Johannes Brahms: a great Romantic

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

Meet Johannes Brahms, the Janus-like face of Romanticism

Read on for our guide to the life and works of Johanne Brahms. One of the greatest Romantic composers, Brahms was a master in many forms including the piano concerto, symphony, solo piano, voice, and many different chamber music configurations.

Who was Brahms?

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was a German composer, pianist, and conductor who was active during the Romantic period. Brahms composed a wide variety of music across a range of musical forms: he wrote piano and violin concertos and symphonies, works for solo piano, choral pieces and works for just about every chamber music combination imaginable.

Brahms was also a very talented pianist, and gave the first performances of many of his own works. He also collaborated with many leading musicians. Most famously, Brahms had close links to the pianist Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom he wrote his Violin Concerto.

Where was Brahms born?

Brahms was born in Hamburg on 7 May 1833, into a Lutheran family. He had an older sister Elisabeth (Elise), born in 1831, and a younger brother Fritz Friedrich (Fritz), born in 1835.

Where did Brahms live?

Brahms grew up in Hamburg but later lived in Düsseldorf and, in the final few decades of his life, Vienna. He also travelled widely around Austria and Germany, giving recitals and occasionally conducting.

Composer Johannes Brahms as a young man
A young Johannes Brahms. The composer travelled widely during his lifetime

Is Brahms a great composer?

Brahms is undoubtedly one of the most revered composers in the whole of classical music history. He is sometimes named, alongside Bach and Beethoven, as one of the ‘Three Bs’ of classical music.

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Brahms composed for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, piano, organ, violin, voice, and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works. He worked with leading performers of his time, including Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim (the three were close friends).

What was Brahms’ musical style?

Brahms can be seen as both a traditionalist and an innovator. On the one hand, his music definitely adheres to the basic structures and techniques of the Classical tradition: sonata form, for example, is much in evidence.

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On the other hand, the intensity of expression of his works aligns him more closely with the Romantic movement.

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Some of Brahms’ contemporaries found his music to be a little dry and academic, but a range of musical successors from Arnold Schoenberg to Edward Elgar all praised Brahms’ music with its intricate construction and finely judged emotional and dramatic effects.

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Were Brahms and Tchaikovsky friends?

Brahms and Tchaikovsky, although born on the same day seven years apart, famously weren’t big fans of each other’s music.

‘Brahms, as a musical personality, is simply antipathetic to me—I can’t stand him,’ Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter. ‘No matter how much he tries, I always remain cold and hostile.’

That said, Brahms managed to set himself against a fair few other composers. He also strongly disagreed with Franz Liszt, in a dispute that become known as the War of the Romantics.

And not all composers have worshipped the great German Romantic. Benjamin Britten, a composer from a later age and a very different musical era, famously said, ‘It’s not bad Brahms I mind, it’s good Brahms I can’t stand.’

Most composers and listeners, however, recognise Brahms’s music for what it is: some of the most intricately crafted and melodic work in the repertoire, with a wonderful sense of control over the delivery of its dramatic and emotional power.

When did Brahms die?

Brahms died on 3 April 1897, in Vienna, aged 63. The previous summer, the composer had contracted jaundice and cancer of the liver. He made his last public appearance on 7 March 1897, to watch Hans Richter conduct his Symphony No. 4.

Brahms is buried in the Vienna Central Cemetery.

What did later audiences think of this composer?

The poet Siegfried Sassoon was once amazed that a Rite of Spring audience was, except for him, taking it all so calmly: ‘They are listening to this not-quite-new audacity as though it were by someone dead, like Brahms.’

‘Dead like Brahms’ – in the early 1920s you couldn’t get any deader than that. This was the same composer who, in the later 1890s, had been fêted in a triumphant series of concerts as the most celebrated composer in Europe. A whole generation of composers had already fallen under the spell and the authority of his style: the Brahms ‘fog’ (as it was less flatteringly known) was everywhere.

Meanwhile there had been the First World War which came near to breaking up our civilisation. The survivors, that young generation of the 1920s, were traumatised, split between trying to forget the immediate past and finding someone to blame for it.

They lashed out indiscriminately at the ‘Old Gang’ – of which Brahms was seen as a leading member. The generation game has rarely been played with such venom. And ‘the war to end all wars’ had only produced an exhausted form of cultural politics which tried to displace the Austro-German tradition with a rather queasy Franco-Russian one.

What did Brahms’s contemporaries think?

It’s easy now to treat Brahms’s music like a huge quiescent old pussycat that one can stroke without getting scratched. During his lifetime, however, his music was found uningratiating, if not forbidding, and frankly rather difficult.

