The music of Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833 - April 3, 1897) represents the furthest development of one strain of Nineteenth-Century Romanticism. Broadly speaking, one can distinguish five lines of development: the Beethoven-Mendelssohn-Schumann-Brahms; Liszt-Wagner-Bruckner-Strauss; folk-lore nationalism; Italian opera; and French, both operatic and symphonic. Some of this overlaps, of course. One can view Brahms, for example, with his deep artistic attachment to German folklore and older music, as a German nationalist.
The son of a musician, Brahms received piano, cello, horn, harmony, and composition lessons from an early age. He made his first public appearance as a ten-year-old pianist, playing an etude by Herz and participating in chamber works by Mozart and Beethoven. As far as his composing went, the more fantastic Romantics like E.T.A. Hoffmann and Callot, as well as the poetry of Eichendorff and Heine and folk and medieval sources, influenced him most. One finds in early Brahms a cultivation of the bizarre, a strain which he ruthlessly excised from his decades-later revisions of early work. Most of his early music concentrates on the piano and on chamber music featuring the piano – no surprise there.
In 1853, Brahms met Schumann, whose music he had at first dismissed during a short-lived infatuation with the school of Liszt, and then enthusiastically studied. Schumann, for his part, raved over the compositions Brahms had shown him and published an influential article ("Neue Bahnen," "New Paths") which praised the young man as having "sprung, like Minerva, fully-armed from the head of the son of Cronus." Schumann had put his finger on a major quality of Brahms' music: its ability to convince you of its artistic completeness and abundance and its apparently easy seamlessness and inexorable flow. Brahms became attached to the Schumann family, especially, after Schumann's insanity and death, to Schumann's wife Clara and daughter Julie. Brahms took care of the household so Clara could earn money as a touring pianist. For many years, romantic rumors circulated about Brahms and Clara, but Clara seems never to have regarded Brahms as anything more than a devoted son. For his part, Brahms, although capable of temporary infatuations, deliberately kept himself away from marriage, for he believed in the incompatibility between an artistic career and a family. Nevertheless, Clara remained, notwithstanding occasional tiffs, perhaps Brahms' closest musical advisor and confidante, up to her death in 1896.
In the 1850s, Brahms turned from chamber music to orchestral music for the first time and produced, the first Serenade, the Piano Concerto #1, and the second Serenade. The Piano Concerto, one of his most turbulent, Sturm und Drang works, was actually booed and hissed at its premiere, which wounded the composer but also stirred him to revise. In the aftermath of the concerto fiasco, he temporarily lost his publisher (Breitkopf & Härtel), but eventually hooked up with Simrock, who remained his major publisher.
A creative block afflicted Brahms during the mid-1850s. He felt at a loss, written-out. He turned to a study of strict counterpoint – canon, fugue, invertible counterpoint – writing a series of exercises and polyphonic works. Some of these found their way into later pieces. However, it also turned Brahms into a contrapuntal master, perhaps the best since Bach. It comes out most in his choral music, but it runs through his instrumental music as well (the finale to the Haydn Variations and the Fourth Symphony, for example), often when you least expect it.
In 1860, infuriated by an editorial in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Brahms and the composer-violinist Joachim published a reply. The editorial contended that the marriage of literature and music was the only true path for the "music of the future." Brahms, who saw himself as a musician of the future, contended that music should proceed on its own logic, rather than essentially Mickey-Mouse a literary plot. He objected mainly to the tone poems of Liszt, but the quarrel got away from him. He was seen in opposition to Berlioz and Wagner as well (both of whom he admired), and this precipitated the so-called Brahms-Wagner split of the latter Nineteenth Century – the fight between the Wagnerites and the "Brahmins." It says much for Brahms' stature, and he's not yet thirty, that he becomes a (very unwilling) pole in this argument.
Around this time, Brahms began to seek conducting positions. He was turned down by his native town, Hamburg, to direct the city orchestra but was accepted by the Vienna Singakademie. Brahms had previously led a women's chorus in Hamburg and an amateur choir at the Detmold court. All this experience led to the composition of a number of choral works, among the finest of their time. Brahms' choral music falls into three broad categories: "antiquarian," where the influence of J.S. Bach and Heinrich Schütz is particularly felt; "folk," arrangements of folk-songs and folk-like original tunes; and extensions of the Romantic choral works of Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. In 1865, Brahms' mother died. He responded creatively with Ein deutsches Requiem (1866-67, premiered in its entirety in 1869). Brahms had been a well-respected young composer before. This work swept through Europe, from Britain to Russia, and vaulted Brahms to the front rank of Nineteenth-Century composers. He was seriously regarded – and just as bitterly mocked – as Beethoven's successor, which, in my opinion, gave him the willies. Beethoven had been a presence in his creative life for a long time. Now the presence had become so strong, it threatened to cut off his creative work. It says much for Brahms' will and fortitude that he kept on.
During the 1870s, he struggled to master both the string quartet and especially the symphony. People expected a symphony from Beethoven's supposed successor. Nevertheless, when he turned to orchestral music again, he did so with the marvelous Variations on a Theme by Haydn (1873). His first symphony (begun, by the way, in 1862) appeared in 1876. Even after a successful premiere, he felt compelled to revise the slow movement before publication. Brahms became a ruthless revisor of his own music. We know he submitted many of his major works to this process, but often we haven't the earlier versions, since he destroyed most of his earlier drafts. The chips from his workshop are few and far between. In the cases where earlier versions have survived (usually because they were published), one does notice a pattern of cutting out more fantastical, even bizarre, passages in favor of classical proportion and restraint. As a result, we have a kind of Official Portrait of Brahms' music. We get only glimpses of the fan of Callot.
Brahms' catalogue grew to include four symphonies, a second piano concerto, a violin concerto, a double concerto for violin and cello, and a mountain of chamber music and songs. The songs are perhaps the most neglected part of his output, with the exception of certain "hits" and the magnificent, late Four Serious Songs, written in response to the death of Clara Schumann. It turns out he was a canny businessman as well, aiming many works for the middle-class domestic market. For example, he made four-hand piano arrangements of each of his symphonies, a smart move in the era before recorded sound. He also arranged Ein deutsches Requiem, his most popular work, for piano and choir, thus ensuring more performances among amateur societies. He amassed enough money to even play the stock market, which he did successfully. He lived well within his means and used most of his money to support family, friends, young musicians, and scholars in whose projects he took an interest. He managed to give up public performance as early as the 1870s to devote himself to composition. He died, long resident in Vienna, of liver cancer in 1897.
His lasting influence has been as a symphonist and chamber-music master. He remained controversial for a time even after his death, especially the works from the 1870s on. George Bernard Shaw, one of the greatest musical critics of all, came around to Brahms ("my only mistake," he claimed) as late as the Twenties. Schoenberg considered himself a descendant of Brahms and his twelve-tone method of composition a simple extension of Brahmsian procedures. He even wrote an influential essay, "Brahms the Progressive," in the 1940s. Since Brahms himself anticipated them, it's surprising that many neo-classical composers seemed "allergic" to his music. However, Brahms now sits safely ensconced in the pantheon of western music, beyond the cavil of turf wars. It's still possible to dislike his music but not to discount its importance. ~ Steve Schwartz