Who was Johannes Brahms?
Ivan Hewett, Bayan Northcott and Jessica Duchen take a look at the essence of this enigmatic composer.
How do you describe the music of Brahms? That very question has had both audiences and critics alike searching for an answer, and has often divided them into fiercely opposing camps along the way...
At one level, Brahms’s position in the pantheon of great composers is absolutely secure. Everyone acknowledges the mastery of this composer who would write learned canons and fugues for fun. But some doubt that Brahms had that other quality necessary to the great composer, the burning inspiration and daring that justifies all the hard-won technique.
Though everyone respects Brahms, not everyone loves him. There’s something about the dark and often thorny sound of his music which seems to repel easy affection. For players, it can often feel wilfully difficult under the hands. Like the man himself, Brahms’s music seems to delight in being prickly.
• Read more: top Brahms performers pick their favourite works
And yet – again like the man himself – the stern surface hides a wealth of tender feeling. There are few more intimate utterances in all music than the late piano Intermezzos, and few more radiantly joyous ones than the great G major Sextet. More precious for those who love his music are those ambiguous, understated states of mingled joy and sorrow that run through so many of his works.
Understated’ can be a euphemism for inhibited and buttoned-up, two epithets often applied to Brahms. But for those who love the music, it’s precisely Brahms’s suspicion of ‘letting go’ that make him treasurable. Brahms’s refusal to revel in straightforward states of feeling and his craftsman’s pride in making every piece as perfect as it could be are two sides of the same coin. They show an unflinching respect for truth, both musical and emotional. Brahms is a model of what a proper, grown-up composer should be, which is why, in an era which prefers quick gratifications, his music now seems peculiarly precious. It epitomises what classical music stands for.
Brahms, the composer
Morning rituals, regular pub visits and the outdoors all helped Brahms find inspiration...
Brahms was dismissive of the Romantic notion of inspiration. ‘A thought, an idea, is simply an inspiration from above, for which I am not responsible,’ he remarked. ‘It is a present, a gift, which I ought even to despise until I have made it my own by right of hard work.’ And hard work, the ceaseless pursuit of mastery, was the rule of his life.
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Habitually rising at dawn, he would dose himself with a poisonously strong cup of black coffee, smoke an equally strong cigar, then play a Bach fugue or complete a counterpoint exercise or two to get his mind in gear, and compose steadily through a long morning, taking a late lunch at a local hostelry and then a long afternoon walk. When he was in Vienna and not conducting or playing, the evening might find him at the opera or theatre, of which he was an avid fan. Much of his creative work, however, was done on extended summer holidays at a succession of Austrian spas and lakes, where he could wander at ease in shirtsleeves and no tie.
Once a work was in draft, he would invite the comments of a few trusted friends, Clara Schumann above all, sometimes taking their advice, sometimes not. Confessing to Joseph Joachim that, ‘My things really are written with an appalling lack of practicability,’ he allowed the great violinist to rejig extensively the solo part in the Violin Concerto (1878). Sometimes his incessant urge to improve would extend beyond the first performance: the German Requiem (1867) acquired an additional movement and the First Symphony was extensively revised. ‘I never cool down over a work, once begun, until it is perfected, unassailable,’ he claimed.
One early work, the rhapsodic Piano Trio No. 1 (1854), he totally recomposed as late as 1889. And when he finally committed a score to print, he would habitually do away with the sketches, as if to forestall future scholars prying into all his doubts and reworkings. Almost the only complete set of sketches he seems to have kept was for the Variations on a Theme of Haydn (1873), a work that was especially close to his heart.
It is not least characteristic of Brahms’s view of the composer as a consecrated craftsman that, around 1890, he actually spoke of retiring, telling his friends that his radiant String Quintet No. 2 would be his last work. But it only needed the melting artistry of the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld to set him going again – until the shock of Clara Schumann’s death inspired the stoical Four Serious Songs (1896) that presaged his own demise.
Classical or Romantic?
Brahms expressed a good deal of passion in his music, but counterpoint was never far behind...
Brahms can seem the strictest, most structure-driven composer of the late 19th century. A perfectionist – he burned many works with which he was not satisfied – he adhered to principles of form and counterpoint that would have been familiar to Beethoven, even to Bach (ie the closing passacaglia of Symphony No. 4). Yet the spirit he encases in these forms remains Romantic. Brahms’s personal voice is rich in texture: soaring, impassioned, raw in its tenderness.
