Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

When Brahms was 20 years old, Robert Schumann described him in a journal as: “a young composer quite outside the Wagner-Liszt circle…hailed as something of a musical Messiah” (qtd. in Plantinga 411)

Musical scholars have many differing views of Romantic composer Johannes Brahms. We see him as a classical figure of 19th-century Germany adhering to past musical traditions, as well as a “progressive” individualist (Musgrave 1). Although highly successful as a musician, Brahms wasn’t happy or satisfied with his achievements. A withdrawn person, he “would retreat into himself, revealing less and less, placing the finely wrought mask of his music between himself and the world” (Swafford x). Perhaps this conception of the man as a “lonely artist” grew out of his early childhood experiences. At a tender young age, Brahms was forced to play in pubs and brothels due to his family’s financial problems. Later claiming this affected him for the rest of his life, Brahms admitted a craving for prostitutes as well as misogynist tendencies. “In his mind the women he loved must be talented, and must be eternal virgins. And he must not soil them with his lust” (30).


Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833, to Johann Jacob Brahms and Christiane Nissen. His father belonged to a military band and also played double-bass in an orchestra. Though the talented child was taught by his father to play the violin, cello, and valveless horn, Brahms’s main desire was learning the piano. In 1840, Johannes began taking music lessons from Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel. In addition to mastering the keyboard instrument, Brahms announced he wanted to compose. Only seven years old, the child still proceeded to accomplish and learn a great deal. As he advanced in musical skill, Brahms studied piano and composition with Eduard Marxsen (1806-1887). Johannes performed his first public concert in November 1847, in Hamburg. The following year he made a solo piano debut. In order to fund his future education, Brahms gave a private subscription concert (Musgrave 293). By the mere age of eight, “this little boy from the slums had acquired the aura of the extraordinary that would surround him for the rest of his life” (Swafford 21).


Throughout Brahms’s musical career, he had difficulties holding jobs. For instance, his position as artistic director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde lasted only three years. But through giving concerts and writing music, he always managed financial stability. In 1853, Brahms went on a concert tour with Hungarian violinist Edvard Reményi (1828-1898). Spending some time in Weimar, he became acquainted with Franz Liszt (1811-1886). In Düsseldorf, Johannes met the Schumanns, who would become the most influential friends in the composer’s life. Robert Schumann (1810-1856) later made Brahms famous with an essay entitled “New Paths” in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

Introduced to lifelong companion and famous violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) in April of 1853, Brahms started studying counterpoint with the musician in 1856. In 1855, Brahms played his first piano performance with orchestra. During November of the same year was his first concert in America — in New York City (Musgrave 295). However, Johannes was forced to return to Düsseldorf and help with Robert Schumann’s affairs, as his close friend was becoming increasingly mentally ill.

From 1859-62, Brahms conducted a women’s chorus in Hamburg. A female piano student had requested that he write a vocal folksong setting for performance with the young woman’s friends. This created the forty-voice choir called the Hamburger Frauenchor. In this city, the musician was also highly active as a piano teacher as well as a choral conductor. Despite Brahms’s efforts to stay in Hamburg due to his close-knit relationship with family members, he moved to the musical center of Vienna in 1862. Obtaining stable professional music positions, he remained in this city for the rest of his life. Brahms was offered the position Director of the Hamburg Philharmonic Concerts, but instead accepted a job with the Wiener Singakademie (1863-4), a vocal ensemble performing music mostly from previous eras. Later he was appointed Director of the concerts at the Musikverein, where he conducted a choir and orchestra from 1872-75. During this time, Brahms also taught and played his own concerts, but these opportunities came along infrequently.

Johannes Brahms was offered a Doctorate by the University of Cambridge through Stanford and McFarren, but graciously refused the honor (Musgrave 304). In 1879, the University of Breslau gave him an honorary doctorate bearing the title “Now the first among contemporary masters in Germany of music in the strict style” (Plantinga 434). Indeed, the composer was most interested in old music, folk music, autograph scores of the Viennese masters, as well as previously issued theory treatises. Involved in editing music of older composers, Brahms became familiar with important works of C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788), Couperin (1668-1733), Handel (1685-1759), and Schubert (1797-1828). Typically conducting dated choral music, he prepared for performance some great works of J.S. Bach (1685-1750) and Handel, as well as Renaissance composer Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517).

