(Born; Hamburg, 7 May 1833; Died; Vienna, 3 April 1897). German
composer. He studied the piano from the age of seven and theory and composition (with
Eduard Marxsen) from 13, gaining experience as an arranger for his father's light
orchestra while absorbing the popular alla zingarese style associated with
Hungarian folk music. In 1853, on a tour with the Hungarian violinist Reményi, he met
Joseph Joachim and Liszt; Joachim, who became a lifelong friend, encouraged him to meet
Schumann. Brahms's artistic kinship with Robert Schumann and his profound romantic passion
(later mellowing to veneration) for Clara Schumann, 14 years his elder, never left him.
After a time in Düsseldorf he worked in Detmold, settling in Hamburg in 1859 to direct
a women's chorus. Though well known as a pianist he had trouble finding recognition as a
composer, largely owing to his outspoken opposition - borne out in his D minor Piano
Concerto op.15 - to the aesthetic principles of Liszt and the New German School. But his
hopes for an official conducting post in Hamburg (never fulfilled) were strengthened by
growing appreciation of his creative efforts, especially the two orchestral serenades, the
Handel Variations for piano and the early piano quartets. He finally won a position of
influence in 1863-4, as director of the Vienna Singakademie, concentrating on historical
and modern a cappella works. Around this time he met Wagner, but their opposed
stances precluded anything like friendship. Besides giving concerts of his own music, he
made tours throughout northern and central Europe and began teaching the piano. He settled
permanently in Vienna in 1868.
Brahms's urge to hold an official position (connected in
his mind with notions of social respectability) was again met by a brief conductorship -
in 1872-3 of the Vienna Gesellschaftskonzerte - but the practical demands of the job
conflicted with his even more intense longing to compose. Both the German Requiem
(first complete performance, 1869) and the Variations on the St Antony Chorale (1873) were
rapturously acclaimed, bringing international renown and financial security. Honours from
home and abroad stimulated a spate of masterpieces, including the First (1876) and Second
(1877) Symphonies, the Violin Concerto (1878), the songs of opp. 69-72 and the C major
Trio. In 1881 Hans von Bülow became a valued colleague and supporter, 'lending' Brahms
the fine Meiningen court orchestra to rehearse his new works, notably the Fourth Symphony
(1885). At Bad Ischl, his favourite summer resort, he composed a series of important
chamber works. By 1890 he had resolved to stop composing but nevertheless produced in
1891-4 some of his best instrumental pieces, inspired by the clarinettist Richard
Mühlfeld. Soon after Clara's death in 1896 he died from cancer, aged 63, and was buried
Fundamentally reserved, logical and studious, Brahms was
fond of taut forms in his music, though he used genre distinctions loosely. In the piano
music, for example, which chronologically encircles his vocal output, the dividing lines
beteen ballade and rhapsody, and capriccio and intermezzo, are vague; such terms refer
more to expressive character than to musical form. As in other media, his most important
development technique in the piano music is variation, whether used independently (simple
melodic alteration and thematic cross-reference) or to create a large integrated cycle in
which successive variations contain their own thematic transformation (as in the Handel
If producing chamber works without piano caused him
difficulty, these pieces contain some of his most ingenious music, including the Clarinet
Quintet and the three string quartets. Of the other chamber music, the eloquent pair of
string sextets, the serious C minor Piano Quartet op.60 (known to be autobigraphical), the
richly imaginative Piano Quintet and the fluent Clarinet Trio op.114 are noteworthy. The
confidence to finish and present his First Symphony took Brahms 15 years for worries over
not only his orchestral technique but the work's strongly Classical lines at a time when
programmatic symphonies were becoming fashionable; his closely worked score led him to be
hailed as Beethoven's true heir. In all four symphonies he is entirely personal in his
choice of material, structural manipulation of themes and warm but lucid scoring. All four
move from a weighty opening movement through loosely connected inner movements to a
monumental finale. Here again his use of strict form, for example the ground bass scheme
in the finale of the Fouth Symphony, is not only discreet but astonishingly effective.
Among the concertos, the four-movement Second Piano Concerto in BFlat; - on a grandly
symphonic scale, demanding both physically and intellectually - and the Violin Concerto
(dedicated to Joachim and lyrical as well as brilliant) are important, as too is the nobly
rhetorical Double Concerto.
Brahms's greatest vocal work, and a work central to his
career, is the German Requiem (1868), combining mixed chorus, solo voices and full
orchestra in a deeply felt, non-denominational statement of faith. More Romantic are the Schicksalslied and the Alto Rhapsody. Between these large choral works and the many a cappella ones showing his informed appreciation of Renaissance and Baroque polyphony (he was a
diligent collector, scholar and editor of old music) stand the justly popular Zigeunerlieder
(in modified gypsy style) and the ländler -like Liebeslieder waltzes with
piano accompaniment. His best-loved songs include, besides the narrative Magelone
cycle and the sublime Vier ernste Gesänge, Mainacht, Feldeinsamkeit and Immer leiser
wird mein Schlummer.
Orchestral music: Sym. no.1, c (1876); Sym. no.2, D (1877); Sym. no.3, F (1883); Sym. no.4, e (1885); Serenade no.1, D (1858);
Serenade no.2, A (1859); Pf Conc. no.1, d (1861); Pf Conc. no.2, BFlat; (1882); Vn Conc.,
D (1878); Double Conc., vn, vc, a (1887); Academic Festival Ov. (1880); Tragic Ov. (1886);
Variations on the St Antony Chorale (1873).
Chamber music: 5 pf trios (op.8, B, 1854,
rev. 1859); op.40, EFlat;, 1865 [ vn, hn, pf ]; op.87, C, 1882; op.101, c, 1886; op.114,
a, 1891 [ cl, vc, pf ]; 3 pf qts (op.25, g, 1861; op.26, A, 1862; op.60, c, 1875); Pf Qnt,
op.34, f (1864); Cl Qnt, op.115, b (1891); 3 str qts (op.51 no.1-2, c, a, 1873; op.67,
BFlat;, 1876); 2 str qnts (op.88, F, 1882, op.111, G, 1890); 2 str sextets (op.18, BFlat;,
1860; op.36, G, 1865); 2 vc sonatas (op.38, e, 1865; op.99, F, 1886); 3 vn sonatas (op.78,
G, 1879; op.100, A, 1886; op.108, d, 1888); 2 cl/va sonatas (op.120, f, EFlat;, 1894).
Piano music: sonatas, dance movts, studies, ballades, capriccios intermezzos, fantasias, rhapsodies and variations (incl. Handel
Variations, BFlat;, 1861; Paganini Variations, a, 1862-3); pf duets, incl. 21 Hungarian
Dances (1868-80); pieces for two pfs.
Vocal music: 20 canons, mostly for female
vv ; Circa; 60 solo qts with pf acc, incl. Liebeslieder Waltzes, opp. 52 and 65,
Zigeunerlieder, op.103 (1888); 20 duets; Circa; 200 lieder, incl. 15 Romances from Tieck's
'Magelone' op.33 (1869), Vier ernste Gesänge, op.121 (1896).
Choral music: German Requiem (1868); Alto Rhapsody (1869); Schicksalslied (1871); 13 unacc. motets, incl. Fest - und Gedenksprüche
op.109 (Quest;1886-9); 46 a cappella songs; 26 folksongs, arr. 4 vv.
Other: 144 folksong arrs.; 10 arrs. of works by other composers; works for org incl. 11 chorale preludes (1896).
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