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Johannes Brahms (German: [joˈhanəs ˈbʁaːms]; 7 May 1833 – 3 April 1897) was a German composer and pianist.
Born in Hamburg into a Lutheran family, Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria, where he was a leader of the musical scene. In his lifetime, Brahms's popularity and influence were considerable; following a comment by the nineteenth-century conductor Hans von Bülow, he is sometimes grouped with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the "Three Bs".
Brahms composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works; he worked with some of the leading performers of his time, including the pianist Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim. Many of his works have become staples of the modern concert repertoire. Brahms, an uncompromising perfectionist, destroyed some of his works and left others unpublished.
Brahms is often considered both a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Baroque and Classical masters. He was a master of counterpoint, the complex and highly disciplined art for which Johann Sebastian Bach is famous, and of development, a compositional ethos pioneered by Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and other composers. Brahms aimed to honour the "purity" of these venerable "German" structures and advance them into a Romantic idiom, in the process creating bold new approaches to harmony and melody. While many contemporaries found his music too academic, his contribution and craftsmanship have been admired by subsequent figures as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg and Edward Elgar. The diligent, highly constructed nature of Brahms's works was a starting point and an inspiration for a generation of composers.
Brahms's father, Johann Jakob Brahms (1806–72), came to Hamburg from Dithmarschen, seeking a career as a town musician. He was proficient in several instruments, but found employment mostly playing the horn and double bass. In 1830, he married Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen (1789–1865), a seamstress never previously married, who was seventeen years older than he was. Johannes Brahms had an older sister and a younger brother. Initially, they lived near the city docks, in the Gängeviertel quarter of Hamburg, for six months, before moving to a small house on the Dammtorwall, a small city in the Inner Alster.
Johann Jakob gave his son his first musical training. He studied piano from the age of seven with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel. Owing to the family's poverty, the adolescent Brahms had to contribute to the family's income by playing the piano in dance halls. Early biographers found this shocking and played down this portion of his life. Some modern writers have suggested that this early experience warped Brahms's later relations with women, but Brahms scholars Styra Avins and Kurt Hoffmann have questioned the possibility. Jan Swafford has contributed to the discussion.
For a time, Brahms also learned the cello. After his early piano lessons with Otto Cossel, Brahms studied piano with Eduard Marxsen, who had studied in Vienna with Ignaz von Seyfried (a pupil of Mozart) and Carl Maria von Bocklet (a close friend of Schubert). The young Brahms gave a few public concerts in Hamburg, but did not become well known as a pianist until he made a concert tour at the age of nineteen. (In later life, he frequently took part in the performance of his own works, whether as soloist, accompanist, or participant in chamber music.) He conducted choirs from his early teens, and became a proficient choral and orchestral conductor.
He began to compose quite early in life, but later destroyed most copies of his first works; for instance, Louise Japha, a fellow-pupil of Marxsen, reported a piano sonata, that Brahms had played or improvised at the age of 11, had been destroyed. His compositions did not receive public acclaim until he went on a concert tour as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi in April and May 1853. On this tour he met Joseph Joachim at Hanover, and went on to the Court of Weimar where he met Franz Liszt, Peter Cornelius, and Joachim Raff. According to several witnesses of Brahms's meeting with Liszt (at which Liszt performed Brahms's Scherzo, Op. 4, at sight), Reményi was offended by Brahms's failure to praise Liszt's Sonata in B minor wholeheartedly (Brahms supposedly fell asleep during a performance of the recently composed work), and they parted company shortly afterwards. Brahms later excused himself, saying that he could not help it, having been exhausted by his travels.