The First Piano Concerto in 1859, for example, offered audiences (according to a contemporary critic) ‘a waste, barren dreariness’ and when Clara Schumann later encountered Brahms’s ravishing Intermezzo in B minor, Op. 119, its thorny dissonance shocked her.

The very young Schoenberg soon hunted out these brand-new difficult pieces, discovering in them just that rebarbative quality which appeals to the young. The rest, as they say, is history – the music history of the 20th century, which grew from the further implications of Brahms’s music just as much as from the hypnotic drama of Wagner’s.

What were Brahms’s early influences?

As a boy growing up in the poorer areas of Hamburg, Brahms read deeply in folk tales, mythology and studied collections of folksongs. When the Hungarian fiddler Ede Reményi visited after the 1848 revolutions, Brahms joined him on tour. Whatever he then picked up of Hungarian/gypsy music would surface throughout the rest of his life. In particular, in the G minor Piano Quartet and in the quasi-improvisatory section of the Clarinet Quintet of 1891.

Another important influence on Brahms would come from the violinist Joseph Joachim, who became his duet partner. The two young men swapped post-contrapuntal problems and their solutions. Through his unusually broad interest in Renaissance and Baroque music, Brahms also formed long-term friendships with Friedrich Chrysander, editor of Handel, and with Philipp Spitta, editor of Schütz and Bach.

In 1853 Brahms presented himself at the house of Robert and Clara Schumann, who received him as a young messiah. The sense of having come home at last, both personally and musically, soon gave way to two lasting sorrows. First, Schumann went mad, with Brahms helping Clara through this terrible situation. Then, Brahms’s subsequent emotional dependence on her formed the desolate pattern of his life.

Did Brahms marry?

Brahms never married, remaining in some ways the quintessence of the diffident, unsocialised bachelor. Girls came and went, one of them Clara’s daughter Julie, whose engagement to an Italian nobleman produced from Brahms on one hand the first set of Liebeslieder waltzes, on the other the aching void of the Goethe settings, Alto Rhapsody, its slow movement a ‘gentle portrait’ of Clara.

By the time Brahms finally settled in Vienna in 1869 at the age of 36, the course of the rest of his life had been set. His performing career continued to fill the winter months, composing the summer ones. Composing started early in the morning with the aid of strong coffee: it ceased at lunchtime. He worked in Vienna, at Portschach in Carinthia and at Thun in Switzerland.

He sustained over many years a formidable workload. Indeed, what he left behind may well have been a fraction of what he wrote. Intense creativity had to cede to ever fiercer self-criticism. Wholesale burnings may have taken place in his last years. Much earlier, Brahms himself claimed to have destroyed 20 string quartets before releasing the pair of Op. 51.

What are Brahms’s most famous pieces?

Brahms’s best known works include all four symphonies (perhaps particularly the Fourth), the Violin Concerto, and both piano concertos. His large-scale choral and orchestral work Ein Deutsches Requiem (‘A German Requiem’) is also justly famous.

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On the chamber side, Brahms’s best loved works include his Clarinet Quintet, Piano Quintet, First Cello Sonata, First Piano Quartet and First Piano Trio. Lovers of intimate, eloquent piano music, meanwhile, will find much to enjoy in Brahms’s late piano works, Opus 116, 117, 118 and 119.

It is difficult to say when Brahms’s vintage years begin. The summers of 1878 and 1879 produced the Violin Concerto, the Op. 76 piano pieces, the G major Violin Sonata and the Op. 79 piano Rhapsodies. 1881 was the year not only of the monumental Second Piano Concerto, but of the marmoreal choral work Nänie.

Brahms’ late masterpieces

The Fourth Symphony of 1885 ends with the greatest passacaglia since the time of Bach. The Swiss summer of 1886 gave us the gaunt, powerful C minor Piano Trio and the Second Cello Sonata. Then in 1890 came the G major String Quintet, Op. 111 – the work with which Brahms thought that his composing career had come to an end.

Yet Brahms’s creative energies got an immense boost when he met the German clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld. This meeting prompted him to write the Clarinet Trio, destined unfairly to live in the shadow of its immediate successor, the Clarinet Quintet. The E flat and F minor sonatas followed, Janus-like in the way in which they draw not only upon the sonata tradition of his immediate forebears, but transform the world of the old contrapuntal masters.

And his late piano pieces of 1892 and 1893 – intimate diary entries, every bar the work of a master – would gain a huge following. The last of the giants who gave art its rules has, even in our own age, an intimate appeal to the secret places in the heart of all music lovers. It is quite something to be dead like Brahms.

Hugh Wood and Steve Wright

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