Johannes Brahms rose from lowly beginnings in Hamburg, son of a part-time bass player and a seamstress. His father wanted Hannes to follow in his footsteps as an orchestra musician. Encouraged by Hannes’ perfect pitch, his memory for any tune he heard, his love of singing and preference for games involving song, his father started him on cello and violin before age five. Sometime around then, Hannes reportedly had devised his own notation for writing down music he had invented. Fairly quickly, his passion for music eclipsed his passion for playing with his toy soldiers.
Hannes became good enough on cello to play a concerto, but kept insisting on learning the piano. His father refused for a while, saying the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra did not need a pianist. But he eventually consented, and Hannes began piano lessons at age seven.
Hannes would practice at his teacher’s house, or at a derelict upright his father put in their house, or frequently at piano stores on better instruments. After a year, the teacher moved closer to where Hannes lived, already organizing his life around his wunderkind student.
His first piano teacher had taught Brahms everything he knew about music and piano in just three years. He emphasized that music is an exercise of the heart for performer as well as the composer and listener. Recognizing Brahms’ talent, he insisted that Brahms continue lessons from his own one-time teacher, the noted Hamburg composer and teacher Eduard Marxsen, who would be able to help the boy with his desire to compose.
Marxsen resisted for a while. He had heard Brahms play at age ten and sensed this was not someone destined to be a keyboard virtuoso. His playing seemed workman-like, uninspired, not from the heart. Marxsen finally consented to one lesson a week; Brahms must still study mostly with his old teacher. Marxsen would only teach keyboard skills and was initially discouraging of Brahms’ compositional inclinations.
During the first year of this arrangement, Brahms composed his first piano sonata, largely self-taught. Marxsen gradually relented and began to tutor him in his composing studies. Very quickly he realized the extent of the opportunity he had been offered, that of teaching “an exceptional, great, and peculiarly profound talent”. He upped Brahms’ lessons to four a week, and from then on refused to accept money for teaching him, declaring he would do it for the pleasure.
Beginning around age twelve, Brahms performed for money at Hamburg waterfront dives to help support his impoverished family, which support role he maintained throughout his life. There is a story that when Brahms played piano in bars, instead of music he would have a book on the piano. His reading while playing might have enabled him to escape from the tawdriness of his surroundings. Other stories relate that sometimes, after drinking spirits offered to him, he would stagger home drunk.
In his own words “he saw things and received impressions which left a deep shadow on his mind”. Later in life, when challenged for some very misogynist remarks while drunk, he exclaimed: “You tell me I should have the same respect … for women that you have. You expect that from a man cursed with a childhood like mine!” The degree to which this childhood story may be factual and may have influenced later interpersonal relations seems mostly speculation. While we can choose to accept it at face value, it might also be simply a convenient excuse.
At fourteen, Hannes’ father became worried about his son’s health in the tough, dank streets of Hamburg, and arranged with a musician friend for Hannes to spend a couple of summers on a nearby farm outside the city. Hannes would pay his own way by giving the farmer’s daughter music lessons. He commuted back to Hamburg each week during these summers for a lesson with Marxsen.
The change in the boy’s health was gratifying and the seed of Brahms’ love affair with nature was perhaps planted there. He practiced his keyboard and composition through these summers. Repeating this pattern throughout his mature period, Brahms retired from society and obligations to spend summers in the country, rejuvenating his creative spirit.
Literature interested Brahms his whole life. It helped sate his curiosity. Although not conventionally religious, he studied Scripture as would someone intended for the clergy. As a teen, he particularly loved fantasy books, especially the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann. He identified with the young Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler from Hoffmann’s unfinished novel Kater Mürr.
Brahms’ creative mind was more tonal than verbal, so he looked to others for verbal inspirations. Up to his early twenties, Brahms maintained a notebook he titled Des Jungen Kreislers Schatzkästlein, in which he recorded over 600 quotations that appealed to him, from a wide range of sources including antiquities, friends, Beethoven and other composers, and the German poets Schiller and Goethe, with whom he shared an artistic philosophy.
Brahms was by nature and nurture inclined toward a rearward view of where he had come from as a German and composer. Thus he naturally embraced Marxsen’s own interests in the earlier classical keyboard music of Clementi, Bach, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven, written in the now standard forms. Brahms’ rearward view extended to culture, evidenced by his attraction to Rhenish folklore and German volkslieder that would remain strong throughout his life.
