Composer of the Week: Johannes Brahms

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Johannes Brahms was a star of the Romantic Era and was also really super cool. His emphatically expressive music is an absolute pleasure to listen to.

b. May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany
d. April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria

Brahms began studying piano at age six and also studied cello and horn. As a young person he enjoyed romantic German poetry and the music of Bach and Beethoven. He also collected manuscripts of European folk songs in his teen years.

In the 1860s Brahms spent much of his time in Vienna but also went on many concert tours to supplement his income.

Brahms was very close with fellow composers Robert and Clara Schumann. Upon Robert’s eventual institutionalization, Brahms fell in love with Clara and pursued her after Robert’s death. She declined to be involved in a romance with Brahms.

In addition to his love for Clara Schumann, Brahms also had deep infatuation for Julie Schumann, Robert and Clara Schumann’s daugther. He also nearly proposed to a young singer, and he quit teaching piano lessons to another young student because he was so deeply in love with her.

In 1872 Brahms became the music director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. He remained there for three years. In general, Brahms tried to avoid taking official positions so that he could remain dedicated to composing. Much of Brahms’ career was spent trying to master two genres dominated by Beethoven — the string quartet and the symphony. Over the course of his career, Brahms conducted concerts in major cities in Germany, Poland, The Netherlands and Switzerland. He later became known in England and the US.

As he became more well-known he began receiving honors which included the Bavarian Order of Maximilian for Science and Art (1873, with Wagner), the Gold Medal of the Philharmonic Society in London (1877), a knighthood in the Prussian Order ‘Pour le Mérite’ for Science and Art (1887), the Knight’s Cross of the Imperial Austrian Order of Leopold (1889), honorary membership of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn (1889), and the Austrian Order for Art and Science (1895). In 1876 he declined an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge because he was unwilling to travel to England.

Brahms became wealthy as a result of payment for compositions and performances and his habit of leading a modest lifestyle. He was very generous and supported scholarly projects, young musicians and family. Brahms had tons of friends, including musicians, writers, artists, scholars and music-loving members of the professional and wealthy business classes. He was good friends with composers Karl Goldmark and Johann Strauss, German poet Klaus Groth, Swiss poet and writer Josef Victor Widmann. German poet, novelist, and Nobel Prize winner Paul Heyse and Swiss writer Gottfried Keller were friends who also supplied Brahms with texts for his songs. Despite having a multitude of friends, Brahms became prickly with those who invaded his privacy or were not sincere in their associations with him.

Posthumously, Brahms’ music was very influential. Some composers had trouble developing past what Brahms created and other, mostly younger, composers such as Busoni, Hindemith, Schoenberg and Weill utilized Brahms’ idioms to pave the path for the beginning of modernism.

Where to start

Brahms has a brilliant collection of Romantic Era symphonic and chamber music. His symphonies are a great place to start. Symphony No. 2 is a personal favorite, but all are wonderful to listen to. You’ll also find a bit of comedic value in his Academic Festival Overture, as it was written as a thank you to the University of Breslau after he received an honorary doctorate from the institution and contains many college drinking songs, according to Brahms. Of course, his chamber music is great too. Check out his trios and string quartets and see what you think.

Academic Festival Overture:

Symphony No. 2:

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