Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833April 3, 1897) was a German composer of the Romantic period. Born in Hamburg, he eventually settled in Vienna, Austria.


Brahms's father, Johann Jakob Brahms, came to Hamburg from Schleswig-Holstein, seeking a career as a town musician. He was proficient on several instruments, but found employment mostly playing the horn and double bass. He married Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen, a seamstress, who was seventeen years older than he was. Initially, they lived near the city docks, in the Gängeviertel quarter of Hamburg, for six months before moving to a small house on the Dammtorwall, located on the northern perimeter of Hamburg in the Inner Alster.
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Johann Jakob gave his son his first musical training. He studied piano from the age of seven with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel. Brahms showed early promise (his younger brother Fritz also became a pianist) and helped to supplement the rather meager family income by playing the piano in restaurants and theaters, as well as by teaching. It is a long-told tale that Brahms was forced in his early teens to play the piano in bars that doubled as brothels; recently Brahms scholar Kurt Hoffman has suggested that this legend is false.Template:Fact Since Brahms himself clearly originated the story, however, some have questioned Hoffman's theory.Template:Fact

For a time, Brahms also learned the cello, although his progress was cut short when his teacher absconded with Brahms's instrument. After his early piano lessons with Otto Cossel, Brahms studied piano with Eduard Marxsen, who had studied in Vienna with Ignaz Seyfried (a pupil of Mozart) and Carl von Bocklet (a close friend of Schubert). The young Brahms gave a few public concerts in Hamburg, but did not become well known as a pianist until he made a concert tour at the age of nineteen. In later life, he frequently took part in the performance of his own works, whether as soloist, accompanist, or participant in chamber music. He was the soloist at the premieres of both his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1859 and his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1881. He conducted choirs from his early teens, and became a proficient choral and orchestral conductor.

He began to compose quite early in life, but later destroyed most copies of his first works; for instance, Marxsen's memoirs report a piano sonata that Brahms had played or improvised at the age of 11.Template:Fact His compositions did not receive public acclaim until he went on a concert tour as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi in April and May of 1853. On this tour he met Joseph Joachim at Hanover, and went on to the Court of Weimar where he met Franz Liszt, Peter Cornelius, and Joachim Raff. According to several witnesses of Brahms's meeting with Liszt (at which Liszt performed Brahms's Scherzo, Op. 4 at sight), Reményi was offended by Brahms's failure to praise Liszt's Sonata in B minor wholeheartedly (Brahms fell asleep during a performance of the recently composed work), and they parted company shortly afterwards.

Joachim had given Brahms a letter of introduction to Robert Schumann, and after a walking tour in the Rhineland Brahms took the train to Düsseldorf, and was welcomed into the Schumann family on arrival there. Schumann, amazed by the 20-year-old's talent, published an article "Neue Bahnen" (New Paths) in the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik alerting the public to the young man who he claimed was "destined to give ideal expression to the times". This pronouncement was received with some scepticism outside Schumann's immediate circle, and may have increased the naturally self-critical Brahms's need to perfect his works and technique. While he was in Düsseldorf, Brahms participated with Schumann and Albert Dietrich in writing a sonata for Joachim; this is known as the F-A-E Sonata. He became very attached to Schumann's wife, the composer and pianist Clara, fourteen years his senior, with whom he would carry on a lifelong, emotionally passionate, but probably platonic, relationship. Brahms never married, despite strong feelings for several women and despite entering into an engagement, soon broken off, with Agathe von Siebold in Göttingen in 1859. After Schumann's attempted suicide and subsequent confinement in a mental sanatorium near Bonn in February 1854, Brahms was the main go-between between Clara and her husband, and found himself virtually head of the household.

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After Schumann’s death at the sanatorium in 1856, Brahms divided his time between Hamburg, where he formed and conducted a ladies’ choir, and the principality of Detmold, where he was court music-teacher and conductor. He first visited Vienna in 1862, staying there over the winter, and in 1863 was appointed conductor of the Vienna Singakademie. Though he resigned the position the following year and entertained the idea of taking up conducting posts elsewhere, he based himself increasingly in Vienna and soon made his home there. From 1872 to 1875 he was director of the concerts of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde; afterwards he accepted no formal position. He refused an honorary doctorate of music from University of Cambridge in 1877 (he was afraid of being lionized in England, where his music was already very popular) but accepted one from the University of Breslau in 1879, composing the Academic Festival Overture in response.

