Born 7th of May 1833 in Hamburg - died 3rd of April 1897 in Vienna
CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
Brahms' childhood home is often referred to as "Schlütershof im Speckgang 24" in the poor parts of the "Altstadt-Kvartier - in Gängerviertel". This has contributed to the romantic myth about the poor prodigy. He was born there, but merely six months after Johannes' birth, and before the neighbourhood became really overcrowded slum, the family moved to better quarters. Brahms was mainly brought up in Dammtorwall 29 in Neustadt North, also in Hamburg. He was the oldest son of the double bass player Johann Jakob Brahms and the seamstress Christiane Brahms, born Nissen and in the company of his elder sister Elise and the younger brother Fritz. The birth of Johann Jakob's first son was announced in the local paper - a somewhat rare thing in those days.
Very early he showed signs of being in possession of special musical gifts and was taught several instruments. His father had no higher ambitions for his son than becoming a able orchestra musician, but the piano lured him in and before long he got his first teacher, Friedrich Wilhelm Cossel. Cossel soon discovered his remarkable student's talent and by the age of ten he made his public debut in a private charity concert to sustain his further education - and with succes. After the concert the parents were approached by a manager who offered their son to make a concert tour in the USA. Cossel resisted this as he thought it would ruin his student. Brahms' continuous harmonic and steady development meant more to him than the quick way to fame and fortune as a prodigy. Cossel himself was a student of the famous Eduard Marxen in Hamburg and after a few attempts he persuaded him to take over the education of little Johanens. Marxen immediately saw what a genius he had in his hands and thanks to his great authority - and the pledge to teach him personally - Brahms' parents finally abandoned the the idea of a tour with their prodigy son.
Marxen was never paid to teach Brahms, but later in life Brahms had the opportunity to pay back. He sent all his new compositions to his old teacher for advise and changes, even the German Requiem was sent. As a token of affection Brahms dedicated his 2nd piano concerto in B flat major to Marxen. The most touching evidence of his loyal friendship was perhaps when Brahms at his own cost had Marxen's "100 variations on a theme" published for his 50th anniversary as an artist.
From early on Brahms had to contribute to the family household. At fourteen he had to start playing the piano at the lesser fashionable inns and restaurants. Almost all older biographies paint a romantic picture of the young, sensible prodigy playing in cheap inns, surrounded by drunken sailors and prostitutes whilst reading poetry from the music stand. There is however no proof of this.
Brahms lived in the opposite end of Hamburg's dockside and all that is known for sure is, that he played at the so called "Schänken" - simple restaurants with light entertainment. Here, he played at night and during the weekends at the reasonable wage of 5 Marks per night. In comparison a skilled printer made around 10 Marks per week. This cannot totally rule out that he may have frequented less respectable places, where his ambiguous attitude towards women was founded. An incident many years later in Vienna indicate this. At this occasion he expressed himself very sharply and coarsely about women, ending his horrific attack with an appalling expression. He was very unhappy that his tongue had run away with him and explained to a friend, saying: "This was my first impression of women's love, and you expect me to honour them as you do?"
OUT INTO THE WORLD OF MUSIC
Brahms stepped out into the real music life when he met the flamboyant Hungarian fiddler, Eduard Reményi. He persuaded Brahms to accompanying him on a German concert tour, and of they went. The friendship lasted a couple of years and they toured during the winter. Reményi was important to Brahms knowledge and love for Slavic musik, a love present in a long row of works to come - among others several of the themes in the Hungarian Dances, supposedly by Reményi.
The friendship was however quickly abandoned by Brahms and they never met again.
A few years later the most crucial event in his life occurred when he met the world famous violinist Joseph Joachim. This encounter was in many ways defining for Brahms. Primarily he met a musician of international fame and standards he could mirror himself in. He saw Joachim as an equal in terms of music and Joachim was one of the few who saw Brahms' compositions before they were published. Throughout his life Joachim was one of Brahms' favorit partners when new works were emerging. Furthermore he was a ticket to the leading musicians in most of Europe. As it were he was the reason Brahms met the Schumanns in Düsseldorf late 1853.
