It has been truly said that great
composers cannot be compared one with
another. Each is a solitary star, revolving in his own orbit. For
it is impossible to compare Wagner and Brahms; the former could not
written the German Requiem or the four Symphonies any more than Brahms
could have composed "Tristan." In the combination of arts which Wagner
fused into a stupendous whole, he stands without a rival. But Brahms is
also a mighty composer in his line of effort, for he created music that
continually grows in beauty as it is better known.
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, May
7, 1833. The house at 60
Speckstrasse still stands, and doubtless looks much as it did years
ago. A locality of dark, narrow streets with houses tall and gabled and
holding as many families as possible. Number 60 stands in a dismal
entered by a close narrow passage. A steep wooden staircase in the
used to have gates, closed at night. Jakob and Johanna lived in the
first floor dwelling to the left. It consisted of a sort of lobby or
kitchen, a small living room and a tiny sleeping closet—nothing else.
this and other small tenements like it, the boy's early years were
It certainly was an ideal case of low living and high thinking.
The Brahms family were musical but very
poor in this world's goods. The
father was a contra bass player in the theater; he often had to play in
dance halls and beer gardens, indeed where he could. Later he became a
member of the band that gave nightly concerts at the Alster Pavillion.
mother, much older than her husband, tried to help out the family
by keeping a little shop where needles and thread were sold.
Little Johannes, or Hannes as he was
called, was surrounded from his
earliest years by a musical atmosphere, and must have shown a great
to study music. We learn that his father took him to Otto Cossel, to
arrange for piano lessons. Hannes was seven years old, pale and
looking, fair, with blue eyes and a mass of flaxen hair. The father
"Herr Cossel, I wish my son to become
your pupil; he wants so much to
the piano. When he can play as well as you do it will be enough."
Hannes was docile, eager and quick to
learn. He had a wonderful memory
and made rapid progress. In three years a concert was arranged for him,
which he played in chamber music with several other musicians of
The concert was both a financial and artistic success. Not long after
Cossel induced Edward Marxsen, a distinguished master and his own
to take full charge of the lad's further musical training. Hannes was
twelve at the time.
Marxsen's interest in the boy's progress
increased from week to week,
he realized his talents. "One day I gave him a composition of Weber's,"
says. "The next week he played it to me so blamelessly that I praised
'I have also practised it in another way,' he answered, and played me
right hand part with the left hand." Part of the work of the lessons
to transpose long pieces at sight; later on Bach's Preludes and Fugues
done in the same way.
Jakob Brahms, who as we have seen was in
very poor circumstances, was
to exploit Hannes' gift whenever occasion offered. He had the boy play
the band concerts in the Alster Pavillion, which are among the daily
of the city's popular life, as all know who are acquainted with
and his shillings earned in this and similar ways, helped out the
scanty means. But late hours began to tell on the boy's health. His
begged a friend of his, a wealthy patron of music, to take the lad to
summer home, in return for which he would play the piano at any time of
desired and give music lessons to the young daughter of the family, a
of about his own age.
Thus it came about that early in May,
1845, Hannes had his first taste
of the delights of the country. He had provided himself with a small
keyboard, to exercise his fingers upon. Every morning, after he had
done what was necessary in the house, Hannes was sent afield by the
mistress of the household, and told not to show himself till dinner
Perhaps the good mistress did not know that Hannes had enjoyed himself
of doors hours before. He used to rise at four o'clock and begin his
with a bath in the river. Shortly after this the little girl, Lischen,
would join him and they would spend a couple of hours rambling about,
looking for bird's nests, hunting butterflies and picking wild flowers.
Hannes' pale cheeks soon became plump and ruddy, as the result of fresh
and country food. Musical work went right on as usual. Studies in
and composition, begun with Marxsen, were pursued regularly in the
and woods all summer.
