JOHANNES BRAHMS  1833 - 1897   (W4, Va, Vb, Vc)


Brahms: by the photographer C. Brasch, Berlin, 1889 – Digital collection, New York Public Library, USA. Schumann: detail, lithograph by the Austrian artist Josef Kriehuber (1800-1876), 1839. Dancing: date and artist unknown. Clara: by the German painter Franz Lenbach (1836-1904), 1878. Joachim: pastel by the German artist Adolph Menzel (1815-1905), 1853. Quartet: engraving after a painting by the German artist Felix Possart (1837-1928), c1900. Bruch: by the German artist Franz Roegels (1821-1892).


Joseph Joachim

and Max Bruch


xxxxxThe German composer Johannes Brahms was one of the leading composers of symphonic music in the 19th century. His works included four symphonies, concertos for piano and violin, sonatas, chamber music, and over 150 songs. He is remembered for his choral work A German Requiem, but it was his Hungarian Dances, the first of which were composed in 1869, that brought him fame both at home and abroad. As a conservative, drawn to the classical composers like Haydn and Beethoven, he was criticised by the avant-garde composers of the day - such as Wagner and Liszt - in the so called War of the Romantics, but he remained opposed to programme music, and was supported in this by his life-long friend Joseph Joachim. However, he admired the music of Johann Strauss, and became a close friend of Robert Schumann. He encouraged Antonin Dvorák, and his work influenced the music of Gustave Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg.

xxxxxJohannes Brahms, was one of the leading composers of symphonic music in the 19th century. He performed and conducted many of his own works, and these included 4 symphonies, concertos for piano and violin, sonatas, chamber music, over 150 songs, and his famous choral work A German Requiem. During his career he gained a great deal of popularity, both at home and abroad - due initially to his Hungarian Dances, produced from 1869 - but, as a conservative, drawn to the classical tradition of composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, he attracted a great deal of opposition from the avant-garde composers of the day, led by his fellow countryman Richard Wagner and the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. As a result, he became embroiled in what came to be known as “The War of the Romantics”.

xxxxxBrahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, but he was to spend most of his productive life in Vienna. His father, a bassoon and double-bass player in the town orchestra, gave him his first music lessons, but he was taught the piano professionally from the age of seven. Within a few years he was playing in down-town restaurants and occasional public concerts, and by the age of 20 he had composed a number of piano works, including a scherzo and two sonatas. But it was not until 1853, when he embarked on a tour of Germany, that he became widely recognised as an accomplished pianist and a composer in the making.

xxxxxIt was on this tour, while visiting Hanover, that he met the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, a man who became a life-long friend. He was so impressed by Brahms’ playing that he introduced him to Franz Liszt at the court of Weimar, and also arranged for him to meet Robert Schumann (illustrated), then living in Dusseldorf. Schumann was a romantic by definition, but when they met in the September they struck up a close friendship. Schumann wrote a glowing article about his young protégé - describing him as a man of great promise - and when he was committed to a mental institute the following year, Brahms supported the family and became closely attached - but not romantically so - to his wife Clara. She was a composer and pianist in her own right, and a staunch traditionalist. It was around this time that that he became drawn into the controversy between the conservative and progressive schools of music.

xxxxxIn the late 1850s Brahms worked as a teacher and conductor at the court of Detmold, and also directed the choral society at Gottingen. He paid his first visit to Vienna in 1862, and settled there the following year. There his reputation grew steadily, and it became firmly established in 1868 with the completion of his largest choral work A German Requiem. Composed to express his sorrow at the death of his mother, it was performed in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday. This made him popular throughout Germany, but his fame spread much further the following year with the publication of 10 of his 21 Hungarian Dances. Written originally for four hands, these wild and passionate gypsy tunes, brilliantly arranged, were a phenomenal success across the musical world. By the 1870s he had become the city’s maestro and had taken up permanent lodgings. He was appointed principal conductor of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Music Lovers) in 1872, and for three seasons he was director of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

xxxxxSome of his early works were somewhat formal and, being decidedly academic, were regarded as old fashioned by the progressive composers of his day. After settling in Vienna, however, his music mellowed and he took on the mantle of Beethoven, the man he most admired. In his later years his compositions, often tinged with sadness and contemplative in mood, came to be known as “autumnal”. Despite the criticism levelled against his works by the “modernists”, many are firm favourites in concert repertoires of today. Among these are his four symphonies, his concertos for piano and violin, his variations on Handel and Paganini, his clarinet and piano quintets, his three string quartets, and his three violin sonatas. Nor has his Hungarian Dances lost their popularity. And it was these compositions, and many others besides, that won him acclaim and added to his reputation during his tours across Europe.

xxxxxThroughout his career Brahms was surrounded by the lively romantic movement - dominated by Wagner’s vast operas and the audacious tone poems of Richard Strauss - but he remained true to the classical tradition, keeping alive what he termed “absolute” and “pure” music. Thus there was a sense of order and form in everything he composed. Nor had he any time for the modern liking for “programme music”, works which attempted to depict a scene or tell a story. Like the works of the old masters, his compositions were to be valued for their music and their music alone. And it was this rearguard defence of the old forms - supported, above all, by Joachim and Clara Schumann (illustrated) - that made him the key figure in the fight against rampant romanticism. The War of the Romantics was a conflict between the more conservative Romantics, led by Schumann, and those, like Wagner and Liszt (members of the New German School), who had gone much further along the path to freer form and expression, and regarded Brahms’ works as old fashioned and lacking in expression. Thus Brahms, who had been closely associated with Schumann, found himself in the firing line. In 1860 he organised a manifesto denouncing the wilder excesses of the so-called “music of the future”, but few signed this public protest and it got nowhere.


