A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Brahms, Johannes

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BRAHMS, Johannes, one of the greatest living German composers, and in the departments of choral and chamber music without a rival, was born at Hamburg on May 7, 1833. Being the son of a musician, he began his musical education in very early years, and carried it on later with brilliant success under Marxsen of Altona. He was introduced to Schumann at Düsseldorf in 1853, and so impressed that great composer with his extraordinary powers that he wrote an article about him in the 'Neue Zeitschrift für Musik,' in which, with the earnestness of a prophet, he pointed him out as the hero of the immediate musical future. In consequence of this Brahms at once became an object both of general attention and sceptical opposition. A tour which he undertook for the purpose of making himself and his works, such as his first three Sonatas and Trio, more generally known, seemed for the time scarcely to verify Schumann's prediction, for he found but little sympathy as a composer, and had but moderate success as a pianist.

For several years after this he remained at Hamburg in retirement, devoting himself assiduously to study and composition, after which he brought forward a number of works, which followed one another in quick succession, and soon established his reputation. In 1861 he went to Vienna, and finding ready sympathy, finally established himself there, where he has remained almost ever since, making only occasional tours, either as a pianist, or for the purpose of conducting his own works. In that city, so famous for its connection with great musicians, he officiated temporarily as conductor of the 'Sing-Academie' in 1863 and 64, and from 1872 to 75 as director of the famous concerts of the 'Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde,' to which he has given extraordinary lustre and importance through the performance of the great choral works of Handel and Bach.

The appreciation and diffusion of his works is steadily increasing. The 'Deutsches Requiem' (op. 45, 1868) established his fame, and from the time of its appearance every new work published by him became an event in the musical life of Germany, and even in this country, where his music is frequently performed at the Philharmonic, the Monday Popular Concerts, the Crystal Palace, and elsewhere. His first Symphony was produced at Carlsruhe Nov. 4, 1876, and his second at Vienna Dec. 24, 1877.

With the exception of Richard Wagner, who occupies a special position in modern music, Brahms is pre-eminent among living composers for the definite nature of his individuality; he appears as the climax of modern musical thought, standing, as it were, upon the shoulders of Schumann, whose artistic eye, as already mentioned, recognised the younger artist's affinity to his own nature, and based upon it his confidence in the progressive development of modern music. No comparison between him and Wagner is possible, for Wagner's fame is entirely founded on his dramatic works, in which department Brahms has as yet done nothing.

Indeed, notwithstanding his modern tendency, he is entirely opposed to the so-called 'new German school,' or 'school of the future,' which has attached itself to Wagner, and defends his art-principles on the ground of absolute music. Brahms takes his stand upon systematic principles of musical form, upon which indeed his individual characteristics a good deal depend. In point of style and construction his music displays a power which is now quite unique. In all his works, from the greatest to the smallest, the hand of a master is manifest, and if we analyse them, we shall find the same unwearied energy and consistency throughout the movement as is used at the outset to express the leading idea. He never allows himself to be drawn aside from his main idea, in spite of all the wealth of episode and secondary thoughts he has always at command. To this we may refer many of the prominent peculiarities of his style, such as its formal intensity, and certain original terms of harmony and modulation. This side of Brahms's genius is now undisputed, but the individual character of his ideas and the intellectual qualities of his nature certainly stand in the way of his overcoming opposition and gaining the sympathies of the large mass of the musical public. His deep brooding earnestness, and his abstraction from external things, absorb him so completely in his idea that he sometimes loses his feeling for beauty of sound. With him beauty seems to hold a place subordinate to expression, and a certain harshness is in consequence occasionally met with in his harmony which must hinder the popularity of his works. There is (if the word may be allowed) an unapproachable asceticism about his genius which is opposed to all that is merely pleasing to the ear. He does not court the understanding; he rather demands from it arduous and unwearied service.