When the summer was over and all were
back in Hamburg again, Lischen
to come sometimes to Frau Brahms, of whom she soon grew very fond. But
troubled her tender heart to see the poor little flat so dark and
for even the living room had but one small window, looking into the
cheerless courtyard. She felt very sorry for her friends, and proposed
Hannes they should bring some scarlet runners to be planted in the
He fell in with the idea at once and it was soon carried out. But alas,
when the children had done their part, the plants refused to grow.
Johannes had returned home much improved
in health, and able to play in
several small concerts, where his efforts commanded attention. The
passed uneventfully, filled with severe study by day and equally hard
at night in playing for the "lokals." But the next summer in Winsen
the country and happiness once more.
Hannes began to be known as a musician
among the best families of
and often played in their homes. He also had the chance to conduct a
chorus of women's voices, called the Choral Society of Winsen. He was
expected to turn his theoretical studies to account by composing
for this choir. It was for them he produced his "A B C" song for four
parts, using the letters of the alphabet. The composition ended with
the words "Winsen, eighteen-hundred seven and forty," sung slowly and
fortissimo. The little piece was tuneful and was a great favorite with
teachers, from that day to this.
The boy had never heard an opera. During
the summer, when Carl Formes,
of Vienna, was making a sensation in Hamburg, Lischen got her father to
secure places and take them. The opera was the "Marriage of Figaro."
was almost beside himself with delight. "Lischen, listen to the music!
there was never anything like it," he cried over and over again. The
father, seeing it gave so much pleasure, took the children again to
another opera, to their great delight.
But the happy summer came to an end and
sadness fell, to think Johannes
must leave them, for he had found many kind friends in Winsen. He was
fifteen now and well knew he must make his way as a musician, help
the family, and pay for the education of his brother Fritz, who was to
become a pianist and teacher. There was a farewell party made for him
Winsen, at which there was much music, speech making and good wishes
his future success and for his return to Winsen whenever he could.
Johannes made his new start by giving a
concert of his own on September
1848. The tickets for this concert were one mark; he had the assistance
some Hamburg musicians. In April next, 1849, he announced a second
for which the tickets were two marks. At this he played the Beethoven
"Waldstein Sonata," and the brilliant "Don Juan Fantaisie." These two
were considered about the top of piano virtuosity. Meanwhile the boy
always composing and still with his teacher Marxsen.
The political revolution of 1848, was
the cause of many refugees
into Hamburg on their way to America. One of these was the violinist,
Edward Remenyi, a German Hungarian Jew, whose real name was Hofmann.
seemed Remenyi was really in no haste to leave Hamburg. Johannes,
as accompanist at the house of a wealthy patron, met the violinist and
fascinated by his rendering of national Hungarian music. Remenyi, on
side, saw the advantage of having such an accompanist for his own use.
So it happened the two played together frequently for a time, until the
violinist disappeared from Germany, for several years. He reappeared in
Hamburg at the close of the year 1852. He was then twenty-two, while
was nineteen. It was suggested that the two musicians should do a
concert work together. They began to plan out the trip which became
tour by the time they had included all the places they wished to visit.
The tour began at Winsen, then came
Cella. Here a curious thing
The piano proved to be a half tone below pitch, but Brahms was equal to
dilemma. Requesting Remenyi to tune his violin a half tone higher,
making it a whole tone above the piano, he then, at sight, transposed
the Beethoven Sonata they were to play. It was really a great feat, but
Johannes performed it as though it were an every day affair.
The next place was Luneburg and there
the young musician had such
that a second concert was at once announced. Two were next given at
Hildesheim. Then came Leipsic, Hanover and after that Weimer, where
Liszt and his retinue of famous pupils held court. Here Johannes became
acquainted with Raff, Klindworth, Mason, Prükner and other
By this time his relations with Remenyi
had become somewhat irksome and
strained and he decided to break off this connection. One morning he
suddenly left Weimar, and traveled to Göttingen. There he met
Joachim, whom he had long wished to know, and who was the reigning
violinist of his time. Without any announcement, Johannes walked in on
the great artist, and they became fast friends almost at once. Joachim
had never known what it was to struggle; he had had success from the
start; life had been one long triumph, whereas Johannes had come from
obscurity and had been reared in privation. At this time Johannes was a
fresh faced boy, with long fair hair and deep earnest blue eyes.
the distinguished musician of Cologne, thus describes him: "Brahms, at
twenty, was a slender youth, with long blond hair and a veritable St.
