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Great Masters: Brahms-His Life and Music

Great Masters: Brahms-His Life and Music

Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances

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Great Masters: Brahms-His Life and Music

Course No. 757
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course No. 757
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. To enhance your learning, the video version Includes over 150 visuals, including on-screen text and portraits of individuals mentioned in the course such as Robert and Clara Schumann, who provided inspiration and exposure for the composer's works.
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Course Overview

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)

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8 lectures
 |  45 minutes each
  • 1
    J.B., We Hardly Knew You!
    Johannes Brahms tried to "shape" the future's memory of himself by destroying much of his own work and correspondence. Feelings of inferiority could have come from his humble origins. He was born in Hamburg's red-light district. By the time he was eight, his potential as a pianist was apparent. His teacher recognized Brahms's talent, and grounded him in the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and others in the German/Austrian tradition. x
  • 2
    The Brothels of Hamburg
    One of the disturbing formative experiences of Brahms's childhood was his employment as a piano player in the bars and brothels of Hamburg. Brahms continued his lessons and came to appreciate the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Brahms met a Hungarian violinist named Eduard Rimenyi; they went on tour together. The contacts Brahms made on this tour would catapult him to fame only seven months after he left Hamburg. x
  • 3
    The Schumanns
    Clara and Robert Schumann were overwhelmed by Brahms's music, and Robert used his influence to have a number of works by Brahms published and himself wrote an article declaring Brahms to be the new messiah of German music. Robert Schumann died in July 1856, but even though he loved her, Brahms decided he could not marry Clara. They remained friends for the rest of their lives. x
  • 4
    The Vagabond Years
    From 1857 to 1862, Brahms took various appointments and traveled but refused to take on a long-term professional position. The 1859 premiere in Leipzig of the Piano Concerto in D Minor was disastrous. The years conducting choirs in Hamburg were the key to Brahms's musical maturity. By 1860, Brahms had developed his mature musical voice—Romantic melody and harmony objectively constrained by Classical formal structures. x
  • 5
    Although Brahms's mature compositional style was conservative, his melody, harmony, and expressive content were entirely contemporary. His successes in the early 1860s lifted his spirits and fattened his wallet. He traveled to Vienna and settled into the musical life there, but in 1864, his mother died, and Brahms grieved mightily. He began work on a piece that would stand as a memorial for the dead: A German Requiem, Brahms's longest work and an extraordinarily personal one. x
  • 6
    The years 1865 and 1866 were compositionally productive for Brahms, and in 1868, he triumphantly premiered A German Requiem, which would come to be the foundation of his compositional career. By the early 1870s, his position among German composers was considered equal to that of Liszt. His position as director of the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna allowed him to study and conduct the music of his choosing and would ultimately bring him back to orchestral composition. x
  • 7
    The Tramp of Giants
    Brahms's Symphony no. 1 in C Minor ushered in a second golden age for the symphony that saw the composition of works by Dvorak, Mahler, and others. In 1877, Brahms completed his Second Symphony, the charming and lyric Pastoral Symphony. At this time in his life, Brahms was rich, famous, and was producing one genuine masterwork after another, including his monumental Piano Concerto no. 2 in B-flat Major. x
  • 8
    As Brahms entered his 50s, he was still healthy and maintained his creative powers. He produced a great deal of vocal music in the early 1880s, as well as his majestic Third Symphony. In 1885, his brilliant Fourth Symphony was triumphantly premiered. He also produced songs, sonatas, a trio, and a double concerto. But when Clara Schumann died in 1896, Brahms was devastated. His own health deteriorated, and he succumbed to cancer of the liver on April 3, 1897. x