Joachim had given Brahms a letter of introduction to Robert Schumann, and after a walking tour in the Rhineland, Brahms took the train to Düsseldorf, and was welcomed into the Schumann family on arrival there. Schumann, amazed by the 20-year-old's talent, published an article entitled "Neue Bahnen" (New Paths) in the 28 October 1853 issue of the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik alerting the public to the young man, who, he claimed, was "destined to give ideal expression to the times." This pronouncement was received with some scepticism outside of Schumann's immediate circle, and may have increased Brahms's naturally self-critical need to perfect his works and technique. While he was in Düsseldorf, Brahms participated with Schumann and Albert Dietrich in writing a sonata for Joachim; this is known as the "F–A–E Sonata - Free but Lonely" (German: Frei aber einsam).
Brahms became very attached to Schumann's wife, the composer and pianist Clara, fourteen years Brahms's senior, with whom he would carry on a lifelong, emotionally passionate relationship. After Schumann's attempted suicide and subsequent confinement in a mental sanatorium near Bonn in February 1854, Clara was "in despair," expecting the Schumanns' eighth child. Brahms hurried to Düsseldorf to help the family. He lived above the Schumann apartment in a three-story house and helped in the household, setting his musical career aside temporarily. Clara was not allowed to visit Robert until two days before his death. Brahms was able to visit him several times and so could act as a go-between.
The question of Brahms and Clara Schumann is perhaps the most mysterious in music history, alongside that of Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved". Whether they were actually lovers is unknown, but Brahms's urging in 1887 that all their letters to each other should be destroyed may point to something beyond a desire for privacy. Actually Clara kept some letters Brahms had sent her, and at the urging of her daughter Marie, refrained from destroying many of the letters Brahms had returned. Eventually correspondence between Clara and Brahms was published. Hans Gál cautions that the preserved correspondence may have "passed through Clara's censorship."
Brahms never married, despite strong feelings for several women and despite entering into an engagement, soon broken off, with Agathe von Siebold in Göttingen in 1859.
After Schumann's death at the sanatorium in 1856, Brahms divided his time between Hamburg, where he formed and conducted a ladies' choir, and Detmold in the Principality of Lippe, where he was court music-teacher and conductor. He was the soloist at the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1859. He first visited Vienna in 1862, staying there over the winter, and, in 1863, was appointed conductor of the Vienna Singakademie. Though he resigned the position the following year, and entertained the idea of taking up conducting posts elsewhere, he based himself increasingly in Vienna and soon made his home there. From 1872 to 1875, he was director of the concerts of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde; afterwards, he accepted no formal position. He declined an honorary doctorate of music from University of Cambridge in 1877, but accepted one from the University of Breslau in 1879, and composed the Academic Festival Overture as a gesture of appreciation.
He had been composing steadily throughout the 1850s and 60s, but his music had evoked divided critical responses, and the Piano Concerto No. 1 had been badly received in some of its early performances. His works were labelled old-fashioned by the 'New German School' whose principal figures included Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, and Hector Berlioz. Brahms admired some of Wagner's music and admired Liszt as a great pianist, but the conflict between the two schools, known as the War of the Romantics, soon embroiled all of musical Europe. In the Brahms camp were his close friends: Clara Schumann, the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick, and the leading Viennese surgeon Theodor Billroth. In 1860, Brahms attempted to organize a public protest against some of the wilder excesses of the Wagnerians' music. This took the form of a manifesto, written by Brahms and Joachim jointly. The manifesto, which was published prematurely with only three supporting signatures, was a failure, and he never engaged in public polemics again.
It was the premiere of A German Requiem, his largest choral work, in Bremen, in 1868, that confirmed Brahms's European reputation and led many to accept that he had conquered Beethoven and the symphony. This may have given him the confidence finally to complete a number of works that he had wrestled with over many years, such as the cantata Rinaldo, his first string quartet, third piano quartet, and most notably his first symphony. This appeared in 1876, though it had been begun (and a version of the first movement seen by some of his friends) in the early 1860s. The other three symphonies then followed in 1877, 1883, and 1885. From 1881, he was able to try out his new orchestral works with the court orchestra of the Duke of Meiningen, whose conductor was Hans von Bülow. He was the soloist at the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1881, in Pest.
