Johannes Brahms was a Romantic composer who wrote beautiful, expressive music, full of passion and colour. His love of form and unity and use of eighteenth century forms marked him out as a conservative rather than an innovator, and he was widely acclaimed in his day as the true upholder of the German Classical tradition.
Born into a modest family in Hamburg in 1833, he earned money from an early age from playing piano in taverns and by arranging music for the light orchestra in which his father played the double bass. During this time he absorbed their regular rhythms and melodic style of Hungarian gipsy music that featured in many of his own compositions.
At fifteen, Brahms gave his first solo piano recital. On tour in 1853 he met the violinist Joseph Joachim, who quickly became an important friend and influence. On the same tour he met Robert Schumann and his wife Clara. Although Clara was fourteen years Brahms' senior, he developed a romantic passion for her that lasted until she died.
Brahms' early works were mainly for piano, including three sonatas and his first Piano Concerto in D minor (1858). Despite his devotion to Clara, he nearly married Agathe von Siebold in 1858, who inspired a set of five songs composed in that year.
Throughout his life Brahms favoured older forms, and in particular, variations, to give structure to his endlessly inventive explorations of simple ideas. In 1860 he signed a manifesto opposing the 'new music', placing himself publicly in the conservative camp, and was hailed by many as the true successor to Beethoven.
By 1863 Brahms had achieved some success as a pianist and had published a lot of music, but he was eager for wider recognition. In search of a prestigious conducting post he moved to Vienna and became director of the Singakademie, a choral society with a tradition of singing unaccompanied music. He began to study and edit the music of earlier composers including Bach and Handel, and his admiration and scholarship of this music contributed to the revival of Baroque music in the nineteenth century.
His most famous choral work, A German Requiem, was completed in 1868. The work is not a Latin mass for the dead but a meditation on seven biblical texts on death, mourning and comfort. Despite the acclaim the Requiem brought, Brahms fought shy of composing orchestral music until in 1874 he wrote the popular and attractive Variations on St Anthony Chorale. This, along with the Requiem, brought him international renown and financial security. Brahms now felt ready to write his four symphonies, each in the Classical four movement format.
In 1878 Brahms composed his extremely difficult Violin Concerto in D major for his friend Joachim. 1880 brought the popular Academic Festival Overture, written for Breslau University. Gaudeamus Igitur is just one of many traditional student songs that Brahms used in this work.
Since hearing Brahms' first symphony, the conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow had respected him as the upholder of tradition, and in 1881 he offered Brahms the use of the private Meiningen Orchestra, of which he was director. This encouraged Brahms further in his orchestral composition, and in 1881 he finished his second Piano Concerto in B flat major, a difficult and demanding piece that requires stamina and strength from the soloist.
Throughout his life Brahms composed over 260 songs and a large amount of chamber music. He loved the simplicity of German folksongs, like the Lullaby, but most of his songs are serious in tone and full of passion. Some of the finest examples of Romantic Lieder are to be found in the 'Magelone' song-cycle (1861). This song-cycle was written in the company of Clara Schumann and her children.
Brahms' final achievements included his clarinet sonatas and the final sets of piano pieces. Over the years he wrote hundreds of heartfelt short piano pieces with titles such as Ballade, Intermezzo and Capriccio, as well as more populist Waltzes and Hungarian Dances. Much of this music is difficult to play, with full, sonorous chords, wide-ranging broken chord figuration and melodic lines doubled in octaves, thirds and sixths.
Brahms was hit hard by the deaths of his friends, especially Clara Schumann. Although only in his early 60s he contracted cancer of the liver in 1896 and died, artistically and financially successful, a year later.
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