Johannes Brahms – A Mini-Biography

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Was Johannes Brahms a musical purist carrying on the spirit of the Baroque and Classical traditions? Or was he a stodgy conservative who resisted all change in the Western musical tradition? Indeed, Brahms was “old school” back when the old school may not have been that old, but it certainly wasn’t new. He steadfastly resisted the burgeoning and sensational “Music of the Future” movement inspired by Hector Berlioz and spearheaded by such luminaries as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. By the mid-19th century, classical music was churning with changes that promised to unify the literary, visual, and musical arts. For Wagner, this meant voluptuous multi-layered operatic productions; for Liszt, symphonic poems with literary or visual art underpinnings. All this pointed to a glorious future for music, and indeed paved much of the way towards the radicalism of the Twentieth Century.

In the face of such progress, Brahms was fly in the proverbial ointment. His first symphony, completed in 1876, embodied the classical ideal so much it was praised as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. He championed Bach back when Bach’s music still wasn’t all that fashionable in Vienna. He concentrated on succeeding Schubert as a composer of lieder (German for songs), equaling Beethoven as a composer of symphonies, and composing gorgeous chamber music like no one. After the voices of Mendelssohn and Schumann fell silent in the mid-nineteenth century, Brahms was, as one critic put it, the “keeper of the classical flame.”

Brahms1 Was Johannes Brahms a musical purist carrying on the spirit of the Baroque and Classical traditions? Or was he a stodgy conservative who resisted all change in the Western musical tradition? Indeed, Brahms was “old school” back when the old school may not have been that old, but it certainly wasn’t new. He steadfastly resisted the burgeoning and sensational “Music of the Future” movement inspired by Hector Berlioz and spearheaded by such luminaries as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. By the mid-19th century, classical music was churning with changes that promised to unify the literary, visual, and musical arts. For Wagner, this meant voluptuous multi-layered operatic productions; for Liszt, symphonic poems with literary or visual art underpinnings. All this pointed to a glorious future for music, and indeed paved much of the way towards the radicalism of the Twentieth Century. In the face of such progress, Brahms was fly in the proverbial ointment. His first symphony, completed in 1876, embodied the classical ideal so much it was praised as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. He championed Bach back when Bach’s music still wasn’t all that fashionable in Vienna. He concentrated on succeeding Schubert as a composer of lieder (German for songs), equaling Beethoven as a composer of symphonies, and composing gorgeous chamber music like no one. After the voices of Mendelssohn and Schumann fell silent in the mid-nineteenth century, Brahms was, as one critic put it, the “keeper of the classical flame.” brahms2 Check out some of my Brahms favorites: The Horn Trio, The Academic Festival Overture, and of course, his Violin Concerto. And the way his Second Symphony just barrels to a close is nothing short of glorious. Brahms also produced a wealth of choral music (such as the German Requiem), and perhaps his most profitable works, the Hungarian Dances, demonstrate a deep interest in folk music. That, and he composed a classic lullaby (“lullaby, and good night…”) that rocks children to sleep even today. Brahms’ reputation as the stodgy conservative wasn’t helped at all by his famously brusque behavior. Born in 1833 to humble conditions in the waterfront city of Hamburg, Brahms never seemed to pick up the refinement and manners that one would expect from a star composer. Nor did he seem to care. He reportedly fell asleep while virtuoso Franz Liszt was giving a recital at his home. He did little to curtail his negative opinions of contemporaries such as Anton Bruckner and Peter Tchaikovsky. He was known to say offensive and acerbic things at parties, such as the time when at the home of a wine enthusiast, the host opened what he called “the Brahms of his cellar.” Brahms took a sip and reportedly muttered that host had better bring out the Beethoven. Another story involves how he tried to escape a group of female admirers by lighting up a cigar. Nearly choking on smoke, the ladies scolded Brahms about how gentlemen do not smoke in front of ladies. Brahms replied that “where there are angels there must also be clouds.” Indeed, the quintessential Brahms quote, probably apocryphal but definitely fun, was when leaving a party, he announced, “If there is anyone here I have not offended, I do apologize.” Brahms also had a passionate side, and this was famously expressed in his forty-year relationship with piano virtuoso Clara Schumann. Young and virtually unknown, Brahms fell in with Robert and Clara

Schumann in 1853 after the composer (not one for understatement) hailed him as a genius, a “Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove”. They were tremendously fond of each other, so much that young Johannes lived with the Schumanns for several months and acted as big brother to their many children.

Robert and Clara Schumann
Robert and Clara Schumann
When Robert died three years later, Brahms grew much closer with Clara, who was fourteen years his senior. There is much speculation as to whether their relationship was romantic or platonic, with most evidence (or lack thereof) pointing to a loving but platonic one. Then again, they did burn a lot of their letters, so one has to wonder. Regardless, theirs was a relationship for the ages, filled with passion and strife, and with love and music. It is speculated that this love, thwarted by an insurmountable age difference, is the reason why Brahms never married. He could never find another Clara. Clara finally died in 1896, and this set off a series of tragic accidents that made Brahms horribly late for her funeral. He received the news late, boarded the wrong train, missed his stop, backtracked and got off at the wrong city, and then spent the next forty hours without sleep correcting these mistakes. He arrived during the procession to the grave, exhausted and in tears, just in time to toss three fistfuls of dirt on her coffin. Later, he said, “Now, I have nobody left to lose.” Beyond the boorishness and this intense passion, those who knew Brahms knew him for the kind-hearted softie he really was. He lived modestly in a three room apartment and gave much of his money away to relatives or fellow musicians. He once offered his fortune to a young Antonin Dvorak and helped further the career of Gustav Mahler. He loved nature and the outdoors, and was famous for taking long walks throughout Vienna. He once claimed he could hear music in the croaking of bullfrogs!
Two of Brahms' famous beneficiaries: Dvorak and Mahler
Two of Brahms’ famous beneficiaries: Dvorak and Mahler
Brahms was also extremely humble for someone who was the toast of Vienna for practically three decades. Once at a party, when someone lifted his glass to Brahms to honor the greatest composer of all time, Brahms completed the toast by announcing, “Yes, yes, let’s all drink to Mozart’s health!” and quickly downed his glass. As rough and rude he was, Brahms was indeed a sweet, generous man. This is perhaps exemplified best when someone once asked him for an autograph. Brahms jotted down a few bars of the Beautiful Blue Danube by his dear friend Johann Strauss Jr., and beneath it wrote, “Alas, not written by…Johannes Brahms.”