An interest in nonmusical activities pervaded all aspects of Brahms’s life. Though never formally part of a church, he was deeply interested in religion and extensively read the Bible. Also intrigued with German literature and drama, foreign works, art and travel, current events, and culture and politics, Brahms developed an extensive library in his home on both musical and nonmusical subjects. In all venues, Johannes was infatuated with the past and with musicology. Intensely studying earlier compositional eras, he particularly collected autograph manuscripts of W.A. Mozart (1756-1791) and Robert Schumann.

Particularly independent and stubborn, the composer wrote primarily for himself. Second in importance and priority were his friends and the public. In many compositions, Brahms cultivated what the Viennese Classic masters had left behind: the genres of chamber sonata, concerto, lieder, and the symphony. Marked by the completion of the First Symphony in 1876, his works can be divided into compositional halves (Musgrave 8). Brahms began to write and publish in 1851. Marked by the Chorale Preludes for organ that were published posthumously in 1902, 1896 has been recorded as his last compositional year. Romantic musical scholar Rey Longyear suggests that Brahms’s first works in any given genre are experimental. Second pieces are generally “the best or most ‘Romantic’” such as the A-Major Violin Sonata, Op. 100. Characteristically, the third composition in each category is either the most “Classical” in nature, or the most abstract (196-7).


While composers like Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), Franz Liszt (1811-1886), and Richard Wagner (1813-1883) looked toward new and innovative styles, Brahms stayed within the Classical traditions of the 18th century. In fact, sources note that he opposed the “New German School,” (Plantinga 411) and that he practically worshipped Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven (1770-1827). In addition, he made no effort to cultivate the trend of programmatic music associated with the Romantic period. “Brahms was a Janus-like figure who looked backward, seeking inspiration from the older Baroque and Classical traditions, while at the same time he looked forward and seemed the embodiment of modernism” (Oswald in Frisch 23). Interested also in nationalism, Brahms created German folk arrangements, children’s songs, and nationalist art songs that made the composer “truly German,” in his own words (Machlis & Forney 326). Brahms dedicated fourteen German folksongs from 1858 to Robert’s and Clara’s children.

Though he followed the footsteps of the Viennese masters, both Classic and Romantic styles are recognized in his own counterpoint, large compositional forms, coloring sensitivity, creative harmonies (chromaticism and voice-leading), and the development of motifs. Broken chords, full textures, note doubling in the melodies, and use of cross-rhythms and appoggiaturas characterize the composer’s piano style. Yet there is a simple and lyrical quality in the lieder, as well as imaginative ideas in rhythm, meter, and phrasing. Also very patriotic in nature, Brahms wrote the Triumphlied for chorus and orchestra, Op. 55, which referred to the Franco-Prussian War.

Despite the conception of Brahms as a conservative figure, 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) wrote in 1947 that “Brahms, the classicist, the academician, was a great innovator in the realm of musical language, that, in fact, he was a great progressive” (qtd. in Musgrave 2). But he is truly understood as a musician of continuity, who had considerable knowledge of earlier music, and as a figure who kept tradition.


Robert Schumann has called Johannes Brahms the savior of German music. “Brahms spent the rest of his days trying to live up to that prophecy, ever fearful of proving unworthy of his musical inheritance” (qtd. in Swafford). First works include three Piano Sonatas, Opp. 1, 2, and 5. Written from 1852-3, one can already see some of his late style characteristics. Dense textures, often-changing meters, and related themes are always present in this early music (Plantinga 412).

