Brahms, Johannes


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.

Schumann received him with open mind, then with warmest interest and finally regarded him with unbounded enthusiasm as their acquaintance progressed. In the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, Oct. 28, 1853, Schumann printed the now famous article Neue Bahnen (New Paths), filled with such praise of Brahms as to attract to the young composer the attention of the whole music world of Germany.


Shortly an invitation arrived from Leipsic that he come there and play some of his compositions at the Gewandhaus, and in December he appeared, giving the Scherzo in E flat minor and the Sonata in C. To his surprise there now arose a heated controversy about his work; he was assailed by both classes; one side did not hesitate to affirm that never would he become a star of the first magnitude, the other expressed the wish that he might speedily be delivered from over-enthusiastic patrons. Meanwhile progress with the publishers advanced, and eight of his important works were published during the winter.

The friendship with Joachim and the Schumanns grew apace, and when Schumann's mental trouble asserted itself so tragically, both Joachim and Brahms were untiring in their devotion to him and his family, Brahms spending much time at Dusseldorf. During these days he gave concerts with Julius Stockhausen, the distinguished singer, with whom he formed a warm friendship; and played in public with Joachim and Mme. Schumann. An opening at the Court of Lippe-Detmold presently offering, he was installed there as Court-Director. The Court of Lippe-Detmold being a quiet one, he had the best of opportunity for study and composition and season after season lived here in contented retirement, seemingly forgetful of the furore he had started and that he was but beginning his career. This period was marked by only one published work and few public appearances as a player. But this retirement was only temporary, he was preparing by a long and severe course of study to again present himself to the world; in which he was finally to take his place, not as leader of a new school, not as overthrower and destroyer, but as Hadow suggests, "as artist contemplative rather than artist militant." Brahms, whose early work was so highly praised by the romanticists, in the end proved to them a disappointment. Daniel Gregory Mason, in his book From Grieg to Brahms, remarks: "If he had followed out the path he was on, as any contemporary observer would have expected, he would have become the most radical of romanticists. At thirty he would have been' a bright star in the musical firmament, at forty he would have been one of several bright stars, at fifty he would have been clever and disappointed. It required rare insight in so young a man, suddenly successful, to realize the danger, rare courage to avert it."

His Piano Concerto in D minor, produced at the Leipsic Gewandhaus, Jan. 27, 1859, was received unfavorably and aroused much opposition, but it should be noted that it eventually met here with a very different reception. The next work was the Serenade in D, which was given its first public appearance in Ham-burg. When not engaged at Detmold, Brahms was accustomed to spend considerable time in Hamburg with his parents, as well as to make long visits to Göttingen and Switzerland. Now was brought forth a rich number of works and some of his masterpieces. In 1861 appeared the exquisite Ave Marie for female voices, orchestra and organ; the Funeral Hymn for chorus and wind-instruments; the D minor Concerto; the first two sets of piano variations; and two volumes of songs and duets. In 1862, were published four part-songs for female chorus, with accompaniment of horn and harp; two books of Marienlieder; a volume of songs; two sets of variations for piano; and the String Sextet in B flat, which has been pronounced the most magnificent piece of chamber-music appearing since Beethoven.

And to these days might be added the Piano Quartets in G minor and A major, though not published till 1863, after Brahms was established in Vienna. There were strong attractions drawing him to the Austrian capital, not the least his growing interest in Hungarian music, an interest doubtless awakened by the association with Remenyi. Brahms found the musical circles of Vienna ready to welcome him, for while his compositions were little known by the public, the musicians were all aware of him. His scholarly playing was approved and his work as composer began to be appreciated. He found the atmosphere congenial and from now on dwelt in Vienna; though with frequent intervals of roaming, for he was excessively fond of travel. In the summer of 1863, he was appointed conductor of the Singakademie. During the year he occupied the post he refused reelection he devoted himself to it with much zeal, and the experience as choral conductor proved of great value.

It is of interest to note that Brahms and Wagner came to Vienna the same year. They were occasionally thrown together, but neither appears to have courted any intimacy, the two being not at all in sympathy. Wagner's attitude toward Brahms was disdainful. Brahms did not profess enthusiasm for the theatre, and frankly confessed that he did not understand Wagner. Brahms bound himself to no school; and living in the strife stirred up by Wagner, he calmly kept to his way, holding to the best of the old, bending with listening ear to the message of the new.

Brahms was the author of no opera; but as Josef Weiss says, "dramas, dramatic scenes, comedies, epics and tales in music he poured forth in profusion." In 1863 he published two piano quartets, the following year a number of vocal compositions, among them two volumes of songs, the wonderful Wie bist du, Meine Königen appearing this year. To 1865 belong the Piano Quintet in F minor and the first two books of Romances from Tieck's Magelone. Late in the year Brahm engaged in a concert tour in Germany that added to his renown. In October of 1866 he made a short tour with Joachim in German Switzer-land. In January of 1867, in Vienna, the G major Sextet was given its first production, this work being followed by the Paganini Variations, a set of waltzes, and the Soldatenlieder. And then came the great German Requiem, which at first met with much criticism from the theologians, a funeral ode rather than a requiem mass. Performed at Bremen Cathedral, on Good Friday, 1868, it drew musicians from far and near, among the most famous Joachim and Madam Schumann. Today the German Requiem is regarded as Brahms' best monument.

