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date: 18 October 2019

Brahms, Johannes

The Oxford Companion to Music
Styra AvinsStyra Avins

Brahms, Johannes (b Hamburg, 7 May 1833; d Vienna, 3 April 1897). German composer. 

He was one of the greatest composers of the 19th century. His music unites lyrical Romanticism with the rigours of Baroque and Classical forms. His many masterpieces are part of the standard repertory for symphony orchestras, pianists, singers, choral societies, vocal ensembles, chamber ensembles, and the solo instruments he favoured: piano, violin, cello, and clarinet.

The early years

Brahms was born to a respectable family of limited means. His father, Johann Jakob, earned a living as a freelance musician playing the flute, violin, cello, horn, and double bass, as needed. Arriving as a young man in Hamburg from Schleswig-Holstein, Johann Jakob saved enough money within a few years to apply for Hamburg citizenship and soon afterwards moved to a better part of the town. There he married his landlady, Christiana Nissen, a seamstress 17 years his elder, intelligent and steady. Within five years there were three children, the second of whom was Johannes, born in Hamburg's old district of narrow streets, the Gängeviertel. The family remained there for only six more months, moving away before it gained its later unsavoury reputation, but the address of Brahms's birth has led to a long-standing misconception that his early life was lived in poverty.

In fact, Brahms spent his formative years away from the Gängeviertel and far from the infamous docks of the Elbe, in a small house on the Dammtorwall, the northern perimeter of Hamburg near the Inner Alster. The house overlooked a tree-lined street and the fields beyond the city walls. With his brother, he was educated at his parents' expense at a middle school for ‘boys of the general middle class’, conducted according to the most up-to-date educational theories. One of his teachers, to whom Brahms gave piano lessons while he was still a student there, described him as conscientious and hard-working, if not brilliant. Brahms graduated at 14 with some knowledge of Latin, French, English, natural sciences, history, mathematics, and gymnastics. This last remained a hobby until he was about 30. A powerful interest in history, the visual arts, and literature remained with him for life.

Brahms's precocious display of musical talent was nurtured by his father. By seven he was receiving the piano lessons he so wanted, and later had lessons on the horn and cello (cello lessons stopped when his teacher absconded with the instrument). His piano teachers laid the foundation for a first-rate technique: Otto Cossel (1813–65) taught him until he was ten, then sent him to his own teacher, the highly regarded Eduard Marxsen (1806–87), who taught both Johannes and his brother Fritz without charge. Marxsen also gave Brahms his only formal lessons in theory and composition.

He gave his first performance at ten. He appeared in public from his 13th year and made an auspicious debut as a virtuoso pianist just before his 16th birthday (April 1849), with a programme that included one of his own compositions. Nothing came of the splendid reviews. Nor was his passion to compose welcomed by his parents. Lacking concert engagements, he contributed to the family finances by playing in taverns, in dance halls, for the Hamburg City Theatre, and at the occasional musical evening at a fine house, where he earned good money. He arranged operatic potpourris for a local publisher, and earned additional money by giving piano lessons. Many biographies of Brahms mention poverty and the consequent necessity for him to earn money playing in brothels and unsavoury ‘Lokals’. Although money was always an issue for the Brahms family, there is no good evidence for these stories, and much to challenge them. Recent searches of historical records disclose the picture of a family at the lower end of the middle class, labouring—succeeding—to make ends meet. The shortage of money in the Brahms household came not from insufficient income, but from Johann Jakob Brahms's propensity for unwise spending.

The making of a composer

At 19, in an attempt to satisfy his parents and build a concert career, Brahms embarked on a short tour to a few small towns in northern Germany, accompanying the brilliant Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi. Rather than launching him as a pianist, however, the tour marked the start of his life as a composer. Reményi took him to Hanover to meet his compatriot Joseph Joachim, one of the greatest violinists of the 19th century and even at 22 the friend of many renowned artists. The two immediately struck up a friendship, which lasted, with one painful break, for the rest of their lives. Through Joachim, Brahms met Liszt and Berlioz, and most important, Robert and Clara Schumann, who instantly recognized his talent (‘Visit from Brahms, a genius’, reads Schumann's diary entry for 1 October 1853, as Brahms appeared at their door in Düsseldorf). When Brahms returned to Hamburg in December 1853 he was the most feted young composer in Germany, with seven works about to be issued by leading publishers.