On the 30th of September Brahms knocked at the front door of the Schumann residens. He showed his recommendation from Joachim and was welcomed. Immediately he was escorted to the piano by Robert Schumann and he started playing his sonata no.1 in C major. After a few bars he was stopped by Schumann saying: "Clara has to hear this". He fetched his wife, the famous pianist Clara Schumann, born Wieck. For the following hours Brahms played his compositions for them and his life should never be the same.
Brahms' impression on Schumann was profound; in his diary Robert wrote: "Today we had a visit from Brahms, a genius". It must have been earth shattering for the Schumanns. This new, young composer played fundamentally new and integrated works and Schumann was so spellbound that he wrote a famous article in the most important music magazine of the days "Neue Zeitschrift für Musik" - founded by himself in 1834. In this article called "Neue Bahnen" Brahms was touted the new Messiah who was to pave the way into the future for classical music. This obviously sent shockwaves through the German music life.
To Brahms this honor from the great Schumann meant that he inflicted a self-effacing critique on his works. One of the myths is that he shortly after the article destroyed a number of chamber works, anxious they would not meet his expectations. This self criticism never left. He would get a habit of brooding for many years over his works before publishing and no doubt many were shredded and destroyed under the scrutiny of his developing skills.
This is also the reason why there are so few sketches left from Brahms. No one were to get access to anything but approved works.
The meeting and new friendship with the Schumanns led to the first publication by Brahms. In december 1853 Breitkopf und Härtel in Leipzig approved the piano sonata i C major for solo piano as Brahms' opus 1.
THE BRIEF AND THE LONG FRIENDSHIP
The meeting a with the famous couple was both a great happiness and deep sorrow. He stayed with them for weeks and they quickly developed a deep friendship. Brahms adored the great composer and his wonderful and skilled wife whom he found most endearing. The has been many speculations whether Brahms and Clara had an erotic relationship. This cannot be neither confirmed nor invalidated. They had an extensive correspondence throughout their lives but agreed on exchanging and destroying many letters that could witness the true extent of their relation in posterity. They stayed lifelong friends until Clara's death in 1896.
The friendship with Robert Schumann was brief. Schumann was suffering from hallucinations and on the 27th of February 1854 - six months after they first met - he attempted suicide by throwing himself into the icy Rhine. However he was saved by some fishermen but was subsequently hospitalised at a nerve sanatory in nearby Endenich, where he remained until his death on the 29th of July 1856.
Brahms remained a loyal and faithful friend during this period. He felt obliged to help Clara who was now a widow with seven children. The devotion and loyalty somewhat refute any speculation a sexual relation between Clara and Brahms.
To some extent Schumann's death liberated Brahms. He could now begin to look forward without being available to Clara, whom he had serviced and helped for three years. She took up concert touring again, now with works by Brahms on the programme. She remained the major ambassador of his piano music all her life and was no doubt a major contributor to his early fame.
BRAHMS THE COURT COMPOSER
In 1857 he accepted an offer to become the piano teacher and choir conductor at the court of Detmold in the principality of Lippe situated in present day Nordrhein-Westfalen near Bielefeld. This was Brahms' first regular job and he no doubt enjoyed the rural court life, its peace and quiet. Here he composed (or partially composed) his first large scale orchestral works - the piano concerto no.1 in d-minor as well as both serenades op.11 and 16. This gave him his first and most important experiences with orchestration. On top of this he was also becoming increasingly more familiar with choir singing and its many possibilities which he continued to explore for the rest of his life.
In Detmold he met the singer Agathe von Siebold whom he fell in love with. They were engaged (there exists a photo of Brahms wearing an engagement ring), but Brahms broke the engagement saying he was unable to support her properly, but the truth may also have been the fact that he found it more than hard to commit himself and abandon the free life of pursuing his dream of composing. Clara Schumann was somewhat nettled by his falling in love with the young singer indicating that the famous pianist had strong feelings for young Brahms. He remained an incarnated bachelor throughout life.
After three winter seasons in Detmold he left the job and returned to Hamburg in 1859 founding a women's choir which he wrote a number of compositions to. He was now very eager to have a career in his native town and when the job as head of the philharmonic concerts was vacant, he applied. Much to his regret the position went to the singer Julius Stockhausen. Later Stockhausen became Brahms' preferred male singer.