Brahms’s writing, generally speaking, grew more restrained as he grew older. His early works were another matter. Literary inspiration is supposedly antithetical to the ‘pure music’ on which he later focused. But at the age of 20 he based the first of his Op. 10 Ballades for piano on the Scottish ballad Edward, Edward; and in the Piano Sonata No. 3 written in 1853 (above), he quotes a love poem by CO Sternau at the head of the Andante second movement.
He identified with ETA Hoffmann’s fictional Johannes Kreisler – an idealistic Kapellmeister, also inspiration for Schumann’s Kreisleriana – often referring to himself as ‘Kreisler’ in his letters. As for Romantic sentiments, try Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther: for the Piano Quartet No. 3 (1875), Brahms told his publisher that the ideal cover illustration would show Goethe’s eponymous hero pressing a gun to his own head.
Under the spell of Robert and Clara Schumann, the youthful Brahms began to use musical ciphers – notes that stand for the letters of words. The idea goes back to Bach; Schumann and Brahms, though, used the idea within a Romantic ethos to express personal, emotional connections, rather than religious symbolism. Prime here was Brahms’s recurring motto F-A-F – ‘frei aber froh’, free but happy. This was a slogan derived from his friend Joseph Joachim’s equivalent, F-A-E – ‘frei aber einsam’, free but lonely.
Elsewhere, his music is peppered with references to Clara. The second movement of the Piano Concerto No. 1 (1858) is a type of requiem for Schumann, its melody setting the words ‘Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini’; he once wrote to Clara that this movement was a ‘tender portrait’ of her. The powerful horn solo in the introduction to the First Symphony’s (1876) finale apparently derives from an alphorn melody that he heard in Switzerland; he included it in a postcard to Clara in 1868, setting the words: ‘Hoch auf’m Berg, tief im Tal, grüß ich dich, viel tausendmal!’ (High in the hills, deep in the valleys, I greet you many thousand times).
Ironically, perhaps, Clara’s rather non-experimental musical tastes, besides increasing divisions from the ‘progressive’ Romantics Liszt and Wagner, may have prompted Brahms’s later inclination towards supposedly ‘pure’ music. He rejected Robert Schumann’s tendency to rhapsodic stream-of-consciousness writing almost as if rejecting that composer’s unfortunate fate. In his Clarinet Quintet (1891), he achieved perhaps the perfect blend of form and content: this introverted, emotional music is cradled within a construct of absolute classical rigour.
So is Brahms Classical or Romantic? In fact, he’s a supreme blend of both.
The remaker of tradition
Contrary to what Richard Wagner claimed, traditional forms were making a comeback...
Late in life, Brahms remarked: ‘Neither Schumann, Wagner nor I were properly schooled. Talent was the decisive factor. Each of us had to find his own way. Schumann took one way, Wagner another, and I a third. But none of us really learnt what is right.’
Evidently Brahms felt that talent was not enough unless nurtured by ‘what is right’, by which he meant the strict contrapuntal disciplines upon which Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven had based the masterpieces that were by then regarded as the core of the classical repertoire.
Brahms’s own teacher in Hamburg, Eduard Marxsen, was actually rather liberal by the standards of his day. But this only seems to have reinforced Brahms’s feeling that, after Mendelssohn, the old tried principles of training had somehow got lost; and that composers like himself, who aspired to contribute something masterly and new to the classical canon, would have to rediscover those principles through incessant self-instruction, scouring the music of the past for models and procedures that might be developed further.
Already in his twenties, he was swapping counterpoint exercises with Joachim and composing a Mass in strict canons and a baroque suite – a sarabande and gavotte from which were eventually to turn up in the haunting middle movement of his String Quintet No 1 in F major (1883). Soon he was cultivating a circle of musicologists who were then studying and bringing to publication swathes of earlier music – such as Gustav Nottebohm, who was investigating Beethoven’s sketches, and Philipp Spitta, the biographer of Bach and editor of Schütz.
