There is little to write of Brahms save the record of his work, the adventures of his life being all in association with his work. The early successful concert tour was followed by years of poverty and struggle, crowned at last by serene triumph. Late in life came the financial success, the unquestioned recognition, though it cannot be said full appreciation has yet been yielded him. The King of Bavaria conferred upon him the order of Arts and Sciences; the Emperor of Austria made him a member of the Order of Leopold; in company with Verdi he was created a Knight of the Prussian Order, and the same year he received this honor he was elected a member of the Berlin Academy of Arts. Late in his career he was elected foreign member of the French Academy. He received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Breslau, in 1881, previously having declined the degree of Doctor of Music offered by the University of Cambridge. An honor that touched him deeply was the conferring upon him, in 1889, by his native place, Hamburg, the freedom of the city.
Though he met with wide appreciation he also encountered severest criticism. Says Dickenson, "The gravity and complexity of his music have always stood in the way of what is called popularity." From another point of view, Wagner said of him, with characteristic sarcasm: "Brahms is a composer whose importance lies in not wishing to create any striking effect." And yet Brahms was not antagonistic to the great reformer and later in their careers frequently expressed admiration for Wagner. It is not recorded that Wagner ever awakened to appreciation of Brahms' work.
Simplicity and catholicity were prominent traits of Brahms' character. Mason calls attention to the fact that in music, he prized equally the simplest elements, like the old German folk-songs and the Hungarian dances, and the most complex artistic forms. His intellectuality was great; of his learning Spitta declares, " No musician was more well read in his art or more constantly disposed to appropriate all that was new, especially all newly discovered treasures of the past. His passion for learning wandered, indeed, into every field, and resulted in a rich and most original culture of mind." He was untiring in effort and to the end kept up the habit of writing a contrapuntal exercise daily. He worked for ten years at his first symphony.
His genuineness was remarkable, and he was a man of deep feeling, scornful of bombast and sham. He was extremely modest, seldom speaking of his own work. He once said to Josef Weiss, " I would go on foot twenty German miles to hear something by Bach, but I would not willingly go as far to direct one of my own works." Weiss avows that no more modest man than Brahms ever, in his lifetime, occupied such a place in the realm of tone, the most important musicians and musical institutions vying with one another in showering honors upon him.
Brahms loved Nature passionately and like Beethoven was very fond of long walks. Grove calls attention to how strongly the musical portrayal of a landscape appealed to him; the early Mondnacht, Die Mainacht, An die Nachtigall, O komme Holde Sommernacht, and Feldeinsamkeit, " typical specimens of this mental attitude towards Nature, which tempts one to call Brahms the Wordsworth of music, were there not a warmer passion, a higher ecstacy and a deeper insight, than Wordsworth ever could attain."
He was not infrequently blunt to a degree, but was as ready with apology as with the rough phrase. Sometimes described as a shaggy bear he could never play the part of a celebrity expanding on adulation in reality he was of a most cheerful and amiable disposition, charming in company congenial to him, a great lover of children, always tempted to stop in the streets and make friends with the little ones, and very kind to servants and dependents. Frugal and modest in manner of life, he gave away freely, provided generously for his family and gave to others generously.
He had a great fondness for travel and a wholesome liking for vacations, made many journeys to Italy and was a frequent visitor at the German watering places. He was essentially healthy and normal. One biographer says, " It is not a little refreshing to contemplate a genius who, with all the astonishing amount that he accomplished, yet found time to enjoy his dinner, to bear his part in the company of his friends, and to become the sworn ally of all the children in the neighborhood."
Brahms never married and his remarks in reference to his single state have been oft repeated. Late in life he makes the facetious observation, " It is my misfortune still to be unmarried, thank God." Writing to a friend, he said: "Have I never spoken to you of my beautiful principles? Among them is never more to seek an opera or a marriage."