Mendelssohn died when Brahms was fourteen, causing Marxsen to comment “a great master of the musical art has gone hence, but an even greater one will bloom for us in Brahms”. This opinion was echoed on a larger stage five years later, when Brahms’ compositional genius attracted the attention of Robert and Clara Schumann.
Brahms, at age fifteen, heard famous virtuoso violinist Joachim play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in Hamburg. The inspiring music and performance were a revelation for the developing musical mind. Joachim, two years Brahms’ senior, had first attracted the world’s attention at age thirteen, performing, with Mendelssohn conducting, a London performance of this then neglected concerto. Brahms would later connect with Joachim personally, the two becoming lifelong friends.
Young Brahms gradually accepted paying piano students, phasing out his playing in bawdy houses. He continued to compose his own serious music, as well as some popular commissioned pieces under various pseudonyms. He began participating in recitals, becoming known as performer and composer to Hamburg audiences. It is said that Marxsen helped his confidence in these events, by penning anonymous favorable critiques for the newspapers.
In the spring of 1853, Brahms was nearly twenty. He was enlisted as piano accompanist for some local recitals by a visiting Hungarian violinist virtuoso. Although they didn’t get along well, the two decided, in the impromptu manner of youth, to go on a concertizing tour. They planned to end up in Hanover to visit Joachim, along the tour playing a program that included Beethoven, Brahms, and Hungarian folk melodies. This six month excursion would change Brahms’ life. He left as a naive and unknown musical talent and returned with a symbolic crown, the next great musical mind.
Brahms had already completed five pieces in his cataloged opus. He would write more songs and finish his third piano sonata during the summer tour. They did get to Hanover and Brahms was introduced to Joachim, who recalled late in life that he had never been more completely overwhelmed than during this introduction to Brahms’ music. Joachim sent the pair off to continue their tour with a letter of introduction to Liszt at Weimar.
Liszt and his circle received the pair warmly. Liszt sight-read Brahms’ Scherzo Op. 4 from the sketchy manuscript. He gave the piece a highly favorable opinion. Liszt and his social circle could be counted on for excellent manners, always expressing cordiality and praise for their guests. Done to a fault, it was difficult perhaps to discern real feeling from flattery. Yet subsequent comments by Liszt to conductor Hans von Bülow indicate that Liszt was entirely genuine in his praise for Brahms’ compositional talent.
Brahms and his traveling partner remained in Weimar for six weeks. All present were highly complimentary; it was difficult to pull away. But during a recital where Liszt was playing one of his own pieces, it was reported by those present that Brahms fell asleep and that Liszt observed this faux pas. Liszt was cordial after, as always, but there is no record that he ever played music by Brahms in public again.
Brahms and his traveling partner split at this point, and Brahms went to Göttingen to stay with Joachim for a few weeks while Joachim completed his summer studies in philosophy at the university. Thus began their long friendship, although there would be stormy interludes. Joachim was also a composer; the two worked on further developing their technique. In later life, they would exchange manuscripts regularly to solicit the other’s criticisms. If one did not submit a manuscript at the appointed time, he was required to pay a token penalty to the other.
Initially, Joachim was far ahead of Brahms in utilizing an orchestra, and would help fill in these holes left by Marxsen in Brahms’ development. They gave a recital at the end of their summer time together. Brahms used his proceeds to fund a walking vacation down the Rhine. The Rhine would lead him to Düsseldorf and the Schumann household.
Robert recorded in his diary “Visit from Brahms (a genius)”. Clara wrote “A great future lies before him, for when he comes to the point of writing for orchestra, then he will have found the true medium for his imagination”. Brahms stayed with Robert and Clara for an idyllic month while the pair fussed over him; he made good use of their extensive library. Thus began Brahms’ adult career of over forty years, heir to the title of Germany’s (and the world’s) greatest living composer.
It would be a struggle for the next nine years, as Brahms attempted to develop his talent, overcome a long period of writer’s block, deal with setbacks and rejection from audiences, and experience unrequited love. It was only when he arrived in Vienna in 1862 that he was finally home, anchored in life and career. He would grow into his symbolic crown here. With increasing reputation, even his previously rejected works began to meet with enthusiasm.
Already by age eight, Hannes had become the star of his local Hamburg circle. Even by then, he realized how special his gifts were. Thus Brahms began to experience a gulf that ever widened between himself and others, with personality somewhat hobbled by a necessary, self-protective distancing and avoidance.
