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Brahms, Johannes
1837 - 1897
Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms
Biography by writer and vocal coach Gordon Stewart

By the nineteenth century Hamburg had been an independent city state and an important port for seven centuries. Its position some fifty miles up the highly navigable River Elbe meant that it could trade both downstream to the North Sea and upstream right into the heart of Europe - Berlin and Prague were both reachable by boats from Hamburg. It was an extremely wealthy city. But its wealth was not widely distributed, and the family into which Johannes Brahms was born was seriously poor. His father, Johann Jakob, married his mother, Elisabeth, in 1830, and they had three children. Johannes was the second, born on the 7th May, 1833. His parents were an oddly assorted couple. His father was a musician - truly versatile, but his money, such as it was, came from playing in bars and taverns. Years later he concentrated on the double bass and got himself a place in the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra. His wife was fourteen years older than him, a seamstress, with some middle-class background and a keen mind. It was she who managed the family accounts, although since there wasn't much to manage, maybe she did little more than hold the meagre purse-strings and keep an eye on her husband.

Hamburg was a Protestant city, and elements of that protestant faith must have stayed with Johannes, since he never really interested himself in the Catholicism that would surround him in his later life in Vienna. The family lived in a poor quarter, the Gängeviertel, which had only one advantage: it escaped the catastrophic fire which in 1842 destroyed about a quarter of the city. He got as good a schooling as it was possible for him to get, though in after years he was touchy if the subject of his education came up. Certainly there was no question of a university for him, and in the event his musical talent emerged so strongly and so early that by the time he reached university age he was already earning his living.

Piano lessons began at the age of seven: his teacher, Cossel, taught him for nothing. The boy spent whole days in the teacher's house - one of the best ways of getting a training, since pupil and teacher are rarely out of earshot. He gave his first concert at the age of ten, and then Cossel sent him to have advanced (and free) lessons with Eduard Marxsen, Hamburg's top teacher. What Johannes got from these two teachers was clearly excellent; virtually all his life he was able to play his own difficult compositions in public with great success. His piano lessons were enlightened enough to leave him time to experiment in writing his own music. From the age of thirteen he earned some money playing in taverns. Maybe, even, according to some reports, in brothels, which is sometimes given as the reason that as he got older, Brahms was unable to relax into a complete relationship with women, though he clearly adored them.

He began to give more regular recitals at fifteen, already scheduling music by Bach in his programmes, and playing Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata at the age of sixteen, no mean achievement. He was no virtuoso in the style of Liszt, but a young musician with a powerful presence. He was writing music in earnest by now, and when Robert Schumann came on a visit to Hamburg, he sent a portfolio of his pieces to him. It was returned unopened. Schumann more than made amends for it later. There's no way of knowing what this selection was like, because Brahms destroyed his early music, from an excess (maybe) of self-criticism.

He was earning his living - giving piano lessons, playing in the theatre (though it didn't lead to any passion for writing for the theatre); arranging and writing music (popular music) for a local publisher. A good beginning, but he wanted a permanent post, and there were none for him in Hamburg. To be sure, he gave successful concerts there, but the two or three “big” jobs in music that would have satisfied him didn't come his way until it was too late. Anyway, there was something of the old-fashioned itinerant musician about him.

When he was older he took a permanent (sub-let) apartment in Vienna, with someone to look after him, eventually, but, he made frequent journeys to give concerts, or, for longer periods in the summer, to find quiet places where he could write. His first real break-through came when he formed a duo with the Hungarian exile Eduard Reményi in 1853. This brilliant violinist had political question marks all over him because of his enthusiasm for the revolutionary ideas that swept through Europe in 1848. When the tour he was making with Brahms reached Hanover, someone remembered something about him, and they had to leave quickly. It was there, though, that Brahms made the foundations of an important friendship with Joseph Joachim, already on his way to becoming one of the greatest violinists of all time.