Brahms frequently travelled, both for business (concert tours) and pleasure. From 1878 onwards, he often visited Italy in the springtime, and he usually sought out a pleasant rural location in which to compose during the summer. He was a great walker and especially enjoyed spending time in the open air, where he felt that he could think more clearly.
In 1889, one Theo Wangemann, a representative of American inventor Thomas Edison, visited the composer in Vienna and invited him to make an experimental recording. Brahms played an abbreviated version of his first Hungarian dance on the piano. The recording was later issued on an LP of early piano performances (compiled by Gregor Benko). Although the spoken introduction to the short piece of music is quite clear, the piano playing is largely inaudible due to heavy surface noise. Nevertheless, this remains the earliest recording made by a major composer. Analysts and scholars remain divided, however, as to whether the voice that introduces the piece is that of Wangemann or of Brahms. Several attempts have been made to improve the quality of this historic recording; a "denoised" version was produced at Stanford University which claims to solve the mystery.
In 1874, the composer Antonín Dvořák (born 1841) was still virtually unknown outside the Prague region. Brahms was on the jury of the Austrian State Prize for composition that year and through his influence, the prize was awarded to Dvořák then and in two subsequent years. Brahms also recommended Dvořák to his publisher, Simrock, who commissioned the highly successful Slavonic Dances. Within a few years, Dvořák gained world renown and was appointed Director of the newly established National Conservatory in New York.
In 1890, the 57-year-old Brahms resolved to give up composing. However, as it turned out, he was unable to abide by his decision, and in the years before his death he produced a number of acknowledged masterpieces. His admiration for Richard Mühlfeld, clarinetist with the Meiningen orchestra, moved him to compose the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 (1891), and the two Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120 (1894). He also wrote several cycles of piano pieces, Opp. 116–119, the Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), Op. 121 (1896), and the Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ, Op. 122 (1896).
While completing the Op. 121 songs, Brahms developed cancer (sources differ on whether this was of the liver or pancreas). His condition gradually worsened and he died on 3 April 1897, aged 63. Brahms is buried in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna.
Later that year, the British composer Hubert Parry, who considered Brahms the greatest artist of the time, wrote an orchestral Elegy for Brahms. This was never played in Parry's lifetime, receiving its first performance at a memorial concert for Parry himself in 1918.
From 1904 to 1914, Brahms's friend, the music critic Max Kalbeck published an eight-volume biography of Brahms, but this has never been translated into English. Kalbeck also edited several volumes of Brahms's correspondence.
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Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1915)
Brahms plays his Hungarian Dance No. 1
Recorded on 2 December 1889
Brahms wrote a number of major works for orchestra, including two serenades, four symphonies, two piano concertos (No. 1 in D minor; No. 2 in B-flat major), a Violin Concerto, a Double Concerto for violin and cello, and two companion orchestral overtures, the Academic Festival Overture and the Tragic Overture.
His large choral work A German Requiem is not a setting of the liturgical Missa pro defunctis but a setting of texts which Brahms selected from the Luther Bible. The work was composed in three major periods of his life. An early version of the second movement was first composed in 1854, not long after Robert Schumann's attempted suicide, and this was later used in his first piano concerto. The majority of the Requiem was composed after his mother's death in 1865. The fifth movement was added after the official premiere in 1868, and the work was published in 1869.
Brahms's works in variation form include, among others, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel and the Paganini Variations, both for solo piano, and the Variations on a Theme by Haydn (now sometimes called the Saint Anthony Variations) in versions for two pianos and for orchestra. The final movement of the Fourth Symphony, Op. 98, is formally a passacaglia.
His chamber works include three string quartets, two string quintets, two string sextets, a clarinet quintet, a clarinet trio, a horn trio, a piano quintet, three piano quartets, and four piano trios (the fourth being published posthumously). He composed several instrumental sonatas with piano, including three for violin, two for cello, and two for clarinet (which were subsequently arranged for viola by the composer). His solo piano works range from his early piano sonatas and ballades to his late sets of character pieces. Brahms was a significant lieder composer, who wrote over 200 songs. His chorale preludes for organ, Op. 122, which he wrote shortly before his death, have become an important part of the organ repertoire.
