Today is the birthday (1833) of Johannes Brahms, a German composer and pianist. He was born in Hamburg into a Lutheran family, but spent much of his professional life in Vienna. Unlike many great masters, Brahms’s popularity and influence were considerable in his lifetime. Unlike Mozart and Beethoven, for example, Brahms died a rich man. He is sometimes grouped with Bach and Beethoven as one of the “Three Bs,” a comment originally made by the nineteenth-century conductor Hans von Bülow.
Brahms composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works; he worked with some of the leading performers of his time, including the pianist Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim (the three were close friends). Many of his works have become staples of the modern concert repertoire. Being an uncompromising perfectionist, Brahms destroyed some of his works, particularly pieces written in his youth, and left others unpublished.
Brahms is often considered both a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Baroque and Classical masters. He was a master of counterpoint, the complex and highly disciplined art for which Bach is famous, and of development, a compositional ethos pioneered by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Brahms aimed to honor the “purity” of these venerable “German” structures and advance them into a Romantic idiom, in the process creating bold new approaches to harmony and melody. While many contemporaries found his music too academic, his contribution and craftsmanship have been admired by subsequent figures as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg and Edward Elgar. The diligent, highly constructed nature of Brahms’s works was a starting point and an inspiration for a generation of composers.
Brahms’s father, Johann Jakob Brahms (1806–72), came to Hamburg from Dithmarschen, seeking a career as a town musician. He was proficient in several instruments, but found employment mostly playing the horn and double bass. In 1830, he married Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen (1789–1865), a seamstress never previously married, who was seventeen years older than he was. Johannes Brahms had an older sister and a younger brother. Initially, they lived near the city docks, in the Gängeviertel quarter of Hamburg, for six months, before moving to a small house on the Dammtorwall, a small street near the Inner Alster.
Johann Jakob gave his son his first musical training. He studied piano from the age of seven with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel. Owing to the family’s poverty, the adolescent Brahms had to contribute to the family’s income by playing the piano in dance halls.
For a time, Brahms also learned the cello. After his early piano lessons with Otto Cossel, Brahms studied piano with Eduard Marxsen, who had studied in Vienna with Ignaz von Seyfried (a pupil of Mozart) and Carl Maria von Bocklet (a close friend of Schubert). The young Brahms gave a few public concerts in Hamburg, but did not become well known as a pianist until he made a concert tour at the age of nineteen. (In later life, he frequently took part in the performance of his own works, whether as soloist, accompanist, or participant in chamber music.) He conducted choirs from his early teens, and became a proficient choral and orchestral conductor.
Brahms met Robert Schumann and his family in 1853. Schumann, amazed by the 20-year-old’s talent, published an article entitled “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths) in the 28 October 1853 issue of the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik alerting the public to the young man, who, he claimed, was “destined to give ideal expression to the times.” This pronouncement impressed people who were admirers of Robert or Clara Schumann; for example, in Hamburg, a music publisher and the conductor of the Philharmonic, but it was received with some skepticism by others. It may have increased Brahms’s self-critical need to perfect his works. He wrote to Robert, “Revered Master,” in November 1853, that his praise “Will arouse such extraordinary expectations by the public that I don’t know how I can begin to fulfill them …” While he was in Düsseldorf, Brahms participated with Schumann and Albert Dietrich in writing a sonata for Joachim; this is known as the “F–A–E Sonata – Free but Lonely” (German: Frei aber einsam). Schumann’s wife, the composer and pianist Clara, wrote in her diary about his first visit that Brahms:
… is one of those who comes as if straight from God. – He played us sonatas, scherzos etc. of his own, all of them showing exuberant imagination, depth of feeling, and mastery of form … what he played to us is so masterly that one cannot but think that the good God sent him into the world ready-made. He has a great future before him, for he will first find the true field for his genius when he begins to write for the orchestra.
After Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide and subsequent confinement in a sanatorium near Bonn in February 1854, Clara was despairing, expecting their Schumanns’ eighth child. Brahms hurried to Düsseldorf. He and/or Joachim, Dietrich, and Julius Otto Grimm visited Clara often in March 1854, to divert her mind from Robert’s tragedy by playing music for or with her. Clara wrote in her diary:
… that good Brahms always shows himself a most sympathetic friend. He does not say much, but one can see in his face … how he grieves with me for the loved one whom he so highly reveres. Besides, he is so kind in seizing every opportunity of cheering me by means of anything musical. From so young a man I cannot but be doubly conscious of the sacrifice, for a sacrifice it undoubtedly is for anyone to be with me now.
Later, to help Clara and her many children, Brahms lodged above the Schumann apartment in a three-storey house, setting his musical career aside temporarily. Clara was not allowed to visit Robert until two days before his death. Brahms was able to visit him several times and so could act as a go-between. In a concert in Leipzig in October 1854, Clara played the Andante and Scherzo from Brahms’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 5, reputedly the first time his music was played in public.
Brahms and Clara had a very close and lifelong but unusual relationship. They had great affection but also respect for one another. Brahms urged in 1887 that all his and Clara’s letters to each other should be destroyed. Actually Clara kept quite a number of letters Brahms had sent her, and refrained from destroying many of the letters Brahms had returned. Eventually correspondence between Clara and Brahms in German was published. Some of Brahms’s earliest letters to Clara show him deeply in love with her. Clara’s preserved letters to Brahms, except for one, begin much later, in 1858. Selected letters or excerpts from them, some to or from Brahms, and diary entries of Clara’s have been translated into English. The earliest excerpted and translated letter from Brahms to Clara was in October 1854. Hans Gál cautions that the preserved correspondence may have “passed through Clara’s censorship.”
Brahms felt a strong conflict between love of Clara and respect for her and Robert, leading him to allude at one point to suicidal thoughts. Eventually he broke away from her, but the correspondence continued and gives valuable insight into the man and his music.
Brahms comes across in the writings of contemporaries (and himself) as a jolly, rotund and kindly companion, or as a grumpy old git. For example from Flore Kalbeck, daughter of the music critic Max Kalbeck, on her memories of Brahms visiting their family home for supper:
There at the head of the table sits the ‘Uncle’ with the long, white-flowing beard. The laughter with which he signs receipts for jokes, roars its way out to us
Or, famously, in his own words:
If there is anyone here whom I have not insulted, I beg his pardon.
His notes on composing (mostly in letters to Clara) are immensely revealing. Here is my favorite, written to Clara when he was 22:
It always saddens me to think that after all I am not yet a proper musician; but I have more aptitude for the calling than probably many of the younger generation have as a rule. It gets knocked out of you. Boys should be allowed to indulge themselves in jolly music; the serious kind comes of its own accord, although the lovesick does not. How lucky is the man who, like Mozart and others, goes to the tavern of an evening and writes some fresh music. For he lives while he is creating.
Also to Clara on Bach’s Partita for Violin #2:
On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.
The essence comes through in his own words:
We cling nervously to the melody, but we don’t handle it freely, we don’t really make anything new out of it, we merely overload it.
I sometimes ponder on variation form and it seems to me it ought to be more restrained, purer.
It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table.
Straight-away the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God, and not only do I see distinct themes in my mind’s eye, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies, and orchestration.
Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.
The strongest note that comes through is “purity” – Germanic, I suppose.
In 1889, Theo Wangemann, a representative of Thomas Edison, visited Brahms in Vienna and invited him to make an experimental recording. Brahms played an abbreviated version of his first Hungarian dance on the piano. The recording was later issued on an LP of early piano performances (compiled by Gregor Benko). Although the spoken introduction to the short piece of music is fairly clear, the piano playing is largely inaudible due to heavy surface noise. Nevertheless, this remains the earliest recording made by a major composer.
Here’s an antidote:
Brahms maintained a Classical sense of form and order in his works – in contrast to the opulence of the music of many of his contemporaries. Thus many admirers (though not necessarily Brahms himself) saw him as the champion of traditional forms and “pure music” as opposed to the “New German” embrace of programme music.
