Composer Profile: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Johannes Brahms

A recent concert in Whanganui featuring Brahms’ Piano Concerto Number 2 inspired me to find out more about ‘the last of the great Romantics’, a man most famous for his eponymous Lullaby. He was born in Hamburg, Germany, to a struggling (to the point of impoverishment) musician, Johann Jakob Brahms, and his much older wife, Johanna. Brahms’ talent was recognisable from an early age although his father refused to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Mozart and Mendelssohn by taking his child prodigy on tour. Instead, by the age of 13, Brahms was supplementing the family income with money earned by playing the piano in taverns, restaurants, and the like. The smoky atmosphere apparently did his health no favours, and many biographers have chosen to blame the women he met in this period (i.e. prostitutes) for his subsequent failure to marry.

That is, of course, one possible explanation. Another involves the composer Robert Schumann and his wife Clara. At the age of twenty Brahms, armed with an introduction from violinist and composer Joseph Joachim, presented himself at the Schumann residence and proceeded to amaze the couple with his compositions. Schumann was so impressed that he penned an article for the ‘New Journal of Music’, in which he hailed Brahms as the next big thing. It was the break the young Brahms needed, but if he was hoping that Schumann might be able to act as his mentor or patron, he would be disappointed. Within two years, Schumann’s health and sanity had been ravaged by syphilis to the point that he was institutionalised. He would die in 1856, aged just 46.

Clara Schumann
Clara Schumann

And Clara, his widow and a talented pianist and composer herself (although she lacked faith in her compositional abilities), came to rely heavily on the kindness and support of Brahms, fourteen years her junior. For a time he was her lodger, and it is fairly obvious from surviving letters – Brahms wanted all their correspondence destroyed, but some remains – that he was in love with her, although it is less clear how she felt about him. But Brahms felt a deep respect for the dead Schumann, and there were the eight Schumann children to think of, as well as a professional relationship which saw them tour together on a number of occasions. Whatever the reason, there is no indication that the relationship ever became romantic. There were other women, and even an engagement, but Brahms broke it off.

Although there is no question that Brahms’ work greatly benefitted from his association with Clara, their complicated relationship was far less significant than the musical rift which existed between Brahms and many of the other composers of his day, most notably the ‘New German School’ and its golden boy, Richard Wagner. Brahms had a deep understanding and appreciation for the rich musical heritage which had built up in Europe. Haydn, Handel, Bach, Mozart… Brahms knew and loved them all, and although his work is unmistakably and quintessentially Romantic, and often extremely innovative, it was rooted in the musical traditions which members of the New German School often treated with scorn.

And yet his work has stood the test of time. As a relative newcomer to Brahms, I’ve honestly enjoyed almost everything I’ve heard. He was accused of being too intellectual, but even someone with my complete lack of formal music theory can appreciate the unmistakable passion and beauty of his work. Brahms had a reputation for being a perfectionist, often destroying work which he didn’t consider to be good enough, and it shows.

Brahms grave
Brahms’ grave, Vienna

Although he ‘retired’ in 1890, Brahms continued composing right up until his death from cancer on the 3rd of April 1897. As well as a grave (in Vienna) he left to the world its very first recording by a major composer – in 1889 a representative of Thomas Edison named Theo Wangemann, visited Brahms in Vienna and invited him to make an experimental recording. Brahms obliged, playing an abbreviated version of his first Hungarian Dance and Die Libelle on the piano. It is not known now whether the voice that introduces the pieces is that of Wangemann or Brahms, and the quality is so poor that the music is barely audible, but it remains an artefact of incredible historic significance.

Brahms: love him, hate him, couldn’t care less? Do you have a favourite piece that you’d recommend?

4 thoughts on “Composer Profile: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

  1. Ah, Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2! What a delight! I’ll publish a post on that piece of music in November. I discovered Brahms rather late, more or less together with Bruckner. The other two (giant) Bs – Bach and Beethoven – made it easy to overlook the other two…


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