In due course he became half a musicologist himself, editing Mozart’s Requiem and, with the Handel scholar Friedrich Chrysander, an edition of Couperin. Meanwhile, he avidly collected and minutely studied composers’ manuscripts from the 16th century up to Wagner, including the autographs of Haydn’s Six Quartets, Op. 20 and Mozart’s Great G minor Symphony, no less. Some of the Baroque and Renaissance items, he transcribed and conducted during his years as a choral director in Vienna.
The major effect of all this, of course, was on his composing. By intensifying the motivic procedures of Beethoven and enriching his textures with the contrapuntal ingenuities of Bach, he succeeded with the triumph of the Symphony No. 1 in virtually re-establishing the classical symphony at a time when Wagner was proclaiming it had been subsumed into the music drama. Brahms similarly expanded and deepened the scope of the concerto form in his two vast Piano Concertos. And in his Symphony No. 4, he elevated for the first time the baroque passacaglia or chaconne form of variations on a repeating bass, a genre virtually ignored by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, to the function of symphonic finale – an epitome of his propensity to sound at once old and new.
The inhibited spirit?
Brahms was an emotionally complex soul, which is reflected in much of his music...
Johann Brahms (left) with friend and violinist Joseph Joachim, circa 1854 (Getty)
What was wrong with Brahms? His aggressively defensive remarks and tendency to regard women either as angels or playthings, suggest a conflicted personality. Some have felt that this got into his music, causing him to defuse his climaxes or interrupt the flow of his expression with displays of learned artifice.
Yet the slim, fair-haired, blue-eyed 20 year-old who turned up on the Düsseldorf doorstep of Robert and Clara Schumann in 1853, armed with a satchel of amazing pieces with which he began dazzling them at the piano, must have struck them as the freest spirit of German Romanticism.
Within months, however, Schumann was confined in an asylum, with Brahms ‘replacing’ him as Clara’s main support. Whether, after Schumann’s death, Brahms flunked his proposal or, more likely, she refused him, not wanting more children, he was thereafter to elevate her to the status of muse to whom no other women could compare – and settled into a bachelor routine.
These traumas were not helped by the public expectations thrust upon him in Schumann’s last article, hailing the unknown young composer as the musical master-spirit of the age. No wonder he developed so fraught a wariness about having to measure up to Beethoven. In 1860, he and three other composers drafted a manifesto deploring the ‘Music of the Future’ pretensions of the followers of Liszt. It was prematurely leaked, provoking derision – no wonder he refused, thereafter, to give interviews or write programme notes ‘explaining’ himself, ever.
Of course, for those who love his music, any intermittent expressive hitches or self-conscious nods to tradition are prices worth paying for the richness of ideas, invention and feeling with which he renewed the classical forms. Indeed, his very ‘inhibitions’ seem to have enabled him to convey moods of regret, longing and wistful nostalgia unexplored by any previous composer.
One still hears the unbridled young Romantic in the epic sweep of the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the savage drive that overtakes the finale of the Piano Quintet. And after he had strenuously risen to the classical challenge in the contrapuntal intricacies of the German Requiem and heroic Symphony No. 1, his more relaxed vein of lyricism – heard already in the Schubertian Sextet No. 1 – flowed forth with greater ease. The First Symphony cost him 15 years of struggle; the Second (1877) was completed in a few months.
All the same, as he matured, his music seemed to turn ever inward. In his final decade, he stopped orchestral composition, concentrating on piano works and the late chamber works, epitomised by the autumnal Clarinet Quintet (1891), redolent of his increasing apprehension that he was the last master of a great tradition.
An ultra-Romantic, yes, but Brahms was also more forward-looking than most of us think...
Arnold Schoenberg (above) argued Brahms's music was inherently progressive
Brahms a progressive? Surely not. Everything about the man breathes an air of tradition and poignant longing for the past. Brahms revered his great forebears, and like theirs, his music is unashamedly aimed at an elite (‘Brahms does not write for the people, but for a parterre of kings,’ wrote the critic Louis Ehlert.)
However it’s no contradiction to say Brahms also showed modern traits. The poet TS Eliot also wrote for elites, and revered tradition, but no one would say this disqualifies him from being a founding father of literary modernism. To say Brahms was actually a progenitor of modern music would be too much. But look under the formal regularity and bourgeois solidity of his music, and you can see fascinating pre-echoes of the Viennese modernism that lay around the corner.
