Learn about Johannes Brahms, including personal information and musical highlights
Nearly two centuries ago, on May 7, 1833, a famous composer was born: Johannes Brahms! Today, Brahms is lovingly referred to by musicians as one of the “Three B’s” – the other two being Bach and Beethoven. In many ways, Brahms was musically a traditionalist who looked ahead to the future. His compositions invigorated the Romantic movement in music by taking classical and baroque musical forms – like sonata form and fugues – and using these rules of structure to explore new harmonies.
You might recognize this little gem of his, lovingly nicknamed the “Brahms Lullaby:”
Who was Johannes Brahms? What was he like as a person? How did he influence music? Let’s find out!
Who was Johannes Brahms?
Johannes Brahms was born in 1833 in Hamburg, Germany, to a very poor family. Much like Beethoven, he began working as a professional musician as a teenager. A child prodigy, Brahms played cello and violin as well as piano, and was giving concert performances and tours at a fairly early age. The concert tours he took of the Austro-Hungarian empire exposed him to folk music, which was instrumental in the creation of his volumes of Hungarian Dances.
Brahms was not an instant success as a composer, despite his early start; he wrote his first piano compositions at age 12! He worked painstakingly hard on his pieces, often taking years to complete them, and was an unrelenting perfectionist. Brahms would not release a piece of music unless he felt it was absolutely perfect, destroying pieces that fell short of his expectations. Like many other composers, he worked other jobs, variously working as a conductor and an educator. As a conductor at a school, Brahms worked at the Wiener Singakademie. He also directed concert series that worked to explore previous works by composers like Beethoven, Schubert, Bach and more. This work inspired his retrospective focus on history and informed his emphasis on structure and counterpoint in his compositions.
Today, we hear Johannes Brahms’ music as lyrical and elegant. He was devoted to the concept of music as high art. Because of Brahms’ focus on the structures past composers like Haydn and Beethoven used in their works, he was considered more “conservative” than other composers of his time. His pieces are also virtuosic; as an expert pianist, his mastery of the instrument is reflected in the difficulty level. In this Piano Concerto, you can see the expertise required to succeed at playing the piece! Brahms’ music reflects an emphasis on counterpoint, because of his study of Bach. In counterpoint, the emphasis is on making multiple melodic lines, or voices, that move independently and complement one another. It is a technique that originated in the 16th century and can be seen in Bach’s fugues as well. These beautiful contrapuntal textures are a hallmark of Brahms’ orchestra and choral compositions. You can hear the ways multiple melodies weave together in his masterpiece for chorus, orchestra, and soloists – Ein Deutsches Requiem. Listen to try to find the ways the voices and orchestra move up and down independently of each other.
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The Friendship of a Lifetime: Clara Schumann
One of his big breaks as a composer was in making friends with Robert and Clara Schumann at age 20 – a power couple in the 19th century music scene. Robert Schumann was a composer and prominent piano teacher who published a music magazine. He wrote an article about Brahms’ music that helped launch the young composer into fame. The Schumanns also connected Johannes Brahms to publishers, in order to publish his first pieces.
Clara Wieck Schumann made a lasting impact on Brahms’ life both musically and personally. She was a famous concert pianist of the 19th century – one of the first to gain fame primarily as a performer – and she was married to Robert Schumann. Johannes Brahms wrote much of his piano music with her in mind, and she in turn premiered many of his piano works. He turned to her for advice on everything from music to finances. It’s said that the second movement of his Piano Concerto in D Minor was written as a love song to her! When Robert Schumann became ill, Brahms spent two years helping Clara with housekeeping, childcare, and even rearranging her library.
The Man Behind the Music
Johannes Brahms was a child at heart. He kept playing with tin soldiers until his twenties, and always carried around candy to give to neighborhood children on his walks. He adored merry-go-rounds and circuses and loved the great outdoors. Brahms was a bit shy, but made friends easily and had a good sense of humor. However, not everyone liked him! Some other 19th century composers, like Tchaikovsky and Wagner, were not his biggest fans. They had different opinions about how music should be written, and their personalities often clashed. Brahms was a man of simple tastes, dressing for comfort rather than style. However, if there were two things he was serious about, it was food and music! The most expensive things he owned were original music manuscripts by Mozart and other composers he admired. He loved food, though his table manners weren’t the best!
More Compositions by Johannes Brahms
- The famous “Brahms Lullaby” is known as “Wiegenlied” in German. Originally written for piano and voice, it is often played on the violin as well. Brahms wrote it for a friend named Bertha Faber when she had her second child.
- Brahms’ First Symphony is sometimes called “Beethoven’s Tenth.” One of the themes in the final movement even sounds a bit like Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. It took him 22 years to complete!
- Brahms loved Hungarian folk music. He wrote a set of 21 Hungarian Dances for piano four-hands (a style of duet where two people play on one piano), which he later arranged for orchestra.
Johannes Brahms is less well known outside of the Classical music community, but he’s a favorite among many music students. Most of Brahms’ piano music is fairly advanced, though easier arrangements of some famous melodies are available. Try the piano arrangement of his Lullaby in Playtime Piano Classics from Hal Leonard!
Learn about other famous composers on our blog!