Johannes Brahms
(1833-1897)

One of the leading German composers in the Late Romantic era, Johannes Brahms is included in the three “Big Bs” – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. He was a champion of the symphony, taking the baton from Beethoven, and creating a foundation for music in the 20th century. He considered himself a ‘musician of the future’, and his music conveyed progressive ideas that would be studied and imitated for years to come.

Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany on May 7, 1833, to a working-class family. His mother was a seamstress, and his father, a musician. At the age of seven, Brahms began to take music lessons on piano, cello, and horn with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel, and then began studying piano and composition with Edward Marxsen. At the age of ten, Brahms made his performing debut as a pianist in a chamber concert. Five years later, he debuted as a soloist.  

As a young professional musician, Brahms used his earnings to help support his family. He taught private lessons, performed at parties and restaurants, assisted as a theatre accompanist, and arranged music for brass band, his father’s sextet, and four-hand piano. While on tour with the Hungarian violinist Ede Remenyi, Brahms met Joseph Joachim and Franz Liszt, who would become lifelong friends.  

In the summer of 1853, Brahms met his most significant contemporaries, friends, and advocators: Clara and Robert Schumann. At the end of 1853, Brahms traveled to Leipzig to perform, network, and submit his works to be published. He caught the interest of two publishers - Breitkopf & Hartel and Bartolf Senff – who published his first six works. 

In the spring, Brahms began to work on the d minor piano concerto and struggled tremendously. He proceeded to collaborate with Joachim, and refined his compositional skills. This boosted his confidence, and the concerto premiered in January of 1859. Unfortunately, it was not received well, and this was a major setback for Brahms. Breitkopf & Hartel refused to accept his submitted works in 1860, so he turned to two different publishers. One was a smaller publishing house in Switzerland, run by Jakob Rieter-Biedermann, and the other was Simrock, a German publishing firm.  

At the end of January 1865, Brahms’s mother died. He took his emotions and poured them into The German Requiem, op. 45. The premiere of this piece gave Brahms his breakthrough as a composer. From this point forward, Brahms continued to compose as a response to major life events. 

In 1873, Brahms began to approach his prime. He completed the first two string quartets that he allowed to be published, to great success. Brahms was very hesitant to write for orchestra, especially symphonies, as he felt he had to step up to the standard of Beethoven. However, after composing and revising for twenty years, his first symphony was born in 1876. The following year, he finished Symphony No. 2 in D Major. Looking at his third and fourth symphonies, completed in 1883 and 1885 respectively, his unique style emerged significantly, exemplified in characteristics such as wide melodic spans, cross-relations between major and minor tonic chords, and rhythmic ambiguity of triple and duple subdivisions of the beat. Brahms earned the public’s respect and recognition through his years of thoughtful composing. 

The summer of 1880 marked the completion of his only two overtures: the Academic Festival Overture and the Tragic Overture. His mature works were topped off with three concertos - the Violin Concerto in D Major (1878), the Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb (1881), and the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello (1887).  

The 1890s marked Brahms’ decline. Many of his friends began passing, and he announced his retirement from composing twice – once in 1890 and then again in 1894. However, Richard Muhlfeld, a clarinetist based in Meiningen, was able to draw out the last musical ideas of Brahms, which resulted in several chamber works highlighting the clarinet. His final compositions, the 11 Chorale Preludes for organ, were written in response to the death of Clara Schumann in May 1896.  

One of his last public outings was to attend the Vienna Philharmonic performance of his fourth symphony, conducted by Hans Richter. There was a standing ovation after every movement. Less than a month later, on April 3, 1897, he died of liver cancer.  His remains are in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, close to the graves of Schubert and Beethoven.

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