As a pianoforte player, Brahms exhibits the same characteristics. He plays, not for the listener, but for himself and for the work which he is performing. Remarkable as his technical execution may be, with him it always seems a secondary casual matter, only to be noticed incidentally. But if we reflect that the technique of pianoforte playing is the sole medium for reproducing the idea of a pianoforte piece, it is possible that fault may in this respect be justly found with his playing; yet his intellectual qualities fit him for masterly performances of his own works; and in his execution of Bach, especially of the organ works on the piano, he is acknowledged to be quite unrivalled.

[App. pp.560–561 "Add the following supplementary article:—

This master, whose music during the last nine years has slowly and surely gained in the estimation of the musical world, may now justly be described not as 'one of the greatest living,' but as the greatest living of German composers.

Popularity, in the ordinary sense of the word, his music has not acquired; nor can it be expected to do so, for his compositions, with few exceptions, are written for cultivated audiences only. His influence will always be deeply rather than widely felt. There is, if we may say so, something impalpable about his creations; at first hearing their beauties seem to elude our grasp; we are deeply moved, but we cannot clearly discern the influences which affect us. 'Brahms,' says Dr. Louis Ehlert, 'does not stand before us like Mozart or Schubert, in whose eyes we seem to look, whose hands we seem to press. Two atmospheres lie between him and us. Twilight surrounds him; his heights melt in the distance, we are at once lured onward and repelled.' But as we approach, in a spirit of conscientious investigation, the mist which hangs over his art seems to roll away; the outlines of his sublime creations are revealed more clearly, we recognise the grandeur of these masterpieces and feel that they exist for all time.

Brahms's published works have now reached the opus-number 102; of these twenty-eight have appeared since 1878.

During this important period of full maturity it is noticeable that Brahms's style has undergone no very marked change. He has kept to those conservative principles which have governed his creations almost from the beginning of his career. He has added to every branch of art in which he has been previously successful; but the drama seems to offer no attraction to his genius.

By far the larger part of his later compositions consist of vocal pieces for one or more voices; indeed no less than seven books of songs have appeared since 1880, exclusive of quartets and romances for mixed chorus. In these songs Brahms's personality is very prominently displayed. A power of intense expression, a profusion of melody of the highest order, a subtle treatment of popular sentiment, in its lighter as in its more serious aspect, and, finally, a sure judgment in the selection of his words all these qualities are even more noticeable in the later than in the earlier songs. Goethe, Heine, Rückert, Platen, von Schenkendorff, Siegfried Kapper—and more rarely Geibel—these are some of the poets whose words he uses most frequently; always investing them with deep musical purpose, and, where the sentiment requires it, employing the most elaborate means of expression. As a song-writer he stands alone; he cannot be classed with Schubert, Schumann, or Robert Franz.

The relentlessness of fate forms the subject of the two greater choral works of this period:—a setting of Schiller's 'Nänie,' and the 'Gesang der Parzen' from Goethe's Iphigenia. They are no unworthy companion-pieces to the earlier 'Song of Destiny,' though they will not readily attain an equal popularity with that most perfect work.

The compositions for piano—Brahms's own instrument are not very numerous. The eight pieces for piano, op. 76 (Capriccios and Intermezzos) are highly characteristic of the master, both as regards inspiration and scientific treatment. Some of the Intermezzos, simple and touching, contrast pleasantly with Capriccios which offer almost insurmountable difficulties to the most skilful virtuoso. The two Rhapsodies (op. 79) are admirable instances of how successfully well-established forms may, in the hands of a master, be used to convey the most original ideas.

Finally we come to the orchestral works, on which Brahms's claims to one of the highest positions in the musical world must be based. These include two delightful concert-overtures (op. 80 and 81), a Pianoforte Concerto in B♭ (op. 83,) a voluminous work in four movements, and a Violin Concerto (op. 77) written for Joachim. Of the two later Symphonies, No. 3, in F (op. 90), seems to combine something of the grandiose and heroic character of the first Symphony in C minor with the more graceful and delicate features of the second in D. Deep and manly feeling expressed with terseness and energy, skilful construction and powerful development, orchestral colouring at once sombre and effective, these are the chief features of the first and last movements of this symphony; while the Andante and Allegretto, though they hardly sustain the lofty and epic character of the work, charm every hearer by their exquisite melody and easy grace.

On so important and elaborate a work as the Fourth Symphony, in E minor, it is as yet too soon to pronounce a very definite judgment. To many hearers it will seem laboured, and lacking in spontaneity; and there is no doubt that the prominence given to musical erudition may be held to detract from the emotional interest of the work. The last movement, consisting of a passacaglia—a novel form for the finale of a Symphony—is highly interesting, but chiefly to those able to appreciate its excellent workmanship. On the other hand, only prejudice could lead any one to overlook the splendid qualities of this last symphony. It is nobly and solidly planned, and, in spite of intricate thematic details, is carried out with conciseness and self-restraint—virtues by no means common among contemporary composers. It bears the unmistakable impression of Brahms's individuality in all its wholesome vigour and manliness; dryness and harshness may occasionally disfigure it, but it is as free as the rest of his works from anything weak or trivial. Taken as a whole, this symphony seems to display, more completely than any one of the later compositions, those rare combinations of intellect and emotion, of modern feeling and old-fashioned skill which are the very essence of Brahms's style.

The last additions to the chamber-music consist of a sonata for violoncello and piano in F, a sonata for violin and piano in A, and a trio for piano and strings in C minor, all of which are intensely interesting and full of vigorous beauty. A concerto for violin and violoncello with orchestra was played by Joachim and Hausmann at Cologne in the autumn of 1887, and at one of the London Symphony concerts in Feb. 1888.

There is little or nothing to be added to the biography of Herr Brahms. He enjoys the unchanging esteem and admiration of his countrymen, and wherever the production of his works may lead him he is sure to meet with the most enthusiastic receptions. Early in 1887 the Emperor of Germany, in recognition of his genius, appointed him Knight of the Order 'pour le mérite' for Arts and Sciences."]

The following is a list of Brahms's published works to June, 1878:—

Op. 1. Sonata for P. F. in C.
2. Do. Do. F# minor.
3. Six Songs.
4. Scherzo for P. F. in E♭ minor.
5. Sonata for P. F. in F minor.
6. 6 Songs. Soprano or Tenor.
7. 6 Songs for one voice.
8. Trio in B., P. F., V. and Cello.
9. Variations for P. F. on a theme of Schumann.
10. 4 Ballads for P. F.
11. Serenade for Full Orchestra in D.
12. Ave Maria for female voices, Orch. and Organ.
13. Funeral hymn for Chorus and Wind.
14. 8 Songs and Romances for one voice and P. F.
15. Concerto, in D, for P. F. and Orch.