John's head, from whose eyes shone energy and spirit."
Johannes was at this time deeply engaged
on his piano Sonata in F
Op. 5. He had already written two other piano sonatas, as yet little
The Op. 5, is now constantly heard in concert rooms, played by the
artists of our time.
In disposition Hannes was kindly and
sincere; as a youth merry and gay.
friend in Düsseldorf, where he now spent four weeks, thus
"He was a most unusual looking young
musician, hardly more than a boy,
in his short summer coat, with his high-pitched voice and long fair
Especially fine was his energetic, characteristic mouth, and his
deep gaze. His constitution was thoroughly healthy; the most strenuous
mental exercise hardly fatigued him and he could go to sleep at any
the day he pleased. He was apt to be full of pranks, too. At the piano
he dominated by his characteristic, powerful, and when necessary,
extraordinarily tender playing." Schumann, whom he now came to know
in Düsseldorf, called him the "young eagle—one of the elect." In
Schumann, in his musical journal, praised the young musician most
And his kindness did not stop there. He wrote to Hannes' father, Jakob
Brahms, in Hamburg, commending in glowing terms his son's compositions.
This letter was sent to Johannes and the result was the offering of
of his compositions to Breitkopf and Härtel for publication. He
written two Sonatas, a Scherzo, and a Sonata for piano and violin. The
Sonata in C, now known as Op. I, although not his first work, was the
in which he introduced himself to the public. For, as he said: "When
first shows one's self, it is to the head and not to the heels that one
wishes to draw attention."
Johannes made his first appearance in
Leipsic, as pianist and composer,
one of the David Quartet Concerts, at which he played his C major
and the Scherzo. His success was immediate, and as a result, he was
secure a second publisher for his Sonata Op. 5.
And now, after months of traveling,
playing in many towns and meeting
many musicians and distinguished people, Johannes turned his steps
Hamburg, and was soon in the bosom of the home circle. It is easy to
imagine the mother's joy, for Hannes had always been the apple of her
and she had kept her promise faithfully, to write him a letter every
But who shall measure the father's pride and satisfaction to have his
return a real musical hero?
The concert journey just completed was
the bridge over which Johannes
Brahms passed from youth to manhood. With the opening year of 1854, he
be said to enter the portals of a new life.
He now betook himself to Hanover, to be
near his devoted friend
plunged into work and was soon absorbed in the composition of his B
Piano Trio. Later Schumann and his charming wife, the pianist, came to
Hanover for a week's visit, which was the occasion for several concerts
in which Brahms, Joachim and Clara Schumann took part. Soon after this
Schumann's health failed and he was removed to a sanatorium. In
for the heavy trial now to be borne by Clara Schumann, both young
came to Düsseldorf, to be near the wife of their adored master,
Schumann. There they remained and by their encouragement so lifted the
spirits of Frau Clara that she was able to resume her musical
Johann had been doing some piano
teaching when not occupied with
composition. But now, on the advice of his musical friends, he decided
try his luck again as a concert pianist. He began by joining Frau Clara
and Joachim in a concert at Danzig. Each played solos. Johann's were
"Chromatic Fantaisie" and several manuscript pieces of his own. After
the young artist went his own way. He played with success in Bremen,
in Hamburg. It is said he was always nervous before playing, but
so in his home city. However all passed off well. He now settled
in Hamburg, making musical trips to other places when necessary.
