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Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)

 B i o g r a p h y

Born: May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria 

Johannes Brahms felt that Schubert was the last composer to be born at a truly propitious time. Brahms' artistic credo was expressed by his famous statement that, "If we can not compose as beautifully as Mozart and Haydn, let us at least try to compose as purely." It is perhaps the conviction that he had come too late to be truly on on a level with those he most admired and understood that gave his music its deep, reflective melancholy. Autumnal is the adjective often given to Brahms' output and it applies even to much of the music of his youth.

In many respects Brahms brings the classical-romantic continuum to an end. He felt no kinship to the "music of the future" that was the mantle of Wagner and Liszt, and throughout his life, Brahms was one of the few composers of his era interested in the classical approach to variations, sonatas, and such 18th century contrapuntal procedures as fugue and passacaglia. In the age of the bravura concerto, where the solo instrument is often merely accompanied by the orchestra, Brahms, in his Violin Concerto and two piano concertos, wrote in a truly classical manner that treats soloist and orchestra as symbiotic equals in the tradition of Mozart and Beethoven. His late Double Concerto even recalls some Baroque procedures.

Like Bach - another great conservative - Brahms sums up what went before him thereby synthesizing the romantic harmony and language of Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn with classical forms and the counterpoint of the Baroque. But this is not to say that Brahms was not at the same time truly of his own era. In fact, Arnold Schoenberg wrote an important essay stressing the forward and radical implications of Brahms' harmony. The first Intermezzo of op. 119 is an example of this with its complex chord structures that verge on the polytonal.

Brahms was born in Hamburg, the son of a double bass player. He received an early grounding in the classics - especially Bach - from his teacher, Eduard Marxsen, who was the dedicatee of his second piano concerto. Another formative aspect of his youth was playing in dives and bordellos in order to bring in extra money for the family. Brahms later acknowledged that this early contact with the opposite sex from such a strange vantage point contributed to his ultimately remaining a lifelong bachelor.

The great love of his life was what was most probably a platonic friendship with Clara Schumann, although there have certainly been speculations to the contrary. Brahms became close to the Schumanns when Robert championed his work, and Brahms consoled Clara during the anguish of Robert's disease. A lasting love ultimately developed for the great artist who was fourteen years her junior. Although their complex relationship had its difficulties, especially when Brahms at one point developed an interest in one of Clara's daughters, they stayed lifelong friends and it was often Clara to whom the tremendously self critical Brahms first sent his works.

Brahms was intensely aware of the weight of the tradition he was trying to uphold. It is estimated the chamber music we have is only one quarter of what he actually wrote. He ruthlessly destroyed anything that he considered unworthy, and thus, we have nothing comparable to Beethoven's sketch books to understand him by. He was certainly a slow and meticulous worker and did not complete his First Symphony until he was forty-three and after eleven years of work, not to mention two orchestral serenades and the First Piano Concerto in preparation for the act. "You have no idea what it is to hear the tromp of a genius over your shoulder," he said referring to the daunting legacy of Beethoven's symphonies. When the similarity of the great last movement theme to Beethoven's Ninth was pointed out, Brahms response was, "any fool can see that."

Brahms was famously brusque and prickly on the surface, although friends knew this was to guard a very sensitive and vulnerable soul. This might be said to describe the music itself. Much of the power and attraction of Brahms' music is the great warmth and generosity of a romantic spirit held in check by the most rigorous intellect. If Brahms wears his heart on his sleeve, it is only after he has painstakingly knitted the sweater from the purest wool. While there are many examples, one that comes to mind is the second String Sextet in G, op. 36. After the mysterious opening and tonally ambiguous first theme group, the second theme comes pouring forth without inhibition and a directness that goes straight to one's heart. An opposite example might be the Bb Piano Concerto, where the warmly noble ascending b flat, c, d of the opening theme is brusquely contradicted by the same notes descending in reverse in the bass at the beginning of the subsequent scherzo in D minor.

After the tremendous effort of completing the First Symphony, the sunnier Second followed relatively easily. It is almost as if Brahms' labor pains on one piece were sufficient to give birth to two. Thus we have the two piano quartets, op. 25 and 26, the two string quartets of op. 51 and the two late clarinet sonatas, op. 120. For all this instrumental music, it is sometimes forgotten that a great deal of Brahms' output was vocal music ranging from wonderful lieder in tradition of Schubert and Schumann to large choral works such as the Requiem, op. 43, inspired by his mother's death, and the work that first made him truly famous.

As Brahms got older his work tended to become more concise; the C minor piano quartet, op. 60, is much more terse than the expansive earlier quartets or the culminating work of his first period, the F minor Piano Quintet, op. 34. He went into a premature retirement after his op. 111 String Quintet in 1890 that was luckily brought to an end by the inspiration of hearing clarinettist Richard Mulfeld. The two clarinet sonatas were followed by the B minor Clarinet Quintet, op. 115, perhaps his greatest chamber piece. The last opuses are mainly keyboard works, primarily the sets of intimate Intermezzi ( 3 Intermezzi, op. 117; Intermezzo, op. 118, No. 2; Intermezzi, op. 119: No. 1 in B; No. 2 in E ) and other Klavierstucke, op. 116-119. In these works one hears the deep last reflections of a century and an era.

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 A l b u m s

Die Bratschensonaten · F.A.E.-Sonate · Scherzo (Deutsche Grammophone, 1975)
Klavierkonzert Nr. 1 - Vier Balladen op. 10 (Decca Classics, 1976)
The Four Symphonies (Virtuoso Records, 1989)
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No.1 and No.2, Piano Concerto No.2 (Grammofono 2000, 1997)
The Four Symphonies (Testament Records, 2000)

Brahms & Dvorák & Borodin & Smetana:
Tänze (Deutsche Grammophone, 1972)

Brahms & Kabalevsky:
Piano Concerto No. 2 / Piano Sonata No. 2 (Cedar, 1998)

Brahms & Schumann:
Piano Concerto No. 2 / Piano Sonata No.2 (EMI Classics, 1993)

Felix Mendelssohn & Johannes Brahms:
Violinkonzerte (Deutsche Grammophone, 1982)