In his late 20s and early 30s, Brahms experienced unrequited love for women, causing depression and upset in his life. His complex feelings toward women spanned deep infatuation for certain women, against a generally dismissive attitude that occasionally burst into explicit misogyny, attitudes further enmeshed in a generalized misanthropic outlook. Brahms was acquainted with Goethe’s early novel The Sorrows of Young Werther; his experiences would likely have caused him to identify with the protagonist, especially after reliving the protagonist’s misfortune of falling in love with an unattainable married woman (in Brahms’ case, Clara Schumann).
Brahms recognized the need to free himself from such worldly entanglements; else his art would suffer. It was another Goethe work, the dark poem Harzreise im Winter, that perhaps inspired Brahms to direct his emotional energies into a more productive channel. He chose three stanzas of this poem, composing the Alto Rhapsody, for Soloist and Male Chorus. Written shortly after the Requiem, it was dedicated to Julie Schumann (Clara’s daughter) as a wedding gift, and one suspects the work’s inspiration was deeply personal.
He may have been comforted by Goethe’s describing a lost and lonely person wandering on his life’s journey, leaving no mark of his personal presence, hampered by misanthropic views, and hoping to discover one musical tone, a magic chord perhaps, that could lift his spirits and enable him to become the person of his better nature. It is reported that the Alto Rhapsody had deeper personal meaning for Brahms than most other of his compositions. It was at this time in his life when he seems to have dedicated himself to his art, setting aside his earlier romantic notions about life and love.
Outside of his social circles, Brahms would instinctively avoid burdensome connections between himself and others. It seems likely that many aspects of his nature and experience came to bear on such situations; the sorrows of the young Brahms; fear of attachments that would compromise his creative spirit and his art; inability to escape demons created by his early experiences in Hamburg’s dance hall bars; likely yet other, deeper psychological issues. One looks for explanations for his seeking to hide himself away from others’ view, and needing to live an unattached life. Yet he did not withdraw from the society of men, but allowed his music to earn him the love and loyalty of others.He sustained many deep friendships until his death, including with his muse Clara and with violinist Joseph Joachim.
Although his personality seemed to deny it, he was kind at his core, possessing a large heart. In this heart, he desired, at least early on, a normal life with family and friends and a stable career. But whenever an opportunity presented itself for acquiring these normal accoutrements of a life, either a permanent position or a permanent relationship, he was either spurned, or himself backed away and moved on.
When outside the sphere of the professional and academic music, Brahms was jovial, genial, loyal, friendly, at least superficially people-oriented. He loved the good life of the Viennese society; it made up for much he missed in a childhood of deprivation and hardship. The city had welcomed him where other cities, particularly his native Hamburg, had spurned him.
In the personal circumstances of his maturity, he lived a simple life according to a broad pattern of annual comings and goings that suited his art and creative spirit, at the same time governed by the more detailed schedule of his daily themes. Thus his life flowed according to structured lines, in a pattern echoing the rounded forms of his music.
He spent his summers in the German and Swiss countrysides. His love of nature dictated these country summers, during which he did his creative work. The winters were mostly reserved for business matters related to his music career and his various responsible positions. Winter might also find him putting finishing touches on compositions prior to submission for publication. He vacationed seven times in Italy with friends in later years.
Music was his life’s encompassing orb. In this life, he considered himself, and was considered by others of this sphere, as the ultimate living practitioner of his art. Music is what he lived for, both his servant and master, his higher plane of happiness. Every decision he was free to make with his life came down on the side of his art, and mostly against happiness as frequently defined in the ordinary affairs of human life. And this may have been the case even if there had not been additional demons that interfered with his ability to establish a permanent relationship and family.
It is in his musical sphere that the greatest change of persona became evident. The overriding reason was the gulf that existed, in reality and inside his head, between himself and those with whom he associated professionally, with fellow musicians, with his musical audiences, acolytes, and patrons. Others could not appreciate how large the gulf was, how different Brahms sensed himself.
Brahms could not find it in himself to make nice with any pretender who wished to discuss musical matters with him, but who failed to grasp the size of the gulf separating them. If someone decided to just hop over the gap, and thus presumably into Brahms confidences and good graces, a painful reality would soon befall. An illustration has been related: ‘One rainy day a Mr. v. A. invited Brahms to play one of his symphonies with him in a four-hand version. Brahms countered, “wait until a second Mr. v. A. arrives.” ‘
On the other hand, Brahms cultivated friends who were musically sophisticated but lacking any perceived pretension. He welcomed an audience who could really appreciate his artistic achievements and discuss them intelligently. These friends were neither pompous nor fawning, but rather true in their attention and affection.
