German romantic composer, as a young man befriended by Robert Schumann and his wife, the pianist Clara Wieck. He was the master composer of the conservative wing of nineteenth-century music, harking back to Beethoven, and being opposed to the adventurous new style of Wagner.

He wrote four symphonies altogether. (Chorus: "He wrote four symphonies!") He also wrote a requiem with words in German and therefore called the Deutsches Requiem. His Symphony No. 1 was nicknamed Beethoven's Tenth. He said of it that they (composers of his generation) felt his footsteps behind them.

Other well-known works are the two overtures, the Academic Festival Overture, written for a university he was being given an honorary degree at (Breslau in 1879, I think), and which quotes the mediaeval student song Gaudeamus igitur, and the Tragic Overture. Another is the Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, originally known as Variations on a Theme by Haydn, though in fact Haydn did not write the original piece being varied. His violin concerto is one of the staples of the violinist's repertoire, and he wrote much chamber music and many songs.

Born Hamburg, 7 May 1833, son of a double bass player. At first he worked as a pianist, playing in sailors' taverns and dancing saloons to make a living. In 1853 his prospects took a turn for the better when on tour he met Liszt, Joseph Joachim, and the Schumanns. From 1864 he could devote himself to composition. He and Clara were very close, particularly during Robert's periods of madness, which was much of the time. His love for her is generally believed to be unrequited, though one noted critic did express a desire to write a book called Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann: Did they or didn't they?. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in Vienna, 3 April 1897, less than a year after his beloved Clara.

Brahms is also Cockney Rhyming Slang for "drunk" (Brahms and Liszt, pissed).

Last of the Three B's

And B is for Bear
Catalyst of Romanticism to Modernism
Solidly Grounded on Classical Absolute Music

(1833 - 1897)


A yellow flame flashed brightly as another paper was thrown in the old fireplace that kept the Vienna room warm. An early star whose fate was to become a supernova. Was perhaps the flamboyant music of Kreisler an additional accelerant .... could he not hear his naive exuberance in the crackling .... as the scores written even before he was twenty were piled to the pyre? Brahms had made it to the top two decades later, and he was determined to be master of what people would know as his destiny.


His Style

Why would Brahms even be considered part of the musical romantic period? It was the epoch that had named itself. It represented a time that wanted to soar to greater heights and was perhaps the first to embrace something akin to what we call multimedia: Program music. It was all the rage: incorporating poetry, the stage, and music. Opera became king. The purists, like Brahms, ran counter to this trend, but still used poems for lieders like Schubert, and was even influenced in his maturity by the art of Klimpt. The age liked the nostalgic simplicity of folk-tunes, and Brahms was adept at using these motifs. He was highly critical of other romantic composers of the time, like Liszt, Bruckner and Tchaikovsky, and publicly on the Anti-Wagnerian side of that controversy (while privately sometimes admiring the genius). He once said of Anton Rubinstein's Nero, "Nero's character has been well depicted: it is horrible music.!"1

Early on he was naturally considered the third "B" after Bach and Beethoven, and the high expectations of others was a stimulant that was sometimes more of a thorn in his side as he followed a perfectionist's path. And though his love of counterpoint (as perfected by Bach) and adherence to formal structure (especially when continuing the sonata form), it did not hinder his musical innovations in rhythm and tonality. In spite of his biographical micromanagement, subtle and dramatic personal feelings emerged from his work. He was a man of his times, where bourgeois peace and prosperity struggled on the brink of continental disaster. Vienna, with all its facade of glitz, was a good paying customer.

His Lifestyle

Tablature to Tabloid

Did he have a physical romantic relationship with Clara Schumann, widow of one of his musical mentors, Robert? Though no direct evidence remains; nevertheless, it was one of the most bonded friendships between a man and a woman, marriage notwithstanding. He was fourteen years her junior, and during Schumann's institutionalization he had mixed feelings about his return. He had become intensely infatuated with her about a year after meeting and staying at their house. Without the Schumanns, he might not have ever made it. Clara's dropping composing to hit the concert halls meant she presented many of his pieces. He had several other ladies that he loved, and loved him, but he was afraid of the "fetters" when it came time to hitching-up. He was enamored with the singers Luise Dustmann and Elisabeth von Stockhausen. Rumor even had it that Brahms might have had a physical dysfunction. He once explained and lamented his not marrying and having children to friend and poet Joseph Victor Widmann, after he had achieved fame while in his forties:

I have missed my chance. I sometimes regret that I did not marry. I ought to have a boy of ten now; that would be fine! But when I was of the right age to marry I was not so situated that I could. When I had the disposition, my music was either hissed in the concert halls, or was at any rate received with icy coldness.2

In the beginning, his banter with ladies at parties oxymoronically claimed, "It is my misfortune not to have a wife, thank God!" When approaching later maturity, the loneliness was admitted.

I don't want the world to know,
I don't want my heart to show

Two faces have I
I----, uh, I, I, I, I, I, yi, I huh I,

I pretend that I'm happy,
But I'm Mr. blue.
I pretend that I'm happy,
Since I lost you.

Two faces have I.
One to laugh and one to cry.
Two faces have I.
One to laugh and one to cry.
--Lou Christie

He could alternate between being generous or rude with his family, colleagues, and friends. Camouflaging his feelings started around the time he left Clara Schumann's household in 1856 to return to Hamburg. (Thus the above-mentioned "B" is for bear.) And, as we saw above, he was a perfectionist with even his own collection of work. He loved his old town where he was raised, Hamburg, and though he joked about their conservativeness, he had more of their attributes than those around him in Vienna. He sometimes would snub the socialites to talk to the help, yet he dedicated his first Sonata to the Countess Ida von Hohenthal. He was internally devastated when the Hamburg Orchestra spurned him for its leadership twice. By the time he was famous, and they finally wanted him, he then stubbornly refused it as pay-back. He was involved in shaping his destiny and legacy, many times with combinations of angry rebuttals, false modesty, but finally extreme self-censorship. Because of this, how many early works and letters were consigned to become touched only by fingers of flame? Like his music his life was dichotomous, or should one say it was the other way around?

