Personalities | Johannes Brahms | Late Romantic | Classical

(Yo-han’-nes Bramz) 1833–97
German composer

Brahms is a Janus-like figure in music history: he simultaneously faced the past and the future. Reviving and enlarging the classical principles of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, his music has often been seen as a conservative reaction against the ‘new music’ of Liszt and, in particular, Wagner.

Yet Brahms’ highly personal blend of Beethovenian dynamism, Schubertian lyricism and German folksong with the strict contrapuntal disciplines of the Baroque era created a powerful new musical synthesis. His example was just as vital as Wagner’s in the creation of the new music of the twentieth century. Though he appeared frequently as a pianist and conductor, after his thirties Brahms was financially successful enough to support himself as a freelance composer. Like Beethoven, he was a north German who based himself in Vienna, and remained a bachelor even though he was the centre of a large circle of influential musical friends.

Hamburg and Düsseldorf

Brahms, born on 7 May 1833 in a slum district of Hamburg, was the second of three children to Johann Jakob Brahms, a town musician, and Christiane Nissen, a seamstress. His musical talent was evident in early childhood; he grew up studying J. S. Bach with local piano teachers and playing in dockside taverns to augment the family’s income. His first foray away from Hamburg in 1853–54 brought unexpected celebrity and the brief patronage of Robert Schumann. After Schumann’s suicide attempt in February 1854, Brahms remained in Düsseldorf, helping Schumann’s wife and family, until the older composer’s death. During 1857–60 he divided his time mainly between Hamburg, where he conducted a women’s choir, and an annual appointment at the small ducal court of Detmold. In 1858–59 Brahms spent time in Göttingen, where he became engaged to Agathe von Siebold, then almost immediately broke off the relationship. Although his music was becoming more widely known, he continued to base himself in Hamburg, evidently hoping to succeed the ageing conductor of the town orchestra, but while he was visiting Vienna for the first time in late 1862, the post was awarded to another.

Away from Hamburg

Brahms left Hamburg in April 1853 to work as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Eduard Rémenyi (1830–98), who introduced him to his fellow-countryman Joachim, already recognized as the greatest violinist of the age. When Rémenyi decided to go his own way, Joachim gave Brahms introductions to Liszt and Schumann. A walking tour of the Rhineland brought Brahms to Düsseldorf at the end of September. Here Schumann was astounded by his compositions and forthwith arranged for some of them to be published in Leipzig by the end of the year. In an article for the influential journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik he hailed Brahms as ‘the chosen one … destined to give the highest expression to the times’. In February 1854, Schumann’s madness, suicide attempt and sub­sequent incarceration in an asylum left Brahms without a patron, yet he chivalrously assumed...

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