THE NECESSARY FAILURE
1859 was a crucial year for Brahms: He debuted his 1st piano concerto in d-minor. It had been in the making for many years, first as a sonata for two pianos and then as a symphony. It had its premiere in Hannover with Brahms both as a soloist as well as the conductor. The outcome was a complete disaster with the audience shushing at the stray applause after the performance. One can only imagine how the young composer and soloist must have felt. Though he was deeply hurt his comment was that he was sure the work would one day have its breakthrough and that the disaster just made him the more focused and prevented him from becoming to arrogant and uncritical. He was right when it came to the the longevity of the piano concerto, which is now one of the most beloved concertos performed all over the world.
VIENNA - THE FIRST ENCOUNTER
In 1863 Brahms took a trip that was to prove crucial to the rest of his life. He travelled to Vienna - the capitol of arts and music. Here he became head of the Wiener Singakademie and quickly became a well known artist. Furthermore he had great success as a pianist and made a number of new friends and colleagues both in the circles of arts as well as the bourgeoisie. His first encounter with Vienna lasted several months and was a happy one. But he could not leave the thought of making a last effort to have a career back in Hamburg. He didn't succeed and in 1864 he's already back in Vienna. Shortly after he resigns as the head of the Singakademie. In 1865 his mother dies and urges him to finish what will become his final, international breakthrough.
A GERMAN REQUIEM
His preoccupation with death may have sparked him with the final inspiration to finishing his monumental oratorio "Ein Deutsches Requiem" for choir, soloists and orchestra opus 45. Several biographies speculate whether the work was inspired by Schumann's death in 1856. What is known is that some of the material dates back to 1854, the year before Schumann's first mental collapse. In April 1865 the first, second and fourth movement were written and in August 1866 all but the soprano solo were finished.
1st of December 1867 the first three movements were premiered in Vienna conducted by Johann Herbeck. The somewhat rudimentary preparation resulted in a bad performance where the massive fugal part of the 3rd. movement was drowned in drumrolls by an eager timpanist, ruining the impression.
Easter Friday 10th of April 1868 the final work without the soprano solo was premiered in Bremen Cathedral. Brahms conducted the performance and Julius Stockhausen sang the barytone solo. Brahms escorted Clara Schumann down the aisle to her seat before the concert. The performance was a huge success and from that moment onward Brahms was considered one of the most famous and popular composers in Europe. September 1868 the work was premiered in Zürich with the soprano solo added - a movement that may have strong affiliation with his mother.
Brahms' put together the texts for the work from the German Lutheran bible. It is remarkable that he avoids the usual practice of a latin text and replaces it with German. He himself introduced the title in a letter to Clara Schumann but at the same time saying that it might as well have been called "a human requiem". This is to be seen on the background of the fact that he consciously omits any direct quotes of the christian dogma that we are saved through the death of Jesus Christ. Instead the work circles round the transition from angst to comfort - a work for consolation of the living.
If you have special interest in Ein Deutsches Requiem, we recommend Michael Musgraves fine analysis of the work (se list of literature).
VIENNA - THE SECOND TIME
In 1868 Brahms toured extensively with both Joseph Joachim and Julius Stockhausen. Just prior to the Bremen premiere of the Requiem they visited Copenhagen and played three concerts in the Casino Theare (sadly demolished in 1960). Grieg's 1st piano concerto was premiered in the same theatre the year after (it is composed in the small village of Søllerød just North of Copenhagen - the building is still there). In 1871 he once again returned to Vienna, this time for good. He may have wanted to do so earlier but he kept hoping that a suitable position would emerge in Hamburg. It didn't and he now realised that Vienna was the right place for his free spirit and his development as a composer.
He ended up in a flat in the central part of town, Karlsgaße 4 just behind the Karlskirche, where he rented a suitable number of rooms with his landlord Celestina Truxa. For the next 26 years this was the geographical epicenter of his life.
BRAHMS THE SYMPHONIST
Brahms was now a recognised composer and he could make a living from it. He had no further need for teaching and touring in order to make ends meet. He could now solely focus all his power into composing. He was now more than halfway through his complete musical output but had not yet had the courage to write a symphony. In his own words this was due to the fact that he found the legacy of Beethoven a heavy burden. "You hear the giants behind you", he said. Furthermore he was of course anxious about the public reception of such a work. This made him extra cautious and his doubts about his abilities as an orchestrator that may have played a role as well.
