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Christoffer Kofler© Johannes Brahms


A Short Curriculum Vitae

Life in Germany

Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833. He first studied music with his father, a double-bass player for the Hamburg opera; subsequently he studied composition with Eduard Marxsen. Brahms was a talented pianist, giving his first public recital at the age of 14, and making a living by playing in taverns and dancing halls.

On a concert tour in 1853 as accompanist for the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi, Brahms met Franz Liszt, who praised the 20-year-old's Scherzo in E Flat minor and his piano sonatas. Brahms, however, never became personally friendly with Liszt, and in 1860 he signed a manifesto attacking the so called Music of the Future, which Liszt championed. Really fateful for Brahms was his meeting with Robert Schumann, who hailed the young composer as the coming genius of German music and arranged for the publication of his first songs and piano sonatas. Soon they became friends.

Brahms 1

In 1853 R. Schumann published his famous article "Neue Bahnen" in the "Neue Zeitschrift für Musik", where he prised the 20-years old Brahms as an incarnation of the new, disciplined self-restrained and cool-brilliant style of music. In the same article he opposed Brahms to Liszt, a cosmopolite and opponent of any links of the contemporary music with the traditions and Wagner, as an extravagantly passionate, overheated and restless composer. The 20-years old Brahms did not even hear one single note written by Wagner, but since he moved to Vienna, he involuntary became a symbol of a clash of interest between the two camps, the clash that was eagerly intensified by the leading Viennese musical critics.

Schumann died in 1856, and Brahms remained a devoted friend of his widow, Clara Wieck Schumann, until her death in 1896. Brahms never married, although he had a large circle of friends and patrons.


In 1861 Brahms published his first piano concerto in D minor. Its thrilling tragical themes of the first movement reflect composer's grief over the loss of his best friend R. Schumann. Its second movement is a pearl of the late-romantic music. It contains probably the most touching passes ever since written by Brahms.

After Brahms was rejected for a post as conductor in Hamburg in 1862, he visited Vienna and later made his home there. The compositions written before his first visit to Vienna include several piano works of which the "Edward" ballad is the most famous, the two serenades for orchestra, and the Piano Trio in B Major.

In Vienna

Very short after arriving in Vienna in the autumn of 1862, Brahms, against his will, became involved in the fight of the two previously mentioned camps, the votaries of List and Wagner on one side and the followers of Brahms. This brought him some useful publicity, but on the other side involved him in several troubles with the supporters of the opposite group.

Brahms 2

Brahms's work as a choral conductor in Vienna prepared him for the composition of A German Requiem, based on biblical texts rather than on the Roman Catholic requiem mass; it was first performed on Good Friday April 10, 1868, in the cathedral of Bremen. This composition formed him an opinion of a "purely German composer". Brahms' other major works from this period include the Piano Quintet in F minor; the Magelone Romances based on poems by Ludwig Tieck; two piano quartets; and the trio for piano, violin, and French horn.

Brahms conducted the orchestra of the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna from 1872 to 1875, after which he devoted himself entirely to composition. His conducting experience undoubtedly influenced his return to orchestral composition, marked by his first two symphonies C minor and D Major, his monumental violin concerto and second piano concerto, and two concert overtures the Tragic and the jovial Academic Festival, based on student songs and written to celebrate an honorary doctorate awarded him by the University of Breslau in 1879. During this period Brahms did not neglect song or chamber music, although the number of his piano compositions diminished after he wrote Variations on a Theme by Händel in 1862. During the 1880s, Brahms wrote his third and fourth symphonies respectively in F Major and E minor, the double concerto in A minor for violin, cello, and orchestra and choral works, chamber music, and songs. Year 1890 is the year of publishing the Quintet G Major, the work comparable with the greatest masterpieces of the chamber music ever.