Adhering to the “Classical” style, Brahms made lasting contributions in orchestral and chamber music genres. “To a greater degree than any of his contemporaries Brahms captured the tone of intimacy that is the essence of chamber music style” (Plantinga 412). Extremely prolific in other areas, too, he made extensive use of antique forms in the motets, chorale preludes, fugues, and variations. Brahms also musically responded sensitively to the lyric poetry of Rückert, Eichendorff, Tieck, and Ossian, among other minor poets. Succeeding Beethoven in orchestral music, Brahms wrote 24 pieces. His first published chamber music work — which happened to be the longest of these in length — was the Piano Trio in B, Op. 8, from 1854. Some of the most well-known chamber pieces feature the keyboard instrument, such as the Trios for horn, violin, and piano, Op. 40, and the Trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, Op. 114. Writing mostly in this genre from 1860-65, Brahms also produced two String Sextets, two Piano Quartets, the Piano Quintet, and a Cello Sonata. Characteristically, Brahms’s chamber music is concentrated and somewhat gloomy, yet there are light-hearted and upbeat examples.

Most recognized compositions include four Symphonies (not begun until after he was forty); the Haydn Variations; two Overtures (Academic Festival and Tragic); four Concertos (two for piano, one for violin, and one for violin and cello); string quartets, quintets, and sextets; piano trios, quartets, and Quintet; one Clarinet Quintet; and various sonatas. Writing the piano sonatas while still very young, Brahms also composed about 35 character pieces, dances, and variations for the keyboard instrument. Premiering the two-piano Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn with Johannes was pianist Clara Schumann (1819-1896). Some of the most popular piano duet music includes the Hungarian Dances and the 16 Waltzes, Op. 39. Other two-piano duets based on large chamber and orchestral compositions include Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann (which Brahms dedicated to Clara), and the Liebeslieder Waltzes, later a vocal genre. In duo sonatas, the piano seems to take precedence, causing an unequal balance at times (Longyear 198).

Early solo piano works, such as the three Sonatas, Variations on themes of Handel, Paganini, and Schumann, as well as the four Ballades, Op. 10, were finished by 1864. “All of these pieces show virtuoso keyboard writing appropriate for the ambitious young pianist” (Plantinga 429). After the first keyboard compositions, Brahms wrote short pieces for the piano. Opp. 116-119 are at the peak of his pianistic accomplishments as a composer, called capriccio, rhapsody, and intermezzo (Longyear 196). Other mature compositions highlight two Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 129 (1894), the Clarinet Quintet, and the organ Chorale Preludes. Ranging in mood and style, Brahms’s keyboard music spans the passionate and concentrated to the restrained, contemplative, and warm (197).

Generally considered the greatest choral composer of the 19th century, Brahms wrote many more vocal works than instrumental music throughout his career. Over 200 solo songs remain in the repertoire, with almost as many for small vocal ensembles and duets. Franz Schubert was Brahms’s main source for the lied. From 1866-72, the composer devoted himself to writing vocal music almost exclusively. Writing in folksong style was Brahms’s ideal, and German folksong highly affected his lieder. More than fifty songs, many works for chorus, Twelve Songs and Romances, Op. 44, and the cantata Rinaldo serve as examples of his output. “Four Serious Songs” were composed during Clara Schumann’s illness, but perhaps the most famous example of this literature is found in the German Requiem from 1868. With love, nature, and death as the composer’s main song topics of interest, this vocal work accepts death in its most serious biblical tone, appropriate for Brahms’s German Protestant religion.

A seven-movement work for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus, and orchestra, the famous German Requiem consists of texts from the Old and New Testaments put together by Brahms himself. “Skillfully combining various older techniques with Brahms’s evolving personal style, this composition served more than any other to establish him in this period as one of the leading composers of Europe” (Plantinga 419). Each movement was written at a different time, with style characteristics from previous eras. Many times heard by itself, the fourth section is set to the text “How lovely are thy dwelling places.” Requiem’s first performance in the composer’s native city was in April 1882.

