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Brahms, Johannes

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Brahms, Johannes great German composer, the preeminent guardian of the classical tradition in the late Romantic era; b. Hamburg, May 7, 1833; d. Vienna, April 3, 1897. His father, who played the double bass in the orch. of the Phil. Soc. in Hamburg, taught Brahms the rudiments of music. In 1840 he began to study piano with Otto F.W. Cossel, and made his first public appearance as a pianist with a chamber music group at the age of 10. Impressed with his progress, Cossel sent Brahms to his own former teacher, the noted pedagogue Eduard Marxsen, who accepted him as a scholarship student, without charging a fee. Marxsen not only oversaw Brahms’s training in piano but encouraged him to pursue intensive studies in the music of Bach and Beethoven. Brahms later remembered his mentor with the dedication of his Second Piano Concerto. At the age of 13, Brahms was on his own, and had to eke out his meager subsistence by playing piano in taverns, restaurants, and other establishments, some of ill repute. On Sept. 21, 1848, at the age of 15, Brahms played a solo concert in Hamburg under an assumed name. On April 14, 1849, he gave his first concert under his own name. In 1853 he met the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remé-nyi, with whom he embarked on a successful concert tour. While in Hannover, Brahms formed a friendship with the famous violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, who gave him an introduction to Liszt in Weimar. Of great significance was his meeting with Schumann in Dusseldorf. In his diary of the time, Schumann noted: “Johannes Brahms, a genius.” He reiterated his appraisal of Brahms in his famous article “Neue Bahnen,” which appeared in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik on Oct. 28, 1853; in a characteristic display of metaphor, he described young Brahms as having come into ‘life as Minerva sprang in full armor from the brow of Jupiter. Late in 1853, Breitkopf & Hàrtel publ, his 2 piano sonatas and a set of 6 songs. Brahms also publ., under the pseudonym of G.W. Marks, a collection of 6 pieces for piano, Four-Hands, under the title Souvenir de la Russie (Brahms never visited Russia). Schumann’s death in 1856, after years of agonizing mental illness, deeply affected Brahms. He remained a devoted friend of Schumann’s family; his correspondence with Schumann’s widow Clara reveals a deep affection and spiritual intimacy, but the speculation about their friendship growing into a romance exists only in the fevered imaginations of psychologizing biographers. Objectively judged, the private life of Brahms was that of a middle-class bourgeois who worked systematically and diligently on his current tasks while maintaining a fairly active social life. He was always ready and willing to help young composers (his earnest efforts on behalf of Dvorak were notable). Brahms was entirely free of professional jealousy; his differences with Wagner were those of style. Wagner was an opera composer, whereas Brahms never wrote for the stage. True, some ardent admirers of Wagner (such as Hugo Wolf) found little of value in the music of Brahms, while admirers of Brahms (such as Hanslick) were sharp critics of Wagner, but Brahms held aloof from such partisan wranglings with the exception of a publ, letter in 1880.

From 1857 to 1859 Brahms was employed in Det-mold as court pianist, chamber musician, and choir director. In the meantime he began work on his first Piano Concerto. He played it on Jan. 22, 1859, in Hannover, with Joachim as conductor. Other important works of the period were the 2 serenades for orch. and the first String Sextet. He expected to be named conductor of the Hamburg Phil. Soc, but the directoriat preferred to engage, in 1863, Julius Stockhausen in that capacity. Instead, Brahms accepted the post of conductor of the Singakademie in Vienna, which he led from 1863 to 1864. In 1869 he decided to make Vienna his permanent home. As early as 1857 he began work on his choral masterpiece, Ein deutsches Requiem; he completed the score in 1868, and conducted its first performance in the Bremen Cathedral on April 10, 1868, although the first 3 movements had been given by Herbeck and the Vienna Phil, on Dec. 1, 1867. In May 1868 he added another movement to the work (the fifth, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit”) in memory of his mother, who died in 1865; the first performance of the final version was given in Leipzig on Feb. 18, 1869. The title of the German Requiem had no nationalistic connotations; it simply stated that the text was in German rather than Latin. His other important vocal scores include Rinaldo, a cantata; the Liebeslieder waltzes for Vocal Quartet and Piano, Four-Hands; the Alto Rhapsody; the Schicksalslied; and many songs. In 1869 he publ. 2 vols, of Hungarian Dances for Piano Duet; these were extremely successful. Among his chamber music works, the Piano Quintet in F minor; the String Sextet No. 2, in G major; the Trio for Horn, Violin, and Piano; the 2 String Quartets, op.51; and the String Quartet op.67 are exemplary works of their kind. In 1872 Brahms was named artistic director of the concerts of Vienna’s famed Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde; he held this post until 1875. During this time, he composed the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, op.56a. The title was a misnomer; the theme occurs in a Feld-partita for Military Band by Haydn, but it was not Haydn’s own; it was orig. known as the St. Anthony Chorale, and in pedantic scholarly eds. of Brahms it is called St. Anthony Variations. Otto Dessoff conducted the first performance of the work with the Vienna Phil, on Nov. 2, 1873.