Brahms 3

Brahms made the first sketch of his last will in 1891 and then embarked with renewed vigour on the composition of many of his best works. He returned to writing for the piano solo, creating in his short capriccios, ballads, and intermezzi. Apart from being brilliant, these pieces are a musical testament that sums up the musical achievements of German romanticism. During these years Brahms became friends with the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld and wrote the finest works ever composed for the clarinet: two sonatas, the quintet for clarinet and string quartet, and the trio for clarinet, cello, and piano. Brahms's last two compositions were religious in nature: the Four Serious Songs on biblical texts, and the set of chorale preludes for organ. These works were published after Brahms died in Vienna on April 3, 1897.

The Greatness of his Music

Brahms was by nature and temperament both socially and musically conservative, but not in the negative, restrictive sense of wilful reaction and resistance to progress, rather that deep-dyed conservatism which is also in its way the servant of progress. It was this two-way split and trust which lay at the root of the Brahms-Wagner controversy, which disfigured the musical life in the mid nineteenth century.
Wagner was seen as the great modernist - and so in music he unquestionably was - and Brahms the conservative upholder of established tradition - and so in a sense he was also. Today Brahms is nearer in spirit to our own times than Wagner. Today we see the world through different eyes: disasters, catastrophes and cataclysms have brought us down from the empyrean and mystical heights where Wagner and all the proud High - Romantics.
The cautious Brahms, carefully examining what is presented to him and taking nothing for granted, misled by no false optimism, impressed by no empty rhetoric, is nearer to what we think and feel. Furthermore the world does not seem today to be able to return to the Wagnerian restless style, his rhetorical bombast or vaulted magniloquence.
The musical youth of today, noisy, often violent, in protest against the past and the most of the present, is further from Wagner than they are from Brahms. The next generations of musicians learnt very fast from Brahms and what Brahms was about, and they did not sail into the Wagnerian tempest of agitation, violence and mysticism. Wagner's huge and exciting musical legacy is by no means a spent force, but through Schönberg, Webern, Sibelius - the composers of a strict economy and formal and thematic interlinking - the influence of Brahms is greater and more lasting.

Brahms, more than any other composer of the second half of the 19th century, was responsible for reviving what is termed "absolute" music - compositions to be accepted on their own terms as interplay of sound rather than as works that depict a scene or tell a story, so called "program" music.

Brahms was a master of the compositional craft. He often used established techniques, such as Counterpoint. He developed to the perfection the variation technique, using it in the finals of the symphonic pieces as well as independent works. His variation form appears in such novel and refreshing ways that the listener first perceives the beauty and strength of the music and only later becomes aware of the composer's technical mastery.

His choral music includes the finest Protestant church music since that of Bach, and in his Lieder (songs) he created the perfect partnership for voice and piano, although he selected many undeserving texts for them.

His piano writing is more difficult than it sounds; hence, these works appeal to pianists who are more concerned with musicality than with virtuosity.

Brahms's love of German folk song gave his music a sturdy Teutonic character. Although most of his music is serious, his intimate folk-song settings and his dazzling Hungarian-style finales, such as in the G minor Piano Quartet or in the double concerto, reveal lighter sides of his musical personality.

Brahms is both very "German" but also to some extent ex-territorial in his profile. He was excited by Otto von Bismarck for his work on unification of Germany and by the victory of Germans over the French in the 1870-71 war. He was fascinated by the coronation to the Emperor of Wilhelm the First the 18th of January 1871 in Versaille. He even wrote music tributes to Bismarck and Wilhelm. For his "Triumflied" praising Bismarck, Brahms became officially accepted as the "greatest German composer".

For this reason Paris - the eternal cultural capital of Europe - did not accept Brahms in those times. Later again Paris did not accept him, because it in some way chose Wagner. In Brahms' music there is an inexplicable ethnic element, repelling the Frenchmen from his music (similarly to Gabriel Fauré's music in the eyes of the Germans). Francis Poulenc said "Brahms is a genius, that makes me indifferent" and Darius Milhaud said "I do not like his music not only because it is heavily orchestrated, but his music slips away from me, it is full of a false greatness". First in the late 1950-ties the Frenchmen massively accepted Brahms´ music and its popularity has been growing since.