After years of devotion to composing vocal and choral music, Brahms broke this trend in 1873 with the Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56b. This piece was scored for two pianos, and Brahms created an orchestral version of the same work. Based on the St. Anthony chorale theme, this great work helped develop his mature style. Two great String Quartets, Op. 51, also mark the return to large instrumental forms. With the assistance of Joseph Joachim, Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D (Op. 77) was composed in 1878. First performed in Leipzig on New Year’s Day, 1879, the work was premiered with Joachim as violinist and Brahms conducting.

For about twenty years, Brahms worked on the first Symphony in C minor, Op. 68. By 1877, he had completed the Op. 60 Piano Quartet, the last String Quintet, Op. 67, and the first two Symphonies. Composing in the symphonic genre was difficult in the aftermath of Beethoven’s shadow. Supposedly Brahms stated, “I will never finish a symphony. You have no idea how it affects one’s spirits to hear continually the marching of a giant behind him” (qtd. in Plantinga 421). Looking back to the Baroque and Classical periods, Brahms’s eleven Organ Preludes use J.S. Bach (1685-1750) as a model. Throughout his compositional career, Brahms made endless revisions to his works and was unrelenting in self-criticism.


The Rondo movements of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor (Op. 37) and Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor (Op. 15) are often compared as almost exact in musical structure. Each labeled a typical classical rondo, “the two finales may be described and analyzed to a great extent as if they were the same piece” (qtd. of Charles Rosen in Swafford 171). Brahms was known to have written works based on other compositions and has been called a “master of allusion.” When this was recognized, the composer cattily remarked, “Any ass can see that” (qtd. of Charles Rosen in 19th-Century Music 4.2 (1980), 3). The first Piano Concerto of Brahms stems from complicated beginnings. Originally, this piece was to be a sonata for two pianos, begun in March 1854 as a musical response to Robert Schumann’s suicide attempt. As Schumann became immersed in mental illness and Brahms became closer to Clara Schumann, this composition served to represent all that was personal in Brahms’s life at the time. Unsuccessful as a sonata, the piece next evolved into a four-movement symphony. This revision was “doubtless intended to fulfill Schumann’s hopes that Brahms would take over for him the mantle of leading German symphonist” (McDonald 99). Throughout the process, musician Joseph Joachim was directly involved and advised Brahms on orchestration, as always.

After the first two phases of the work as sonata and symphony, Johannes began to conceive it as a concerto. Reworking the first movement, he also added a second and third. Finally the full score was published in 1874, only after the individual printings of a piano part in 1861 and the issuing of an orchestral version in 1862. First completed as a piano concerto in March 1858, the piece was premiered at Hanover in January 1859. Joachim was conducting and Brahms played the solo pianist’s role. Listeners thought the Concerto was too complex, so it wasn’t received well. Perhaps this is why Brahms went through more than one musical genre until he was able to complete the piece. Unfortunately, at the end of the Leipzig premiere, Brahms was “hissed by a public who, expecting a virtuoso showpiece, found themselves having to endure a grim, uncompromising work far more intellectually demanding than the average symphony. No concerto of such ambitions had been heard since Beethoven” (McDonald 53). First in a series of works, this Piano Concerto was followed by the Piano Quartet in C minor and the Piano Quintet in F minor. Employing many versions and changes, Brahms made these revisions especially evident in the piano instrumentation.


Symbols are found in Brahms’s early music that represent the composer’s personal life. Clara Schumann wrote of one example: “This piece seems to me neither more nor less than the expression of his own heart’s anguish. If only he would for once speak as tenderly!” (qtd. in Swafford xv). Though considered rude in his treatment of others, Brahms was very connected emotionally to his family and close friends. Highly self-condemning, and despite his desperate attempts to hide himself from the world, Brahms never wrote critically about anyone else. Personal friend Max Kalbeck and piano student Florence May published biographies shortly after the composer’s death (Swafford xii). “Loneliness and stoic reflectiveness have long been part of the Brahmsian picture. That he thought deeply and needed his solitude is true: but that was a part of his nature with which he came to terms. There were many other sides . . .” (Musgrave 5). Excessively self-critical, Brahms felt he was a musical failure. Perhaps because of this misconception, he never married or had any children. Feeling like he couldn’t offer a woman what she needed or wanted, he wrote in a letter: “If at such moments I had had to face a wife’s anxiously questioning eyes . . . And if she had tried to console me — a wife’s commiseration for her husband’s failure — bah, I can’t think what a hell on earth that would have been” (qtd. in Musgrave 3).


