The Composer Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms (Germany, 1833-1897) was a romantic composer and virtuoso pianist who is often referred to as the successor of Beethoven. At the premiere of his first symphony in 1876, it was referred to as Beethoven’s 10th. Brahms was a composer of the romantic era with a strong urge to create lasting music with new qualities. Consequently, he did not only commit to the past through maintaining classical forms but he also introduced new harmonies with which he started the transition to the 20th Century music. While many contemporaries found his music too academic, his diligent, highly constructed works are a starting point and an inspiration for a generation of composers. Brahms was an uncompromising perfectionist.
The Childhood and Youth of Brahms
The father of Johannes Brahms earned his income through playing French horn and double bass. When Johannes Brahms was 7 years old, his father arranged piano lessons for him. The teacher noticed his talent and facilitated the contact to the composer Eduard Marxsen who was famous in Hamburg at that time. Brahms became Marxsen’s piano and composition student at the age of 10. He played piano to earn additional family income and published his first compositions at the age of 16. He published some of his early works under a pseudonym.
At the age of 20, Brahms was introduced to Robert Schumann (Germany, 1810-1856) who was already famous at that time. Schumann wrote in his music magazine about the talent of Brahms and advocated the publishing some of Brahms’ work. Brahms became instantly famous and burned some of his works because he was afraid that he could not bear the expectations of the public.
A close lifelong friendship began between Brahms and the wife of Robert Schumann, the pianist Clara. Brahms fell in love with her and felt a strong conflict between his love and respect for her and Robert. This inner conflict even continued after Robert died. Brahms’ piano concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, was dedicated to Clara and published in 1859. Unfortunately, it was received badly by the audience.
Generally, Brahms’ works were considered to be very difficult and he often delayed publishing schedules because he continued revisions. Consequently, most publishers were careful and Brahms had a hard time publishing his works until he met publisher Fritz Simrock who admired his talent.
During 1860th, Brahms’ works started to sell widely. He had a very good income from his performances and publications and visited Vienna where he settled permanently in 1872 at the age of 39. Brahms gave his money to friends and musical students and just lived a very simple life in a modest apartment with a mess of music papers and books. He was well known for wearing a long beard, cheap clothes, no socks and walking around with his hands folded at his back.
Brahms' compositions and the War of the Romantics
Brahms' compositions were romantic but in contrast to the music of many of his contemporaries, he followed classical forms, structures and techniques. His compositions were labeled “pure music”, “old fashioned” or even “boring” while the works of Franz Liszt (Hungarian, 1811-1886) and Richard Wagner (German, 1813-1883) belonged to more popular classical music called “New German School” or “Programme Music”. In 1860th, Brahms even wrote a public manifest against the “New German School” but it was satirized before publishing and Brahms never involved in public polemics again. However, the clashes of the two ideas about music influenced whole Europe and became known as the “War of the Romantics”.
Brahms was a perfectionist and followed his idea of high quality, lasting or even “absolute” music that should be valued only by its musical and artistic standards and not by its inner program or its opulence. Being a romantic composer and using structures of the classic, he created new approaches to harmony and melody that lead into the 20th Century music.