One of the hallmarks of that modernism (particularly in the music of the so-called Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern) was the extreme concentration of their music. There’s no padding or note-filling; everything can be referred back to one germinating motif. This way of thinking led eventually to the 12-note technique in the 1920s. Look closely at Brahms, and that extreme concentration can already be heard.
In his essay ‘Brahms the Progressive’, Schoenberg showed how Brahms’s Fourth Symphony is obsessed with one interval, the falling third. The third song of the Four Serious Songs (1896) shows a similar obsession. Another example of motivic concentration not mentioned by Schoenberg is the extraordinary late piano Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 6 which begins with a sad plaint made of just three notes. Apart from one angry outburst, this inconsolable melody saturates the music.
This piece also displays the rhythmic fluidity of Brahms’s later music, a quality that fascinated Stravinsky in his old age. In the Capriccio Op. 76 No. 3 (1878) there are moments when the left hand suggests a five-quaver beat meter while the right hand pushes against it with a triple-beat crotchet meter.
This rhythmic ambiguity had long been a feature of Brahms’s music. His favourite rhythmic device was the ‘hemiola’, whereby a bar of six beats is divided sometimes into two or three main beats. This arose from his fondness for similar patterns in Baroque music, but in his own music this ancient device takes on a modern-sounding emotional complexity.
Even more striking in this piece is the way the harmony seems to be groping around for a home key, and never finding it. If a defining quality of early musical modernism is anxiety, a sense that all the stable signposts of music are dissolving away, then it’s in this sad late utterance of Brahms, as much as in Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, that the coming of modern music can be glimpsed.
The folk tradition
Hungarian folk music imbued the music of Brahms, including some of his most famous masterpieces...
In Brahms’s time, little distinction was drawn between genuine Hungarian folk music and the country’s tradition of Gypsy players. Like many others, the young Brahms was entranced by the latter’s exotic virtuoso style and could scarcely resist romanticising it.
It was this idiom, within Hungarian dance forms, that he would have understood as Hungarian when he toured, in his teens, as pianist for the Hungarian violinist Ede (or Eduard) Reményi. They would finish their recitals with Gypsy showpieces for which Brahms might improvise accompaniments; and Reményi, so the story goes, would improvise for Brahms in spare moments.
Among Brahms’s early successes were his two sets of Hungarian Dances for piano duet – pieces which he premiered himself with Clara Schumann as his partner at a friend’s salon concert in 1868. Later Reményi, recognising some of the melodies as those he had played on tour, accused him of plagiarism.
It was through Reményi, though, that in 1853 Brahms got to know another Hungarian violinist, Joseph Joachim (who arranged the Hungarian Dances for violin and piano). His long, if chequered friendship with Joachim was a vital source of multiple influences. For example, it was thanks to Joachim that Brahms stayed with Liszt for three weeks in Weimar, where he would have been steeped in the Hungarian composer-pianist’s no doubt copious playing.
Joachim himself was anything but a Gypsy fiddler. As a 12-year-old child prodigy he performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto under the baton of Mendelssohn; later in life he was well known for fastidiousness in his musical approach and a certain cantankerousness beyond it – indeed, the ‘war of the Romantics’, which split traditional and ‘progressive’ strands of compositional development, can be traced in part to a vicious fallout between Joachim and Liszt. But his Hungarian origins, and his use of Hungarian idioms in his music, helped to keep Brahms entranced by that Gypsy style.
One famous example is the finale of the 1861 Piano Quartet No.1, marked ‘Rondo alla Zingarese’. Besides the high-octane, stamped-out rhythms and headlong dashes from musical pillar to post, the piano tackles a cadenza full of rhapsodic, violin-like arabesques. Joachim told Brahms: ‘In the last movement you beat me on my own turf.’ The same year, Brahms wrote his Variations on a Theme of Handel for solo piano, two variations of which (Nos 13 and 14) might suggest the two contrasting parts of a typical slow-fast Hungarian dance.
It is nevertheless the Violin Concerto – written in 1878 for Joachim – that shows most clearly the way that Hungarian influence, via Joachim, melded together with the composer’s unmistakable personal language. For the finale, Brahms, with Joachim’s own ‘Hungarian’ Violin Concerto in mind, produced a movement amply flavoured with folksy strength and flourishes aplenty. Frequently Brahms’s Hungarian musical idioms stand as a tribute to his friend – and nowhere is this more evident than here.