Sacre Blues

This strong humanist and agnostic still managed to write a marvelously sacred German Requiem after his mother died; and he quoted Saint Paul in Four Serious Songs after the death of his friend of four decades, Clara Schumann. He kept a middle-class frugality and sensibility (though he had an extensive music and book collection) absorbed from his Hamburg upbringing. Brahms stood above the crowd as he did not adopt the antisemitism of many of his contemporaries.

Classical Grunge

He was well known for his eccentric dress with his same old coat and patriarchal beard while on one of his many walks about town. He traveled to the country in the summer for hiking and relaxing, and took numerous trips to Italy with a circle of friends. He kept his health up while enjoying German food: goulash and sausages washed down with at least three steins of beer, and followed up with a cigar and Kaffe, or sometimes mocha. He enjoyed the famous Viennese pastries, but especially loved fritters, which always would remind him of his mother's. He never married, having a classic case of what we sometimes call the Madonna/Whore complex. His female acquaintances that he admired enough to wed he put too highly on some pristine pedestal, and found intimacy with his social inferiors. Inevitably something caught up to him, whether it was knockwurst, stogies, lager, or a combination of events in his life which we will uncover. Almost suddenly, the health of a vital 63 year-old declined rapidly and fatally with a cancerous liver.

His Life

Early Roots

Papa Wanted to be a Rolling Stone

The father, Johann Jakob Brahms (sometimes previously Brams or Brahmst), born in 1806, had his family name derived from the Broom plant, Planta genista. Its yellow flowers blanketed the Lower Saxon heaths. But by the time Jakob was born the family was in the business of inn-keeping in the northern town of Heide. Most significantly, Jakob had dreams to be a musician like his future son, but unlike the encouragement he would give Johannes, his father refused. Three times Jakob ran away from home, taking lessons secretly. Finally as a nineteen year old he got his Certificate of Apprenticeship from Theodore Muller and went to Hamburg to ply his trade as a musician. This town did love their music, but for musicians, it was just another occupation. These towns-people worked hard to get their money, and they kept a very tight hold on it. This city was the last residence of Handel where he wrote his first operas before finding fame in England.

Hamburg Helper

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
Go together like a horse and carriage.
This I tell you brother,
You can't have one --without the other.
--Dinah Shore

But more importantly Hamburg was where 24 year-old Jakob met Brahms 41 year-old spinster seamstress mother, Christiane; and they married on June 9, 1830. The age difference would cause problems that invaded their short-lived happy, and always meager home-life: where baby Elise made three.

Brahms Debuts

This Specksgang street, (in reality an alley), on which they lived was one of those that were typically narrow, noisy and light-strangled. Along with yelling spouses and salesmen, their six floored house on Anselar-Plaz looked over a gathering place for sailors and "ladies of the night". It was in this Gägerviertel neighborhood, 1833 on May 7, where Johannes' birth-cries joined the cacophony around him. He was named after his Grandfather, Johann, and even Jakob later would re-adopt that part of his name when they were celebrities.

When he was born, Schubert and Beethoven had died about 6 years earlier; and Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi, and Schumann were young adults in various stages of their careers, the latter three still learning the trade. Schumann, by the next year, would have his composer promotional publication, Neue Zeitschrift für Musick, out, and it would prove instrumental in helping Johannes a couple of decades later.

The family, always poor, moved thrice more in hopes of betterment. In recollections decades later, the adult Johannes remembered there was "too much water in the soup." Some years down the road he wrote of his home tutor, his "dear old mother, whose kindness of heart was equaled only by her simple manners" Though he strived to work his way up, he had to supplement his paucity of funds in many endeavors with extra jobs that paid minimum as well.

Early Education


The bright six year-old Hannes hated school. Fortunately he showed his budding talent when he demonstrated perfect pitch in his made-up little songs using his own notation. In vain the father tried to urge the school system to work with the distracted student instead of deriding him. The father desire to teach the child (as he did Fritz, the last son and child born 1835), was to give him the chance to work in a better situation than he did. He just played in a sextet or a militia band, but had always hoped to play someday in a Philharmonic. To this end he sent the seven year-old to a music teacher, local pianist Otto Cossel, who after three years proclaimed that the pupil was worthy of graduating to a better teacher to bring out the genius. Somewhere in this time, the father encouraged the eldest son and able pianist to play for his supper, and that meant this kid in his preadolescence saw things in the dives that no one his age ought, but it is where he began to write music, albeit popular with a pen name. That constant composing instead of learning piano ironically vexed Cossel, who by the time Hannes was eight had sacrificed much, even moving closer to them to oversee him.

Pet Sounds

This favoring of Johannes by the father and his teacher probably contributed much to the occasional prima donna attitude he exhibited when famous. Fritz never did reach the same musical heights as his older brother. In 1843 the father and Cossel arranged for a fund-raising recital, and an American almost convinced the family to go overseas to become a wunderkind like Mozart. However, Cossel argued with great passion (and discernment) that it would ruin him, that he would become greater with more learning. Eduard Marxsen, Cossel's mentor, was recommended, and they asked him to become his teacher. Marxsen, did not see what Cossel did at first hearing, and had to be cajoled repeatedly into taking this new student, and then while still under Cossel. Finally, again, Cossel entreated Marxsen to become his only teacher.