Brahms was an extreme perfectionist. He destroyed many early works – including a Violin Sonata he had performed with Reményi and violinist Ferdinand David – and once claimed to have destroyed 20 string quartets before he issued his official First in 1873. Over the course of several years, he changed an original project for a symphony in D minor into his first piano concerto. In another instance of devotion to detail, he laboured over the official First Symphony for almost fifteen years, from about 1861 to 1876. Even after its first few performances, Brahms destroyed the original slow movement and substituted another before the score was published. (A conjectural restoration of the original slow movement has been published by Robert Pascall.)
Another factor that contributed to Brahms's perfectionism was that Schumann had announced early on that Brahms was to become the next great composer like Beethoven, a prediction that Brahms was determined to live up to. This prediction hardly added to the composer's self-confidence, and may have contributed to the delay in producing the First Symphony. However, Clara Schumann noted before[when?] that Brahms's First Symphony was a product that was not reflective of Brahms's real nature. She felt that the final exuberant movement was "too brilliant", as she was encouraged by the dark and tempestuous opening movement she had seen in an early draft. However, she recanted in accepting the Second Symphony, which has often been seen in modern times as one of his sunniest works.
Other contemporaries,[which?] however, found the first movement especially dark, and Reinhold Brinkmann, in a study of Symphony No. 2 in relation to 19th-century ideas of melancholy, has published a revealing letter from Brahms to the composer and conductor Vinzenz Lachner in which Brahms confesses to the melancholic side of his nature and comments on specific features of the movement that reflect this.
Despite his reputation as a serious composer of large, complex musical structures, some of Brahms's most widely known and most commercially successful compositions during his life were small-scale works of popular intent aimed at the thriving contemporary market for domestic music-making. During the 20th century, the influential American critic B. H. Haggin, rejecting more mainstream views, argued in his various guides to recorded music that Brahms was at his best in such works and much less successful in larger forms. Among the most cherished of these lighter works by Brahms are his sets of popular dances—the Hungarian Dances, the Waltzes for piano duet (Op. 39), and the Liebeslieder Waltzes for vocal quartet and piano—and some of his many songs, notably the Wiegenlied (Op. 49, No. 4, published in 1868). This last was written (to a folk text) to celebrate the birth of a son to Brahms's friend Bertha Faber and is universally known as Brahms's Lullaby.
Brahms maintained a Classical sense of form and order in his works – in contrast to the opulence of the music of many of his contemporaries. Thus many admirers (though not necessarily Brahms himself) saw him as the champion of traditional forms and "pure music", as opposed to the "New German" embrace of programme music.
Brahms venerated Beethoven: in the composer's home, a marble bust of Beethoven looked down on the spot where he composed, and some passages in his works are reminiscent of Beethoven's style. Brahms's First Symphony bears strongly the influence of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, as the two works are both in C minor, and end in the struggle towards a C major triumph. The main theme of the finale of the First Symphony is also reminiscent of the main theme of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth, and when this resemblance was pointed out to Brahms, he replied that any ass – jeder Esel – could see that. In 1876, when the work was premiered in Vienna, it was immediately hailed as "Beethoven's Tenth". However, the similarity of Brahms's music to that of late Beethoven had first been noted as early as November 1853, in a letter from Albert Dietrich to Ernst Naumann.
A German Requiem was partially inspired by his mother's death in 1865 (at which time he composed a funeral march that was to become the basis of Part Two, Denn alles Fleisch), but it also incorporates material from a symphony which he started in 1854 but abandoned following Schumann's suicide attempt. He once wrote that the Requiem "belonged to Schumann". The first movement of this abandoned Symphony was re-worked as the first movement of the First Piano Concerto.
