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
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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
 |  Average 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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Great Masters: Brahms—His Life and Music is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 57.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A good expose of Brahms This was my third course given by Professor Robert Greenberg. Again, I found his lectures stimulating. Brahms, the enigma, the onion was peeled away by Prof. Greenburg. I have a few of Brahms works and now I must get Symphony's No1 and 2 . I enjoyed the lectures.
Date published: 2020-06-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Inviting overview Greenberg is a popular lecturer for The Teaching Company and it's clear why. He is exciting to listen to. Sometimes he's a bit too excited and compulsive for my taste, as in the very opening minutes of this series, when he bubbles on about some inconsequentials, like Brahms's cigar smoking. Greenberg's insights in Brahms's character and personality are especially enjoyable.
Date published: 2018-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Light shed on a great mysterious Master! I have purchased a number of the Great Masters courses over the years and when I bought Brahms, I honestly did not know what to expect. Wow, what a surprise! Robert Greenberg is one of my favorite lecturers, and I have thought many times how I would have loved to sit under his teaching when I was in college (now increasingly long ago). He opens with a great deal of biographical information on Brahms, which might be a negative sometimes, but in this case, I have to admit I was in the dark about this author of the lullaby. Brahms had a tough early life, and Greenberg does not step around the truth that his growing up around the brothels of Hamburg shaped his early on, and affected his personal relationships for the rest of his life. He also goes into great detail related to his relationship with Clara Schumann, both before and after Robert's death. Johannes Brahms is an enigma. A writer of beautiful music who was a pain to be around. A generous man to his family and others, but one with a cutting wit and a contrarian attitude all his life. Antonin Dvorak (whose Cello Concerto has to be in my 5 favorite pieces of music EVER) owed his career to Brahms. And then, Brahms's music. What a mind! I love his 3rd Symphony, and then there's Piano Concerto #2, "The Long Terror." His Violin Concerto is unbelievable, and it showcased his great friend the violinist, Joseph Joachim. I have to admit this is not an easy series to listen to because of some of the subject matter, but I gained an appreciation for this Romantic master, the great "subjective objectivist" of his time. I highly recommend this series of lectures. I now have several of Brahms pieces in my musical library. BRAVO!!
Date published: 2018-09-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of Greenburg’s Great Masters’ Best I have now taken over 10 of Dr. Greenburg’s courses, including several of the “Great Masters” series. As usual, Dr. Greenburg combines quite a bit of biographical information about the selected composer, including his personal and professional relationships along with his music; both composed and performed. Once again when taking one of these courses, I am amazed about how little I know regarding a composer’s life and about music in general. While I am not, nor ever have been a musician, I have listened seriously to music my entire life and have really been fairly smug as to my layperson’s knowledge. For example I thought I knew all about the life-long relationship between Brahms and Clara Schuman. In just a few short minutes, I found how little I really knew (Brahms’ relationship with one of Clara’s daughters for example). Or that Brahms actually appreciated the music of Wagner, if not Liszt’s. And in the area of the music itself, I needed Dr. Greenburg to point out to me how Brahms combined elements of 18th century classic music with 19th century techniques. The objective with the subjective, as it were. Professor Greenburg suppresses his usual shtick to a marked degree in this course, to the point that I personally would have liked a bit more, although I well understand that others differ. In the end, I felt that I knew quite a bit about a man and musician, especially one who tried his best to not allow future generations to know anything about him other than his best music. Very well done, Dr. Greenburg.
Date published: 2018-07-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved this course Well done. Nice blend of music samples and history. This is my first course of great composers and I will surely study another.
Date published: 2018-06-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An unqualified delight I have been listening to Brahms’ music for decades, and I have found it to be highly sophisticated, evocative, beautiful, intoxicating; in short – nothing short of divine. Professor Greenberg does an absolutely fabulous job in allowing us to know who Brahms was – at least to the extent that this is possible: in the first lecture he says “we barely got to know you JB”… He does tell us quite thoroughly at least what is known about his non-bourgeoise life-style, his nasty temper, his lack of patience for nobility and his deep sympathy and generosity to the working class and to the small group of people closest to him. Even to them, apparently, he remained to a large extent an enigma. Professor Greenberg discusses in some detail some of his intimate relationships (of which there were apparently only a handful), including his relationship with Joseph Joachim and the Schumanns. We follow his career from his early childhood, though his “discovery” on his first tour by (consecutively) Joachim, Liszt and the Schumanns, and onto its unfolding of Brahms as a mature, master musician of his era. Through the course, a lot of music I was not acquainted with was introduced – some of it out of the comfort zone of what I usually listen to. I will surely be listening to a lot of what was introduced soon. After hearing the course, I feel I have a much better context for understanding his music. Overall, this has been a brilliant course. Professor Greenberg is a wonderful teacher: his wonderful wit, his musical and historical knowledge (both of musical history and the general historical context of the era), and his boundless enthusiasm for the subject make listening to the course an unqualified delight. Of course, my deep love for Brahms’ music may also have had something to do with my total enjoyment…
Date published: 2018-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brahms - His life and music Learning about the life of Brahm helped me to understand and appreciate his music much more than I did before this course..
Date published: 2017-09-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Presentation I knew a bit a bout Brahms before this course, which really filled in the gaps in my knowledge. I have a much better understanding of his music now.
Date published: 2017-07-18
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