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Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Born: May 7, 1833 in Hamburg,
Died: April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria
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
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.
Classical Archives, LLC. All rights reserved.
Bratschensonaten · F.A.E.-Sonate · Scherzo
(Deutsche Grammophone, 1975)
1 - Vier Balladen op. 10 (Decca Classics, 1976)
The Four Symphonies (Virtuoso
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No.1 and No.2, Piano Concerto No.2 (Grammofono 2000, 1997)
The Four Symphonies (Testament
Brahms & Dvorák & Borodin & Smetana:
(Deutsche Grammophone, 1972)
Concerto No. 2 / Piano Sonata No. 2 (Cedar, 1998)
Piano Concerto No. 2 / Piano Sonata No.2 (EMI Classics, 1993)
& Johannes Brahms:
(Deutsche Grammophone, 1982)