Brahms loved the Classical composers Mozart and Haydn. He collected first editions and autographs of their works, and edited performing editions. He studied the music of pre-classical composers, including Giovanni Gabrieli, Johann Adolph Hasse, Heinrich Schütz, Domenico Scarlatti, George Frideric Handel, and, especially, Johann Sebastian Bach. His friends included leading musicologists, and, with Friedrich Chrysander, he edited an edition of the works of François Couperin. Brahms also edited works by C. P. E. and W. F. Bach. He looked to older music for inspiration in the art of counterpoint; the themes of some of his works are modelled on Baroque sources such as Bach's The Art of Fugue in the fugal finale of Cello Sonata No. 1 or the same composer's Cantata No. 150 in the passacaglia theme of the Fourth Symphony's finale.
The early Romantic composers had a major influence on Brahms, particularly Schumann, who encouraged Brahms as a young composer. During his stay in Vienna in 1862–63, Brahms became particularly interested in the music of Franz Schubert. The latter's influence may be identified in works by Brahms dating from the period, such as the two piano quartets Op. 25 and Op. 26, and the Piano Quintet which alludes to Schubert's String Quintet and Grand Duo for piano four hands. The influence of Chopin and Mendelssohn on Brahms is less obvious, although occasionally one can find in his works what seems to be an allusion to one of theirs (for example, Brahms's Scherzo, Op. 4, alludes to Chopin's Scherzo in B-flat minor; the scherzo movement in Brahms's Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5, alludes to the finale of Mendelssohn's Piano Trio in C minor).
Brahms considered giving up composition when it seemed that other composers' innovations in extended tonality would result in the rule of tonality being broken altogether. Although Wagner became fiercely critical of Brahms as the latter grew in stature and popularity, he was enthusiastically receptive of the early Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel; Brahms himself, according to many sources, deeply admired Wagner's music, confining his ambivalence only to the dramaturgical precepts of Wagner's theory.
Brahms wrote settings for piano and voice of 144 German folk songs, and many of his lieder reflect folk themes or depict scenes of rural life. His Hungarian Dances were among his most profitable compositions.
Brahms's point of view looked both backward and forward; his output was often bold in its exploration of harmony and rhythm. As a result, he was an influence on composers of both conservative and modernist tendencies. Within his lifetime, his idiom left an imprint on several composers within his personal circle, who strongly admired his music, such as Heinrich von Herzogenberg, Robert Fuchs, and Julius Röntgen, as well as on Gustav Jenner, who was Brahms's only formal composition pupil. Antonín Dvořák, who received substantial assistance from Brahms, deeply admired his music and was influenced by it in several works, such as the Symphony No. 7 in D minor and the F minor Piano Trio. Features of the 'Brahms style' were absorbed in a more complex synthesis with other contemporary (chiefly Wagnerian) trends by Hans Rott, Wilhelm Berger, Max Reger and Franz Schmidt, whereas the British composers Hubert Parry and Edward Elgar and the Swede Wilhelm Stenhammar all testified to learning much from Brahms's example. As Elgar said, "I look at the Third Symphony of Brahms, and I feel like a pygmy."
Ferruccio Busoni's early music shows much Brahmsian influence, and Brahms took an interest in him, though Busoni later tended to disparage Brahms. Towards the end of his life, Brahms offered substantial encouragement to Ernő Dohnányi and to Alexander von Zemlinsky. Their early chamber works (and those of Béla Bartók, who was friendly with Dohnányi) show a thoroughgoing absorption of the Brahmsian idiom. Zemlinsky, moreover, was in turn the teacher of Arnold Schoenberg, and Brahms was apparently impressed by two movements of Schoenberg's early Quartet in D major which Zemlinsky showed him. In 1933, Schoenberg wrote an essay "Brahms the Progressive" (re-written 1947), which drew attention to Brahms's fondness for motivic saturation and irregularities of rhythm and phrase; in his last book (Structural Functions of Harmony, 1948), he analysed Brahms's "enriched harmony" and exploration of remote tonal regions. These efforts paved the way for a re-evaluation of Brahms's reputation in the 20th century. Schoenberg went so far as to orchestrate one of Brahms's piano quartets. Schoenberg's pupil Anton Webern, in his 1933 lectures, posthumously published under the title The Path to the New Music, claimed Brahms as one who had anticipated the developments of the Second Viennese School, and Webern's own Op. 1, an orchestral passacaglia, is clearly in part a homage to, and development of, the variation techniques of the passacaglia-finale of Brahms's Fourth Symphony.