But for more than 20 years he had quietly been working on his first symphony. The first drafts stem back from 1854 but the final work was not premiered until 4th of November 1876 in Karlsruhe with Felix Otto Dessof conducting. The work in c-minor op.73 has obvious references to Beethoven's 9th symphony. It was canonised as "Beethoven's 10th" by the composer and friend of Brahms, Hans von Bülow, much to Brahms' regret. Brahms overheard three public performances of the work before submitting the score for publishing. This milestone also meant that he now grew his characteristic beard.
He had now taken the hard step of emerging as a symphonist and during the next 9 years three more followed - no.2 in D-major op.73, no.3 in F-major op.90 and no.4 in e-minor op.98.
THE STABLE BACHERLORHOOD
The whole Vienna period of Brahms' life - from 1871 to 1897 - is somewhat pervaded by a certain plainness and stability. He cultivated his many acquaintances and worked determinedly on his works. He started traveling in the summertime, which was his primary season for composing. The wintertime was for his many other activities such a editing and publishing as well as occasional concerts. For many years he travelled for Italy every summer with various friends. In his later years he mostly resided in the mountainous surroundings of Vienna.
In time with his rising fame he became an established part of the Viennese bourgeoisie. He roamed the homes of many rich families and was even awarded numerous doctorates around Europe. He became increasingly reluctant towards public appearances since so many wanted to be seen in company with the famous composer. This also made his the more distrustful and gave him the reputation of being somewhat unsociable. Nevertheless he had his loyal friends who let him be who he was.
Alongside his symphonic development Brahms composed a number of brilliant chamber music pieces during the Vienna period i.e. string quartets, the clarinet quintet as well as the sonatas for violin and clarinet. His last works for clarinet were conceived after he met the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeldt in 1891. Brahms had retired as a composer, but he was so intrigued by Mühlfeldt's playing that he eagerly started composing again. The outcome were the clarinet quintet and the two sonatas, regarded by many as his finest chamber works.
This story resembles the meeting between Mozart and Anton Staedler that made Mozart write some of his most beautiful works for the instrument.
THE LAST YEARS
As mentioned Brahms had retired from composing around 1890, but besides his clarinet pieces he also returned to the piano - his life long passion and most confident instrument. He hadn't composed for the solo piano since 1878 where he wrote the eight piano pieces op.76 (being the first pieces since 1865). He had explored the piano extensively in his youth and now finished by composing no less than four opuses - 116 through 119 - for solo piano. Theses opuses contain some of the most beloved music by Brahms in which he with minimalistic magic makes great poetry.
Brahms' friend were starting to die - a number of the perish in the 1890's, among others Theodor Billroth, Elizabeth von Herzogenberg and his beloved Clara Schumann in 1896. At this time Brahms himself was already sick from pancreatic cancer. Though he manages to compose his death offering to Clara - the Vier Ernste Gesänge op.121. The texts are all from the Bible, and the music was presented to Schumann's daughter shortly after Clara's death. He avoided ever hearing them performed publicly.
Knowing his own future death Brahms returns to his very first compositions. In his youth he composed works for the organ. He now edits these as well as composing several choral preludes as his musical testament. The last prelude is based on the melody "O Welt, ich muß dich lassen" - maybe a small greeting to Bach who's last choral was titled "Vor deinem Thron tret' ich hiermit". Brahms proofread them shortly before his death and on the 3rd of April 1897, around 9 in the morning, Frau Truxa found him dead in his bed under the portrait of Bach.
Throughout his life Brahms was a avid collector of books and music. He left an extensive library which was testamented to Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. Among other treasures were original manuscripts of Mozart's 40th symphony in g-minor, string quartets by Haydn, lieder by Schubert and music by Schumann and Chopin.
Brahms was followed to his grave by thousands of Viennese. He lies buried at the Zentralfriedhof just outside Vienna next to his god friend Johann Strauß. He respected his waltzes deeply and often said, jokingly: "An der schönen blauen Donau, unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms".
Mikkel Thorning 2018 - free to copy, but please credit