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About the German Composer, Johannes Brahms' Works and Life

Johannes Brahms: Overview

  • Born: 1833 - Hamburg, Germany
  • Died: 1897 - Vienna
  • Historical Period: Romantic 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, songs, choral

Composer, Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms was a German composer who was born in the year 1833 in Hamburg. As one who belonged to the Romantic era of musical realization, his body of work included a number of chamber music, choral music, symphonies, concerti and over 200 songs. After a lifetime of defending the Classical works of Beethoven and Haydn against more modern Romantic musicians, such as Wagner, he came to be considered as one of the most revered symphonic and sonata style masters of the 19th century, before passing away in 1897. 

Some of his most respected and popular works are as follows: 

  • Piano Concerto No. 1 In D Minor, Op. 15 (1858)
  • Wiegenlied Op. 49 No. 4. Also referred to as the "Brahms Lullaby". (1868)
  • Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 (1878)
  • Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 (1880)
  • Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1880)
  • Intermezzo (some of his latest and moving piano music)
  • Hungarian Dances, a collection of Roma tunes (1869)

Johannes Brahms: The Romantic Champion of Classicism

Johannes Brahms was born to Johann Jakob Brahms and Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen as one of three children. His father was a bassist at the Hamburg Philharmonic Society, and following in his father’s shoes, the future composing great started playing the piano at age 7. In 1850, when Brahms was still a teenager, he met Eduard Reményi, who was a Hungarian violinist and composer. The latter acquainted Brahms with gypsy or Roma music, which formed a lifelong influence. 

Brahms met the famed German composer and critic, Robert Schumann in 1853, whereupon the two built a great rapport with each other. Impressed by Brahms' talents, Schumann wrote about the young man in the periodical Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, dubbing him as a “young eagle”.  This was a time when there were grave tensions between the conservative musicians such as Schumann himself and the more modern neo-German school of musicians such as Wagner. Brahms readily demonstrated his lack of faith in the “modernists”. 

In the year 1854, when Schumann fell ill, Brahms helped in his household affairs as a gesture of friendship. It was here that he is believed to have fallen for Clara, Schumann’s wife, although even after Schumann’s demise in 1856, the two remained just friends. He wrote the String Sextet in B-flat Major in 1860 for her 41st birthday. 

In 1858, Brahms had a significant romantic affair with Agathe von Siebold, but history says that he came out of that relationship. This was the closest that he had ever got to a marital possibility. 

The years 1857 through 1860, saw him at the Detmold and Göttingen courts as a conductor of choral music and piano teacher. In 1859, he attained the Office of the Conductor of a women’s choir in Hamburg, Germany. 

In 1863, Brahms settled down in Vienna and became the Director of Singakademie, a musical society founded in Berlin. His mother passed in 1868, which inspired him to write Ein deutsches Requiem, a Biblically-styled piece, considered by many critics and fans as one of the greatest ever written. The composition is a combination of a chorus, solo vocals, and a comprehensive orchestra. 

Between 1868 and 1869, he went on to write Liebeslieder waltzes, which gracefully utilized Viennese dance music. 

Brahms became the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde’s conductor in 1872 and went on to direct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for three separate seasons. In the year 1873, he completed a brilliant orchestral version of his Variations on a Theme by Haydn, the success of which was followed by the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (1876), which was performed that same year. Then came the Symphony No. 2 in D Major (1877), which was characteristically serene and peaceful. 

Six years went by before Brahms completed the Symphony No. 3 in F Major in 1883. With a similarly calm style as the previous symphonies, the piece evolves into a vigorous amalgamation of various forces in the finale. These extravagant practices in tonal magnificence were promptly followed by the final gem, Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, which may have been inspired by Sophocles’ Greek tragedies that Brahms read. He got an idea from a tune from J.S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 150 for his Symphony No. 4

Brahms remained in Vienna for life, among extensive European travels during summer. These also included concerts. The year 1880 was when Brahms was offered a doctorate from the University of Breslau, honoring which, he wrote a couple of orchestral pieces. Italy was a favorite vacation spot for the eminent composer. During the vacations in Italy, he created a large number of compositions from orchestral pieces to violin concertos and many more. 

A big part of Brahms’ popularity can also be attributed to Hans von Bülow, a German conductor. As a great interpreter, Bülow ensured that the compositions were professionally and perfectly performed. The 1880s and 90s saw Brahms compose a number of wonderful pieces, namely, the String Quintet in F Major in 1882, the Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor in 1886, the Double Concerto in A Minor in 1887, the Violin Sonata in D Minor between 1886–88, and the Quintet in G Major in 1890. Following these came the pieces for the wind instruments; Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano and Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in 1891, and Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120, Nos. 1 and 2 in 1894. 

Vier ernste Gesänge was finished in 1896, and Brahms clearly took elements from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament for composing it. The piece damned earthly existence and accepted death as the respite from material suffering. It was about the same time when the composer himself became severely ill and doctors found him to have a poor liver. After his final musical performance in Vienna in 1897, Johannes Brahms died from cancer. 

Brahms wrote music which both added to the Romantic period and went against the sensibilities of the so-called modern composers. As already mentioned, his respect for traditions was impeccable in that he loved the works of Mozart, Beethoven and particularly Schubert. Known for his incredible use of distinctive tones, Brahms' musical capabilities are best expressed through his choral music which amply demonstrates the sheer genius that he was. 


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