He had been composing steadily throughout the 1850s and 60s, but his music had evoked divided critical responses and the Piano Concerto No. 1 had been badly received in some of its early performances. His works were labelled old-fashioned by the 'New German School' whose principal figures included Liszt and Richard Wagner. Brahms in fact admired some of Wagner's music and admired Liszt as a great pianist, but in 1860 he attempted to organize a public protest against some of the wilder excesses of their music.Template:Fact His manifesto, which was published prematurely with only three supporting signatures, was a failure and he never engaged in public polemics again. It was the premiere of Ein deutsches Requiem, his largest choral work, in Bremen in 1868 that confirmed Brahms's European reputation and led many to accept that he had fulfilled Schumann’s prophecy. This may have given him the confidence finally to complete a number of works that had been wrestled with over many years, such as the cantata Rinaldo, his first string quartet, third piano quartet, and most notably his first symphony. This appeared in 1876, though it had been begun (and a version of the first movement seen by some of his friends) in the early 1860s. The other three symphonies then followed in 1877, 1883, and 1885. From 1881 he was able to try out his new orchestral works with the court orchestra of the Duke of Meiningen, whose conductor was Hans von Bülow.

Brahms frequently traveled, for both business (concert tours) and pleasure. From 1878 onwards he often visited Italy in the springtime, and usually sought out a pleasant rural location in which to compose during the summer. He was a great walker and especially enjoyed spending time in the open air, where he felt that he could think more clearly.

In 1889, one Theo Wangemann, a representative of American inventor Thomas Edison visited the composer in Vienna and invited him to make an experimental recording. He played an abbreviated version of his first Hungarian dance on the piano. The recording was later issued on an LP of early piano performances (compiled by Gregor Benko); while the spoken introduction to the short piece of music is quite clear, the piano playing is largely inaudible due to heavy surface noise. Nevertheless, this remains the earliest recording made by a major composer. Analysts and scholars remain divided, however, as to whether the voice that introduces the piece is that of Wangemann or of Brahms.

In 1890, the 57-year-old Brahms resolved to give up composing. However, as it turned out, he was unable to abide by his decision, and in the years before his death he produced a number of acknowledged masterpieces. His admiration for Richard Mühlfeld, clarinettist with the Meiningen orchestra, moved him to compose the Clarinet Trio Op. 114, Clarinet Quintet Op. 115 (1891), and the two Clarinet Sonatas Op. 120 (1894). He also wrote several cycles of piano pieces, Opp. 116-119, and the Four Serious Songs (Vier ernste Gesänge), Op. 121 (1896).

While completing the Op. 121 songs, Brahms developed cancer (sources differ on whether this was of the liver or pancreas). His condition gradually worsened and he died on April 3, 1897. Brahms is buried in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna.

Although many listeners may regard Brahms as one of the last bastions of the Romantic Period, he was not a mainstream Romantic, but rather maintained a Classical sense of form and order within his works – in contrast to the opulence and excesses of many of his contemporaries. Thus many admirers (though not necessarily Brahms himself) saw him as the champion of traditional forms and "pure music," as opposed to the New German embrace of program music. With the possible exception of Anton Bruckner, Brahms was arguably unmatched as a symphonist in the late 19th century. His symphonies helped revive a virtually moribund genre, and inspired such composers as Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius.

Though he was viewed as diametrically opposed to Wagner during his lifetime, it is incorrect to characterize Brahms as a reactionary. His point of view looked both backward and forward; his output was often bold in harmony and expression, prompting Arnold Schoenberg to write his 1933 essay "Brahms the Progressive", which paved the way for the re-evaluation of Brahms's reputation in the 20th century. Only in recent decades have scholars begun to examine Brahms's remarkably original rhythmic conceptions, which include 5- and 7-beat meters.Template:Fact

Brahms himself had considered giving up composition at a time when all notions of tonality were being stretched to their limit and that further expansion would seemingly only result in the rules of tonality being broken altogether. But he offered substantial encouragement to Schoenberg's teacher Alexander Zemlinsky, and was apparently much impressed by two movements of Schoenberg's early Quartet in D major which Zemlinsky showed him.


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Brahms wrote a number of major works for orchestra, including two serenades, four symphonies, two piano concertos (See First Piano Concerto; Second Piano Concerto), a Violin Concerto, a Double Concerto for violin and cello, and a pair of orchestral overtures, the Academic Festival Overture and the Tragic Overture.

His large choral work Ein deutsches Requiem ("A German Requiem") is not a traditional, liturgical requiem (Missa pro defunctis), but a setting of texts which Brahms selected from the Lutheran Bible. The work was composed in three major periods of his life. An earlier version of the second movement was first composed in 1854, not long after Robert Schumann's attempted suicide, and was later finished and used in his first piano concerto. The majority of the Requiem was composed after his mother's death in 1865. The fifth movement was later added after the official premiere in 1868. The complete work was then published in 1869.

Brahms's works in variation form include the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel and the Paganini Variations, both for solo piano, and the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn in versions for two pianos and for orchestra. The final movement of the Fourth Symphony (Op. 98) is also formally a set of variations.