Infatuated with many women, Brahms was never extensively committed. Perhaps the ones most important to him were Agathe von Siebold from Göttingen, to whom he was engaged, and Clara Schumann. When Brahms was twenty-one, he wrote about her in a letter to Joachim: “I believe I do not respect and admire her so much as I love her and am under her spell” (qtd. in Musgrave 4). He was also somewhat attached to a couple of Clara’s daughters, as well as to Elizabeth von Herzogenberg for a while, who was the daughter of a Leipzig professor. Of being in love with Clara Brahms wrote, “I think I can no longer love an unmarried girl — at least, I have completely forgotten them; they only promise the skies, whereas Clara shows it to us open” (qtd. by Oswald in Frisch 30).

After Schumann’s death in 1856, Brahms stayed with Clara for three months. From the years 1854 to 1859, Clara Schumann was Brahms’s main confidant. Traveling among Düsseldorf, Hamburg, the court of Detmold, and cities where they were performing, Johannes made every effort to be with her. Composing very little during this time, Brahms produced only two Orchestral Serenades, Opp. 11 and 16, but started working on a piano concerto. Perhaps Brahms loved the unattainable ideal in Clara Schumann, later writing: “I love you more than myself and more than anybody and anything on earth” (qtd. in Machlis & Forney 325).

With her help, Brahms published an edition of Robert Schumann’s works. As the last composer to combine elements of both Classical and Romantic periods, he made an edition of the Mozart Requiem. Brahms’s final appearance as a conductor was at a Vienna concert in March 1895, with a program performed by his students in the Vienna Conservatoire. Conducting at Berlin in January 1896, this was Brahms’s last public appearance. After Clara died in the spring of 1896, his health declined, despite a lifelong record of physical well-being. In May 1897, the Fourth Symphony was played in Vienna, the last concert Brahms was able to attend.


Similar to his father, Johannes Brahms died of liver cancer in 1897. He was buried in Vienna, close to Beethoven and Schubert. “There existed another side to Brahms: the desire for escape, for freedom, for complete creative independence with no responsibility save to himself and his muse” (Musgrave 3). An obviously secretive and personal man, Brahms wanted people to know only about his music. Called “remote” and “unfathomable,” (Oswald in Frisch 24) he tried to erase any biographical knowledge with fire and water. Basically we have no idea of his personal thoughts, as he made every effort to keep them hidden. “Brahms was a man with many friends and no intimates, who experienced triumphs few artists achieve in their lifetime. Yet he lived with a relentless loneliness and a growing fatalism about the future of music and the world” (Swafford).

Musical scholars cite the observations of Johannes Brahms: “obstinately depressive . . . sexually inhibited, immature,” “schizoid personality,” and “marriage inhibition” and “ambivalent” (Oswald in Frisch 24. Stated by Geiringer at the 1983 Library of Congress Brahms Conference). Perhaps his self-confidence was in obvious lack. Despite his shortcomings, Brahms’s music stands both as classical and modern unsurpassed masterpieces. He assisted in publishing Antonin Dvorák’s music, and influenced such notable composers as Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925), and Henry Gilbert (1868-1928). At a concert hall inauguration in Zürich, Brahms’s figure was placed on the ceiling with the images of Bach and Beethoven. Since the time of his First Symphony, these composers have been known as “the three great B’s of music” (ix).

Combining the 18th- and 19th-centuries’ styles, and influencing the musical culture today, Brahms “remains both a monument to a past age and a poignant dramatization of the continuing melancholy that haunts our own” (qtd. of Edward Rothstein in Ratliff, program notes on Brahms).