Brahms venerated Beethoven: in the composer’s home, a marble bust of Beethoven looked down on the spot where he composed, and some passages in his works are reminiscent of Beethoven’s style. Brahms’s First Symphony bears the influence of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; the two works are both in C minor, and end in the struggle towards a C major triumph. The main theme of the finale of the First Symphony is also reminiscent of the main theme of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, and when this resemblance was pointed out to Brahms, he replied that any ass – jeder Esel – could see that. In 1876, when the work was premiered in Vienna, it was immediately hailed as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. However, the similarity of Brahms’s music to that of late Beethoven had first been noted as early as November 1853, in a letter from Albert Dietrich to Ernst Naumann.
A German Requiem was partially inspired by his mother’s death in 1865 (at which time he composed a funeral march that was to become the basis of Part Two, Denn alles Fleisch), but it also incorporates material from a symphony which he started in 1854 but abandoned following Schumann’s suicide attempt. He once wrote that the Requiem “belonged to Schumann.” The first movement of this abandoned Symphony was re-worked as the first movement of the First Piano Concerto.
While he loved the Classical composers, the early Romantic composers had a major influence on Brahms, particularly Schumann. During his stay in Vienna in 1862–63, Brahms became particularly interested in the music of Franz Schubert. The latter’s influence may be identified in works by Brahms dating from the period, such as the two piano quartets Op. 25 and Op. 26, and the Piano Quintet which alludes to Schubert’s String Quintet and Grand Duo for piano four hands. The influence of Chopin and Mendelssohn on Brahms is less obvious, although occasionally one can find in his works what seems to be an allusion to one of theirs. For example, Brahms’s Scherzo, Op. 4, has hints of Chopin’s Scherzo in B-flat minor, and the scherzo movement in Brahms’s Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5, has echoes of the finale of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor).
Brahms considered giving up composition when it seemed that other composers’ innovations in extended tonality would result in the rule of tonality being broken altogether. Although Wagner became fiercely critical of Brahms as he grew in stature and popularity, he was enthusiastically receptive of the early Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel; Brahms himself, according to many sources, deeply admired Wagner’s music, confining his ambivalence only to the dramaturgical precepts of Wagner’s theory.
Although Brahms resolved to give up composing, he was unable to abide by his decision, and in the years before his death he produced a number of acknowledged masterpieces. His admiration for Richard Mühlfeld, clarinetist with the Meiningen orchestra, moved him to compose the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 (1891), and the two Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120 (1894). He also wrote several cycles of piano pieces, Opp. 116–119, the Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), Op. 121 (1896), and the Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ, Op. 122 (1896).
While completing the Op. 121 songs, Brahms developed cancer (sources differ on whether this was of the liver or pancreas). His last appearance in public was on 3 March 1897, when he saw Hans Richter conduct his Symphony No. 4. There was an ovation after each of the four movements. His condition gradually worsened and he died a month later, on 3 April 1897, aged 63.
Brahms was famous for his love of food and drink. He ate his main meal every day at Zum Roten Igel (The Red Hedgehog), always with friends whom he routinely regaled with friendly insults and laughter. He was fond of spicy beef dishes and also of fish, including fried whitebait and herring salad. It is also rumored that when he opened a can of sardines he would first drink the oil right from the can. I’ll include a recipe for whitebait one of these days. Meanwhile here is Silsalat (Austrian herring salad).
2 egg yolks
2 tbsps extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp prepared mustard
1 tbsp white vinegar
3 tbsp mayonnaise
3 tbsp crème fraîche
salt and white pepper to taste
4 hardboiled eggs, peeled and quartered
1 apple, peeled and diced
4 pickled herrings, cut in chunks
4 boiled potatoes, peeled and diced
Place the egg yolks in the bowl of a mixer and beat them on medium speed. Gradually add the olive oil a few drops at a time to form an emulsion. As the yolks take up the oil you can add the oil faster. Just be careful not to go too fast. When finished add the rest of the dressing ingredients and mix thoroughly.
Then add the salad ingredients and mix so that they are evenly and thoroughly coated. Serve in chilled bowls with buttered dark bread (or toast).