.... sublime, true, and eternally incorruptible in art ....--Eduard Marxsen

Marxsen hammered home the essentials of harmony, theme and variations, while emphasizing finesse on the keyboard. He insistently, consistently infused into Hannes a love of the traditional Masters, not surprising since he had been taught by those who studied under many of them. He had the 14 year-old Hannes play in a successful recital of six pieces that along with a Bach Fugue included Marxsen's "Serenade (for left hand)", but more significantly, an original by Johannes, Variations on a Folk-song. One biographer aptly wrote:

It is notable that thus early he manifested two of the characteristics that frequently appeared in his compositions to the end: one was his appreciation of the folk-song as the very basis of national music; the other was his liking for "Variations," --a genre which he restored to its legitimate use and made particularly his own.3

A weak point of Marxsen's mentoring was simply that he did not introducing other instruments other than piano, and this would tell somewhat in Johannes' development later. They shared an obsession on the latter part of J.S. Bach's idea of music as "an art and a science."

Paying Gigs

It's the honky tonk women
Gimme, gimme, gimme the honky tonk blues.

As the young man showed he had talent, he was "drafted" to help the family's fortunes (more accurately, lack of...) and play for his supper (and the rest of the hungry mouths at home.) Those rowdy taverns became his second home, and the prepubescent boy was playing the "pop" songs of the day, while in the lokale the St. Pauli girls served, food and drink, and desserts upstairs. This atmosphere profoundly affected the young Hannes. Some songs he wrote for this and other crowds he did under his pen-name G.W Marks of whose works only Souvenir de la Russie were spared the self-purge. Fortunately his father saw the detriment in this gig, and got him out to Wissen in the country to regain health, that he worked on maintaining the rest of his life. In 1848, Brahms heard the 17 year-old prodigy on violin, Leipzig professor Josef Joachim playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto. This would be one of several events smacking of premonitions. It would be the year of his first official public performance as a solo pianist.

Hungarian Rhapsody

The gypsy cried, she cried, I, yi, yi, yi, yi, eh hi'd.

Gypsy, oh tell me, what is in your crystal ball?
Gypsy, oh tell me, will my tears fall?
--Lou Christie

In 1849 in the midst of what some might call degradation, an up-note happened; he met someone, after one of his concerts in Hamburg, who could really take his love of Hungarian music to a new high, it was violinist Eduard Reményi. By the next year he was accompanying him on piano. If he was not already enamored with the Hungarian music of his partner, after a stop in Winsen he heard more czardas and others of the alla Zingarese (in Gypsy style). Brahms never did comment on the political aspect of Hungarian freedom from Austria. Later, Reményi would accuse Brahms of borrowing a little too heavily from him. Another noteworthy date was March 1850 when Clara and Robert Schumann came to town to play, and the young man sent some of his compositions to Robert; could they been some of the ones he wrote under his other pseudonym, Karl Würth, or Werther? In another couple of years he would sign Joh. Kriesler, Jr. to some of his youthful exuberant Romantic pieces. Some of these earlier ones would become kindling.


I gave a letter to the postman,
he put it in his sack.
But'n early next morning,
he brought my letter back.
She wrote upon it:

Return to sender, address unknown.
No such number, no such zone.

At this time, destiny with the Schumanns was delayed as Robert did not have time to critique some unknown rookie's scribblings and returned the package. When Eduard had to exile to Paris and America in 1851 due to his nationalistic radicalism, Brahms devoted much time to writing. Included among several songs, were his Opus 1, the C Major Piano Sonata. By fall of 1852 he published his Opus 2 as Johannes Brahms, and his first sonata, the F# Minor. Meanwhile Brahms was not sure if he wanted to make a living as a virtuoso, and knew how difficult it was to be a composer. However his business and professional friend, Eduard (a.k.a. Hoffmann) Reményi returned before the end of the year to arrange and get them playing on the road. While winter trapped most everyone inside -- until the thaw, there were still buds of creativity popping up, as Brahms (Kreisler) finished movements for the C Major Piano Sonata and (Opus 5), F Minor Piano Sonata. Beautiful early blooms for a 19 year-old with a total of six first six Opus endeavors.

Spring Blossoming

On the road again.
Just can't wait to get on the road again.
The life I love is making music with my friends
And I cant wait to get on the road again.

On the road again.
Goin' places that I've never been,
Seein' things that I may never see again,
And I can't wait to get on the road again.

On the road again,
Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway,
We're the best of friends.
Insisting that the world keep turning our way.
And our way, is on the road again.
Just cannot wait to get on the road again.
The life I love is making music with my friends,
And I cant wait to get on the road again.
--Willie Nelson

The spring of 1853 the duo was ready to embark on an extensive tour. They left from Hamburg as 19 year-old Hannes, and, this was the time when he dropped the 't' from his name, received his blessing from his family to leave home for a while. If they had delayed by even an half hour, the police who showed up soon after they left would have arrested the 23 year-old Hungarian Nationalist Reményi. On this expedition, he saw the Black Forest, perhaps a catalyst to his yearly rural sojourns.

Destiny Awaits in Göttingen

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog,
And I feel to be a cog in something turning.
Well maybe it is just the time of year,
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who l am;
But you know life is for learning.

We are stardust.
We are golden.
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.
--Joni Mitchell
On tour, Reményi was having fun with Brahms, the latter especially enjoying new sights and one who was learning much of the "Hungarian" style. Nearing Hanover reminded Eduard that they could see fellow Jewish violinist, virtuoso, and student from the Magyar homeland. They had probably heard that Josef Joachim had played in the Lower Rhine Festival Eduard with accolades. It was just like before: he had done the same masterful interpretation of Beethoven's Violin Concerto witnessed by Brahms in Hamburg five years earlier.

