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Johannes Brahms

1833-1897

[Brahms]

 

One of the most beloved composers in the history of music, Johannes Brahms was perhaps the greatest symphonist to emerge after Beethoven. The composer of music of virtually every format except opera - from chamber works to symphonies to concertos to choral pieces - Brahms combined mastery of counterpoint with a lush and evocative harmonic sense to create music of incredible lyricism, vibrance and beauty.

He was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double bass player. He took to the piano at an early age, achieving enough proficiency to play in clubs and bars around Hamburg for pocket money. By the time he was twenty, he was also experimenting with composition. At that age he toured Germany as the piano partner to violinist Eduard Remenyi. Through one such tour he was introduced to violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, who was quite enthusiastic about the young composer/pianist and in turn introduced Brahms to Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann. Both of these great composers were charmed by the talents of the young Brahms, and Schumann wrote a laudatory article about him, calling him the "coming genius" of German music.

Brahms subsequently befriended Schumann and his wife Clara. When Schumann deteriorated into mental illness, Brahms proved a staunch supporter of Clara, and in fact fell in love with her; their relationship, always strong, would never blossom into a fully-blown romance, and Brahms remained a bachelor for the duration of his life.

As his reputation as a pianist and composer grew throughout Europe, Brahms toured here and there, conducting concerts and organizing musical societies. He was offered several honorary degrees, and accepted one from the University of Breslau - which provided the occasion to write the famous Academic Festival Overture. He began to write symphonies, forever aware of Beethoven's monumental shadow; his first attempt sounded to critics so similiar to Beethoven's works that it was dubbed "Beethoven's Tenth". But Brahms forged ahead, writing music of such craft and charm that he won over the music world. His Violin Concerto, which was written with the active input of Joachim, is one of the most profound and stylish works ever created for that instrument. His chamber works, most notably the magnificent Clarinet Quintet, are masterpieces of structure and scale. Bearing in mind the Classical style, he created miracles of orchestration and melody, always wringing the utmost expressivity from every detail.

By the end of his life, Brahms had won a reputation on par with the greatest composers in history, giving rise to the phrase "the three B's" - Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. He was more modest than some about his own accomplishments; once, when the daughter of Johann Strauss asked for his autograph, he wrote the opening bars of Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz on her paper and scrawled below it, "Not, alas, by Johannes Brahms." In his accomplishments as a composer and musical leading light of the Romantic era, he has no peer.