When Johannes Brahms died, in 1897, there passed the last of the great masters in German music, and one of their greatest. Johannes Brahms came of the people. As Josef Wiess says: "He sprang from the people, and everywhere one meets the mighty lineaments and forms of his race in his compositions."
His great-grandfather was Peter Brahms, of sturdy Lower Saxony stock, and a joiner by trade. The grandfather was a retail dealer and innkeeper at Heide, Holstein. A son of the latter, by name Johann Jacob, twice ran away from home because of his love for music and remained so faithful to this passion that finally he was permitted by his father to follow the profession of musician, eventually becoming contrabassist in theatre orchestras at Hamburg. In this city, in 1830, he married Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen, a lady seventeen years older than himself. She bore him three children, the second of whom was Johannes, born in Hamburg, May 7, 1833.
Johann Jacob was a musician of considerable versatility. He played several instruments and accepted employment where it was to be obtained summer garden, dance hall, or theatre. The family, living in circumstances anything but affluent, seems to have been on the whole a happy as well as a kindly one, the home life during Johannes' boyhood being cheerful and agreeable. Brahms was ever passionately devoted to his old mother, and was very fond of his father. He never was ashamed of his youthful deprivations and struggles and took honest pleasure, when he came across any bit of his early work that he had always written as well as he knew at the time. Dr. Widman records: "He even did not consider it a useless discipline of life that he had sometimes had to accompany the singers at a cafe chantant, or play dance music, whilst all the time longing for the quiet morning hour when he could put his own thoughts on paper." Brahms himself said, "The best songs came into my head whilst brushing my boots before dawn."
At an early age Brahms showed ability of an unusual order, eagerly getting from his father what the latter could teach him. He read whatever he could come upon and practised with a will. He delighted to dwell on the days, when a little boy of barely six, he for the first time discovered the possibility of making a melody visible to the eye by placing black dots on lines at different intervals and of his invention of a system of notation before he knew one had already long been in existence. While still very young he became a pupil of a chapelmaster named Kossel and later was so fortunate as to have for instructor Edouard Marxsen of Altona, a celebrated composer, under whom he was to make close acquaintance with Bach and Beethoven. Hadow in his Studies in Modern Music, remarks: "It is ... a matter of no small moment that Brahms in his early studies should have followed the historical development of the art, first the volkslieder and dances which represent its simplest and most unsophisticated utterance; then the choral writing, in which polyphony is brought to its highest perfection; lastly, the culminating majesty of structure which Beethoven has raised as an imperishable monument."
Brahms made his debut at the age of fourteen, before a Hamburg audience, playing amongst other things a set of original variations on a volkslied. He appeared again in public in 1848; the following year made two public appearances, and in April of 1849, gave a concert, at which he played Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata and a Phantasie of his own. In the meantime he was working hard at composition and in this period produced three piano sonatas, the Scherzo in E flat minor, and a number of songs, the Liebestreu notable among these.
Early in the fifties there came to Hamburg the eccentric Hungarian violinist, Remenyi, who found himself much impressed by Brahms' playing, he accompanying the violinist in some of the Hungarian dances. Remenyi suggested that they travel together, and, in 1853, they set out on a professional tour of North Germany. At a concert, where they were to play the Kreutzer Sonata, at the last moment they found that the piano was half a tone too low. It would have spoiled the effect to tune down the violin, so Brahms offered to transpose the piano part half a tone higher and playing without notes he accurately made the transposition, and in addition gave a spirited rendering. At Hanover, Brahms was introduced by Remenyi to an old school fellow of his, none other than the famous young Joachim, who gave them a letter to Liszt at Weimar, exerted his influence for them in Hanover, and suggested a letter to Schumann at Düsseldorf. Joachim at this time pronounced Brahms, both as player and composer, "the most considerable musician of his age I have ever met."
A successful concert was given in Weimar, and the great Liszt showed himself much pleased by one number on the program, Brahms' E flat minor Scherzo. The next day a meeting was arranged at Liszt's house in the Altenburg, when the master to Brahms' delight played the Scherzo. For a while Liszt was to express much enthusiasm over the young composer, and, strange as it may seem now in the light of Brahms' completed work, count him as belonging to the new order, an ally of Berlioz and Wagner.
At Weimar, Remenyi and Brahms brought their tour to a close, the latter going to Gottingen for the promised letter to Schumann, and also in response to the cordial invitation extended him, to make Joachim a visit. Brahms remained some time in Gottingen before starting on to Düsseldorf, this being the beginning of the beautiful friendship with Joachim, a friendship that lasted until Brahms' death, forty-four years later.