The Brahms-Reményi tour continued to Weimar, where Liszt reigned, transmitting his ideas about the music of the “New Germany”. Liszt was impressed by Brahms, especially by the way he played the piano, but the feeling was not mutual. The two men came to personify the growing split between the two directions that German music was taking. Liszt was an innovator; Brahms was the true heir to Beethoven. Liszt, one side thought, was superficial, and ultimately, dangerous to the independence of composers through his encouragement of Wagner, who seemed to be tearing down past securities. The other side found Brahms hopelessly out-of-date, wedded to a heavy German style too rooted in the past. We can see that neither party was wrong, nor, for that matter, right, but feelings got ridiculously heated in the years to come…

In 1853, the young Brahms was making his way. Joachim introduced him to Robert and Clara Schumann on October 31st 1853. It's a significant date, because a hugely influential relationship developed among the three of them. No reference was made to the unopened packet of music in Hamburg, as Schumann recognised Brahms's great potential abilities. He wrote him up in a magazine - heading his article “New Roads or Ways” - Neue Bahnen.

The usual image we have of Brahms comes from the photographs of him taken in his sixties, which show a solid, heavily bearded man, looking much older than his years. As a young man the opposite was true. He looked younger than his years, with a boyish face - even until he was forty, when he grew his beard. He was in every way the junior member of the trio, but his feelings for Clara, some fourteen years his senior - don't seem to have been those of a boy, though she steadfastly (and maybe defensively) spoke of him as ”another of her sons”. Meanwhile he accepted a part-time position directing the concerts and the choral society in the principality of Detmold, which he held for four years, writing new music tailored to these talented amateur singers. This was also the time of the first of his “official” orchestral pieces, the serenade in D major, the first of the string sextets, and, over the whole period, his First Piano Concerto. His music began to published, and his reputation grew.

In 1856 Robert Schumann died, after spending his last two years in an asylum. For whatever reason the situation between Clara and Brahms has never been clarified: they were obviously close, which caused some comment - gossip even had it that Clara's last child, Felix, born in 1855, was actually Brahms's son. From this point their emotional lives diverged, and friendship came where there could not conceivably have been a chance of anything more permanent. Two years later, in Göttingen, Brahms's warm relationship with Agathe von Siebold led people to expect them to marry (Agathe seems to have thought so), but he shied away: Agathe's name in musical code appears in his second string quartet, but that was where it ended….Marriage was never an issue again, however interested Brahms became in the women he met. Their rôle was not to be that of a wife but, probably, of a muse. Certainly there were several of them, suggesting a basic need on his part.

In the late 1850s he had a women's choir in Hamburg, writing music for them, and acquiring a better conducting technique. He met the singer Julius Stockhausen, and formed a recital partnership with him. Stockhausen didn't have the same sort of influence that Michael Vogl had on Schubert, but he gave the first performances of many of the songs Brahms wrote. In this, as in all Brahms's activities at the piano, he showed himself to be an extraordinary artist. He may not always have been sure-fingered enough for his own satisfaction, but there was a quality in whatever he played that made audiences want to hear him. It was a factor in getting his music known, and in making his living.

In 1862 he went to Vienna, a city which appealed to him at once, maybe because he felt closer to his hero in Beethoven's city. He spent a great deal of time there, quickly settling into the concert-giving activities, making friends among the upper bourgeoisie on whose activity the culture of the city depended. His piano recitals were successful, programming Beethoven, Bach, and Schumann as well as his own music. He became the conductor of the Singakademie for a year - conducting, and arranging concerts of choral music. He still hankered after a job in his native city, but Hamburg made no approaches, and he made no decision about where to make a permanent home.

In 1864 his parents demanded his attention. Their marriage came to grief, and Brahms was obliged to go back to Hamburg to sort them out. He undertook to support his mother and sister financially until they died. Eventually he did the same for his father, and, yet later, for his widowed stepmother. They were his family, after all…

His mother died in 1865. The idea of writing a requiem, which had first occurred to him in the days after Schumann's death, was given fresh stimulus, although, such were Brahms's long gestation periods, it was going to be another three years before it was finished. His Protestant roots led him to side-step the traditional, Catholic, form of the Requiem Mass, and to choose his own words directly from the German Bible, and not use the prayer book at all.