xxxxxIn reality, however, Brahms, was appreciably more than a dogged believer in classical tradition. He wrote big works such as symphonies and concertos, produced variations and a large volume of chamber music in the classical idiom, but there was also a romantic side to his work. He greatly admired the Viennese waltzes of Johann Strauss, produced his own collection of dances, and made advances in the creation of harmony and melody. In fact, there was an outburst of emotion born of a romantic spirit to be found in much of his work. Indeed, it might well be said that his greatness and importance lie not only in his renewal of classicism, but also in the subtle balance he struck between traditional form and Romantic sentiment.

xxxxxAs a person Brahms did not make friends easily. He was quick to criticise others, and he had a sharp tongue to assist him in this. Behind his gruff exterior, however, he was a kindly man with a genuine love for children and animals. Apart from Clara Schumann and Joachim, he was a close friend of Johann Strauss - he particularly admired his Blue Danube - and among the young artists he encouraged and assisted was the young Antonin Dvorák. The highly constructed nature of his works, the product of constant revision, inspired future composers - particularly the Austrian Gustav Mahler and the Austro-American Arnold Schoenberg, and his music was much admired by the Englishman Edward Elgar.

xxxxxIncidentally, Brahms declined a honorary doctorate of music from Cambridge University in 1877, but accepted one from the University of Breslau two years later. As a gesture of appreciation he composed his colourful Academic Festival Overture, partly based on student songs, and this has remained a popular work ever since. ……

xxxxx……xxIn 1889 a representative from Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph, visited Brahms in Vienna and did an experimental recording of his first Hungarian Dance. Played on the piano, it was the first recording made by a major composer. In the same year he was awarded the freedom of the city of Hamburg, his place of birth. ……


xxxxx……xxIt would seem that Brahms’ meeting with Liszt in 1853 was not a total success. In honour of his guest the great Hungarian composer played his Sonata in B minor and, according to some then present, the young Brahms fell asleep during the performance! ……

xxxxx……xxAnother story, also unconfirmed, alludes to Brahms’ aggressive temperament. It is said that one evening, on leaving a party in Vienna, he apologised should there be anybody present he had not insulted!

xxxxxThe Austro-Hungarian violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was a life-long friend of Brahms and supported him in his defence of the classical tradition. He met him in 1853, and over the next forty years played and conducted his music. Together they wrote a manifesto in 1860 denouncing the “Music of the Future”, exemplified by the romantic composer Richard Wagner. After studying at the Vienna Conservatory he lived in Leipzig and was a protégé of the German composer Felix Mendelssohn. He worked for a time with Franz Liszt, but based his work on the Old Masters from 1853. A virtuoso violinist, he produced a number of works for violin and orchestra, and gained fame with his Joachim (String) Quartet, established in 1869 when he was director of the Royal Academy of Music in Berlin.

xxxxxAs we have seen, the Austro-Hungarian violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was a life-long friend of Brahms. He met him in 1853 and, as a bastion of classicism, supported him strongly in his defence of the classical tradition. Together they drew up a manifesto in 1860 deploring the so-called “Music of the Future”, but it attracted few signatures and came in for a great deal of derision from Richard Wagner and his avant-garde followers.

xxxxxJoachim was born in Kittsee in today’s Austria. He studied music at the Vienna Conservatory, and then lived in Leipzig, where he became a protégé of the German composer Felix Mendelssohn. A violinist of extraordinary talent, on his first visit to England, at the age of 12, he gave a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in London. Conducted by Mendelssohn himself, it was rapturously received and made him for ever popular with the English public.

xxxxxAfter Mendelssohn’s death in 1847 he taught at the Conservatorium in Leipzig and played in the Gewandhaus Orchestra before moving to Weimar. He spent several years there working as concertmaster to Franz Liszt, but in 1852 he settled in Hanover and, abandoning the romantic ideals of the New German School, turned to the classical forms of the great masters. The following year he befriended Brahms, and over the next forty years he played and conducted his music. Brahms valued his musical advice and dedicated his Violin Concerto to him in 1878. Joachim’s own compositions included a number of pieces for violin and orchestra, and overtures for two of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet and Henry IV. His best known work is his Violin Concerto No.2 “in the Hungarian manner”, first performed in 1860 and dedicated to Brahms. He is remembered today for his famous Joachim (String) Quartet (illustrated), established in 1869 after he had become director of the Royal Academy of Music in Berlin.

xxxxxIncidentally, in 1884 Joachim separated from his wife, an opera singer named Amalie whom he had married in 1863. Brahms sympathised with Amalie, and this caused a rift between the two friends for a number of years.

xxxxxJoachim knew the German romantic composer Max Bruch (1838-1920), and in 1867 played a major part in revising his First Violin Concerto. The première was given by Joachim himself the following year and proved highly successful. Today it ranks as Bruch’s most famous composition, noted for its enchanting melodies and its attractive changes of mood. Bruch wrote over 200 works, including two other violin concertos, a number of operas - notably Joke, Trick and Revenge of 1858 - the cantata Frithjof, and a Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra. The last named was premièred in Liverpool in 1881. Joachim was the soloist, but Bruch was displeased with his performance and clamed that it had ruined the work! In the same year he produced Kol Nidrei, an adagio on Hebrew melodies for violin and orchestra, and this, like his first violin concerto, has survived the test of time. In recognition of his contribution to music, he was appointed professor at the Berlin Academy in 1892, and later became chairman of the city’s Academy of Arts.

xxxxxBruch was born in Cologne and it was there that he received his early musical training. During a long career as teacher, conductor and composer he held a number of musical posts throughout Germany, including appointments at Koblenz, Berlin and Bonn, and in the early 1880s spent three seasons as director of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society. He retired in 1910 and died in his house in Friedenau, a quarter in the city of Berlin.