entirely of piano music, songs for solo voice or chorus, (including the Wiegenlied, “Brahms’ Lullaby”), and chamber music for either strings or piano trios and quartets. One of his most important early works is A German Requiem, begun when Brahms was in his late 20’s. It is his longest work. His Requiem is different from the traditional requiems written by such composers as Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi. Instead of being in Latin and based on the Catholic rite, the texts are taken from Luther’s German translation of the Bible.

After the success of the Requiem, Brahms developed the confidence to pursue other large-scale works, including his first string quartets. Although he had written a few orchestral works, including his First Piano Concerto and the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, he didn’t complete his First Symphony until he was almost 40. It was immediately successful and sometimes referred to as “Beethoven’s 10th,” in clear acknowledgement of Brahms as Beethoven’s successor. Brahms wrote three more symphonies. Symphony No. 3 is a deeply moving work, with a melancholic slow movement that shows his mastery over melodic development. The long-lasting applause and standing ovation for his Fourth Symphony brought tears to his eyes in humble gratitude. His other orchestral works include the Academic Festival Overture, Tragic Overture, a second Piano Concerto, as well as a Violin Concerto and Double Concerto for violin and cello.

Brahms excelled at the variation form, especially in his piano music, which includes variations on themes by Schumann, Handel, and Paganini. One of his most famous works is the Liebeslieder Waltzes for two pianists and a vocal quartet. Although he composed with less frequency in his last decade, he produced a number of important masterworks. Like Mozart and Weber before him, Brahms found inspiration in a virtuoso clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld, and wrote his Clarinet Trio, Clarinet Quintet, and two Clarinet Sonatas for him. After the sonatas, Brahms’ last two works were the Four Serious Songs and a set of Preludes for organ. He died from cancer at the age of 63.

Although the traditional view of Brahms is that he was an agnostic humanist, he displayed a deep devotion to the Bible throughout his life. He disliked dogma and denominational differences, but lived a life of charity. His success as a composer provided him with great wealth, but he preferred to live simply and help others, especially struggling musicians, who were in need. He preferred to promote the works of others above his own, including Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and even Johann Strauss II. His own spiritual beliefs were complicated and sometimes conflicted, but he stated his belief in God, Jesus’ miracles, and heaven and hell. In a conversation he had with Joachim and author Arthur Abell shortly before his death, he shared his views on spirituality and the arts, saying:

“I know several young composers who are atheists… they are doomed to speedy oblivion, because they are utterly lacking in inspiration… The great Nazarene knew that law also, and He proclaimed in John 15:4, ‘The branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine.’ No atheist has ever been or ever will be a great composer.”

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Reading:

Jan Swafford. Johannes Brahms: A Biography.