Following the publication of five volumes of songs and the last three books of Romances from Tieck's Magelone, came a period of rest; then the first two books of Hungarian dances. In 1871 appeared the splendid Triumphlied, written in celebration of the German victory in the Franco-Prussian struggle; and the marvelous Schicksalslied. These two works with the Requiem and the Rhapsodie for alto solo and male chorus, observes Grove, "mark the culmination of Brahms' art as a choral writer. In one and all he touches a point of sublimity that had not been reached since Beethoven."

From 1872 to 1875 Brahms held the important post of conductor to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. In this period he produced a quantity of work; numerous songs, duets and choruses; the Piano Quartet in C minor; and a set of orchestral variations. In 1876 appeared the Symphony in C minor; the ensuing year the D major Symphony; this followed by the magnificent Violin Concerto, which played by Joachim on its first presentation met with a remarkable demonstration. Brahms' Third Symphony, considered the finest of his instrumental works for orchestra, was produced at Vienna in 1883, then came the Symphony in E minor. Of his other work mention should be made of the Quartet in B flat; additional series of songs and pieces for the piano; the Violin Sonata in G; a second set of Hungarian dances; the Academic Festival Overture written for the Breslau degree; the Tragic Overture; the Piano Concerto in B flat; the String Quartet in F; the Violoncello Sonata in F; the Violin Sonata in A; two concerted compositions for clarinet; the Double Concerto; the C minor Piano Trio; the Violin Sonata in D minor; a second String Quartet; and two volumes of motets.

No little of Brahms' work is censured for its over-intellectuality and the author's lack of appreciation of the purely sensuous side of music. But these faults sink into the back-ground in a wide survey of his contribution. Of Brahms' scope Hadow writes: "Do we want breadth? There is the Sextet in B flat, the Second Symphony, the Piano Quartet in A. Do we want tenderness? There is the Minnelied, there is Wie bist du, Meine Königen, there is the first Violin Sonata. Is it simplicity? We may turn to Erinnerung, to Sonntag, to the later pianoforte pieces. Is it complexity? We have the Symphony in E minor, the four Concertos, the great masterpieces of vocal counter-point." And continuing the thought of Brahms' moods of beautiful simplicity, Hadow adds: "In Shakespeare it often happens that we come across a line where there is nothing unusual in the thought, nothing recondite in the language, nothing but the simplest idea expressed in the simplest words, and yet when we read it we feel at once that it could have been said in no other way, and that it can never be said again. And, in his own art, Brahms too has this gift of making simplicity memorable."

Brahms as a song-writer demands special attention. Grove says: "As with all the greatest lyrical writers, love-songs form by far the largest and most important section of Brahms' vocal works, and here his finest qualities come constantly into view. The set of fifteen romances from Tieck's Magelone exhaust every mood of the lover's emotion, and no one has ever given more sincere, sustained, or truly passionate expression to the rapture of crowned love than is to be found in these songs." The number of solo songs with piano accompaniment is about two hundred,

sixty or more being in folk-song style. Of his range as a song-writer, Weiss enumerates songs of fate; the love-songs; hero songs; a Requiem, a Funeral Song; the Twenty-third Psalm; the Marienlieder, German songs relating to the worship of the Virgin; motets; spiritual songs; trios; duos; quartets; a drinking glee; waltz for quartet and piano; gipsy songs; and grave songs.

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."

For over forty years he was an intimate and valued friend of Clara Schumann, who gave rare interpretations of his works, of whom and her children, he was extremely fond, one of his first publications being a set of Volkskinderlieder arranged for the Schumann children. Brahms held Madame Schumann in highest regard, his attitude that of filial devotion she being thirteen years his senior. They called each other by their first names and he was wont to spend the summer months near her. She died on May 20, 1896, and was not long survived by Brahms, who seems never to have recovered from the shock of her loss. A chill, caught at the time of her funeral, aggravated an affection of the liver, which was eventually the cause of his death. He died at Vienna, April 3, 1897, his last words, spoken to the nurse who brought him a drink, were, " I thank you." He was buried in a cemetery near Vienna, near to Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.

Daniel Gregory Mason writes: "Of all the figures of modern music, brilliant and varied as they are, impressing one with the many-sidedness and wide scope of the art, there is perhaps only one, that of Johannes Brahms, which conveys the sense of satisfying poise, self-control and sanity. Others excel him in particular qualities. Grieg is more delicate and intimate, Dvorak warmer and clearer in color; Saint-Saens is more meteoric, Franck more recondite and subtle, and Tschaikowsky more impassioned; but Brahms alone has Homeric simplicity, the primeval health of the well-balanced man. He excels all his contemporaries in soundness and universality. In an age when many people are uncertain of themselves and the world, victims of a pervasive unrest and disappointment, it is solacing to find so heroic and simple a soul, who finds life acceptable, meets it genially, and utters his joy and his sorrow with the old classic sincerity. He is not blighted by any of the myriad forms of egotism, by sentimentality, by the itch to be effective at all costs, or to be original or Byronic or romantic or unfathomable. He has no 'message' for an errant world; no anathema, either profoundly gloomy or insolently clever, to hurl at God. He has rather a deep and broad impersonal love of life; and universal joy is the sum and substance of his expression."