This meteoric rise was the result of his meeting with the Schumanns, the single most momentous occurrence of his life, personally and musically. Schumann promoted his interests with extreme vigour; his panegyric ‘Neue Bahnen’, published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, called Brahms the long-awaited saviour of music and propelled the 20-year-old into the limelight. More beneficially, both Schumanns broadened Brahms's musical and literary horizons and introduced him to friends and acquaintances who would figure in his life for the next four decades. The Schumanns' Düsseldorf home introduced Brahms to a world in which a love of books and culture and a passionate devotion to music were the norm and where his creative gifts were esteemed and encouraged.

The compositions Brahms took when he left home included a range of works for solo piano and a sample of the kind of music that gained him later fame: chamber music, a violin sonata, and lieder. Much that has survived from the period is stormy, passionate, even unruly, the piano works of enormous difficulty (Piano Sonatas opp. 1, 2, and 5, Scherzo op. 4). Cossel and Marxsen had raised him on Bach, Clementi, some Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and a wide assortment of virtuoso salon composers of the day, but he must have known music by Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt. His interest in folksongs and early music was already evident, and he was buying books which would eventually form part of a considerable library. The Romantic novels of Jean Paul and stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann were among his favourites.

Brahms's involvement with the Schumann family quickly led to years of personal turmoil, as Schumann, unbeknown to all, was suffering from the late stages of neurosyphilis. His suicide attempt in February 1854 and subsequent admission to hospital signalled the end of Brahms's first period of productivity. In coming to Clara's aid Brahms fell in love with her, while maintaining a reverential love and active concern for her husband, now in an asylum. The story, which has the makings of a soap opera, has been treated with varying degrees of luridness by novelists and screenwriters but perhaps never with more feeling than in some of Brahms's own music of the time: the First Piano Concerto op. 15, and two movements of the Piano Quartet in C minor op. 60. The possibility of a real romance between Clara and Brahms is remote, given their characters and circumstances. The friendship, however, which went through many phases and endured many tensions, was lifelong, and was for each the most important one of their lives.

With Schumann's death (1856), Brahms returned to Hamburg. Although he never ceased composing, his published works trickled to a stop. Not until 1860 did he publish again. In the intervening years, he engaged in counterpoint studies with his friend Joachim, studied old masters assiduously, edited the first of his many publications of the works of earlier composers (in this case C. P. E. and W. F. Bach, 1859, published 1864), and wrote music along archaic or classic lines (e.g. Begräbnisgesang op. 13, First Serenade op. 11, First String Sextet op. 18, Handel Variations op. 24). For three seasons (September–December 1857–9) he was choral conductor of the private chorus of Count Leopold III zur Lippe in Detmold and piano teacher to the Royal Princess and some of her friends and family. During the rest of the year he worked to establish a professional career in Hamburg, founding a women's chorus (1859), teaching, conducting, and even attempting, with Clara's help, to revive his virtuoso piano career. An exploratory trip to Vienna in 1862 coincided with his rejection for the post of conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic and Choral Society, a blow he never forgot and one that closed the doors to Hamburg for ever.

Unsettled years

In Vienna came quick success. Two concerts led to Brahms's selection as conductor of the Vienna Singverein (1863). Although he resigned after only a year to devote himself to composing, performing, and getting his music published, his career never faltered again. He had no fixed domicile and little money, but he was composing one great work after another. The next summers were spent mostly in Baden-Baden, where Clara and her children had their only real home. Works from this time include some of his best chamber music: the Piano Quintet op. 34, the First Cello Sonata op. 38, the Second String Sextet op. 36, the Horn Trio op. 40, the Waltzes for piano four hands op. 39. Some of his most beloved songs (Von ewiger Liebe, Heimweh II: ‘O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück’, Mondnacht) date from this time. But the crowning work of the period is A German Requiem op. 45, begun about 1865 and performed in Bremen in 1868. It was soon given in many cities, establishing broad acceptance for his music at last, and the large fee paid by his publisher marked the end of Brahms's financial problems. Published at virtually the same time are his two most popular works, the Lullaby and the Hungarian Dances.


