In both his life and his music, Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) was a man of contrasts. He composed serious Teutonic music and joyful dance music. He was miserly with himself and exceedingly generous with family and associates. He was kind to working people and known for his biting, malicious wit in artistic and aristocratic social circles.
Not an easy man to know, Brahms destroyed a good deal of his own work and almost all of his lifetime's correspondence, in later years even collecting his letters from friends so that he could consign them to the flames.
This course links the complexities of the man with the electrifying music of the composer through biographical information and musical commentary.
An Independent Spirit
Brahms had vowed early in life to be lonely but free. He never married, owned a home, held a job for more than a few years, or took on a commissioned piece.
In art, he showed a similar independence of spirit. He believed in traditional musical genres and forms as challenges to expressive freedom, as healthy sources of stimulation for his awesome artistic powers.
Unlike, for example, Beethoven, Brahms did not reinvent his art repeatedly in response to personal emotional crises, but rather found his essential compositional voice while in his mid-20s, and developed it in more of an evolutionary than a revolutionary fashion.
Symphonies and Other Gems
You discover that Brahms, with a perfectionist's fanatical zeal, wrote, rewrote, and ultimately destroyed more than 20 string quartets before publishing a pair of exceptionally exquisite pieces at the age of 40, breathing new life into the old bones of an exacting chamber music form.
You explore why Brahms took 21 years to complete his first symphony—immediately hailed as "Beethoven's Tenth"—and then produced three more in less than a decade.
You find that Brahms single-handedly started a second "golden symphonic age" by inspiring younger composers such as Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius, Elgar, and Dvorák.
Brahms found unique ways of combining rigor and formal complexity of older Classical and even Baroque genres and forms (sonata, theme and variations, rondo) with melodic inventiveness, harmonic sophistication, and expressive richness prized in the Romantic Age.
Brahms's Early Life: Barroom Pianist
Brahms was born in the red-light district of Hamburg on May 7, 1833. He began taking music lessons at age 4 and by age 8 showed great potential as a pianist. His parents hired him out to play in the bars and brothels of Hamburg.
As a teenager, Brahms grew into a solitary young man who spent time composing, giving lessons, and playing piano in respectable establishments. Brahms had grown to love and admire traditional German music and sound compositional technique, exemplified in the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.
In his late teens, Brahms was exposed to Hungarian gypsy music and met a Hungarian refugee named Eduard Rimenyi. In 1853, Brahms and Rimenyi decided to go on tour and make contacts. Within seven months, Brahms met Joseph Joachim and Clara and Robert Schumann, all of whom would become close friends, and Brahms himself would be hailed as the future of German music.
Brahms and the Schumanns
Robert Schumann used his influence to have Brahms's first pieces published, including the Piano Sonata in C Major, the Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor, and the E-flat Minor Scherzo, and Brahms returned to Hamburg to begin building his career.
Robert's psychotic breakdown called Brahms back to the Schumann household in 1854. He stayed there to offer emotional support to Clara and began work on a violent, angst-filled piece that would eventually become his Piano Concerto no. 1 in D Minor.
Brahms and Clara fell in love, but Brahms was unable to act on his feelings, even after Robert's death in the summer of 1856.
Brahms as Wanderer
For the next several years, Brahms took various appointments and traveled but refused to commit himself to a long-term professional position. His Piano Concerto in D Minor was premiered in Leipzig in 1859, with disastrous results.
He finally stumbled into a position as a choral conductor and composer in Hamburg that would prove to be the key to his musical maturity. By 1860, Brahms had achieved his mature compositional style. We see this combination in his Piano Quartet in G Minor from 1861.
His mother died in 1864, leaving Brahms grief stricken but moved to compose his longest and perhaps most personal work, A German Requiem.
Brahms, the String Quartet, and his Symphonic Nerve
The years 1865–1870 were compositionally productive for Brahms, but he was still terrified at the prospect of writing a symphony. He occupied himself almost exclusively with vocal music, writing, among many other works, the "Cradle Song," probably his most recognized piece, and the magnificent Requiem.
In 1871, Brahms accepted the position of director of the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna, where he was free to study and conduct the music he chose, including that of Handel, Bach, and Beethoven, along with Mendelssohn and Schumann.
After seven years of concentrating on vocal music, Brahms again turned to orchestral composition, producing his Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn and the String Quartets in C Minor and A Minor.
In 1875, Brahms resigned his directorship, freeing himself to complete his Symphony no. 1 in C Minor. Brahms's First Symphony is a brilliant example of his synthesis of Romantic melody, harmony, and spirit with Classical discipline and formal structures.
During this period, Brahms was rich and famous, comfortably ensconced in the artistic life of Vienna, and producing one genuine masterwork after another, including his Second Symphony, the Violin Concerto in D Major, and the monumental Piano Concerto no. 2 in B-flat Major.
The Final Years
As Brahms reached his 50s he was still producing prodigious amounts of music. His Third and Fourth Symphonies come from this period, along with songs, sonatas, a Trio in C Major, and the Double Concerto for Violin and 'Cello.
When his lifelong friend Clara Schumann died in 1896, Brahms was devastated. His own health deteriorated, and he died of liver cancer in 1897.
"His legacy to us is a lifetime of extraordinary craft and artistic beauty without an inferior piece in the collection," notes Professor Greenberg.
Works you'll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, op. 77 (1878)
Piano Concerto no. 1 in D Minor, op. 15 (1859)
A German Requiem, op. 45 (1865)
Horn Trio in E-flat Major, op. 40 (1865)
Songs, op. 49, Wiegenlied (Cradle Song) (1868)
Symphony no. 1 in C Minor, op. 68 (1876)
Symphony no. 2 in D Major, op. 73 (1877)
Piano Concerto no. 2 in B-flat Major, op. 83 (1881)
Symphony no. 3 in F Major, op. 90 (1883)
Symphony no. 4 in E Minor, op. 98 (1885)
Quintet for Strings in G Major, op. 111 (1890)
Waltz, op. 39, no. 15 (1865)
Quartet for Four Voices and Piano, Neckereien (Teasing), op. 31, no. 2 (1859)
Serenade in D Major, op. 11 (1858)
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op. 56a (1873)
String Quartet in C Minor, op. 51, no. 1 (1873)