Johannes Brahms was a German Romantic composer famous for his four symphonies and the German Requiem, but his chamber music, songs and choral works are also mainstays of the standard repertoire.
Brahms has gone down in history as ‘the most classical composer of the Romantic period’. Although his full sound and long melodic lines are typical of music from the second half of the nineteenth century, Brahms’s work is altogether devoid of self-portraits, programme music and emotional outbursts. Instead, he wrote music about music, always holding the solid, tried-and-tested forms of Bach and Beethoven dear.
Johannes Brahms was born the son of a seamstress and a double bass player in Hamburg in 1833. The young ‘Hannes’, as he was affectionately called, learned to play multiple instruments and sang in a boys’ choir, yet focused on the piano. His teacher Eduard Marxsen taught him music theory, and he began to conduct choirs from an early age.
In 1848, Brahms’s music was unexpectedly influenced by the Hungarian style after political unrest had made Hamburg a haven for Hungarian migrants, including many musicians. Brahms befriended the violinist Eduard Reményi and toured Germany with him as his piano accompanist. Hungarian music would leave an indelible mark on his œuvre.
Clara and Robert Schumann
Of crucial importance was his meeting with the composer–pianists Clara and Robert Schumann, to whom Brahms, then twenty, showed his fledgling compositions for piano. Robert praised Brahms publicly as a ‘chosen one’ and an ‘apostle’. There was a drawback to such compliments, though: the expectations they created were so high that Brahms would forever be plagued by doubt and self-criticism.
When Schumann died in 1856, Brahms remained fast friends with his widow Clara. Throughout her life, she remained a loyal adviser to him, closely following the genesis of his latest compositions.
Vienna and breakthrough
Initially, Brahms lived mainly on the income he earned from his performances as a pianist and conductor. His breakthrough in Germany had been hampered owing to his public opposition to the New German School whose spiritual fathers included Franz Liszt. Unmoved by Liszt’s appeal for programme music, Brahms remained true to classical forms, turning increasingly to the time-honoured counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach. Brahms moved to Vienna in 1862 and remained there until his death.
It was with the German Requiem, composed in 1868, that Brahms established an international name for himself. In Vienna, he also produced a steady flow of original chamber works featuring intense piano and string parts.
Brahms himself claimed that he came to the symphony late because of the unrivalled standard Beethoven had set. Indeed, he spent years working intermittently on his First Symphony, but subsequently composed three more with considerably more ease. All four symphonies belong to the standard symphonic repertoire, each with its own completely unique character.
In 1890, Brahms – then fifty-seven – gave up composition, remarking, ‘Now let the young people take over.’ Despite retiring, he would write a number of expressive chamber works featuring the clarinet, inspired by the brilliant principal clarinettist of the court orchestra in Meiningen.
Although Brahms had a reputation in his lifetime as a conservative composer, his musical legacy was greatly admired by the ‘revolutionary’ Arnold Schoenberg. In his essay ‘Brahms the progressive’, Schoenberg calls him a forerunner of modernism, precisely because of his penchant for abstraction and ‘developing variation technique’. Schoenberg’s own string sextet Verklärte Nacht, composed in 1899, can be heard as a bridge between Brahms’s nineteenth-century idiom and twentieth-century atonality.