Johannes Brahms


Born: May 7th, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3rd, 1897 (at age 64) in Vienna, Austria
Nationality: German
Fields: symphonies, chamber ensembles, piano
Famous For: Being one of the greatest composers of the 19th century

Johannes Brahms was a German composer who was also an outstanding pianist. This enabled him to give the first performances of some of his own compositions, as well as collaborate with other renowned musicians. In particular, he formed a close friendship, which for a time became a love affair, with the much older pianist, Clara Schumann. Brahms’ music was firmly anchored in traditional Classical and Baroque techniques, but also incorporated novel approaches to both melody and harmony.

Early Life

He was born into a musical family: his father made his living in dance halls, playing a variety of instruments. At school, the young Johannes was a good student, gaining a fair knowledge of English, Latin, French, and history. He was a devoted reader, and was an accomplished musician from a young age. By his early teens, he had been taken on as a piano student by Eduard Marxsen, to whom Brahms later dedicated a piano concerto.

The young man quickly developed an interest in folk music, and while still a child is known to have collected English folk songs. He was particularly taken with the Gypsy and Hungarian styles of music, a blend which would later contribute greatly to his hugely popular “Hungarian Dances.” In 1852 his first major work, a piano sonata in F sharp, was written. The following year, he traveled the German north with a friend, meeting a number of musicians including Franz Liszt.

Mature Composer

After the 1850’s, Brahms moved away from his works in solo piano and branched out into other areas of music. He met Richard Wagner while the two were in Vienna, and Brahms was said to have been a fan of his, although Wagner was sometimes notably unenthusiastic about Brahms’ works in later years. In 1862, he began work on his first symphony, although his perfectionism prevented its release for 15 years. In the meantime, he had released “A German Requiem,” the substantial choral work that secured his reputation in the front rank of European composers of the time.

Despite this success, Brahms was not always financially secure. He had written “A German Requiem” after his mother died, and for several years in the late 1860’s he toured Europe in order to earn a living. He was a generally popular man who made many friends among his musical contemporaries, and amassed a large collection of scores signed by their composers. His friends helped him to the extent that he was able to give a number of concerts over the years, although he never stopped writing music: between 1877 and 1885 he wrote three further symphonies.

Last Years

In 1889, a representative of Thomas Edison asked Brahms to record a short piano piece in Vienna; this is the first such recording made by a major composer. By now famous on both sides of the Atlantic, Brahms decided to stop composing the following year, but reversed his decision when new musical ideas kept coming into his head. Over the next few years, he wrote several outstanding pieces for clarinet and piano, as well as a set of organ preludes. In 1896, he was diagnosed with cancer, possibly of the liver, and became too ill to continue working. He died on April 3rd, 1897.