Brahms’ eye for talent was keen, but he was seldom encouraged by or encouraging about the music he saw from others. His more significant ‘discoveries’, whose music he promoted, include Dvořák and Dohnányi (late in life), but such talents did not emerge frequently. So many pretenders were deemed musically unworthy of his opinions that he ran out of nice ways to say so, or maybe just got lazy. Instead of pleasantry, one came to expect a snide put down disguised in some ambiguous verbiage.
Brahms had a competent way with words, for good and bad, and a quick retort. As an example, a composer asked Brahms for an opinion of his symphony and got only this answer: “starting with b, stems are drawn downward for ascending notes and upward for descending ones.”
Brahms’ advice and criticisms, often solicited, were, when offered at all, at a musical level most could not comprehend. Composer Goldmark related: ‘one single time he made a critical remark. I was delighted to hear it, since it finally evinced some interest. I didn’t understand his comment, however, and only years later did it dawn on me what Brahms had meant, and I could only be amazed how this man could identify a flaw on the first hearing.’
As confirmed by his piano student, ‘consideration of feelings was alien to him; whether in approving or in criticizing, his comments were always directed only to the matter at hand, always pertinent, always securely framed’.
Harsh as it could seem, no matter who was receiving Brahms’ opinion, it was only business (i.e. about the music). That this was so is further supported by his considerations of Wagner and Liszt. There were two opposing schools of mid-19th century music, that of Brahms and that of Wagner/Liszt. Brahms recognized the gifts each of these masters bestowed on the world, but Wagner, Liszt, and their supporters never had a kind word for Brahms. Brahms was a fan of Wagner’s music, in spite of his disdain for the man himself. He was also a fan of Liszt’s keyboard prowess, in spite of his disdain for his compositions.
Dramatic composing and virtuoso keyboard performance were simply not in Brahms’ nature. He could therefore more admire the work of talents as great as Wagner and Liszt. That it was not personal is made clear by a subsequent event. When asked to promote a national monument for a conductor of some note, Brahms retorted incredulously: “Even Richard Wagner doesn’t yet have a national monument.”
Brahms was apparently an intuitive judge of character, once showing a guest at some function his most unpleasant side and driving him away. When the host demanded an explanation, Brahms repeatedly disparaged the stranger as a dishonorable person. And years later, the host saw this judgement publicly confirmed, causing him to believe Brahms had an exceptional gift for the occult.
Underneath this later crusty demeanor, there still resided a kind and sensitive persona. He was generous with family and friends, would cry both from joy and sorrow, was often a big tease, and was especially playful and engaging with children, always carrying candy in his pockets when he walked about. He was named godfather to 16 children of friends. To Brahms, his utterances of a misogynist, misanthropic, and socially inappropriate nature were superficial, defensive, and not tied to his true feelings; he likely regretted the opportunities these expressions presented for being misunderstood.
He took his life seriously, knowing his allotted years would be scant to accomplish all he wanted to do. He was punctual in his dealings with others and worked harder than most. He volunteered to sit on a board that evaluated compositions of young composers vying for state stipends. He took this responsibility seriously, reviewed all the submissions, and enjoyed the prospect of assisting anyone of talent to move forward.
His serious and studious side was also evident in his insistence on rehearsal of his works. Unrehearsed performances had been the norm up to Brahms’ time. Further, Brahms was a musicologist, unusual for a creative mind. He was extremely knowledgeable of earlier German music, built a large music library, and was a collector of original scores including Haydn and Mozart.
Outside of music, Brahms was swept up in the German nationalist movement, living at the time that Bismark united the separate German states. But Brahms was a humanist first, once commenting that A German Requiem could easily have been titled A Human Requiem. Although he studied mainly German composers before him, he also learned from some early Italians and any other old masters to whom he had access.
A dark side of this national patriotism did affect Brahms; he spoke against uncontrolled immigration that might threaten the culture and stability he loved. But he was, unlike the majority, an egalitarian patriot; he appreciated the culture of the Slavs and Czechs whose languages were being suppressed, and he had many Jewish friends and acquaintances.
Brahms was personally offended during this period by the antisemitism arising in Austria and Germany. This caustic ideology was promoted by Wagner and accepted by Bruckner, the musical idols of the conservative forces (Christian Socialists) sweeping through Austria at the end of the century, those same forces who identified Brahms with Jewry. Brahms called such pandering vile and despicable. It caused him to speak out in mock protest: “Next week I am going to have myself circumcised”, and also to comment: “If there was an Anticlerical Party – that would make sense! But antisemitism is madness!”.
Unfortunately, the beat goes on and on. Today, a century later, we still see such disturbing nonsense mouthed against Brahms and his admirers, by people of the same ugly persuasions. The words are no longer explicit because the current times would not condone it. But the drum beat is still audible between the lines.
Brahms’ Composition Genres
Brahms’ art is dominated, in number of works, by song. His initial output was divided between song and solo keyboard pieces, two genres where he exhibited skill and ease from a young age.
Brahms’ songs are small musical jewels that demonstrate his sensitivity and skill in matching music to words. Schubert was an influence, along with German volkslieder.
While the songs help us on an academic level to understand his compositional development and his fascination with matching music to texts, these short pieces are in the romantic art song style that has not translated well to modern audiences; they are seldom performed now. And in fact we know from a statement attributed to Brahms that “not all songs by me are suitable for public performance; many of them are conceived only as chamber songs”.
For the most part, the texts are contemporary poetry set to his music and sung with piano accompaniment. Brahms was an avid reader, picking up a book while those around him would take their afternoon naps. His library totaled 850 volumes of literature and another 2000 volumes related to music, all this in spite of his formal education ending at age 14. He avoided setting the major texts of his time such as Goethe and Schiller, deeming them perfect without music.
Since Brahms’ instrument was the piano, works for solo piano find a place in his output, although not as much as one might think. He wrote three early piano sonatas, several early pieces in the form of variations on a theme, and seven sets of small piano pieces (Clavierstücke) of various types: intermezzo, capriccio, ballade, rhapsodie, romanze; the meaning of these names has significance only to Brahms. With the exception of the early Ballades, these short pieces are from his later years.
Brahms’ avoidance of the sonata form in his later piano years is due undoubtedly to living in the shadow of Beethoven. We have a reported Brahms statement to this effect: “even Schumann learned nothing, also Wagner, nothing” and after a pause, “even I learned nothing”. The person to whom this was addressed understood: ‘Beethoven’s keyboard idiom signified to Brahms the last word in keyboard technique. The reason Brahms wrote no sonatas for piano in his later years is that he did not feel in himself the power to continue in the spirit of the late Beethoven.’
Brahms reached out to his public by transcribing a few of his works for piano four hands, enabling them to be enjoyed by any pianist at home. There are also two works written explicitly for piano four hands, a book of 16 waltzes (which he transcribed for solo piano as well), and an early piece in the form of variations on a theme. One other keyboard piece exists in Brahms’ catalog, his final work consisting of eleven choral preludes for organ.
Exceeding his collection of songs in total performance length is Brahms’ music for chamber ensemble, ranging in form from duo sonata to string sextet. Requiring no more musicians than would fit in a home with a large music room, these pieces could be heard often by Brahms’ public. But today, aficionados must rely mostly on recordings to experience them.
Mostly, the public knows Brahms from his large orchestral works (four symphonies, two piano concertos, violin concerto, double concerto, two overtures, and a set of orchestral variations). He developed his orchestral style via two youthful serenades for small orchestra, and by his early choral Requiem. Brahms came to large orchestral writing later in his career, laboring for over two decades on his first symphony. He did not as easily master writing for orchestra as perhaps did other great composers. The density of his polyphony may have made the matching of orchestral timbres a more exacting task.
The final sector of Brahms’ oeuvre is his choral output. The centerpiece is his German Requiem, but there are many other works, accompanied and a cappella, that make this type of composition second only to chamber music in total performance length.
Beyond his official oeurve, Brahms also left extraneous works that were never officially incorporated in his catalog. These are his Werke ohne Opus or WoO pieces, including a large set of German folk songs, his 31 Hungarian dances, organ preludes, choral pieces, and various others.
Brahms’ Musical Persona
Per Schoenberg, “Brahms’ domain as a composer has to be qualified as epic-lyric. He is many-sided, and one can easily find in his music expressions of all sorts, with the possible exception of violent dramatic outbursts”. Brahms appears devoid of operatic instinct himself, although he enjoyed opera and drama and rarely missed the opening night of a new production. Rather than expressing the sweeping sentiment of the brotherhood of all mankind, his music concerned itself with an equally abstract but more inward and reflective idea, what it means to be human and connected to the natural world.