Joachim, once a 17 year-old violin professor at the Leipzig Conservatory, had left the Weimar and Liszt's theatrics and groupies to become concertmaster at Hanover just the year before. It was not too many weeks after leaving Düsseldorf; that he was visited by his old school chum, Joachim. He had with him someone Eduard introduced as a pianist and composer, a young, blond, baby-faced Hannes. Invited to play, Joachim was wowed by the youthful exuberance and budding talent. They instantly bonded on a musical and friendship level that was to last a lifetime, albeit the camaraderie had many valleys and peaks visited with clouds, and thunder, but included so many bright open spaces of sunshine. Another phenomenon of the day was the young Brahms transposing Beethoven's Kruetzer Sonata from A to B flat on a piano a half tone off! Marxsen's detailed mentoring in the long haul shone forth.

Royal B

I will be king.
And you:
You will be queen.
Though nothing--
Will drive them away.
We can beat them,
Just for one day.
We can be Heroes,
Just for one day.
--David Bowie

As June arrived, so would Johannes at the court of King George V. His E flat Minor Scherzo motivated the blind, but musically astute, monarch to declare that he had heard a little Beethoven. Because Reményi was wanted for his part in the Hungarian Uprising of 1848, and the Hanover chief of police grilled him, they had to leave town. They left, however, with an advance introduction from Joachim to someone they had fail to impress before, another Hungarian --- Liszt in Weimar. Pulling Johannes aside, Joachim hinted that if more (and likely) legal problems occurred with Reményi, he could always return to Göttingen.

Making the 'A' Liszt

Liszt, born in 1811, had been Kappellmeister of Saxe-Weimar since 1848, and had used his time to develop his piano virtuosity, expand his repertoire of compositions, and push his New German School. Hector Berlioz was the Patriarch for that branch to which Wagner also belonged. One in which they strive for a combined art that included drama, poetry and graphic with music. Way ahead of Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Message. (Or Massage as some have put it.)

It was lucky for Brahms that Liszt was not holding ill will towards the defector, Joachim, who had sent a letter to him when Reményi and Brahms arrived June 12, 1853 at his mansion. It was a court within a Court, in Weimar which already had other guests. This affected life-style did not go over well with the simpler tastes of North German Johannes.

Sing us a song, you're the piano man,
Sing us a song tonight.
Well, we're all in the mood for a melody,
And you've got us feelin' alright.
--Billy Joel

Bramhs was asked to play one of his compositions he had brought, his shyness prevailed, not helped by his considering Liszt's prowess ticklin' those ivories. Liszt, seating himself at his beautiful piano, played it without hesitation, as he could sight read anything put before him effortlessly. Even the visiting lad's hen-scratched manuscript of his E flat Minor Scherzo was no problem. Liszt praised the piece while guest Joachim Raff noted its similarity to Chopin's B flat Minor Scherzo, which Brahms denied ever hearing. (This claim of plagiarism from other critics about other pieces' passages would return at a later time in his career). Then, Liszt played his rather long and tedious B minor Sonata, which could be argued is not really that form, and though Brahms appreciated his playing, the music seeking to overly evoke feelings only inspired negative ones in that regard. There seemed to be insult to injury of the apparent impudence of this boy who nodded off when the master was looking to see how he reacted to a particularly dramatic segment.. Maybe in reality he was just tired from the journey. The retaliation actually only came to fruition some years later after Brahms took sides with the anti-Wagnerians. Nevertheless, Liszt indeed left the room in a huff after finishing playing, Johannes was politely bid adieu when they left, and he was even bestowed a cigarette box as a gift. However, later, Liszt kept a lifelong promise never to play a Brahm's piece again.

Beginning of Serious Career Rise

Life with Goethe's Solo-Fiddler

The devil went down to Georgia,
He was lookin' for a soul to steal.
He was in a bind,
'Cause he was way behind,
And he was willin' to make a deal.

When he came across this young man,
Sawin' on a fiddle and playin' it hot.
And the devil jumped up on a hickory stump
And said boy let me tell you what.

I guess you didn't know it,
but I'm a fiddle player too,
And if you care to take a dare I'll make a bet with you.

Now you play a pretty good fiddle, boy,
But give the devil his due.
I'll bet a fiddle of gold
Against your soul,
'Cause I think I'm better than you!
--Charlie Daniels

This summer of 1853, while Brahms was in Göttingen and estranged from Reményi, (who had thrown his lot in with Liszt and his camp), the young composer was learning a lot with his new, but close friend, Joachim. The violinist had the working orchestral knowledge that would prove invaluable when Brahms would need it for symphonic pieces. Johannes even wrote piano parts for his partner's work, and learned other esoteric things from the student hang-outs nearby. (And some of these pieces he wrote were "jokes" that were worthy of only becoming tinder.) At first concerned that Johannes fortunes were now with Joachim instead of Remenyi, his parents eventually were convinced that things were only going to look up from here.

Down an Un-lazy River

Some people got it and make it pay.
Some people can't even give it away.
This people's got it,
And this people's spreadin' it around!
You either have it
Or you've had it!

Why did I do it?
What did it get me?
Scrapbooks full of me in the background.
Give 'em love and what does it get ya?
What does it get ya?
One quick look as each of 'em leaves you.
All your life and what does it get ya?
Thanks a lot and out with the garbage,
They take bows and you're battin' zero.

I had a dream.
I dreamed it for you.
--Stephen Sondheim

Joachim and Johannes had played some paying engagements and the latter by summer's end had saved some money to do a bit of hiking (the budget tour) and exploring down the Rhine River. It was a romantic journey in the purist sense, and a crossroads crossing that would change him forever. Joachim reminded him, he could just go up to the Schumann's door and introduce himself on his way through Düsseldorf. He was still in a tiny trepidation after the earlier rebuff, but after stopping in Bonn at one of Schumann's concertmasters, J.W. von Wasielewski, (and repeating his fears) he got more than encouragement. (Though at this time he was learning that perseverance paid off.) This violinist, composer and choir director provided a letter of introduction for not only the arts patronage Deichmann family in nearby Mehlem, but for their friend, Robert Schumann.

