On May 7, 1833, a famous composer was born: Johannes Brahms! 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 Brahms?
Johannes Brahms was a German composer and pianist of the 19th century “Romantic” Era. He was born in 1833 in Hamburg, Germany, to a very poor family. Much like Beethoven, he began working as a professional musician in his teens and spent most of his career in Vienna, Austria. Brahms was not an instant success as a composer. 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. He often destroyed manuscripts he wasn’t happy with.
The Friendship of a Lifetime: Clara Schumann
One of his big breaks as a composer was in making friends with the Schumann family. 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. However, it was Robert’s wife, Clara Wieck Schumann, who 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. 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
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!
The Music: Some Highlights
- 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 “gypsy” music and 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.
- As popular as Brahms still is today, he was often seen as “old-fashioned” in the 19th century music world.
Brahms is less well known outside of the Classical music community, but he’s a favorite among many music students. Most of his 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!