Brahms often seems to have had simple gemütlichkeit in mind. His gemütlich music is often tinged with sehnsucht, expression of a sense of opportunities and love lost. While on the surface, these seem minor passions, they are expressed not purely from a personal perspective, but as abstractions of the most sensitive human memories and experiences. In his abstract music, we can find lofty expression of the romantic conceptions of longing, belonging, hearth, folk, and natural beauty, intimate musical conversation about sweet memories or disturbing thoughts or the natural grace of nature, as well as the constant and engaging delights of song and dance.
Brahms presents a potential pitfall to performers, who may be driven into sentimentality by his frequently expressed sehnsucht. This expressed sense of yearning was more philosophical on Brahms’ part, inspired by and expressing what it means to live, create, frolic, love, and die. A cloak of sentimentality does not fit his music. A story has it his youthful musical motto was FAF (frei aber froh), set in contrast to Joachim’s FAE (frei aber einsam). While this may well have been a humorous conversational counterpoint, such spontaneous utterances usually reflect some modicum of truth; we should take him at his word.
Brahms’ artistic successes, many friends, and substantial wealth rendered him basically a happy person. There are sunny periods in most of his compositions. But the sehnsucht moods also speak to an inherent melancholia just under the surface of his outer persona. This tension between the melancholy and joie de vivre contributes to Brahms’ unique musical voice.
On rare occasion, Brahms’ music dips into angst, but the performer should treat it as a transitional theme; a sunny clearing by a brook or a folk dance theme is never too far distant. The number of Brahms’ movements that end in pathos can be counted on one hand.
Brahms was his harshest critic, destroying a large number of pieces that failed to please well enough the people whose opinions he valued (especially his own). He also destroyed all music from his youth and all correspondence of a personal nature. History was only to know the music. The art mattered. The man behind the art would simply disappear. This was an unfortunate choice, for it has denied his future admirers from learning anything about how he practiced his craft.
Part of his opus purification may have been personal pettiness about receiving criticism from others, part may have been his drive to ensure his place in musical history, and part may have been purely practical. For Brahms was a creative genius; his facility with new ideas makes understandable his “having preferred new attempts rather than being slowed by emendations”.
Yet we may see deviations from this self-assessment at points of his career, such as while re-casting his first symphony attempt into a piano concerto, or during the subsequent long gestation of the real First Symphony, or in the late-life rewrite of the early Trio #1. Being a craft-centric artist, ‘polishing to perfection’ was a type of emendation that Brahms relished when he was confident in his musical voice at the time. It probably derived from a compulsory aspect of his persona. There appears to have been a strong sense in Brahms of which musical ideas could bear fruit, even if in a different form, and which ideas were best left undone.
Brahms’ only composition student, Gustav Jenner, developed a feeling for Brahms’ music pedagogy over several years. What he learned helps us to understand also how Brahms himself learned.
Brahms did not need or want a student late in life, but was persuaded to accept Jenner. Although Brahms spoke with distaste to Jenner about the need to teach, he related he himself needed to do so early in his career. He then encouraged his student to also accept students as a means of livelihood; such was a necessary evil for the professional musician.
Jenner relates that Brahms believed there are no spontaneous composers of great stature, study of past masters being essential to developing one’s own musical talent. All the greatest composers followed this path. One’s first compositions must imitate the best that came before, until one understands the musical logic behind them and can use this understanding in service of one’s own craft. Only then should one attempt to create freely.
Counterpoint, and variations on a theme, were Brahms’ suggested starting points for all beginning students of composition. Brahms considered Bach’s chaconne the most rigorous and elevated form of the variation, thus suggesting a good starting point. Brahms himself used this form in the last symphonic movement he was to compose, his ultimate tip of the hat to the past masters whose talent he so valued.
In a conversation with composer George Henschel, Brahms verbally sketched his approach to composition:
“What is properly called invention, or a real musical idea, is, so to say, a gift, an inspiration which I cannot further or encourage in any way. At the time I must disregard this ‘gift’ as completely as possible, but ultimately I have to make it my own inalienable property by incessant labor. And that will not be quickly accomplished. The idea is like the seed-corn ; it grows imperceptibly in secret. When I have invented or discovered the beginning of a song such as ‘ Wann der silberne Mond ‘ ” — here he sang the first half- verse of Mainacht — ” I shut up the book and go for a walk or take up something else; I think no more of it for perhaps half a year. Nothing is lost, though. When I come back to it again, it has unconsciously taken a new shape, and is ready for me to begin working at it.”
