Composer. He ranks as one of the major figures of 19th Century music. During his lifetime Brahms was called "Beethoven's Heir" because his music united great expressive freedom with rigorous Classical form. He is known for his four symphonies and concertos, his vocal and chamber works, and his music for solo piano. Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany. His father, a poor doublebass player, taught him the fundamentals of music, and by age nine he was a gifted pianist. He also started composing around this time. Brahms rapidly developed into a keyboard virtuoso and gave his first recital at 15. While on a concert tour in 1853 he met the three people who exerted the most influence in his life: violinist Joseph Joachim, who became his most faithful interpreter; composer Robert Schumann; and Schumann's famous pianist wife, Clara. It was Robert Schumann who first recognized Brahms' genius. He wrote an article praising the unknown young composer, gave him advice and helped find him a publisher. Schumann died tragically insane in 1856, but Clara Schumann remained a devoted friend and confidante until her death 40 years later. Brahms served as Music Director at the court of Lippe-Detmold from 1857 to 1860 and conducted a women's chorus in Hamburg from 1860 to 1863, but he was largely unnoticed in Germany. In 1863 he settled in Vienna, where his music had been better received. There he conducted the Vienna Singakademie, edited several volumes of Baroque music and an early edition of Schubert, and in 1872 became director of the prestigious Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde ("Society for the Friends of Music"). As his fame grew Brahms was able to devote more time to composing and performing his works. He conducted most of Europe's major orchestras, but a fear of sea travel caused him to refuse several offers to tour England and the United States. The University of Breslau awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1879, and in 1890 the Emperor of Austria presented him with the Order of Leopold. When Brahms died of cancer one month before his 64th birthday, he was one of Vienna's most famous and honored citizens. Thousands attended his funeral. Brahms was a gruff, moody, self-deprecating man who lived as simple a life as his celebrity would allow. He never married. His appearance was often untidy, especially in his later years, when he grew a long, flowing beard and mustache. He ate at modest restaurants, always travelled third-class, and lived in the same three-room apartment in Vienna for 30 years. Yet he was a shrewd businessman, and at the time of his death the income from his published scores alone amounted to $100,000. His knowledge of The Bible was extensive but he was a confirmed, lifelong agnostic. The essential loneliness of his character is reflected in his music. It is bittersweet and yearning, often sad and brooding, and sometimes tragic. There are many moments of high spirits and even whimsy, but pure undiluted gaiety is rare. (He envied the light touch in the waltzes of his good friend, Johann Strauss II. When asked for his autograph, Brahms would jot down the tune of Strauss' "The Blue Danube" and then write, "Unfortunately NOT by Johannes Brahms"). Brahms is sometimes called "The Last Classicist". Reverance for the old German masters, particularly Beethoven, was the cornerstone of his art. He wrote nothing for the stage and had no sympathy for program music; literal musical illustration was foreign to his way of thinking. For this he was labeled a reactionary by the progressive supporters of Wagner and Liszt, and the debate continues today. There are critics and historians who feel Brahms was not an important composer because he did little to advance musical evolution in harmony or form. But for all his stylistic conservatism, Brahms was also a Romantic. There is great drama and a wealth of poetry and emotion in his music. He simply chose to express it in a language that was pure, objective, and Classical. Brahms' traditionalist bent is strongest in his orchestral music, where he felt the intimidating impact of Beethoven most keenly. In the mid-1850s he made extensive sketches for a symphony before abandoning it; most of the material went into his first big opus, the Piano Concerto No. 1 (1859). It then took him 20 years to complete a symphony. In the interim he wrote two Serenades (both 1860), and the great "Variations on a Theme by Haydn" (1873), which heralded the period of his creative maturity. When the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor finally premiered in 1876, it established Brahms as the foremost symphonic composer of his time. Conductor Hans von Bulow called it "Beethoven's Tenth", and it is very much in the Beethovian struggle-to-triumph mode. Its ardent, pulsing introduction is one of the sublime utterances in music. His subsequent symphonies followed comparatively quickly. The Symphony No. 2 in D Major (1877) is gentle and bucolic; No. 3 in F (1883) is austere, compact and reflective. The Symphony No. 4 in E Minor (1885) has a merry scherzo but its prevailing mood is one of melancholy and it ends on a somber note. Brahms' later concertos are also symphonic in construction. They are the Violin Concerto (1878), the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1881), and the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello (1887). He also composed two concert overtures, the "Academic Festival" (1880) and the "Tragic" (1880). Brahms appeared more comfortable with the intimacy of smaller forms, and his two dozen chamber works have a broader range. Several of them have rambunctious finales in the spirit of Hungarian folk music. The Piano Quartet in G Minor (1861) was his first important effort in the genre; its warm reception in Vienna prompted his decision to move to that city. It is equally popular today in an orchestral transcription by Arnold Schoenberg. His other chamber compositions include the Piano Quintet in F Minor (1864), three string quartets (the first two appeared in 1873, the third in 1876), three violin sonatas (1879, 1886, 1888), and the Clarinet Quintet in B Minor (1891). Vocal music makes up the bulk of Brahms' output. He wrote many works for various choral ensembles, including quartets, motets, canons, the cantata "Rinaldo" (1863), the "Liebeslieder Waltzes" (1868), and the well-known "Alto Rhapsody" (1869). Towering above them all is "A German Requiem", for soloists, chorus and orchestra. First heard in its entirety in 1869, it made Brahms' international reputation and is his most original masterpiece. The texts are from the German Lutheran Bible rather than the traditional Latin mass, and its messages of comfort and peace are addressed not to the dead, whom the composer felt were beyond such considerations, but to those left behind. Brahms was also one of the greatest creators of German lieder. He wrote over 200 songs and they span his entire career, from the "Six Songs", Op. 3 (1852) to the "Four Serious Songs", Op. 122 (1896), his penultimate work. His most famous song is the sentimental "Lullaby" (1868). Brahms was a gifted pianist and his initial compositions were three piano sonatas; it was the Sonata in C Major (1852) that so impressed Robert Schumann. But these are immature efforts. Of his large keyboard compositions the most impressive is the "Variations on a Theme by Handel" (1861), in which he reveled in the newfound contrapuntal skill he'd acquired through intense study of German Baroque music. Brahms' finest contributions to piano literature are on a smaller scale. His four books of "Hungarian Dances" and 16 waltzes were immensely popular, and the "Hungarian Dance No. 5" is probably the most familiar number he ever wrote, especially in its version for orchestra. With the ballades, rhapsodies, intermezzi, and capriccios, especially the four sets of pieces he composed near the end of his life (Opp. 116-119, 1891 to 1893), we hear Brahms at his most personal and confiding, achieving marvelous depths of feeling with only a handful of bars.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards