Johannes Brahms

By: Eunice Wallace

Johannes Brahms, one of the Great Romantic composers was born in Hamburg in 1833. Like Mozart before him, Brahms’s father was a musician playing several instruments, but who had come to Hamburg looking for work as a town musician. Johannes showed early promise on the piano, having been taught from the age of three, and in due course he helped to supplement the small family income by playing in bars and indeed brothels in Hamburg.

Although he gave some piano concerts and went on a few concert tours, he never became a famous pianist; however he did perform his own 1st and 2nd piano concertos at their premiers in 1859 and 1881 respectively.

As a teenager he started conducting choirs and became quite a respectable conductor in his own right. He also started to compose his own piano music, with little reward at this time.

In 1853 he went on a concert tour as accompanist to the famous violinist Remenyi and met several composers including Liszt and Joachim. Joachim gave Brahms a letter of introduction to Schumann and he walked the considerable distance to Düsseldorf to be welcomed by the Schumann family. Schumann was very impressed with the 20 year old although others were rather more sceptical at the time.

Brahms became very attached to the much older Clara, Schumann’s wife, but although he never married he was engaged for a while in 1859 and had several affairs. Schumann meanwhile was incarcerated in a mental institution after his attempted suicide in 1854 where he died in 1856. Brahms looked after the Schumann household until this time, although it is thought that his relationship with Clara was platonic.

After Schumann’s death Brahms spent his time in Hamburg where he founded a ladies choir and in Detmold, where he was court conductor and teacher. In 1862 he first visited Vienna which he fell in love with, and the following year he accepted a post as conductor of a choir there. Although he was offered conducting posts elsewhere he stayed in Vienna composing and conducting various orchestras and choirs.

Throughout the 1850’s and 60’s meanwhile, Brahms composed music in his own very exacting and perfectionist way, disliking the “excesses” of composers such as Liszt and Wagner, and sticking more to the traditional classical style of his predecessors, particularly Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. His lack of confidence in his own composing ability was finally rescinded somewhat by the success of his “Ein deutsches Requiem” in 1668 which confirmed his European reputation as a composer of note.

His composing started to increase and in the 1870’s and 80’s he produced his four symphonies, as well as quartets and piano music. The Duke of Meiningen’s orchestra became his medium for new orchestral works in 1881.

Brahms’ frequent travels both for concert tours and on holidays took him to, amongst other places, Italy on several occasions, and the open air and pastoral landscapes enabled him to compose in tranquil environments, rather like Elgar’s walks on the Malvern Hills in England.

By the time he was 57 in 1990 however, Brahms had had enough of composing and decided to stop. This did not work though for he went on to write many more solo works for piano as well as his clarinet quintet, trio and sonatas, as well as several other works.

In 1897 he became ill with cancer whilst finishing his latest “Four Serious Songs” and died soon afterwards, to be buried in his adopted Vienna.

While Brahms was not the most prolific composer, his attention to detail was incredible and he will always be remembered as one of the Great composers of the classical romantic.

ArkivMusic, The Source for Classical Recordings

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