As with a chaconne, Brahms considered the bass line to have fundamental importance to a composition. It was his focus when first creating a new work.
Schoenberg quoted Brahms: “When I do not feel like composing, I write some counterpoint.” And regarding his gifts of musical ideas, Brahms quoted Goethe: “Deserve it to possess it.”
Here’s the little we know about Brahms’ performance art. He could be a wild man at the keyboard as a young man, playing with passion and intensity, and with an elastic sense of tempo. Joachim recalled his initial impressions of Brahms at the 1899 dedication of the Meiningen Brahms monument:
“It was a revelation to me when the song ‘O versenk’ (Liebestreu, Op. 3:1) struck my ears. And his piano playing besides was so tender, so full of fancy, so free, so fiery, that it held me enthralled.”
While part of Brahms’ consciousness would dig into the music to make sure every small shading and detail was expressed, another part would be conveying the broadest view of melodic line. He was by nature a song writer and there is always song in his music.
As a reputed classicist, Brahms is sometimes subjected to dry, ‘objective’ performances. This misses the mark. One observer reported, at a rehearsal of the Haydn Variations (Op. 56a), conductor Brahms called out to the orchestra at the seventh variation: ‘expressively!”. His own elastic sense of tempo also speaks to this misunderstanding.
As a pianist, Brahms probably reached his peak before middle age. After that, he reportedly let his keyboard technique slide until in later years, one came to expect a shabby performance with fistfuls of wrong notes in the challenging parts. He acknowledged this by noting that his pieces were so well known that the audience could supply the correct notes.
In later years, he was further noted for continuous audibilizing while playing, characterized as a low, gruff groaning or moaning. Never a virtuoso in technique nor temperament, his understated keyboard expression and less-than-polished technique would become further understated on his own pieces, playing as if in an intimate conversation with himself. Although he demanded expressiveness from musicians as conductor, when Brahms himself was at the keyboard, the audience would also have to supply the passion in appropriate places.
There is a recording from late 1889 of Brahms playing part of a solo piano transcription of his Hungarian Dance #1. This is believed to be the first music recording ever attempted using the Thomas Edison recording device. It is a very poor recording even after digital magic, but its historical significance is priceless. It was cleaned up enough to reconstruct the performance well enough to gain some musicological information. A MIDI file of the performance was constructed as well.
The music that Brahms left his future audiences has been widely played since the height of his career.
Some composers however, Tchaikovsky and later Mahler and Britten for example, had distaste, or at best ambivalence, for Brahms’ music, due to its complexity and style. And in the early 20th Century, Brahms’ public influence waned as his music became trapped in a stylistic period made archaic by comparison to the modern musical landscape. But those who would look beyond style to idea could still appreciate Brahms and learn from him.
Among composers crediting a Brahms influence in their music are Dvořák, Sibelius, Grieg, R. Strauss, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Reger, Dohnányi, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Babbitt. Ligeti’s Horn Trio is subtitled ‘Hommage à Brahms’. The polyrhythmic element of Brahms’ musical language was perhaps evident to Stravinsky, who with Ligeti were expansive in their treatment of rhythm. Stravinsky also reported studying Brahms’ and Beethoven’s variation techniques.
Michael Musgrave, a Brahms and Schoenberg scholar, offers a future perspective regarding Brahms’ legacy: “after so long a period of rejection and idiosyncratic interpretation, the deep balance of immense compositional finesse, yet capacity for broad communication which allies his art to the greatest, may yet serve to stimulate afresh, in the way he himself drew so richly and so naturally from the past”.
More pessimistically, Brahms recognized that his music would be valued in the future much as Cherubini’s music had been valued during Brahms’ own life, ‘doomed to be obliterated by the decline of schooling, and of art itself’ (Stafford, p. 606).
Unlike Cherubini, who left future generations his Treatise on Fugue and Counterpoint, Brahms himself left posterity barely a scrap of enlightenment regarding his own craft. Perhaps this was because he believed he had not advanced that craft much beyond Cherubini and Beethoven; he is quoted as ‘having learned nothing’ in just such a context. Further, he was capable of learning from the music itself; he didn’t require texts to explain what was going on.
On the other hand, Brahms is reported to have envied Mendelssohn his privilege of finest available schooling, dismayed at how hard he himself had to work to catch up to such a state of mastery, given the paucity of his early development resources. So perhaps Brahms appreciated study with teachers who could explain the basics well enough to get the student started.