For many years friends and admirers of Brahms urged him to write a sym. He clearly had a symphonic mind; his piano concertos were symphonic in outline and thematic development. As early as 1855 he began work on a full-fledged sym.; in 1862 he nearly completed the first movement of what was to be his First Sym. The famous horn solo in the finale of the First Sym. was jotted down by Brahms on a picture postcard to Clara Schumann dated Sept. 12, 1868, from his summer place in the Tirol; in it Brahms said that he heard the tune played by a shepherd on an Alpine horn; and he set it to a rhymed quatrain of salutation. Yet Brahms was still unsure about his symphonic capacity. The great C-minor Sym., his First, was completed in 1876 and first performed at Karlsruhe on Nov. 4, 1876, conducted by Dessoff. Hans von Bülow, the German master of the telling phrase, called it “The 10th,” thus placing Brahms on a direct line from Beethoven. It was also Bülow who cracked a bon mot that became a part of music history, in referring to the 3 B’s of music, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. The original saying was not merely a vacuous alphabetical generalization; Bülow’s phrase was deeper; in answering a question as to what was his favorite key, he said it was E-flat major, the key of Beethoven’s Eroica, because it had 3 B’s in its key signature (in German, B is specifically B-flat, but by extension may signify any flat)—1 for Bach, 1 for Beethoven, and 1 for Brahms. The witty phrase took wing, but its sophisticated connotation was lost at the hands of professional popularizers.

Brahms composed his Second Sym. in 1877; it was performed for the first time by the Vienna Phil, on Dec. 30, 1877, under the direction of Hans Richter, receiving a fine acclaim. Brahms led a second performance of the work with the Gewandhaus Orch. in Leipzig on Jan. 10, 1878. Also in 1878 Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto; the score was dedicated to Joachim, who gave its premiere with the Gewandhaus Orch. on Jan. 1, 1879. Brahms then composed his Second Piano Concerto, in B-flat major, and was soloist in its first performance in Budapest, on Nov. 9, 1881. There followed the Third Sym., in F major, first performed by the Vienna Phil., under the direction of Richter, on Dec. 2, 1883. The Fourth Sym., in E minor, followed in quick succession; it had its first performance in Meiningen on Oct. 25, 1885. The symphonic cycle was completed in less than a decade; it has been conjectured, without foundation, that the tonalities of the 4 syms. of Brahms—C, D, F, and E—correspond to the fugai subject of Mozart’s Jupiter Sym., and that some symbolic meaning was attached to it. All speculations aside, there is an inner symmetry uniting these works. The 4 syms. contain 4 movements each, with a slow movement and a scherzo-like Allegretto in the middle of the corpus. There are fewer departures from the formal scheme than in Beethoven, and there are no extraneous episodes interfering with the grand general line. Brahms wrote music pure in design and eloquent in sonorous projection; he was a true classicist, a quality that endeared him to the critics who were repelled by Wagnerian streams of sound, and by the same token alienated those who sought something more than mere geometry of thematic configurations from a musical composition.

The chamber music of Brahms possesses similar symphonic qualities; when Schoenberg undertook to make an orch. arrangement of the Piano Quartet of Brahms, all he had to do was to expand the sonorities and enhance instrumental tone colors already present in the original. The string quartets of Brahms are edifices of Gothic perfection; his 3 violin sonatas, his Second Piano Trio (the first was a student work and yet it had a fine quality of harmonious construction), all contribute to a permanent treasure of musical classicism. The piano writing of Brahms is severe in its contrapuntal texture, but pianists have continued to include his rhapsodies and intermezzos in their repertoire; and Brahms was able to impart sheer delight in his Hungarian rhapsodies and waltzes; they represented the Viennese side of his character, as contrasted with the profound Germanic quality of his syms. The song cycles of Brahms continued the evolution of the art of the Heder, a natural continuation of the song cycles of Schubert and Schumann.

Brahms was sociable and made friends easily; he traveled to Italy, and liked to spend his summers in the solitude of the Austrian Alps. But he was reluctant to appear as a center of attention; he declined to receive the honorary degree of Mus.D. from the Univ. of Cambridge in 1876, giving as a reason his fear of seasickness in crossing the English Channel. He was pleased to receive the Gold Medal of the Phil. Soc. of London in 1877. In 1879 the Univ. of Breslau proffered him an honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy, citing him as “Artis musicae severioris in Germania nunc princeps/’ As a gesture of appreciation and gratitude he wrote an Akademische Festouvertüre for Breslau, and accepted the invitation to conduct its premiere in Breslau on Jan. 4, 1881. In 1887 he was presented with the Prussian Order “Pour le Mérite” In 1889 he received the freedom of his native city of Hamburg; also in 1889, Franz Joseph, the Emperor of Austria, made him a Commander of the Order of Leopold. With success and fame came a sense of self- sufficiency, which found its external expression in the corpulence of his appearance, familiar to all from photographs and drawings of Brahms conducting or playing the piano. Even during his Viennese period, Brahms remained a sturdy Prussian; his ideal was to see Germany a dominant force in Europe philosophically and militarily. In his workroom he kept a bronze relief of Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor/’ crowned with laurel. He was extremely meticulous in his working habits (his MSS were clean and legible), but he avoided wearing formal dress, preferring a loosely fitting flannel shirt and a detachable white collar, but no cravat. He liked to dine in simple restaurants, and he drank a great deal of beer. He was indifferent to hostile criticism; still, it is amazing to read the outpouring of invective against Brahms by George Bernard Shaw and by American critics; the usual accusations were of dullness and turgidity. When Sym. Hall was opened in Boston in 1900 with the lighted signs “Exit in Case of Fire,” someone cracked that they should more appropriately announce “Exit in Case of Brahms.” Yet, at the hands of various German conductors, Brahms became a standard symphonist in the U.S. as well as in Europe. From the perspective of a century, Brahms appears as the greatest master of counterpoint after Bach; one can learn polyphony from a studious analysis of the chamber music and piano works of Brahms; he excelled in variation forms; his piano variations on a theme of Paganini are exemplars of contrapuntal learning, and they are also among the most difficult piano works of the 19 th century. Posterity gave him a full measure of recognition; Hamburg celebrated his sesquicentennial in 1983 with great pomp. The 100 th anniversary of his death was widely commemorated in 1997. Brahms had lived a good life, but died a bad death, stricken with cancer of the liver.

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