Johannes Brahms

In the early autumn of 1853, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) must have felt like a character out of a penny dreadful. A few months earlier, shortly before his 20th birthday, Brahms had embarked on a concert tour lasting several months as accompanist to the well-known violinist Eduard Reményi. It was the first professional venture for the young pianist, who came from a petty bourgeois, rather poor background. His father, a Hamburg musician, scraped by as best he could, but allowed his children to take music lessons. Brahms had begun playing the piano, but soon received extensive and competent instruction in composition and theory. Therefore, he already brought along some of his own piano works on his concert tour with Reményi. In the course of the summer, Brahms met many high-ranking musicians such as the Hungarian violinist and composer Joseph Joachim, with whom he was to share a lifelong friendship, and he was also introduced to Franz Liszt. Finally, long after the concert tour had ended, the young man found himself in Düsseldorf, at the home of Robert Schumann, at the table of one of Germany's most respected composers, who was simply enthralled by Brahms's piano playing and especially by his compositions. On 28 October 1853, Schumann published an almost prophetic article in which he emphatically celebrated Brahms as the long-awaited great composer who would decisively shape the music of the future. It was also thanks to Schumann's advocacy that Brahms quickly found publishers interested in his works, and when he returned to Hamburg in December 1853, the first compositions had already been published.

As glamorous as this introduction to the music scene was, these high expectations also caused Brahms a certain anxiety. He suffered a creative crisis from which he was only able to free himself with the completion of the 1. Piano Concerto in D minor op. 15, which was first performed in 1860. Although the work initially failed to be a resounding success, Brahms himself was sure of his creative strength from then on. He went on to create work after work, systematically testing himself in an ever-expanding range of genres, from piano and chamber music to songs and vocal works with large ensembles. Brahms initially earned his living mainly as a concert musician, as a pianist and also as a conductor. The publishing fees for his compositions, however, increased steadily and eventually reached enormous sums. With few exceptions, Brahms, who had taken up residence in Vienna in the early 1860s, avoided permanent employment in order to be able to devote himself to his work undisturbed. His life followed a set pattern. Brahms spent the winter season giving concerts, and in the summer, he retreated to the countryside to compose.

As an artist, Brahms was extraordinarily self-critical and only satisfied when he met the highest standards. We know from his letters, for example, that his first string quartet opus had been preceded by some twenty attempts over a period of years, all of which he judged to be inadequate and subsequently destroyed. He saw his mission as a composer less in breaking new ground, as did Liszt and Wagner, for example, but rather in enriching existing forms and genres with his own contributions and keeping them alive. In doing so, Brahms was able to do what only the greatest composers are able to do: appeal equally to the emotions, the senses and the appreciation of art.

Brahms' symphonies, which in the 19th century were considered the crowning achievement of instrumental music, did not come to him easily. It was not until Brahms had succeeded in developing the richly differentiated orchestral sound typical of him in the "Haydn Variations" op. 56 from 1873 and in creating a large orchestral work that he was sure he had the artistic means to compose a symphony of the highest order. Within three years, he completed his 1. Symphony in C minor op. 68, on which he had been working since 1862. The importance of the piece was universally recognized from its first performance. From then on, Brahms worked steadily and systematically on large orchestral works, and three more symphonies and three instrumental concertos infused with a great symphonic sweep were written. Brahms died in Vienna on 3 April 1897. A large funeral procession was held to honor him, and he found his final resting place in a grave of honor in Vienna's Central Cemetery, between the graves of Beethoven and Schubert.

Johannes Brahms

Photo: New York Public Library Archives

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