With an offer to conduct the orchestra and chorus of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Brahms settled in Vienna in 1871. His Viennese audience had to get used to more serious fare, as Brahms indulged his antiquarian tastes and gave Vienna its first hearing of Bach's cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden (bwv4), along with other rarely heard Baroque works. He was sought out as editor for some of the many authoritative editions then being published, preparing the Pièces de concert for the complete edition of Couperin's music and contributions to the complete editions of Chopin, Mozart (his portion was the Requiem k626), Schubert, and Schumann. In 1875 he resigned his orchestral post and established the pattern of living he maintained for the rest of his life: touring as performer and conductor of his own works during autumn and winter, travelling in the spring, and composing during the summer, usually in the mountains.

Brahms was frequently attacked in the press for his ‘conservatism’ by Wagner and his followers. In contrast, while Wagner's personal style was inimical to Brahms, he appreciated Wagner's music, invariably defending it and even calling himself ‘the best Wagnerite of all’. Brahms's own fame continued to grow. Among his many medals and honours are the Maximilian Order (Bavaria, 1873), Pour le Mérite (Prussia, 1887), Commander of the Order of Leopold (Austria, 1889), and Austrian Order for Art and Science (1895). In 1879 the University of Breslau awarded him an honorary doctorate, after he declined to travel to England to accept one from Cambridge University.

For the last 20 years of his life, Brahms was the dominant musical figure in Vienna. When he died of cancer just before his 64th birthday, the city declared a day of mourning and buried him in an honorary grave between Beethoven and Schubert.

Brahms's music

Brahms's association with the Schumanns had a profound effect on his music. If for a brief time he had identified himself with the ‘Musicians of the Future’, a reference to Liszt and his circle who were looking for new forms and who favoured literary connections to their music, Brahms's reverence for the old masters grew so that by 1860 he was ‘itching’ to declare his opposition to the futurists in a public declaration. Although the quarrel may now seem puzzling, Brahms and his friends felt deeply that the circle round Liszt was undermining the future of music by claiming that it could attain its greatest potential only if allied with a literary or programmatic idea: in their view, the symphony and chamber music of Mozart and Beethoven's day were finished. To Brahms, the independence of the art of music was at stake. Although he rounded up 20 composers to sign it, the declaration was published prematurely with only his name and three others and was an embarrassment. Brahms never publicly expressed his views on music again. They are, however, easy enough to discern from his work: an enormous reverence for the great composers from the late Renaissance onwards; instead of discarding their techniques for something new, he made them his own and infused them with his personal brand of lyric Romanticism.

The characteristic qualities that identify Brahms's music are present from the first to the last of his works, giving his output unusual unity. His skill at harnessing rhythmic and harmonic motion imparts what Joachim likened to a ‘force of nature’. His practice of making every note count, of developing material so that it is varied and reused throughout a piece, makes his work compact and durable. This manner of using musical material richly and economically is also what aroused the admiration of Schoenberg, who surprised the musical world with his essay ‘Brahms the Progressive’ (1933). In spite of those unifying characteristics, Brahms's work falls into identifiable periods, the earliest comprising compositions with a sometimes unruly exuberance of musical ideas (e.g. the piano sonatas opp. 1, 2, and 5, the Piano Trio op. 8 in its original version, the great Piano Concerto op. 15, and the Piano Quartet op. 26). By the time of the Piano Quintet op. 34, he had developed a masterful ability to fit musical idea to appropriate form.

A long series of large works followed over the next 20-odd years. Among the best-known compositions for chorus and orchestra are A German Requiem (1865–8), the Alto Rhapsody (1869)—an unusual work for orchestra, contralto, and men's chorus—and the Schicksalslied (1871). The first mature large work for orchestra (1873) was the Variations on a Theme by Haydn op. 56a, still one of his most popular. The symphonies appeared between 1876 and 1885, the Violin Concerto in 1878, the Tragic and Academic Festival Overtures in 1880, the Second Piano Concerto in 1881, the Double Concerto in 1887. Although there has been much speculation that Brahms hesitated to publish his first symphony for fear of failing to live up to Beethoven's examples, a more likely explanation is that Brahms postponed publishing for orchestra until he had had the experience of working with one. Throughout his life he wrote and published music for instrumental and vocal combinations with which he was familiar: his first published works are for piano, the first choral works are for women's voices, and his first duo sonata is for cello and piano.