Robert Schumann rallied for a while from
his severe malady, and hopes
held out of his final recovery. Frau Clara, having her little family to
support, resumed her concert playing in good earnest, and appeared with
triumphant success in Vienna, London and many other cities. When
Brahms and Joachim accompanied her. Then Schumann's malady took an
unfavorable turn. When the end was near, Brahms and Frau Clara went to
Endenich and were with the master till all was over. On July 31, 1856,
balmy summer evening, the mortal remains of the great composer were
rest in the little cemetery at Bonn, on the Rhine. The three chief
were: Brahms—who carried a laurel wreath from the wife—Joachim and
Frau Schumann returned to
Düsseldorf the next day, accompanied by
and Joachim. Together they set in order the papers left by the
and assisted the widow in many little ways. A little later she went to
Switzerland to recover her strength, accompanied by Brahms and his
Elise. A number of weeks were spent in rest and recuperation. By
the three musicians were ready to take up their ordinary routine again.
Frau Clara began practising for her concert season, Joachim returned to
his post in Hanover, and Johann turned his face toward Hamburg, giving
concerts on the way, in which he achieved pronounced success.
The season of 1856-7, was passed
uneventfully by Brahms, in composing,
teaching and occasional journeys. He may be said to have had four
besides that of his parents in Hamburg. In Düsseldorf, Hanover,
and Bonn he had many friends and was always welcome.
It may be asked why Brahms, who had the
faculty of endearing himself so
warmly to his friends, never married. It is true he sometimes desired
to found a home of his own, but in reality the mistress of his
passion was his art, to which everything else remained secondary. He
swerved a hair's breadth from this devotion to creative art, but
poverty, disappointment, loneliness and often failure in the eyes of
world, for the sake of this, his true love.
Johannes was now engaged as conductor of
a Choral Society in Detmold,
as Court Pianist and teacher in the royal family. The post carried with
free rooms and living, and he was lodged at the Hotel Stadt Frankfort,
comfortable inn, exactly opposite the Castle, and thus close to the
of his new labors.
He began his duties by going through
many short choral works of the
and modern masters. With other musicians at Court much chamber music
played, in fact almost the entire repertoire. The young musician soon
became a favorite at Court, not only on account of his musical genius
also because of the general culture of his mind. He could talk on
any subject. "Whoever wishes to play well must not only practise a
deal but read many books," was one of his favorite sayings. One of
his friends said, of meetings in Brahms' rooms at night, when his boon
companions reveled in music: "And how Brahms loved the great masters!
he played Haydn and Mozart! With what beauty of interpretation and
shading of tone. And then his transposing!" Indeed Johann thought
of taking up a new composition and playing it in any key,
mistake. His score reading was marvelous. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn,
seemed to flow naturally from under his fingers.
The post in Detmold only required
Brahms' presence a part of the year,
he was engaged for a term of years. The other half of the year was
in Hamburg, where he resumed his activities of composing and teaching.
summer after his first winter in Detmold was spent in Göttingen
friends. Clara Schumann was there with her children, and Johann was
one of the family—as a son to her. He was a famous playfellow for the
children, too. About this time he wrote a book of charming Children's
Songs, dedicated to the children of Robert and Clara Schumann. Johann
occupied with his Piano Concerto in D minor. His method of working was
somewhat like Beethoven's, as he put down his ideas in notebooks. Later
he formed the habit of keeping several compositions going at once.
The prelude to Johann's artistic life
was successfully completed. Then
came a period of quiet study and inward growth. A deeper activity was
succeed. It opened early in the year 1859, when the young musician
to Hanover and Leipsic, bringing out his Concerto in D minor. He
it in the first named city, while Joachim conducted the orchestra. It
said the work "with all its serious striving, its rejection of the
its skilled instrumentation, seemed difficult to understand; but the
pianist was considered not merely a virtuoso but a great artist of
The composer had now to hurry to
Leipsic, as he was to play with the
Gewandhaus orchestra. How would Leipsic behave towards this new and
music? Johann was a dreamer, inexperienced in the ways of the world; he
was an idealist—in short, a genius gifted with an "imagination,
original and romantic." The day after the concert he wrote Joachim he
made a brilliant and decided failure. However he was not a whit
by the apathy of the Leipsigers toward his new work. He wrote: "The
Concerto will please some day, when I have made some improvements, and
second shall sound quite different."