He stayed a while at the Deichman's estate, where he began writing his final, but superior piano Sonata in F minor and a manuscript of quips called "Beautiful Thoughts on Music." More significantly, he was able to read and play a few of Schumann's pieces and developed more appreciation than he had before. And he discovered some kind of prophetic synchronicity when one was titled Kreisleriana: the same name he borrowed for a pen-name from writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Before getting on the train to Düsseldorf, he hiked to Cologne where he met a couple of conductors, Carl Reinecke, and Schumann's predecessor as music director, and composer, Ferdinand Hiller. And summer was turning to Fall, a re-freshing was in the air in more than the weather.

Shoo-in For Schumann

Don't you know that you are a shooting star?
And everyone will love you,
Just as long as you are.
--Paul Rodgers
It was only three years earlier, in 1850, that Robert Schumann divorced himself from the flamboyant Romantic style of the New German music. He had his big fight with Liszt in 1848, culminated because of disrespect of the music as found in his some of the numerous essays. In its earlier stages he was instrumental in its musical search for a "new poetic era" establishing the journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musick. However, after the publication was sold to Franz Brendel, Berlioz, Liszt and others swerved off the original declaration:
To be re-mindful of older times and their works and to emphasize that only from a pure source can new artistic beauties be fostered; at the same time to oppose the trends of the more recent past, proceeding from mere virtuosity, and, finally to prepare the way for, and to hasten, the acceptance of a new poetic era.4

Since 1834, Schumann had been almost John the Baptist-like in declaring there would come a future superstar. The last two decades Schumann had befriended, (some intimately?) tutored, and promoted several young candidates for this quest; but something was just over the horizon. However, Robert Schumann would pay a high mental and emotional price, an aftermath to his dabbling in the occult.

Keep a' Knockin'
but you can't come in.
Keep a' Knockin',
come back tomorrow night and try it again.
--"Little" Richard Penniman

On almost the last day of September, Hannes finally made it to the Schumann's front door, and surely there were a flurry of feelings going through the young man's head as he pulled the door bell. But anti-climatically, it was daughter Marie who answered and (after admiring the boy with the knapsack) told him to come back a bit earlier on the morrow, as her parents were out just like they were always after twelve noon. This was no surprise to Robert Schumann, when he found out Brahms had stopped by, Joachim had already alerted him.

The next morning it was a robe and slipper 43 year-old Robert who was taken aback as he opened his door for the blonde boy with the piercing eyes awkwardly blinking in his uniquely coy way. It would not matter that Robert's lagging conversational skills of late would cause any problems with Hannes, they went straightaway to the little music room. Before he could get too far in his C Major Piano Sonata, he was told to hold up so he could get his famous wife, Clara.

Robert Schumann had been married to Clara since 1840, when she was a piano prodigy, and she still performed but not like before. She came in the room and Brahms was prompted to play the same piece, which Robert could sense was indebted in many ways, (not as a plagiarist), to Beethoven. Putting more of himself into his performance, humming along as he usually did, the Schumann's were awed by this exhibition of musical regimentation married to improvisation. They realized this kid needed more than a piano to express himself. Like it has been said, "That ain't all folks!": when they asked did he have more, he pounded out his F# Minor Sonata and his E flat Minor Scherzo. They could not even find anything that needed improvement. Some other work he played only the flames could tell us.

They were so carried away, they went past their noon-time getaway, but the boy was invited back for the next day's lunch. The young Johannes was as awed by the Schumann's talent, and his incipient shyness nagged him as he left. Joyfully though, that night Robert wrote in his diary the fulfillment:

Visit from Brahms (a genius).

Case of the Missing Lunch Guest

Oh, you were so young, and you were so wild.
I knew you were nobody's innocent child.
That first day I saw you, you really got to me.
I thought I could change you, what good did it do me?
Oh, things got rough and you wouldn't wait,
Now you're tripping back;
But babe, it's too late ....

Where were you when I needed you?
Where were you when I wanted you?
--PF Sloan, Steve Barri

When lunchtime came around and there was no Brahms, Clara was sent on a search and retrieve mission to all the Inns in Düsseldorf. Only when he was escorted back to the Schumann's did Brahms realize how high he had been appraised. A lunch invitation evolved to an invitation for him to become a house guest. This took some cajoling and promises of bringing Joachim.

That fall Brahms learned much from the library and Clara and Schumann's piano playing, but even more importantly these people became what Marxsen and Reményi did not, friends bordering on family. When Johannes played his Opus 6, Carnaval for a parlor gathering, it was received with the same glee as its name-sake. Jean-Joseph Laurens came over that extraordinary October and did drawings of Brahms, and Schumann, the latter's increasing mental illness exuding out of his face captured for posterity.

Extra, Extra, Read All About Him!

I'm free to do what I want, Any ol' time. --Rolling Stones

Robert Schumann was so excited by what he heard from Brahms he gushed it all out in his journal, Zeitschrift für Musik. And, finally in October Joachim arrived after a visit with Liszt and Wagner, his differences with them further reinforced. Joachim finally arrived at the the end of the month famous for Oktoberfest, (and had brought his future wife that never did not like Johannes, Gisela von Arnim.) Joachim was to play the violin part for Schumann's specially written (and had parts written by Brahms and nearby musician friend, Albert Dietrich) F-A-E Sonata (Free but Lonely, Frei Aber Einsam) for a big concert with an orchestra. Joachim, when he saw the score, knew first-hand who wrote which part. This alphabetical symbolism, or acronyms was Gnostic for Schumann, and Freudian for Brahms when he also incorporated it.5 At this grand show, however, the incipient madness that would envelope Robert for the next year displayed itself disastrously when he seemed to lose himself, during it, and Joachim had to take over.