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles,...
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Rated 4.8 out of 5 by 37 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Another winner from Professor Greenberg I live in fear that I will finish all of Professor Greenberg's courses, so I won't have a new one to listen to. I am a huge fan of his original sense of humor (in this course, he talks about Brahms writing manifesto that is opposed to everything, including the designated hitter rule) and the depth of his analysis of scores. This course looks at some of Brahms less-known compositions, including the horn trio and some of his lesser-known piano music. He covers the German Requiem at some length, which I appreciated having sung it. He compares Brahms' piano concerto number 1 with Beethoven models, creating insights I had never had before. I discovered, to my dismay, that I didn't have recordings of the symphonies, so I bought those (along with a complete set of his piano music and trios). (The Great Courses music courses cause me to spend a lot of money at Amazon.... ) I found only two problems with these lessons. In some places, the volume of the music is lower than the volume of the lectures (I have had this complaint about several of the Great Courses), and Professor Greenberg refers to Louis von Beethoven. Of course, he knows what is right! I appreciate the translation of the sung texts at the back of the German is not adequate to translate some of them. All in all, this is a terrific course! September 7, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Most entertaining professor Very entertaining guy and interesting course material. I'm not even that into music and I couldn't put it down July 11, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Fascinating! In this short series of lectures, Professor Robert Greenberg displays his characteristic energy and enthusiasm in linking Johannes Brahms’ musical compositions and biography. Although the emphasis is placed on life events rather than on musical analysis, references to musical works are abundant and the listener does not feel completely drowned in mundane details. As usual with Professor Greenberg’s lectures, it is very much worthwhile to insert into your playlist the works that are discussed (and that must be obtained from another source as only excerpts are provided by Teach12). Thanks to Professor Greenberg’s broad coverage, Johannes Brahms comes out as a much less angst-filled person than one would surmise from his well known symphonies. Much brighter works are underscored that include not only dances and waltzes but also the beautiful horn trio and clarinet quintet. Though it occasionally delves a bit too deeply in personal minutiae, this course will be of great interest to anyone wishing to improve his knowledge of musical history. November 3, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by A Most Entertaining and Informative Course I don’t know much about music but, as many others maintain, I know what I like. I have listened to Brahms, enjoyed much that I heard, and understood that I had no real base for appreciation. I knew little about Brahms’ works, how they fit into his era, and what Brahms was like as a person. All of these matters were addressed by Professor Greenberg in eight highly entertaining forty-five minute lectures. I purchased this course on audio download 18 months ago and have listened to it twice, most recently this past Spring. I am very glad that I got this course; it is a pleasant way to develop an appreciation for a composer. The course includes an exceptional narrative on Brahms’ life and works as well as actual selections from those works critiqued by a personable and accessible expert. This beats the prospect of reading some lengthy biography and, in the case of Professor Greenberg, adds a lot of fun to the process. Professor Greenberg is not only very knowledgeable about Brahms, his world, and his music, but he is also very entertaining, making for enjoyable listening by adding drama and (sometimes, heavy-handed) humor throughout. Professor Greenberg treats Brahms’ horrible early years (born in Hamburg’s red-light district), his relationship with the unfortunate Schumanns (exploring, in particular, that with Clara), and his later years of success. I learned a good deal from this course about the transition from the 18th century to 19th Romanticism and beyond, and how Brahms achieved a “… brilliant combination of the direct and personal voice of nineteenth-century Romanticism with the intellectual discipline and formal structures of the Classical and even Baroque eras” (Course Guidebook introduction). Professor Greenberg does an excellent job in discussing Brahms’ place in these developments, as well as his relationships with other composers, notably for me, Schumann, Liszt, and Wagner. Professor Greenberg elaborates on Brahms’ eccentricities and provides very interesting observations about his music. In this last regard, the sixty selections from Brahms’ works included extended selections from all four of his symphonies. Professor Greenberg carefully describes the context of Brahms’ compositions, their reception, and their significance. He also points out his particular favorites among Brahms’ works, which has prompted me to start with those in my follow up. (I am also going to get some other TC courses by Professor Greenberg.) I looked forward to listening to the course lectures and regretted when they were coming to an end. In a six months or so, I’ll likely go for a third time! You won’t go wrong on this course. September 3, 2013
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