It has taken more than half a century to
establish the favor of the
Concerto, which still continues on upward wing. The writer heard the
composer play this Concerto in Berlin, toward the end of his life. He
an unforgettable figure, as he sat at the piano with his long hair and
beard, turning to gray; and while his technic was not of the virtuoso
he created a powerful impression by his vivid interpretation.
After these early performances of the
Concerto, Johann returned to
to his composing and teaching. He, however, played the Concerto in his
native city on a distinguished occasion, when Joachim was a soloist in
Spohr's Gesang-Scene, Stockhausen in a magnificent Aria, and then
pale, blond, slight, but calm and self controlled. The Concerto scored
considerable success at last, and the young composer was content.
In the autumn of this year, Johann paid
his third visit to Detmold, and
found himself socially as well as musically the fashion. It was the
thing to have lessons from him and his presence gave distinction to any
assemblage. But Johann did not wish to waste his time at social
when obliged to be present at some of these events he would remain
the entire evening, or else say sharp or biting things, making the
regret they had asked him. His relations with the Court family,
remained very pleasant. Yet he began to chafe under the constant
his time, and the rigid etiquette of the little Court. The next season
definitely declined the invitation to revisit Detmold, the reason given
that he had not the time, as he was supervising the publication of a
of his works. Brahms had become interested in writing for the voice,
had already composed any number of beautiful vocal solos and part
We are told that Frau Schumann, Joachim
and Stockhausen came frequently
Hamburg during the season of 1861, and all three made much of Johannes.
All four gave concerts together, and Johannes took part in a
of Schumann's beautiful Andante and Variations, for two pianos, while
Stockhausen sang entrancingly Beethoven's Love Songs, accompanied by
Brahms. On one occasion Brahms played his Variations on a Handel Theme,
"another magnificent work, splendidly long, the stream of ideas flowing
inexhaustibly. And the work was wonderfully played by the composer; it
seemed like a miracle. The composition is so difficult that none but a
great artist can attempt it." So wrote a listener at the time. That was
1861. We know this wonderful work in these days, for all the present
artists perform it. At each of Frau Schumann's three appearances in
Hamburg during the autumn of this year, she performed one of Brahms'
compositions; one of them was the Handel Variations.
Although one time out of ten Johann
might be taciturn or sharp, the
nine he would be agreeable, always pleased—good humored, satisfied,
a child with children. Every one liked his earnest nature, his gaiety
Johann had had a great longing to see
Vienna, the home of so many great
musicians; but felt that when the right time came, the way would open.
And it did. Early in September, 1862, he wrote a friend: "I am leaving
Monday, the eighth, for Vienna. I look forward to it like a child."
He felt at home in Vienna from the
start, and very soon met the leading
lights of the Austrian capital. On November 16, he gave his first
with the Helmesberger Quartet, and before a crowded house. It was a
real success for "Schumann's young prophet." Although concert giving
distasteful, he appeared again on December 20, and then gave a second
concert on January 6, 1863, when he played Bach's Chromatic Fantaisie,
Beethoven's Variations in C minor, his own Sonata Op. 5, and Schumann's
Sonata OP. 11.
Johann returned home in May, and shortly
after was offered the post of
Conductor of the Singakademie, which had just become vacant. He had
plans for the summer, but finally relinquished them and sent an
By the last of August he was again in Vienna.
Now followed years of a busy musical
life. Brahms made his headquarters
Vienna, and while there did much composing. The wonderful Piano
one of his greatest works, the German Requiem, the Cantata Rinaldo and
many beautiful songs came into being during this period. Every little
concert tours and musical journeys were undertaken, where Brahms often
combined with other artists in giving performances of his compositions.
series of three concerts in Vienna in February and March, 1869, given
Brahms and Stockhausen, were phenomenally successful, the tickets being
sold as soon as the concerts were announced. The same series was given
Budapest with equal success.