Furtwängler, in his essay Brahms and the Crisis of our Time, places Brahms in a future context similar to that imagined by Brahms, when he had compared his expected legacy to that of Cherubini. Furtwängler explains that while other composers were swept along with expanding cultural and musical influences, composing in the latest styles, Brahms remained fiercely true to his persona in his later music, rejecting Wagnerian and other late 19th century stylistic influences that did not work within the framework of his own classical art.
Yet as Furtwängler points out, the crisis of our current time is that musical styles ‘advanced’ so far that serious music has lost its humanism, and so lost its audience. Once again, we have become a society exposed to little beyond popular music (song, dance, and improvization). So Brahms is hardly alone in becoming forgotten.
To recreate an audience for music as high art, contemporary musical talent will need to recreate serious music in the human sphere. There could be no better example than Brahms. Learn by doing as he did, then personalize it per one’s own talents of musical expression.
Yet regardless of the continuing state of general musical creativity and appreciation, Brahms will continue to find a special, retrospective audience because his craft, which distilled all that went before into its purest realization, has never been eclipsed. Since his artistic legacy remains entirely within the human sphere, we can hope, as Musgrave suggests, that Brahms’ art and craft may yet stimulate afresh a future generation of composers. That will only happen if we continue also to produce well-schooled human audiences, fostering full appreciation of the expressive capabilities of the art.
Books About Brahms and his Music
Much has been written about Brahms.
Biographical works in my library are:
- Florence May: The Life of Brahms (thanks Owen)
- Hans Gal: Johannes Brahms – His Work and Personality
- Jan Swafford: Johannes Brahms
Florence May wrote a first-hand biography. She was a piano student of Brahms during the height of his career and provides many details of his personality and of his demeanor as a teacher. Hans Gal grew up in Brahms’ Vienna and went on to a composing career. His brief monograph is the most literate regarding Brahms musical creativity. Jan Swafford combines all prior material together with new research into the modern and most current Brahms bio.
Books and articles in my library that study Brahms’ music include:
- Michael Musgrave: Music of Brahms
- ed. Walter Frisch, Kevin Karnes: Brahms and his World
- Walter Frisch: Brahms: The Four Symphonies
- Peter H. Smith: Expressive Forms in Brahms’ Instrumental Music
- Arnold Schoenberg: Style and Idea, containing the essay Brahms the Progressive
- Newsletters of the American Brahms Society (online)
- Donald Tovey: Essays in Musical Analysis
- Vol. 1: Symphonies (i) (Op. 11, 16, 68, 73, 90, 98)
- Vol. 2: Symphonies (ii) (Op. 56a, 80, 81)
- Vol. 3: Concertos (Op. 15, 77, 83, 102)
- Vol. 5: Vocal Music (Op. 45, 53, 54)
- Vol. Suppl.: Chamber Music (Op. 24, 25, 26, 35, 60)
Tovey’s classic analyses were still used in my academic day for teaching active music listening and appreciation. The scholarship compendium volume, Brahms and his World, seeks a complementary contextualization of Brahms and his art, in three parts:
- essays describing Brahms’ relationship to his world (personal, cultural/aesthetic, compositional, piano technical)
- contemporary analysis/review articles
- memoirs from those who knew Brahms, filling in details and nuances
Fisch’s own work, Brahms’ Four Symphonies, presents the genesis, structure, reception and performance history of Brahms’ greatest works for large orchestra. It provides contextualization of Brahms’ development as composer of works within the contemporary symphonic repertory of the nineteenth century. It further seeks to show us, through the views of influential contemporary music critics, how Brahms was understood and valued within the broader Germanic arts culture of his time.
Smith’s book concentrates on the structure and meaning of Brahms Werther Quartet, Op. 60, while extending lessons there to the broader opus. I will provide my notes from this book on another page.
Musgrave’s book is an overview of Brahms’ music and influences. It attempts to discover Brahms’ musical language, provides a good bibliography, and is referenced in Swafford’s bibliography. Both Musgrave and Swafford reference Tovey.
The notes in this page are based on generalized information from these references, but these references are also rich in musical detail that should be absorbed for true insight into Brahms’ craft.
Other Brahms Resources
Many well-known composers have online academic resource sites. For Brahms, I use the American Brahms Society and the Brahms Institute Lubek (auf Deutsch). These sites are excellent for following current scholarship and accessing historical artifacts. The Lubek link above provides access to scores of Brahms’ entire opus.