Full-scale chamber works are equally evident in this middle period of maturity: the three string quartets, the Second String Sextet, two piano trios, the two string quintets. The two Rhapsodies for piano also appeared at this time. So did much of his vocal chamber music—best known is the first set of Liebesliederwalzer op. 52, but there are many others, rich additions to an otherwise small repertory. And during these years, as in all others, Brahms composed songs, of which there are over 200. He is one of the four great 19th-century German lied composers, and the only one to have lived a relatively long life. His songs express a wide range of colour and character, though he is possibly best known for his settings of melancholy, of unrequited love, and for transcendent settings of nature poetry. Among his most delightful are artful settings of folk melodies, reflecting his intense interest in what he saw as the essence of German music and his belief that untrained people should enjoy them.

One senses Brahms's desire from about 1880 to condense his thought and shed all superfluity. Some of his starkest choral music dates from this time, as do the compact late piano pieces opp. 116–19. By 1890 Brahms was ready to retire from composing. After so informing his friend and publisher, Fritz Simrock, and sending him his will for safekeeping, he was suddenly moved to write for Richard Mühlfeld, the solo clarinettist of the court orchestra at Meiningen. This surge of creative energy resulted in a unique contribution to the clarinet literature: two Sonatas for clarinet op. 120 nos. 1 and 2, the Clarinet Trio op. 114 and the Clarinet Quintet op. 115, one of the final great chamber works of the 19th century. The last piece he published, Vier ernste Gesänge for solo voice and piano op. 121 (1896), is the profoundest music expressed with the sparsest sound.

In spite of stringent personal artistic standards and unyielding refusal to publish any but the music that met his approval, Brahms amassed a considerable fortune from the fees his publishers paid him (he never earned royalties but was paid a flat fee for each of his works). By the middle of his life his music had come to appeal to a musically educated audience in England, the USA, and the German-speaking countries, who not only attended concerts of his works but bought the printed music for home use, either in four-hand editions of the orchestral and choral music, or in the original versions of the smaller combinations.

Personal life

Brahms never married, although he had several serious attachments to women (besides Clara Schumann) and numerous flirtations. He often referred to himself as ‘The Outsider’ and sometimes complained of loneliness, but in fact had a need for solitude. At the same time, he was a sociable person. His considerable circle of friends, attested to by his thousands of letters, included leading scientists, musicologists, poets, writers, journalists, artists, conductors, performers, and music lovers, women as well as men, and he spent almost 20 summers in the fashionable spas of Baden-Baden and Ischl. He was instrumental in founding the Vienna Composers' Society (the Tonkünstlerverein), of which he was Honorary President. Some of his most important friendships suffered celebrated rifts (notably with the conductor Hermann Levi, Joachim, and the surgeon Theodor Billroth); much less well known are the lifelong, faithful friendships. In the same way, there are endless stories of Brahms's well-known prickliness, sarcasm, irony, and tactlessness. Less well known, but just as well documented, are accounts of his great generosity, kindness, loyalty, and good humour. Brahms was godfather to at least 15 children, a responsibility not normally offered to an ogre. Perhaps it is that very complexity of character that gives his music such range.

One story indicates both the quality of his music and his character. Brahms once criticized a composition because the individual parts were unpleasant to play. ‘You give people individual notes like the little pins in a musical box’, he chided the composer. ‘But a musician is not a musical box, he is a human being; he must always have something to say. If you give him the dissonance, you must also give him the resolution.’

Styra Avins


M. MacDonald, Brahms (London and New York, 1990, 2/2001)Find this resource:

S. Avins, Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters (Oxford, 1997)Find this resource:

M. Musgrave, The Cambridge Companion to Brahms (Cambridge, 1999); A Brahms Reader (London and New Haven, CT, 2000)Find this resource: