1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Brahms, Johannes
BRAHMS, JOHANNES (1833 – 1897), German composer, was born in Hamburg on the 7th of May 1833. He was the son of a double-bass player in the Hamburg city theatre and received his first musical instruction from his father. After some lessons from O. Cossel, he went to Cossel’s master, Eduard Marxsen of Altona, whose experience and artistic taste directed the young man’s genius into the highest paths. A couple of public appearances as a pianist were hardly an interruption to the course of his musical studies, and these were continued nearly up to the time when Brahms accepted an engagement as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist, Remenyi, for a concert tour in 1853. At Göttingen there occurred a famous contretemps which had a most important though indirect influence on the whole after-life of the young player. A piano on which he was to play the “Kreutzer” sonata of Beethoven with Remenyi turned out to be a semitone below the required pitch; and Brahms played the part by heart, transposing it from A to B flat, in such a way that the great violinist, Joachim, who was present and discerned what the feat implied, introduced himself to Brahms, and laid the foundation of a life-long friendship. Joachim gave him introductions to Liszt at Weimar and to Schumann at Düsseldorf; the former hailed him for a time as a member of the advanced party in music, on the strength of his E flat minor scherzo, but the misapprehension was not of long continuance. The introduction to Schumann impelled that master, now drawing near the tragic close of his career, to write the famous article “Neue Bahnen,” in which the young Brahms was proclaimed to be the great composer of the future, “he who was to come.” The critical insight in Schumann’s article is all the more surprising when it is remembered how small was the list of Brahms’s works at the time. A string quartet, the first pianoforte sonata, the scherzo already mentioned, and the earliest group of songs, containing the dramatic “Liebestreu,” are the works which drew forth the warm commendations of Schumann. In December 1853 Brahms gave a concert at Leipzig, as a result of which the firms of Breitkopf & Haertel and of Senff undertook to publish his compositions. In 1854 he was given the post of choir-director and music-master to the prince of Lippe-Detmold, but he resigned it after a few years, going first to Hamburg, and then to Zürich, where he enjoyed the friendship and artistic counsel of Theodor Kirchner. The unfavourable verdict of the Leipzig Gewandhaus audience upon his pianoforte concerto in D minor op. 15, and several remarkably successful appearances in Vienna, where he was appointed director of Ihe Singakademie in 1863, were the most important external events of Brahms’s life, but again he gave up the conductorship after a few months of valuable work, and for about three years had no fixed place of abode. Concert tours with Joachim or Stockhausen were undertaken, and it was not until 1867 that he returned to Vienna, or till 1872 that he chose it definitely as his home, his longest absence from the Austrian capital being between 1874 and 1878, when he lived near Heidelberg. From 1871 to 1874 he conducted the concerts of the “Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde,” but after the later date he occupied no official position of any kind. With the exception of journeys to Italy in the spring, or to Switzerland in the summer, he rarely left Vienna. He refused to come to England to take the honorary degree of Mus.D. offered by the university of Cambridge; the university of Breslau made him Ph.D. in 1881; in 1886 he was created a knight of the Prussian order Pour le mérite, and in 1889 was presented with the freedom of his native city. He died in Vienna on the 3rd of April 1897.
The works of Brahms may be summarized as follows:—Various sacred compositions for chorus, op. 12, 13, 22, 27, 29, 30, 37, leading up to op. 45, the “German Requiem” first performed at Bremen in 1868, and subsequently completed by a soprano solo with chorus; the “Triumphlied” in commemoration of the German victories of 1870–71; and some choral songs and motets, op. 74, 109 and 110. Secular choral works, op. 17, 41, 42, 44, 50 (“Rinaldo” for tenor solo and male choir), 53 (“Rhapsodie,” alto solo and male choir), 54 (“Schicksalslied”), 62, 82 (Schiller’s Nänie), 89 (“Gesang der Parzen”), 93, 104, 113. Concerted vocal-works, op. 20, 28, 31, 52 (“Liebeslieder-Walzer”), 61, 64, 65 (“Neue Liebeslieder”), 75, 92, 103, 112. Solo songs, nearly 300. Orchestral works: four symphonies, op. 68, 73, 90 and 98; two serenades, op. 11 and 16; two pianoforte concertos, op. 15 and 83, one violin concerto, op. 77; concerto for violin and violoncello, op. 102; variations on a theme by Haydn, op. 56; two overtures, “Academische Festouvertüre,” op. 80, and “Tragic Overture,” op. 81. Chamber music: two sextets, op. 18 and 36; quintet, piano and strings, op. 34, strings, op. 88 and 111, clarinet and strings, op. 115; three string quartets, op. 51 and 67, three quartets for piano and strings, op. 25, 26 and 60. Three trios for piano and strings, op. 8, 87 and 101; trio for piano, violin and horn, op. 40; piano, clarinet and violoncello, op. 114. Duet sonatas, three for piano and violin, op. 78, 100 and 108; two for piano and violoncello, op. 38 and 99; two for piano and clarinet, op. 120. Pianoforte solos: three sonatas, op. 1, 2 and 5; scherzo, op. 4; variations, op. 9, 21, 23, 24, 35; 4 ballads, op. 10; waltzes, op. 39; two rhapsodies, op. 79; caprices and intermezzi, op. 76, 116, 117, 118 and 119. 5 studies and 51 Uebungen without opus-number, and a chorale-prelude and fugue for organ, besides four books of Hungarian Dances arranged for pianoforte duet.
Brahms has often been called the last of the great classical masters, in a sense wider than that of his place in the long line of the great composers of Germany. Though only the most superficial observers could deny him the possession of qualities which distinguish the masters of the romantic school, it is as a classicist that he must be ranked among modern musicians. From the beginning of his career until its close, his ideas were clothed by preference in the forms which had sufficed for Beethoven, and the instances in which he departed from structural precedent are so rare that they might be disregarded, were they not of such high value that they must be considered as the signs of a logical development of musical form, and not as indicating a spirit of rebellion against existing modes of structure. His practice, more frequent in later than in earlier life, of welding together the “working-out” and the “recapitulation” sections of his movements in a closer union than any of his predecessors had attempted, is an innovation which cannot fail to have important results in the future; and if the skill of younger writers is not adequate to such a display of ingenuity as occurs in the finale of the fourth symphony, where the “passacaglia” form has been used with an effect that is almost bewildering to the ordinary listener, that at least stands as a monument of inventiveness finely subordinated to the emotional and intellectual purport of the thoughts expressed. His themes are always noble, and even from the point of view of emotional appeal their deep intensity of expression is of a kind which grows upon all who have once been awakened to their beauty, or have been at the pains to grasp the composer's characteristics of utterance. His vocal music, whether for one voice or many, is remarkable for its fidelity to natural inflection and accentuation of the words, and for its perfect reflection of the poet's mood. His songs, vocal quartets and choral works abound in passages that prove him a master of effects of sound; and throughout his chamber music, in his treatment of the piano, of the strings, or of the solo wind instruments he employs, there are numberless examples which sufficiently show the irrelevance of a charge sometimes brought against his music, that it is deficient in a sense of what is called “tone-colour.” It is perfectly true that the mere acoustic effect of a passage was of far less importance to him than its inherent beauty, poetic import, or logical fitness in a definite scheme of development; and that often in his orchestral music the casual hearer receives an impression of complexity rather than of clearness, and is apt to imagine that the “thickness” of instrumentation is the result of clumsiness or carelessness. Such instances as the introduction to the finale of the first symphony, the close of the first movement of the second, what may be called the epilogue of the third, or the whole of the variations on a theme of Haydn, are not only marvels of delicate workmanship in regard to structure, but are instinct with the sense of the peculiar beauty and characteristics of each instrument. The “Academic Festival” overture proves Brahms a master of musical humour, in his treatment of the student songs which serve as its themes; and the companion piece, the “Tragic” overture, reaches a height of sublimity which is in no way lessened because no particular tragedy has ever been named in conjunction with the work.
As with all creative artists of supreme rank, the work of Brahms took a considerable time before it was very generally appreciated. The change in public opinion is strikingly illustrated in regard to the songs, which, once voted ineffective and unvocal, have now taken a place in every eminent singer's repertory. The outline in his greater works must be grasped with some definiteness before the separate ideas can be properly understood in their true relation to each other; and while it is his wonderful power of handling the recognized classical forms, so as to make them seem absolutely new, which stamps him as the greatest musical architect since Beethoven, the necessity for realizing in some degree what musical form signifies has undoubtedly been a bar to the rapid acceptance of his greater works by the uneducated lovers of music. These are of course far more easily moved by effects of colour than by the subtler beauties of organic structure, and Brahms's attitude towards tone-colour was scarcely such as would endear him to the large number of musicians in whose view tone-colour is pre-eminent. His mastery of form, again, has been attacked as formalism by superficial critics, blind to the real inspiration and distinction of his ideas, and to their perfection in regard to style and the appropriateness of every theme to the exact emotional state to be expressed. In his larger vocal works there are some which treat of emotional conditions far removed from the usual stock of subjects taken by the average composer; to compare the ideas in the “German Requiem” with those of the “Schicksalslied” or “Nänie” is to learn a lesson in artistic style which can never be forgotten. In the songs, too, it is scarcely too much to say that the whole range of human emotion finds expression in noble lyrics that yield to none in actual musical beauty. The four “Ernste Gesänge,” Brahms's last composition, must be considered as his supreme achievement in dignified utterance of noble thoughts in a style that perfectly fits them. The choice of words for these as well as for the “Requiem” and others of his serious works reveals a strong sense of the vanity and emptiness of human life, but at least as strong a confidence in the divine consolations.
It has been the misfortune of the musical world in Germany that every prominent musician is ranged by critics and amateurs in one of two hostile camps, and it was probably due in the main to the misrepresentations of the followers of Wagner that the idea was so generally held that Brahms was a man of narrow sympathies and hard, not to say brutal manners. The latter impression was fostered, no doubt, by the master's natural detestation of the methods by which the average lionizer seeks to gain his object, and both alike are disproved in the Recollections of J. V. Widmann, an intimate friend for many years, which throw a new light on the master, revealing him as a man of the widest artistic sympathies, neither intolerant of excellence in a line opposed to his own, nor weakly enthusiastic over mediocre productions by composers whose views were in complete sympathy with him. His admiration for Verdi and Wagner is enough to show that the absence of any operatic work from his list of compositions was simply due to the difficulty of finding a libretto which appealed to him, not to any antagonism to the lyric stage in its modern developments. How far he stood from the prejudices of the typical pedant may be seen in the passionate love he showed throughout his life for national music, especially that of Hungary. Not only were his arrangements of Hungarian dances the first work by which his name was known outside his native land, but his first pianoforte quartet, op. 25 in G minor, incurred the wrath of the critics of the time by its introduction of some characteristics of Hungarian music into the finale. His arrangement of a number of children's traditional songs was published without his name, and dedicated to the children of Robert and Clara Schumann in the earliest years of his creative life; and among the last of his publications was a collection of forty-nine German Volkslieder, arranged with the utmost skill, taste and simplicity. He had a great admiration for the waltzes of Strauss, and in many passages of his own works the entrain that is characteristic of the Viennese dance-writers is present in a striking degree.