Nowhere to Go but Up

Up, up, and away,
In my beautiful,
My beautiful balloon.
--Fifth Dimension

With this boost from this famous couple, both of whom you could almost say adopted the affable Hannes, he was able to write some of his early esteemed music. Opus 10 and variations on Schumann. He was somewhat pressured by Robert's prompting of how he should be writing orchestral pieces; and writing his first symphony would take agonizing years. He also began to bond exponentially closer with Clara, (wrote a piece called "Clara's Theme), with mixed feelings as he loved Robert, as well, who's mental health declined rapidly, with a denouement in 1854. February he had jumped off the bridge into the Rhine, and then deteriorated in asylum until he died there in July 1856. Johannes used to play for the delusional Robert, bringing comfort just like the Israeli King-to-be, David, did for King Saul. After enduring this, at twenty-three, Johannes was purged of youthfulness. Though they could never marry for many complicated reasons, in spite of the simple reason they should, Brahms stayed friends with her for life, and secretly supported her and her family (as he did his mother, father, brother and sisters.)

Publish or Perish

One significant connection Brahms received from Schumann was introduction to the two biggest music publishing houses n Germany. In 1854 people could get their hands on his three piano sonatas, his "Scherzo," sixteen variations of Schumann's Bunte Blätter, (that was found on his desk -- dedicated to daughter Julie), and eighteen songs. These songs were a harbinger of his penning at least two hundred more.

It's a Family Affair

School's out for summer.
School's out forever!
--Alice Cooper

After 1854, Brahms had also decided to take a tutoring position for the Prince Lippe-Detmold family, instead of the Cologne Conservatory. He now would be able to have the summer free to hike around the countryside. He wrote his first orchestral pieces, Concerto No. I in D-minor as well as two serenades. That Concerto, considered at the time way too austere, contains thoughtful passages that turn to rage written in youthful exhuberance, was a direct result of Robert's death. The second movement has this inscription, "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Dei." He stayed here for several years then he returned to Hamburg, where he played several concerts there, Hanover and 1859 he performed his piano concerto in Leipzig at the Gewandhaus to, again, not the most enthusiastic audiences. His Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello was played in New York City the next year. Around this time he wrote the famous Ave Maria, and Funeral Hymn continuing his forte with the human voice better than the preceding two 'B's.

Love Is In the Air

When you get caught between the Moon and New York City,
I know it's crazy, but it's true,
If you get caught between the Moon and New York City,
The best that you can do,
The best that you can do:
Is fall in love.
--Christopher Cross

Now, we have already discussed the love between Clara and Johannes, but what about other women? Right after Robert died, Brahms did take a liking to a Fraulein Agathe von Seibold, a Gottingen professor's child, but when it got time to put up or shut up, he wrote a "Dear Joan" letter in the form of a musical sextet. He could of had engagements with some other ladies who sang in his choruses, but, as we know the closer he came, the more he backed away. He supposedly found safe friendships where the lights shone rouge.


The Singing Sixties

The most beautiful sound I've ever heard,
Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria.

Maria ---- say it loud and there's music playing,
Say it soft and it's almost like praying.
--Stephen Sondheim

Brahms now was on a roll, with a set of influential friends helping, and adamant in spite of some way less than enthusiastic audiences in some concert-halls, he was in a period of creativity. He wrote more songs: Ave Maria, Funeral Hymn, and Part-songs for Four Female Voices (Opus 17). One of the songs was inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and another was Ossian's Fingal.. The latter written during the winter of 1860 near Swiss organist Theodor Kirschner's home in Winterthur. His promotion led to successful concerts in Switzerland including Basle and Zürich.

The hills are alive with the sound of music,
With songs they have sung for a thousand years.
The hills fill my heart with the sound of music,
My heart wants to sing every song it hears.

I go to the hills when my heart is lonely,
I know I will hear what I've heard before.
My heart will be blessed with the sound of music,
And I'll sing once more.
--Oscar Hammerstein

While sojourning the summer of '62 near Frau Schumann in mountainous Münsteram-Stein he put Ludwig Tieck's words to music in Schöne Magelone Songs, but more importantly, he was working on his First Symphony, a project that would not be finished this decade. He spent much time with his friend Dietrich, who chronicled much of Brahms' strange manner of socializing. It was 1862 that he was A major triumph was when he was recalled to the stage for an encore in Carlsruche. And he had his orchestral piece without strings, Second Serenade in A debuting in New York City.

In November he had played in Vienna, not too long after he was unhappily rejected from heading the Hamburg Philharmonic Society, and he had not made a big impression yet with his G-minor Quartet (Opus 25). This overlook made him decide to choose Vienna as his home, living in the Karlsgasse for scores of years, though these Austrians enjoyed his piano playing more in the beginning. His introduction of his Gypsy folk music offended their love of classical Beethoven and Schubert, whom ironically Brahms would be the foremost proponent. That is why when a week later his Serenade in A, and Opus 26, Quartet in A-major appealed to the Austrian capital's taste.

Winter, spring, summer or fall,
All you gotta do is just call;
And, I'll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah:
You've got a friend.
--Carol King

By Christmas of that year his friend Dietrich was Court Kapellmeister in Oldenburg, which gave him opportunites to play his pieces, like Concerto and Trio for Piano, Violin, and Waldhorn in E-flat (Opus 40), along with his variations of Händel and others' work. He also met some ladies at the Dietrich's who, of course, were fated to do no more than cross paths, as he still made sure that he had summers near Clara. Also later this month, in his new hometown of Vienna, those earlier critics' views turned a 180, when Opus 18, Sextet for Strings in B-flat was played by the Hellmesberger organization. Julius Epstein had introduced Brahms to Joseph Hellmesberger, head of the Vienna Philharmonic, who gushed that the chamber music rivaled Beethoven, was "his heir," and this time they appreciated the Gypsy elements.