16. Serenade for small orchestra in A.
17. 4 songs for female Chorus, 2 Horns and Harp.
18. Sextet in B♭ for Strings.
19. Five poems for voice and P. F.
20. Three duets for S. and A. with P. F.
21. Variations for P. F.:
(1) On original theme;
(2) On a Hungarian melody.
22. 7 'Marienlieder' for mixed choir, in 2 parts.
23. Variations for P. F., 4 hands, on a theme of Schumann's.
24. Variations and Fugue for P. F. on theme of Handel's.
25. Quartet in G minor for P. F. and Strings.
26. Quartet in A for ditto.
27. Psalm xiii. for women's voices, with Organ or P. F.
28. Four Duets for Alto and Baritone with P. F.
29. Two Motets for 5 voices, à capella.
30. Sacred Song by Paul Flemming. 4 voices, mixed Choir and Organ.
31. Three Quartets for S.A.T.B.
32. 9 Songs by A. von Platen and G. F. Daumer. For voice and P. F. in 2 parts.
33. 15 Romances from Tieck's 'Magelone' for voice and P. F. in 5 parts.
34. Quintet for P. F. and Strings in F minor.
34a. Sonata for P. F., 4 hands, from the foregoing.
35. 21 Variations (Studien) for P. F. solo on a theme of Paganini's.
36. Sextet in G for Strings.
37. Three Sacred Choruses for female voices.
38. Sonata in E minor for P. F. and Cello.
39. 15 Waltzes for P. F.: 4 hands.
40. Trio for P. F., Violin and Horn or Cello.
41. Five Part Songs for 4 men's voices.
42. Three Songs for Chorus, à capella. 6 v.
43. Four Songs for 1 voice and P. F.
44. Twelve Songs and Romances for female chorus, à capella.
45. German Requiem, Solo, Chorus and Orch.
46. Four Songs for 1 voice with P. F.
47. Four ditto, ditto.
48. Seven ditto, ditto.
49. Five ditto, ditto.
50. Rinaldo; Cantata by Goethe, for Tenor Solo, Male Chorus, and Orch.
51. Two Quartets for Strings, C minor and A minor.
52. Liebeslieder; Waltzes for P. F., 4 hands, and voices.
53. Rhapsodie; fragments from Goethe's 'Harzreise' for Alto Solo, Male Chorus, and Orch.
54. Schicksalied (Song of Destiny) by F. Hölderlin. for Chorus and Orch.
55. Triumphlied (Rev., chap. xix.) for 8-part Chorus and Orch.
56a. Variations on a theme of Haydn's for Orchestra.
56b. Ditto. ditto, for 2 Pianos.
57. 8 Songs by Daumer for 1 voice and P. F.
58. 8 Songs for 1 voice and P. F.
59. 8 Songs for 1 voice and P. F.
60. Quartet (No. 3) In C minor for P. F. and Strings.
61. Four Duets for Sopr. and Alto.
62. Seven Songs for mixed Choir.
63. 9 Lieder and Gesänge for voice and P. F.
64. 3 Quartets for 4 solo voices and P.F.
65. Neue Liebeslieder-Waltzes.
66. Five Duets.
67. String Quartet: B♭.
68. Symphony. No. 1, C minor.
69. Nine Songs.
70. Four Songs.
71. Five Songs.
72. Five Songs.
73. Symphony, No. 2, in D.

Without Opus-number.

Hungarian dances for P. F., 4 hands.
The same for Orchestra.
Gluck's Gavotte for P. F. solo.
Studies for P. F. solo:
(1) Etude after Chopin;
(2) Rondo after Weber.
15 Volkskinderliedchen.
Mondnacht, Song for 1 voice and P.F.

[ A. M. ]

[App. pp. 561–562 "The following is a list of Brahms's published compositions from June 1878 to March 1887:—

74. Two Motets.
75. 2 Ballads for 2 voices.
76. 8 Piano pieces (Capriccios and Intermezzos).
77. Concerto for Violin.
78. Sonata for PF. and Violin in G.
79. Two Rhapsodies for PF.
80. Academical Festival Overture.
81. Tragic Overture.
82. 'Naenie,' for Chorus and Orchestra.
83. PF. Concerto in B♭.
84. Romances and Songs for 1 or 2 voices.
85. Six Songs for 1 voice.
86. Six Songs for 1 voice.
87. Trio for PF. and Strings.
88. Quintet for Strings in F.
89. Gesang der Parzen, for 6-Part Chorus and Orch.
90. Symphony in F, No. 3.
91. 2 Songs for Alto with violin obbllgato.
92. 4 Vocal Quartets with Pf.
93. Songs and Romances for 4-part Chorus.
93a. Do. a capella.
93b. Tafllied (Eichendorff).
94. Five Songs for low voice.
95. Seven Songs.
96. Four Songs.
97. Six Songs.
98. Symphony in E minor, No. 4
99. Sonata for Violoncello and PF. in F.
100. Sonata for Violin and PF. in A.
101. Trio in C minor for PF. and strings.
102. Concerto for Violin and Violoncello in C.[1]

[App. p.819 adds:

Op. 103. Zigeunerlieder for 4 voices and PF. acct.
104. 5 Songs, a capella for mixed choir.
105. 6 Songs.
106. 5 Songs.
107. 5 Songs.
108. Sonata for violin and piano in D minor.
(Died Apr. 3, 1897.)"]

[ R. N. ]

  1. A thematic catalogue of the composer's works has recently been published by Simrock.