JOHANNES BRAMS is one of the greatest musicians of the Romantic era. Composer and pianist of the Romantic period, who wrote symphonies, concerti, chamber music, piano works, choral compositions, and more than 200 songs, Brahms was the great master of symphonic and sonata style in the second half of the 19th century. He can be viewed as the protagonist of the Classical tradition in a period when the standards of this tradition were being questioned or overturned by the Romantics.
The son of a musician, the little Johannes showed early promise as a pianist. His father, Johann Jacob Brahms played various instruments, but is most often hired as a horn and double bass player. Johannes learnt to play the violin and the basics of the cello with his father. Аt age seven, he was sent for piano lessons to Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel, and his is the period of his first compositions. At the age of 10 Brahms made his debut as a performer in a private concert, by 1845 he had written a piano Sonata in G minor. Although his parents disapproved of his early efforts as a composer, feeling that he had better career prospects as a performer, he actively continued to write piano works. His studies with Eduard Marxsen (Cossel’s teacher) were very important for the young Brahms’ professional growth. Marxsen had been a personal acquaintance of Beethoven and Schubert, admired the works of Mozart and Haydn, and was a devotee of the music of J. S. Bach. In 1847 Brahms made his first public appearance as a solo pianist in Hamburg, playing a fantasy by Sigismund Thalberg, and his first piano recital in 1848 included a included a fugue by Bach as well as works by Marxsen and contemporary virtuosi. A second recital in April 1849 included Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata No 21 and a waltz fantasia of his own composition. Under the pseudonym ‘G. W. Marks’, “Karl Würth” some of his piano arrangements and fantasies were published, marking them with a larger opus.
In 1850 he met Eduard Reményi, a Jewish Hungarian violinist, with whom he gave concerts and from whom he learned something of Roma music—an influence that remained with him always and was brilliantly transformed into his two series of Hungarian dances (1869, 1880). Originally written for four-handed piano, they have arrangements for various instruments and ensembles.
His meeting with the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim in 1853 was particularly important to Brahms’ professional career. He owes him his acquaintance with Robert Schumann, which grows into a very close friendship between the two composers. When Schumann was first taken mentally ill in 1854, Brahms assisted Clara Schumann in managing her family. He was her closest and most loyal friend even after Schumann’s death in 1856 for the rest of her life.
Schumann wrote enthusiastically about Brahms in the periodical Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, praising his compositions. The article created a sensation and this was a decisive start to his professional success. Schumann’s appreciation led to Brahms’s inclusion in the Leipzig circle of composers, considered more conservative than the “New German” Weimar school, headed by Ferenc Liszt and Richard Wagner. The enmity between the two musical circles turns into a real war. And later, after Brahms have settled in Vienna, the music capital became the center of “Brahmsianism” and the ideas of instrumental music as “absolute music” (an aesthetic idea set forth in Edward Hanslick’s famous book “On the Beautiful in Music”, 1854 , which emerges as the antithesis of romantic views on art and the widespread use of program music). Brahms himself, though kindly received by Liszt, famous for his will to support younger composers, did not get his sympathy.
Between 1857 and 1860, Brahms taught piano and conducted a choral society in Göttingen, and in 1859 he was appointed conductor of a women’s choir in Hamburg. Such posts provided valuable practical experience and left him enough time for his own work. At this point Brahms created Serenades for orchestra and the first String Sextet in B-flat Major (1858–60), he also completed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor (1854–58).
By 1861 he was back in Hamburg, and in the following year he made his first visit to Vienna. Having failed to secure the post of conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic concerts, he settled in Vienna and remained there by the end of his days. He initially assumed direction of the Singakademie, a fine choral society. His reputation as a composer grew steadily, despite some quarrels, mostly caused by his violent nature and the fierce rivalry between his supporters and those of Anton Bruckner, a supporter of Wagner, although Brahms himself always spoke of him with respect.
By 1872 he was principal conductor of the Society of Friends of Music (Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde), and for three seasons he directed the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
During this period in Vienna Brahms composed some of his most significant works. Among them is “A German Requiem” (“Ein deutsches Requiem”) for two soloists (soprano and baritone), a mixed choir, orchestra and organ ad libitum, written in 1868 after Schumann’s death on a text from the German translation of the Bible by Martin Luther. The Requiem is considered one of the most significant works of 19th-century choral music. He composed his Liebeslieder (Love Songs) waltzes, for vocal quartet and four-hand piano accompaniment, he created many songs.
By the 1870s Brahms was writing significant chamber works and was moving along the path to orchestral composition. In 1873 he offered the masterly orchestral version of his Variations on a Theme by Haydn and embark on the completion of his Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, completed in 1876 and first heard in the same year. Within the next year he produced his Symphony No. 2 in D Major – serene and idyllic work, avoiding the heroic pathos of Symphony No. 1. He let six years elapse before his Symphony No. 3 in F Major (1883), and after only one year, Brahms’s last symphony, No. 4 in E Minor (1884–85), was begun – the crown of his symphony and his concept of combining classical and romantic compositional principles. Its finale, built as a paschal or shakon on an 8-bar theme from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata № 150 with 30 complex variations of the theme and free coda, is an example of Brahms’ exceptional professional compositional mastery and deep knowledge of polyphonic techniques. Among his other orchestral works at this time were the Violin Concerto in D Major (1878) and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major (1881). His music spreaded outside Germany and Austria. He received recognition in Switzerland and the Netherlands, in Hungary and Poland, where the composer has concert tours. The University of Breslau (now the University of Wrocław, Poland) conferred an honorary degree on him (1879).
By now Brahms’s contemporaries were keenly aware of the outstanding significance of his works, and people spoke of the “three great Bs” (meaning Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms), although fervent admirers of Liszt and Wagner, looked down on Brahms’s contributions as too old-fashioned.
He resigned as director of the Society of Friends of Music in 1875, and from then on devoted his life to composition. When he went on concert tours, he conducted or performed on the piano only his own works. During these years Brahms composed the boldly conceived Double Concerto in A Minor (1887) for violin and cello, the Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor (1886 – 1888), and the two String Quintets (1882, 1890). Inspired to write chamber music for the clarinet owing to his acquaintance with an outstanding clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld, Brahms wrote his Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano (1891); the great Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (1891); and two Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano (1894). In 1896, Clara Schumann’s condition had gravely deteriorated. In this painful period Brahms completed his Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), for bass voice and piano, on texts from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, dealing with life and death. On May 20, 1896, Clara died, and soon afterward Brahms himself was compelled to seek medical treatment, in the course of which his liver was discovered to be seriously diseased. He appeared for the last time at a concert in March 1897, and in Vienna, in April 3, 1897, he died of cancer.
Brahms’s music complemented and counteracted the rapid growth of Romantic individualism in the second half of the 19th century.