By the next summer, he had become Chorusmaster at the Singakademie but after two years left to devote more time to composing. However, his financial lack did not prevent him from traveling (he would walk) and helping his friends and family. He sent aid to his kin until the death of his mother in 1866 (for whom he wrote German Requiem on scrap paper in his poverty), his brother until 1886, and to his estranged sister in 1892.

In 1867 he lived for a short time in Styria and Gartwein. He rehearsed the Gratz Choral Society, and was his rude critical self with Richard Heuberger and Herman Goetz, the latter dying of tuberculosis a decade later. Brahms attended his posthumous last opera, The Taming of the Shrew, only too late ready to give it accolades. When he gave a sneak preview that December of his German Requiem, the critics were not as kind to him for not using Latin as they were to Mendelssohn and Händel. But Karl Reinthaler, his father and Clara attended the full version for the Good Friday in 1868, and it was recognized as on of the superlative choral works placing him with those famous other two "B's". That year he made Vienna his official home.

The Sizzling Seventies

Rendezvous on Champs-Elysees,
Leave Paris in the morning on T.E.E.,
Trans-Europe Express.
(repeat 3X)

In Vienna we sit in a late-night cafe,
Straight connection, T.E.E.,
Trans-Europe Express.
(repeat 3X)

From station to station,
back to Dusseldorf City:
Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie,
Trans-Europe Express.
(repeat 3X)
--Edward Bunker -- Kraftwerk

In 1871 Brahm's musical rejoicing over Germany's military defeat of France, the Triumphlied was played completely at the Düsseldorf Music Festival. It had three big choruses, and ended with a booming "Hallelujah" one. By 1873, Brahm's German Requiem had been heard throughout Europe, and when it was played in Vienna in 1875 after some excerpts of Wagner's Ring, he had to downplay any semblance of cooperation with his perceived nemesis. (Brahms did like some of Wagner's music except for what he called those "interminable duets." His Variations on a Theme by Haydn, his first orchestral piece, was well received in his hometown and probably inspired him to get working on his symphony in earnest. He followed this with another long piece, the popular Song of Fate, influenced by the Schickalslied and Hödrlin's poems. The latter's life paralleled his old mentor, Robert Schumann's. This is probably the time that Brahms, who still was beardless, but was known for his piercing gaze, and jutting chin and shoulders while playing, began editing the story of his life for perpetuity by immolation. (This was exponentially done in 1990.)

He was appointed the Director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in September, 1872, the same year his father, Jakob died. He spent his summer of 1874 in several cities and towns, Rüschlikon, Ziegalhausen, Sassnitz, Hamburg, and Lictenthal, and makes acquaintance with Max Kalbek. He would go to the same locations during the following two summers. Some years before he left the Society in the summer of 1875, he was awarded the Maximilian Order of Arts and Sciences by the King of Bavaria. He could not wait until the long-winded speeches including poetry were finished to get to the feast that finished the event. He wrote his Concerto in D-major with much help from Joseph Joachim, though a few practically impossible passages made Hans von Bülow declare it was a concerto not for the violin, but against it.

By 1876 he was hob-nobbing with the elite. After giving one of his concerts in Wiesbaden, he had supper with Princess von Hesse-Barchfeld and was presented with a black jeweled box with silver laurel-wreath leaves with of all his works engraved upon it. The Duke and Duchess of Meiningen's invitation caused him to trade his frumpy clothes for medal-decorated dress ones. Though he would usually down-play his achievements publicly, the Countess Potochka said he loved his "decorations." But, in reality, Brahms had overcome his insecurities, and like Freidrich Nietzsche said, "Brahms is never more touching than when he sings of his own importance." 6

But of his work habits, Brahms confessed,
One can never hope to reach the level of giants such as Bach and Beethoven; one can only work conscientiously in one's own field.7
This time he was also working on his Hungarian Dances, and how happy he was when in Italy on one of his travels there, a gypsy band played his music. The summer of 1876 was spent on the Baltic island of Rügen with Georg Henschel, and he braved the frigid waters looking for stuff in Davey Jones' Locker.

When he returned that fall, his First Symphony, C-minor was presented from manuscript. He had followed his own advice given out to others: keep going over a work until it is a complete aesthetic whole, neither a note too much or too little, letting it rest when inspiration fails. The problem from this method could be in overworking a piece that might have been fresh in its incipience. It might even become stagnant from sitting in-between working on it. He felt that perfection was more important than beauty. Most of the time Brahm's philosophy resulted in masterpieces, although some are mainly ponderous. This work was sometimes called Beethoven's Tenth Symphony.

England swings like a pendulum do,
Bobbies on bicycles, two by two,
Westminster Abbey, the tower of Big Ben,
The rosy red cheeks of the little children.

Now, if you huff and puff and you fina'lly save enough
Money up to take your family on a trip across the sea,
Take a tip before you take your trip; let me tell you where to go,
Go to Eng-uh-land, Oh;

Mama's old pajamas and your papa's mustache,
Falling out the window sill, frolic in the grass,
Tryin' to mock the way they talk fun but all in vain,
Gaping at the dapper men with derby hats and canes.
--Roger Miller

1877 was a big year, he was invited to the University of Cambridge in England to receive a Doctor of Music degree after turning in a new work as a thesis. He sent his First Symphony with the request that he not have to be present (he never did travel abroad), and against tradition, they awarded it to him. In Great Britain that work is known as the Cambridge Symphony. This piece has been described as Johannes' yearning, somewhat angst-filled work. The organist of Trinity College directed it, along with Brahm's Schickalslied. He was also able to finish a Second Symphony, D-major ten times faster than the first! In contrast to that premiere endeavor, this work, performed on Christmas Eve in Vienna and directed by Richter, was satisfied, tranquil and pastoral. This year, too, he replaced the tailor's son, now Director of the Imperial Opera, Johann Franz von Herbeck as Commissioner of the Ministry of Education. In this position he enabled Antonin Dvorák to get a good start.