Early in the year 1872, when our
composer was nearly forty, we find him
installed in the historic rooms in the third floor of Number 4 Carl's
Gasse, Vienna, which were to remain to the end of his life the nearest
approach to an establishment of his own. There were three small rooms.
largest contained his grand piano, writing table, a sofa with another
in front of it. The composer was still smooth of face and looked much
he did at twenty, judging from his pictures. It was not until several
later, about 1880, that he was adorned by the long heavy beard, which
his face such a venerable appearance.
The year 1874, was full of varied
excitement. Many invitations were
accepted to conduct his works in North Germany, the Rhine, Switzerland,
other countries. A tour in Holland in 1876, brought real joy. He played
D minor Concerto in Utrecht and other cities, conducted his works and
everywhere received with honors. But the greatest event of this year
the appearance of his first Symphony. It was performed for the first
from manuscript in Carlsruhe and later in many other cities. In this
"Brahms' close affinity with Beethoven must become clear to every
who has not already perceived it," wrote Hanslick, the noted critic.
We have now to observe the unwearied
energy with which Brahms, during
years that followed added one after another to his list, in each and
branch of serious music; songs, vocal duets, choral and instrumental
In the summer of 1877 came the Second Symphony. In 1879 appeared the
Violin Concerto, now acclaimed as one of the few masterpieces for that
instrument. It was performed by Joachim at the Gewandhaus, Leipsic,
in the year. There were already four Sonatas for Piano and Violin. The
Sonata in G, the Rhapsodies Op. 79 and the third and fourth books of
Hungarian Dances, as duets, were the publications of 1880. He now wrote
new Piano Concerto, in B flat, which he played in Stuttgart for the
first time, November 22, 1881. In 1883 the Third Symphony appeared,
revealed him at the zenith of his powers. This work celebrated his
The Fourth Symphony was completed during
the summer of 1885. Then came
From 1889 onward, Brahms chose for his
summer sojourn the town of
the Salzkammergut. The pretty cottage where he stayed was on the
of the town, near the rushing river Traun. He always dined at the
of the Hotel Elizabeth, which was reached by a flight of descending
In this quiet country, among mountain, valley and stream, he could
at ease and also see his friends at the end of the day.
A visit to Italy in the spring of 1890,
afforded rest, refreshment and
The "Four Serious Songs," were published
in the summer of 1896. At this
time Brahms had been settled in his rooms at Ischl scarcely a fortnight
when he was profoundly shaken by news of Clara Schumann's death. She
peacefully away in Frankfort, and was laid beside her husband, in Bonn,
24. Brahms was present, together with many musicians and celebrities.
The master felt this loss keenly. He
spent the summer in Ischl as
composing, among other things, the Eleven Choral Preludes. Most of
have death for their subject, showing that his mind was taken up with
the idea. His friends noticed he had lost his ruddy color and that his
complexion was pale. In the autumn he went to Carlsbad for the cure.
After six weeks he returned to Vienna,
but not improved, as he had
very thin and walked with faltering step. He loved to be with his
the Fellingers, as much as possible, as well as with other friends. He
spent Christmas eve with them, and dined there the next day. From this
time on he grew worse. He was very gentle the last months of his life,
touchingly grateful for every attention shown him. Every evening he
would place himself at the piano and improvise for half an hour. When
fatigued to continue, he would sit at the window till long after
had fallen. He gradually grew weaker till he passed peacefully away,
The offer of an honorary grave was made
by the city of Vienna, and he
found resting place near Beethoven and Mozart, just as he had wished.
Memorial tablets have been placed on the
houses in which Brahms lived
Vienna, Ischl and Thun, also on the house of his birth, in Hamburg.