In the following year he committed himself to Vienna, moving into an apartment in the Karlsgasse which was to be his place for the rest of his life. It might not have seemed a particularly good time to settle in Austria. The authorities had tried to kill off the dangerous speculation they saw around them by returning, not to the gold standard, as we did in the 1920s in this country, but to a silver standard in which the notes would be backed by precious metal. It didn't work - it stifled the expansion of industry, and strapped a lot of Austrians for cash. Brahms's living standards, though, were never seriously in doubt. He was lionised, he had great and influential friends. He became the artistic director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, whose choir he regularly taught to perform the great works of his North German forebears, Bach and Handel, of whom they knew little. He gave the job up after three years - possibly to avoid the intrigues which seemed to go with Vienna's musical life, but more certainly to give himself more time. He travelled a great deal in these middle years of his life, although he drew the line at the English Channel, refusing to cross the sea to receive an honorary degree from Cambridge University in 1876. Each summer he followed the Viennese practice of leaving the city to go to a resort town, changing the venue from time to time. The quietness, and the good air, helped him to get things done. Not that he needed serious stimulus: in his normal city routine, he rose early and spent the morning working.

There were serious bumps in his friendly relations with Clara Schumann and Josef Joachim over the Schumann Festival in Bonn in 1873. Such bumps were not uncommon with other friends - Brahms could be a very difficult man. It was necessary at times to remember that his qualities as an artist overrode those of an intimate friend. He could be unreliable, if not impossible - he had a sarcastic tongue, and an understandable self centre. Things usually got patched up because of efforts on the part of the people he'd offended.As a well-known composer, he got offers of full-time commitment - to be music director in Düsseldorf (76), Leipzig (78), Cologne (84) and even Berlin; and finally Hamburg (94). He turned them all down.

In 1874 came the first performance of his first symphony. It's always been a matter for comment that a composer with such fine classical instincts and skills in instrumental music didn't produce a symphony until he was forty. Beethoven, they say, cast too long a shadow for him. But this symphony didn't spring from nowhere - it had been a part of his ongoing thought for something like twenty years. The orchestra in Karlsruhe gave it a sympathetic première, but there was no tearaway success. Subsequent performances at major centres produced somewhat mixed results. It took its time. This comparatively slow climb to success was not unusual: the first piano concerto challenged audiences for ten years before they began to accept it. However, the second symphony, took hold from its first night in 1877.

He added another strand to his regular life pattern in 1878 by going to Italy every year at about the time of his birthday. He loved the country and its buildings, but disliked Italian music. Opera was not necessarily the cause of that dislike - he even considered writing one himself. In German, with dialogue like Beethoven's Fidelio. But no workable libretto was forthcoming either from the conductor Hermann Levi, or from his enthusiastic friend, Viktor Widmann, both of whom made attempts. Brahms wasn't greatly exercised in that direction, recognising, possibly, that his sense of drama was best expressed in the powerful “pure” music of his instrumental pieces, and in the shorter-term psychology of his songs.

As he entered his fifties, the highly influential conductor Hans von Bülow took an increasing interest his works. Bülow, first husband of Cosima Wagner, had turned his orchestra at Meiningen, where there was a small but cultivated court, into one of the best in Europe. In 1881, with Brahms as soloist, they gave the second piano concerto its first performance. Bülow's enthusiasm for Brahms had a possible downside. He christened Brahms's first and second symphonies “the 10th and 11th” symphonies, successors, in other words, to Beethoven's nine. It's up for discussion whether being one of the “three B's - Bach, Beethoven, Brahms” was an advantage to Brahms.

The contralto Hermine Spies, a true concert and Lieder singer, came into his life. With her he gave concerts, and fell in love. The great songs of his opus 90s were his tribute to their relationship. Again, though, no marriage was in view.

The third symphony, given in Vienna in 1883, ran into trouble with the Wagnerites. The Wagner-Brahms thing was a reflection of the sad human characteristic of wanting to pick sides - Us and Them, Right and Left. Vienna had plenty of practice at it over the years (as other cities had, to be fair). Wagner's music (and the man himself, let's admit) became divisive - the new against the old, as it was seen. Brahms and Wagner had met in 1864. No problems there. Brahms took himself to Munich in 1870 to see the first two of the Ring Operas. But Wagner, never one to be shy of putting words into print, took against Brahms, and went so far as to call him a “Jewish czardas player”, amongst other wild things. The Wagnerites in Vienna took their cue from him, publicly disapproving of the third symphony at its première. Brahms took it in his stride, offering Wagner a lesson, had he been able to take it, in generosity of spirit.