During 1878 he received a Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of Breslau after turning in his Academic Festival with it's opposing themes of "Tragic" and "Gaideamus." These works were enthusiastically welcomed in London as promoted by multi-performances by such conductors as August Manns with the Crystal Palace Orchestra.

Finishing the Score with a Flourish

I880 marked the special memorial service for Robert Schumann, and before heading for Bad Ischl for the summer he managed to spend some time with Clara. In 1881 he was offered the Conductor-ship of the London Philharmonic Society, but alas, his fear of overseas travel precluded that gig. In February of that year, he was able to use the Meinigen Court Orchestra with which to rehearse. He spent the some of the winter of 1881 in Berlin, and made it back to Vienna until the summers in Bad Ischl. He met Hermine Spies during the summer of 1883 in Wisbaden, but the next year he was jumping from Meinigen to Mürzzuschlag for his vacation. In a couple of years he finished his Third Symphony, F-major and directed it successfully, not only in his hometown, but also in Leipzig. It spread across the Continent and beyond. By 1885 his last Fourth Symphony, E-minor, after many rehearsals, an epic which had thirty variations, was directed by Hans von Bülow and himself, patriarchal beard included, in Meiningen. Like many of his last works it had a end of year sadness, likely after his delving into Sopochles' Oedipus

In 1886 he was honored along with Giuseppi Verdi as a Knight of the Order Pour le Mérite by the Emperor of Germany. He began spending the next couple of summers on Lake Thun in Hofstetten, which in 1887 was interrupted by a visit to Clara in Frankfort. That year his dear old teacher, Edward Marxsen died. His accolades were not finished, he was inducted as a member of the Berlin Academy of Arts. But in 1889, he became the first civilian to ever receive the Order of Saint Leopold from the Emperor of Austria. Perhaps that year's award from his birthplace of Hamburg meant even more, "Freeman of the City." From now on, he would only go to Bad Ischl in the summers.

I woke up and found
No one beside me.
No hand to hold onto,
And no lips to guide me.
What a hard world to face,
In the light of an angry sun.
Ain't it hard to get on,
If you ain't got that someone.

And it seems that my days are numbered,
Down to a precious few.
People I know that:
My days are numbered...
...'Cause I can't get it back together...
Without you.

I see the heaven moonlight,
See it drippin' down my window,
Flowing like a river,
Through the tears that I have cried.
I gotta find myself, hey:
A reason to go on living
But you can't breathe life into somethin'
That's already died!
--Al Kooper

The "Gay Nineties" actually was a time of tragedy for Brahms, maybe what he could have called the "Nein Nineties" except for his sixtieth birthday, where he escaped to Italy to avoid the elaborate party planned. He did, accept the gold medal specially made for him then. This decade saw the death of sister Elise, brother Fritz, Hermine Spies, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, Billroth and finally, and most devastatingly, his beloved Clara Schumann.8 However during this last decade he wrote twenty fine pieces with a scope from all sizes and emotions. It is wondered why he never wrote an opera, but during his peak he was busy with the other orchestral and choral productions. However he was not idle, in 1891 he was rehearsing his Clarinet Trio and Quintet and got electric lights in his room. The next year he did his Opus 116 and 117, the Seven Fantasias and Three Intermezzos respectively. In January of 1896 he conducted his two piano concertos, the last time he would grace the stage this way.

Finale (adagio)

Not too long after Clara's death, he was diagnosed with incurable liver cancer. He went steadily downhill, the worst time being during March of 1897 where he lay dying in his room, cared for by Frau Truxa. The night of April second he had to have a shot of morphine, and the next morning he had his last glass of wine given to him by Artur Faber, to whom Brahms exclaimed feebly, "Oh, that tasted fine. You're a kind man." Some hours later she came back in and Brahms tried to sit up, but then slumped back down with a tear down his face and he stopped breathing.




  • 1 Dole, Nathan Haskell, Famous Composers (Crowell, 1925) p. 569 {Widmann's letters from Brahms.}
  • 2 ibid., p. 562.
  • 3 ibid., p. 549.
  • 4 Schumann, Robert. Schumann on Music. Trans. ed. Henry Pleasants. NY: Dover, 1965. p. 28, quoted in Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms (NY: Knopf, 1997) p. 83.
  • 5 Brahms, when a teen, wrote a piece (while Kriesler) with the scheme K-A-F-F-E: based on his teacher Marxsen's favorite beverage, coffee. J.S. Bach was known for this, too. And Brahms used it later on several times, one notable one was his farewell piece to a failed love, A-G-A-D-H-E, (for Agathe) in 1864.
  • 6 Dole, N. H., Famous Composers p. 563.
  • 7 ibid., p. 564.
  • 8 See Gone in Sixty Seconds 2005 - Theatre Quest Entries ("Brahm's Midnight Train")




  • Cross, Milton, David Ewen, Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and Their Music, Garden City: Doubleday, 1962.

  • Swafford, Jan, Johannes Brahms: A Biography, New York: Alford A. Knoph, 1997.

  • Dole, Nathan Haskell, Famous Composers, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1925

  • Smith, Jane Stuart, Betty Carlson, The Gift of Music: Great Composers and Their Influence, Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1995.

  • (timeline).
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