Brahms was honoured by the German Hall of Fame, the Walhalla memorial. On 14 September 2000, he was introduced there as the 126th "rühmlich ausgezeichneter Teutscher" and 13th composer among them, with a bust by sculptor Milan Knobloch (de).
Brahms was fond of nature and often went walking in the woods around Vienna. He often brought penny candy with him to hand out to children. To adults, Brahms was often brusque and sarcastic, and he often alienated other people. His pupil Gustav Jenner wrote, "Brahms has acquired, not without reason, the reputation for being a grump, even though few could also be as lovable as he." He also had predictable habits, which were noted by the Viennese press, such as his daily visit to his favourite "Red Hedgehog" tavern in Vienna, and his habit of walking with his hands firmly behind his back, which led to a caricature of him in this pose walking alongside a red hedgehog. Those who remained his friends were very loyal to him, however, and he reciprocated with equal loyalty and generosity.
Brahms had amassed a small fortune in the second half of his career, around 1860, when his works sold widely. But despite his wealth, he lived very simply, with a modest apartment – a mess of music papers and books – and a single housekeeper who cleaned and cooked for him. He was often the butt of jokes for his long beard, his cheap clothes and often not wearing socks, etc. Brahms gave away large sums of money to friends and to aid various musical students, often with the term of strict secrecy. Brahms' domicile was hit during World War II, destroying his piano and other possessions that were still kept there for posterity by the Viennese.
Brahms was a lifelong friend of Johann Strauss II, though they were very different as composers. Brahms even struggled to get to the Theater an der Wien in Vienna for the premiere of Strauss's operetta Die Göttin der Vernunft in 1897 before his death. Perhaps the greatest tribute that Brahms paid to Strauss was his remark that he would have given anything to have written The Blue Danube waltz. An old anecdote recounts that when Strauss's wife Adele asked Brahms to autograph her fan, he wrote the first few notes of the "Blue Danube" waltz, and then wrote the words "Unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms!" underneath.
Brahms's personal views tended to be humanistic and skeptical, though one of his musical influences was undoubtedly the Bible as rendered in German by Martin Luther. His Requiem employs biblical texts to speak words of comfort to the bereaved while generally omitting statements concerning salvation or immortality. Composer Walter Niemann declared "The fact that Brahms began his creative activity with the German folk song and closed with the Bible reveals... the true religious creed of this great man of the people." Biographers and critics more often understand Brahms's appreciation of Lutheran tradition as cultural more than existential. When asked by conductor Karl Reinthaler to add additional sectarian text to his German Requiem, Brahms responded, "As far as the text is concerned, I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and instead use Human; also with my best knowledge and will I would dispense with passages like John 3:16. On the other hand, I have chosen one thing or another because I am a musician, because I needed it, and because with my venerable authors I can't delete or dispute anything. But I had better stop before I say too much."
On his religious views, Brahms was an agnostic and a humanist. The devout Catholic Antonín Dvořák, the closest Brahms ever came to having a protégé, wrote in a letter: "Such a man, such a fine soul—and he believes in nothing! He believes in nothing!"
The question of Brahms and religiosity has been controversial and elicited accusations of fraud. One example is the book Talks With Great Composers, released in the 1950s by Arthur Abell, which contains an unconfirmed interview with Brahms and Joseph Joachim, replete with biblical references. The interview has been declared fraudulent by Brahms biographer Jan Swafford.
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