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Classical Composers A-Z: Johannes Brahms

Peter Wintersgill introduces us to the great German composer Johannes Brahms.

Born
7th May 1833 in Hamburg.

Father
Johann Jacob, horn and double bass player.

Mother
Christiane, 17 years older than husband and better educated.

Family
Elder sister Elise and younger brother Fritz.

Childhood
He attended school and music lessons with Fritz. Piano lessons from the age of 8. Left school at 15, had to earn his living by playing in taverns and brothels.

Adolescence
Shortly after this he started composing, e.g. the Scherzo in Eb minor (1851) and the sonata in F minor (1853). He met the virtuoso violinist Joseph, for whom he wrote several works and who became a life long friend. He also met Robert and Clara Schumann about this time, who were both very impressed with his works and his playing; Robert gave him a great write up in his journal, which Brahms was glad of but also somewhat embarrassed. They both became close friends of his and Clara at any rate saw a lot of him over the years. He also met Liszt whom he liked personally, but did not approve of his music.

Early Adult Life
He went to Leipzig in 1854 and met Berlioz. When he heard of Schumann's suicide attempt, he hurried to Dusseldorf to be with Clara. During the last two years of Schumann's life, he frequently visited him at the asylum, as Clara wasn't allowed to visit him. He also gave Clara much needed comfort and support at this troublous time. His music harked back to the style of Beethoven and Schubert, rather than that of his contemporaries Schumann and Mendelssohn. At the other end of the scale came the ultra modem school of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner. Having being a pianist, he wrote largely piano works, which he played himself; he found performing rather trying, he would rather have concentrated on composition, but it paid well, which composition did not. However, after Schumann's death he went in for more chamber music, e.g. piano quartets and quintets and a horn trio. His mother died in 1865, aged 76, having left his father some years before; after this he wrote the German Requiem, so called because he used the text in German by Luther, rather that the usual Latin text.

Later Adult Life
He wrote the Variations on a theme of Haydn in 1873. His father married again the following year, to a wife 16 years younger, fortunately young Brahms got on well with her, they became great friends. However it did not last long, his father died of cancer in 1872. At last at the age of 40 he felt equal to tackling a symphony, his first, in 1876. The second followed the next year. He was offered an Hon. Mus. Doc. by Cambridge, but finally declined the honour, as it would have entailed a journey to England. He wrote his one and only Violin Concerto (1878) for his friend Joachim, who played in the premiere. Soon after he received an honorary degree from the University of Breslau, but this was only a PhD! By way of thanksgiving he wrote the Academic Festival Overture in 1880. Clara's daughter got married and he wrote the Alto Rhapsody as a bridal Song. He spent a long time on the second Piano Concerto, playing the solo himself at the premiere in 1881. His next two symphonies appeared in quick succession, the third in 1883, the 4th. in 1884. The premiere of the 4th. was conducted by Hans von Bulow at Meiningen in 1885. He wrote more chamber music in his last ten years, including the sonata for cello, the piano trio in C minor and the double concerto for violin and cello in 1887. After hearing Richard Muhlfield play the clarinet, he wrote the clarinet trio and quintet for him, also two clarinet sonatas in 1894. He still kept up a regular correspondence with Clara, of whom he was very fond. When she finally died in 1896 of a stroke aged 76 he never really got over it. He went into a decline, losing a lot of weight and finally developed jaundice. He went, on medical advice, to Karlsbad Spa to take the waters, but without benefit. He got gradually weaker and died of cancer on 3rd April 1897 aged 64. The funeral was attended by several musicians, including Dvorak and by many friends and acquaintances. He loathed ceremony and would have hated all the fuss. He was buried in Vienna next to Schubert and Beethoven, his beloved idols.


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