The Kennedy Center

Johannes Brahms


One of the big "Three B's" of the classical music world, Johannes Brahms is most widely known by modern audiences for his melodic lullaby, but his influence goes much further afield than simple children's tunes. The son of a lower middle class family, Brahms was born in Hamburg of the early 19th century; a scruffy port city filled with exotic traders and seedy traffickers alike. Although in an earlier era, it had been home to a number of fine musicians, it was, at the midpoint of the 19th century, a unseemly and unlikely a place for a future legend to arise as one might imagine.

Although admittedly he was no child prodigy, he occasionally dislikened himself to the young Mozart, Brahms would tell listeners on later occasions that his father, a trained musician himself, often arranged Brahms' early concerts in the public bars of the town. Bars of that place and era doubled as houses of ill-repute; it was an entirely shocking inverse portrait of Brahms' life overlaid by evoking the measure of natural and wholesome adoration Wolfgang's father's evidenced for his child in securing him appointments to all the finest courts of Europe.

Ever the master auteur, the older Brahms doubtless spread these grim tales to enhance his standing in front of his easily shocked Victorian audiences; positing himself as a man who rose above mere circumstance to achieve a measure of real greatness in the competitive European music scene. Even without the tall tales, Brahms' import to German culture was significant even in his own day. He was a composer made for Vienna of the Belle Époque.

He cast an exceedingly large shadow: stretching from his training in the traditions of the Classical era into the later-still Romanic era. Although of modest origins, Brahms connects together a number of rich threads in the musical world. Rightly, he is remembered for his abilities as a composer and musician. Certainly, his requiems, cantatas, and symphonies are now considered fundamental listening. Over the course of his career, however, he became the defender of the traditional Classical style and his legacy is the imprint of his influence on the style and substance of his fellow composers.

This was a struggle not easily or early attained either. Brahms did not achieve success in his youth. As a performing pianist and as a composer, he made his living playing in cafes and composing hack-works for local performing groups. His father had wanted him to become an orchestral musician, but Brahms soon demonstrated a clear preference and talent for the pianoforte and at age seven he began studies with a pupil of Eduard Marxen, and eventually with Marxen himself. Marxen's deep understanding and fondness for the music of Bach and Beethoven influenced Brahms to a commitment toward the traditional styles of the mid-nineteenth century, and a lasting rejection of later nineteenth century modernism as represented by the music of Wagner and Liszt.

As a matter of course, he could be nothing else. In his early years, Brahms received instruction from a pupil of Mozart, Ignaz von Seyfried. He was a friend of Schubert and Schumann. He scuffled with Richard Wagner's New Romantics and considered Antonin Dvoržak as his prodigy and confidante. Gustav Jenner may have called him a grump and a curmudgeon, but men such as Johann Strauss II knew better: that to be a success in Vienna, you had to know Johannes Brahms, the grand homme of the Viennese classical scene, and to play in his court, you had to play by his rules.

While still in his early twenties Brahms met Joseph Joachim, the renowned violinist and the two became fast friends and often made joint concert tours through Europe. Through Joachim Brahms met Franz Liszt, and also Robert and Clara Schuman, who were to have perhaps the most profound influence on his musical and composing career. He remained close to the Schumanns, and spent much time with them, especially during Robert's decline into serious mental illness. After the death of Robert he remained close to Clara. Initially he was very much in love with Clara, fourteen years his senior, though she did not return his love. However they remained close friends for the remainder of her life. She premiered many of his compositions on her frequent concert tours. An affair with Agnes Siebold in 1858 at age 25 was the closest he would ever come to marriage.

Brahms had hoped to secure a permanent conducting position, or conservatory appointment, but though he secured several positions in various places, each failed for some reason, and he never succeeded in this ambition. In 1868 he settled permanently in Vienna, where he had established a wide circle of friends among the most famous and successful musical and cultural figures of his time. The premier of his German Requiem in 1869, more than any of his previous works established his reputation as a significant composer. Throughout his career he composed prolifically for almost all instrumental combinations, as well as works for piano, chorus and solo voice. Many still appear regularly on today's concert programs. Most popular today perhaps are his German Requiem, his four symphonies, the Alto Rhapsody, and his chamber music.

Brahms died at age 64 in Vienna, on April 3, 1897, of cancer of the liver, only a few months after the death of his dear friend, Clara Schuman.


National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms


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