His chamber works include three string quartets, two string quintets and two string sextets, as well as a clarinet quintet, a clarinet trio, a horn trio, a piano quintet, three piano quartets and three piano trios. He composed several instrumental sonatas with piano, including three for violin, two for cello and two for clarinet (which were subsequently arranged for viola by the composer). His solo piano works range from his early piano sonatas and ballades to his late sets of character pieces. Brahms also wrote about 200 songs and is considered among the greatest of Lieder composers (with Schubert and Schumann). His chorale preludes for organ, which he wrote shortly before his death, have become an important part of the organist's repertoire.

Brahms never wrote an opera, nor did he ever write in the characteristic late-19th-century form of the tone poem, strongly preferring to compose absolute music that does not refer to an explicit scene or narrative.

Despite his reputation as a serious composer of large, complex musical designs, some of Brahms's most widely known and commercially successful compositions during his life were aimed at the thriving contemporary market for domestic music-making, and are small-scale and popular in intention. These included his arrangements of popular dances, in Hungarian Dances, the Waltzes Op. 39 for piano duet, the Liebeslieder Waltzes for vocal quartet and piano, and some of his many songs, notably the Wiegenlied, Op. 49 No. 4 (published in 1868). This last item was written (to a folk text) to celebrate the birth of a son to Brahms's friend Bertha Faber, and is universally known as Brahms' Lullaby.

Influences on BrahmsEdit

Brahms venerated Beethoven, perhaps even more than other Romantic composers did. In the composer's home, a marble bust of Beethoven looked down on the spot where he composed. His works contain a number of apparent imitations of Beethoven. Thus, the beginning of Brahms's First Piano Sonata is very close to the opening of Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata; and the main theme of the finale of Brahms's First Symphony is reminiscent of the main theme of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth. (When the latter resemblance was pointed out to Brahms, he replied that any ass – jeder Esel – could see that.)

His work Ein deutsches Requiem was partially inspired by his mother's death in 1865, but also incorporates material from the Symphony he had started in 1854 but later abandoned following Schumann's suicide attempt. He once wrote that the Requiem "belonged to Schumann". (The first movement of this abandoned Symphony was re-worked as the first movement of the First Piano Concerto).

Brahms also loved the Classical composers Mozart and Haydn. He collected first editions and autographs of their works, and edited performing editions. Even more remarkable than this was his deep learning and study of the pre-classical composers including Gabrieli, Hasse, Schütz and especially Bach, among others. He had many friends among the leading musicologists of his day and he edited works by composers such as Rameau and Francois Couperin. He was well ahead of his time in his creative interest in this "Early Music" as composer, performer and scholar and particularly looked to such older music for inspiration in the arts of strict counterpoint. In fact, many of the themes to his better-known works are modelled on Baroque sources, such as Bach's The Art of Fugue in the fugal finale of Cello Sonata No.1, or the same composer's Cantata No. 150 in the passacaglia theme of the Fourth Symphony.

Brahms's affection for the Classical period may also be reflected in his choice of genres: he favored the Classical forms of the sonata, symphony, and concerto, and frequently composed movements in sonata form. Although Brahms is often labeled as the most "Classical" Romantic composer, this label does not reflect all of his works. It was his public divide between the musical schools of Richard Wagner and himself that gained him this label, though this divide was polemicised more by their followers than the composers themselves. Although Wagner became fiercely critical of Brahms as the latter grew in stature and popularity, he was enthusiastically receptive of the early Variations on a Theme by Handel; Brahms himself, according to many sources (Swafford, 1999), deeply admired Wagner's music, confining his ambivalence only to the dramaturgical precepts of Wagner's theory.

A quite different influence on Brahms was folk music. Brahms wrote settings for piano and voice of 144 German folk songs, and many of his lieder reflect folk themes or depict scenes of rural life. His Hungarian dances were among his most profitable compositions, and in orchestrated versions remain well known today.

Brahms was almost certainly influenced by the technological development of the piano, which reached essentially its modern form during his lifetime. Much of Brahms's piano music and many of his lieder make use of the deep bass notes and the pedal to obtain a very rich and powerful sound.

Although it is not entirely clear what Brahms' religious views were, one of his greatest influences was the Bible. He loved reading the Bible, especially Luther's translation. His "Requiem" employs biblical texts to convey a humanist message, with a focus on the living rather than the dead. Author Walter Niemann declares, "The fact that Brahms began his creative activity with the German folk song and closed with the Bible reveals...the true religious creed of this great man of the people."

Brahms's personalityEdit

Like Beethoven, Brahms was fond of nature and often went walking in the woods around Vienna. He often brought penny candy with him to hand out to children. To adults Brahms was often brusque and sarcastic, and he sometimes alienated other people. His pupil Gustav Jenner wrote, "Brahms has acquired, not without reason, the reputation for being a grump, even though few could also be as lovable as he.[1]" He also had predictable habits which were noted by the Viennese press such as his daily visit to his favourite "Red Hedgehog" tavern in Vienna and the press also particularly took into account his style of walking with his hands firmly behind his back complete with a caricature of him in this pose walking alongside a red hedgehog. Those who remained his friends were very loyal to him, however, and he reciprocated with equal loyalty and generosity.
File:Johann Strauss and Brahms in Vienna.jpg
He was a lifelong friend with Johann Strauss II though they were very different as composers. Brahms even struggled to get to the Theater an der Wien in Vienna for the premiere of Strauss's operetta Die Göttin der Vernunft in 1897 before his death. Perhaps the greatest tribute that Brahms could pay to Strauss was his remark that he would have given anything to have written The Blue Danube waltz. An anecdote dating around the time Brahms became acquainted with Strauss is that when Strauss's wife Adele asked Brahms to autograph her fan, he wrote a few notes from the "Blue Danube" waltz, and then cheekily inscribed the words "Alas, not by Brahms!"

Starting in the 1860s, when his works sold widely, Brahms was financially quite successful. He preferred a modest life style, however, living in a simple three-room apartment with a housekeeper. He gave away much of his money to relatives, and anonymously helped support a number of young musicians.

Brahms was an extreme perfectionist. He destroyed many early works - including a Violin Sonata he performed with Reményi and violinist Ferdinand David - and once claimed to have destroyed 20 string quartets before he issued his official First in 1873. Over the course of several years, he changed an original project for a Symphony in D minor into a piano concerto, his first. In another instance of devotion to detail, he labored over the official First Symphony for almost fifteen years, from about 1861 to 1876. Even after its first few performances, Brahms destroyed the original slow movement and substituted another before the score was published. (A conjectural restoration of the original slow movement has been published by Robert Pascall.) Another factor that contributed to Brahms's perfectionism was that Schumann had announced early on that Brahms was to become the next great composer like Beethoven, a prediction that Brahms was determined to live up to. This prediction hardly added to the composer's self-confidence, and may have contributed to the delay in producing the First Symphony. However, Clara Schumann noted before that Brahms's First Symphony was a product that was not reflective of Brahms's real nature. She felt that the final exuberant movement was "too brilliant," as she was encouraged by the dark and tempestuous opening movement she had seen in an early draft. However, she recanted in accepting the Second Symphony, which has often been seen in modern times as one of his sunniest works. Other contemporaries, however, found the first movement especially dark, and Reinhold Brinkmann, in a study of Symphony No.2 in relation to 19th century ideas of melancholy, has published a revealing letter from Brahms to the composer and conductor Vinzenz Lachner in which Brahms confesses to the melancholic side of his nature and comments on specific features of the movement that reflect this.

Brahms' place in musical history, which so concerned him, has placed him among the three great "Bs" of German composers: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.



Lovers of his music consider Brahms on a par with the likes of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. His greatest music achieves a synthesis of the visceral quality of Wagner with the gracefulness and classical harmony of Mozart. He is equally distinguished as a composer of symphonic and chamber music. While Brahms has often been characterized as a "classicizing" Romantic composer who worked in old traditions and had no followers among the succeeding generations of composers, and who summed up and brought the classical tradition to an end, this is not true. His harmonic experiments are sometimes almost as daring as Wagner's, and his frequent use of odd, angular rhythmic themes anticipated the works of 20th century compositional innovators such as Arnold Schoenberg, who expressed deep admiration for him.

As one of the central composers of the classical music tradition, Brahms and his music have appeared widely in film and other works of popular culture.

Brahms was also honoured by the German Hall of Fame, the Walhalla temple. On 14 September 2000 he was introduced there as 126th "rühmlich ausgezeichneter Teutscher" and 13th composer among them, by a bust of sculptor Milan Knobloch. [2]

Lacking the flamboyant personality of a Mozart or the signature romantic elan of Beethoven, Brahms has never achieved the same level of popular appeal, deservedly or undeservedly. No popular films have attempted to represent his life, which, it should be said, was somewhat uneventful. Brahms was above all a man who consecrated his life to his art.

Writing in The New Oxford Companion to Music, Denis Arnold concludes:- '...His appeal to musicians lies in the quality of his craftsmanship. His wider appeal surely lies in the essential conflict between the depth of emotion so often evident yet hidden behind his natural reserve. ...'


(The Letters and the three biographical works listed above mutually support the statements in the biographical section of this article.)


  • 1 Kurt Hoffman, Johannes Brahms und Hamburg (Reinbek, 1986) (in German: includes detailed refutation of the traditional story of Brahms playing piano in brothels, using the writings of those who knew the young Brahms, as well as evidence of the Hamburg's close regulation of those places, preventing the employment of children)


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