The fourth symphony had different problems. A holiday on Lake Como, and two happy periods at the resort of Mürzzuschlag (which has a museum to commemorate the nine months he spent there) eased its composition. The problems arose at Meiningen, where the orchestra, carefully prepared by von Bülow, was conducted by Brahms. It was a great success, and Von Bülow, who had put in all the work with the orchestra, intended to conduct it in Frankfort soon after, but Brahms conducted it with their local orchestra first, putting the Bülow nose out of joint. He resigned from the orchestra, and there was a coldness which took time to warm again. It was another case of Brahms's apparent inability to realise what others were feeling.

From 1889 Bad Ischl was his regular summer working place - healthy, of course, since it was a spa town, very fashionable, and yet quiet. These years of his late fifties sponsored the three violin sonatas, and the double concerto for violin and cello. Finally he had the great joy of receiving the freedom of his own city, Hamburg. Lines seemed to be drawing themselves, and the following year, after finishing his opus 111 string quintet, he felt exhausted, and decided to call it a day. He wrote his will, put his things in order, and gave up. And then, within a year or so, began writing again. Maybe it was due to Richard Mühlfeld, the exceptional clarinettist in the Meiningen orchestra, because the new surge brought clarinet works. The trio, two sonatas and the quintet are among the last pieces he wrote, and put a fine closure on the chamber music which he had written throughout his life - a hugely important part of the repertoire.

Sadly, he quarrelled with Clara Schumann over an edition of her husband's works (he had quarrelled with Joachim earlier), and for once he realised he had to be the one to make the moves to patch things up. The deaths of friends now grew frequent, some unexpected, like the singer Hermine Spies. The late piano pieces, which seem to be moving on into a new mode, came on line as he approached his sixtieth birthday.

News of Clara Schumann's terminal illness reached him in 1894. He was deeply affected, and found his response in composition - the Four Serious Songs, with biblical texts - saying he never wanted to hear them sung in public. He travelled to Frankfort for her burial. The forty-hour journey took much out of him, as he himself was beginning to suffer from the effects of liver cancer. He went to Karlsbad for treatment, but could find no cure, and returned to Vienna.

The last concert he attended was on the 7th of March 1897, where his fourth symphony gave the audience the chance to show him great affection, encoring each movement. Less than a month later, on 3rd April, he died. His funeral procession through the streets of Vienna drew huge crowds, and he was buried, as he wished, near to Beethoven and Schubert.

Born 7th May, 1833 Hamburg died 3rd April 1897 Vienna

Some compositions:
the dates are of completion, but often the works had been under way for some time before.

  • Symphony no 1 1876
  • Symphony no 2 1877
  • Symphony no 3 1883
  • Symphony no 4 1885
  • Violin Concerto 1878
  • Piano Concerto I 1859
  • Piano concerto 2 1881
  • Violin and Cello Concerto 1887
  • Academic Festival Overture 1880
  • Tragic Overture 1881
  • Variations on a theme of Haydn 1873


  • Piano Sonata no 3 in F minor 1853
  • Variations on Handel theme 1861
  • Variations on Paganini theme 1862-3
  • Two Rhapsodies for piano op 79 1879
  • Piano pieces op 116,117,118,119 1892/3

    Chamber music:

  • 3 string quartets 1873,-73,-75,
  • 2 string quintets 1882,-90
  • 2 string sextets 1860,-65
  • 3 piano trios 1854,-82,-86
  • trio for horn, vln, piano 1865
  • trio for clarinet, cello, piano 1891
  • clarinet quintet 1891
  • piano quintet 1862
  • 2 cello sonatas 1865,-86
  • 3 violin sonatas 1879,-86,-88
  • 2 clarinet sonatas 1894 (both)
  • 3 piano quartets 1861,-61,-74,

    vocal music: songs and choral pieces throughout his life

  • German Requiem 1864-8
  • Alto rhapsody 1880
  • Four serious songs 1896
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