Russians of similar, nationalistic reasons could not accept Brahms' music for a long time either. Anton Rubinstein criticised him in the Russian musical press for his excessive monumentality and Pyotr Tchaikovsky accused him for "muddy" orchestration and a "chilly", "dry" and "unclear" character of his music.
Italians, who had their opera, were much more receptive to the opera composers, than to the symphonic personalities. For that reason it was Wagner, who won the sympathy in Italy rather than Brahms.

The tendency to rejecting his music abroad is probably one of the reasons for Brahms tending to accept the by-name of "a typically German composer". The only explanation for Germanism of Brahms´ music was development of very strong nationalistic tendencies after creation of the strong German Reich in 1871. This affected strongly his patriotism and made him uncritically adopt the German nationalism (furor teutonicus).

Brahms was far way from shearing Wagner's combatant nationalism, his xenophobia and racism of any kind. It should be enough to mention his admiration for several foreign composers likeCzech Antonin Dvorak, Norwegian Edvard Grieg. In this connection it is worthwhile to point out his friendship with the piano teacher Julius Epstein, orchestra director Hermann Levi, violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim and musical critic Eduard Hanslick, who were of Jewish extraction.

It is not too risky to say that the music of Brahms was within his lifetime the music of the German cultural sphere. Brahms' legacy of musical craftsmanship is evident in the works of several later composers, amongst them Max Bruch, Max Reger and Paul Hindemith.

Brahms' left in his compositions completely the classical cyclic repetitiveness of the musical themes. His "leitmotif" is sketched rather than exposed and fully "elaborated" as it was done by many of his contemporary composers. His themes are multiple and overlaying each other, seldom being fully repeated in their original form. The themes develop very fast and most frequently do not follow the traditional classical way of the symmetrical design of the musical phrases.

Due to his consequent and well developed musical form and language, Brahms' music sounds very characteristic and his works are easy to identify, even for an untrained listener. However multitude and variety of the themes, often only sketched and often in "greyish tones" makes his works somehow difficult to digest after the first audition, particularly for an untrained listener.

Referring to his attachment to the passed, classical, tradition of music, Brahms used to say that he was born too late. However the hastily growing popularity of his music seem to point out the opposite: he rather died too early.

Brahms was one of the first composers in the history who already in his lifetime realised that after his death he will become an integral part of the world music history. Probably for that reason in 1890, the tired elderly man started looking through the documents, destroying those, he considered to be redundant or even compromising. Unfortunately at the same time he also destroyed several compositions, which he considered for unsuccessful and lots of sketches and uncompleted works. He did it certainly in accordance with his own idea of his future image amongst the descendants and undoubtedly a multitude of valuable music was lost that way. Who knows how much more complete the picture of him in our eyes would had been if those works and documents would survive.

The multitude of love, Brahms' works comprise, is coming back to us, radiating from his music that is being played all over the world. An unchangeable, outstanding magnitude of his music is amazing considering that since his death in 1897 the German and World music has seen several composers, who reached their apogee and even disappeared from the musical horizon in common indifference. Brahms persists.
His music contains non-transitory elements staying beyond the styles, streams or technical achievements. It also contains non-musical values, simply expressed by his musical language. The sources of those values are in his feelings, experiences and his relationship to other people. In our world, where there is steadily less space for feelings and emotions, the world of haste and indifference, the world, where people do not have anymore patience for the others and the other's desires do not count anymore, the music of Brahms brings a relieve.
His music acts like somebody who is near, calm and sensible, somebody who sympathises and understands. His music does not shock, does not make the listener to speculate of the sense of existence, does not humiliate with its dimensions or wisdom. It tranquillises the mind. If it sometimes draws a tear, it is a tear of happiness.

If music can make a human better, so does certainly the music of Brahms.

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