“Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.” – Johannes Brahms

You’d never guess from glancing at one of the typically austere-looking portraits of the man often bracketed with Bach and Beethoven as one of the “Three Bs” of classical music, that Brahms was one of the most original and pioneering composers in history. Ironically best known for his famous lullaby, any Brahms aficionado will tell you his music is anything but sleep-inducing: in fact, it’s packed with emotional punch, often highly unpredictable, and in my opinion far ahead of its time. Brahms was not only a supreme innovator, but also a master craftsman, capable of writing in traditional compositional forms with consummate skill. Listen for example to the 4th movement of his Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major, Op. 1, where he uses a highly unusual 9/8 time signature to subvert the listener’s habitual metric expectations – as a consequence of which each sforzando (suddenly loud) chord arrives at an unexpected moment and grabs your attention like a jolt of electricity. Then, subtly and unexpectedly, he transitions to a beautiful lilting passage with remarkably jazz-like qualities (1:12 to 2:52 in this rendition). Here it is played by Krystian Zimerman:

Brahm’s first foray into music was not a labour of love, but of necessity. His father was an impoverished musician subsisting on public performances on a variety of instruments, and in his early adolescent years Brahms himself began to supplement the family’s income by giving piano recitals in his hometown of Hamburg. He is known to have composed as a young boy, but, ever the perfectionist, most of these compositions he later destroyed. It wasn’t until the age of 19, when he went on tour as an accompanist to a well known violinist, that Brahms became known as a composer.

During this tour Brahms made the acquaintance of Schumann – a meeting which was to have a profound impact on the course of his life. Schumann was so impressed by the young composer’s talent that he went on to write Brahms a glowing tribute in an article called Neue Bahnen (“New Paths”), in typically colourful language:

“Years have gone by—nearly as many as I had previously dedicated to the editing of these pages, namely ten—, since I last was heard from in this terrain, so rich in memories. Often, despite intensive productive activity, I felt stimulated; many new, significant talents appeared, a new force in music seemed to announce itself, to which many of the emerging artists of recent times bear witness, even if their productions are mostly known to a small circle… I thought, following the paths of this elect with the greatest interest, that in this process there should and must suddenly appear one that were called to give voice to the highest expression of the times in an ideal way, one who would bring us mastery not in gradual developments, but rather, like Minerva, should spring fully armoured from the forehead of Zeus. And he is come, a young blood, over whose cradle graces and heroes kept watch. He is called Johannes Brahms, came from Hamburg, creating there in dark tranquility, but instructed in the most difficult precepts of Art by a felicitous and enthusiastic teacher, who had been recommended to me previously by a known and venerated master.”

No doubt the more significant consequence of this meeting however, was the intimate life-long friendship that blossomed between Brahms and Schumann’s wife Clara, his senior of 14 years. They remained close long after Schumann’s death in 1856, and surviving correspondence between the two revealed that Brahms was deeply in love with her. Brahms wrote to a friend three years after Schumann’s death: “I believe that I do not respect and admire her so much as I love her and am under her spell. Often I must forcibly restrain myself from just quietly putting my arms around her and even – I don’t know, it seems so natural that she would not take it ill.” Brahms nonetheless remained deeply conflicted between his respect for his old friend Schumann and his feelings for Clara. It’s presumably for this reason that in 1887, he urged for all their letters to be destroyed. Unfortunately for him Snapchat did not yet exist in those days, and Clara kept a number of his letters, which were later published.

Conductor Simon Rattle shares his insights into the love triangle between the three musicians:

Clara, herself a noted pianist and composer, also became Brahms’ musical confidant. He ran all his new compositions by her, and the they even went on tour together beginning in 1868. By all appearances the pair seem to have been destined for one another had circumstances not intervened; despite a number of relationships with other women, Brahms never married, seemingly unable to devote himself to anyone other than his beloved Clara. Perhaps the wistful tenderness that can be heard in much of Brahms’ music is the mark that she left in his life. Here it is in full force, in one of the most glorious and perfect miniature masterpieces in history, Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2, played by Arthur Jussen:

Just as with his music, paradoxically rooted in classical tradition while relentlessly forward-looking, Brahms as a person was in many ways an exercise in contradictions. A pupil of his once remarked “Brahms has acquired, not without reason, the reputation for being a grump, even though few could also be as lovable as he.” Indeed, Brahms was known for being curt, often alienating people, and he himself once quipped “If there is anyone here whom I have not insulted, I beg his pardon.” On his first musical tour for example, he made a questionable impression on Liszt when according to several eye-witnesses he promptly fell asleep during a performance of Liszt’s newly composed Sonata in B Minor (maybe it was at that precise moment that Brahms conceived the melody of his famous lullaby – we’ll never know). He had a softer side however; a nature lover, he frequently went on walks in the woods around Vienna, always carrying with him penny sweets to give to children. He was also known as a loyal friend, and later in life when his compositions had made him wealthy, he gave generously to allow aspiring musicians the opportunity to pursue their passion.

Here are some more of Brahms’ beautiful compositions:

Hungarian Dance No. 1, played by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel

Hungarian Dance No. 5, played by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Claudio Abbado

Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 38, played by Ophélie Gaillard and Ferenc Vizi

Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 60, 3rd Movement, played by the Colburn Piano Quartet

Intermezzo No. 1 in E♭ Major, Op. 117, No. 1, played by Vassily Primakov

Spotify Playlist:

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