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Johannes Brahms

Biography

Born: 1833   Died: 1897   Country: Germany   Period: Romantic
The stature of Johannes Brahms among classical composers is well illustrated by his inclusion among the "Three Bs" triumvirate of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Of all the major composers of the late Romantic era, Brahms was the one most attached to the Classical ideal as manifested in the music of Haydn, Mozart, and especially Beethoven; indeed, Hans von Bülow once characterized Brahms' Symphony No. 1 (1855-1876) as "Beethoven's Tenth." As a Read more youth, Brahms was championed by Robert Schumann as music's greatest hope for the future; as a mature composer, Brahms became for conservative musical journalists the most potent symbol of musical tradition, a stalwart against the "degeneration" represented by the music of Wagner and his school. Brahms' symphonies, choral and vocal works, chamber music, and piano pieces are imbued with strong emotional feeling, yet take shape according to a thoroughly considered structural plan.

The son of a double bassist in the Hamburg Philharmonic Society, Brahms demonstrated great promise from the beginning. He began his musical career as a pianist, contributing to the family coffers as a teenager by playing in restaurants, taverns, and even brothels. Though by his early twenties he enjoyed associations with luminaries like violinists Eduard Reményi and Joseph Joachim, the friend and mentor who was most instrumental in advancing his career was Schumann, who all but adopted him and became his most ardent partisan, and their esteem was mutual. Following Schumann's death in 1856, Brahms became the closest confidant and lifelong friend of the composer's widow, pianist and composer Clara Wieck Schumann. After a life of spectacular musical triumphs and failed loves (the composer was involved in several romantic entanglements but never wed), Brahms died of liver cancer on April 3, 1897.

In every genre in which he composed, Brahms produced works that have become staples of the repertory. His most ambitious work, the German Requiem (1863-1867), is the composer's singular reinterpretation of an age-old form. The four symphonies -- lushly scored, grand in scope, and deeply expressive -- are cornerstones of the symphonic literature. Brahms' concertos are, similarly, in a monumental, quasi-symphonic vein: the two piano concertos (1856-1859 and 1881) and the Violin Concerto (1878) call for soloists with both considerable technical skill and stamina. His chamber music is among the most sophisticated and exquisitely crafted of the Romantic era; for but a single example, his works that incorporate the clarinet (e.g., the Trio in A minor, Op. 114 and the two Sonatas, Op. 120), an instrument largely overlooked by his contemporaries, remain unsurpassed. Though the piano sonata never held for Brahms the same appeal it had for Beethoven (Brahms wrote three to Beethoven's 32), he produced a voluminous body of music for the piano. He showed a particular affinity for variations -- notably, on themes of Schumann (1854), Handel (1861), and Paganini (1862-1863) -- and likewise produced a passel of national dances and character pieces such as ballades, intermezzi, and rhapsodies. Collectively, these constitute one of the essential bodies of work in the realm of nineteenth century keyboard music. Read less
Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem / Wit, Warsaw
Release Date: 04/29/2014   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 573061   Number of Discs: 1
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Brahms: The Symphonies / Chailly, Gewandhaus
Release Date: 08/19/2014   Label: Decca  
Catalog: 002121502   Number of Discs: 3
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Warum - Brahms: Choral Works / Reuss, Cappella Amsterdam
Release Date: 11/11/2014   Label: Harmonia Mundi  
Catalog: 902160   Number of Discs: 1
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Beethoven: Trio; Brahms: Trio; Weber: Grand Duo
Release Date: 11/11/2014   Label: Harmonia Mundi  
Catalog: 807618   Number of Discs: 1
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Brahms: Mass, Motets / Dijkstra, Swedish Radio Choir
Release Date: 12/09/2014   Label: Channel Classics  
Catalog: 35814   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Symphony no 3 in F major, Op. 90

 

About This Work
The time when performers and composers had personal mottoes -- Wieniawski's "Il faut risquer" (I must risk it), Joachim's "Frei aber einsam" (Free but lonely), Brahms' "Frei aber froh" (Free but happy) -- is long since Read more past, but still such mottoes are more than just biographical curiosities: there are at least two very well-recognized musical encryptions of those mottoes. Schumann, Albert Dietrich, and Brahms put their collective talents together to compose the "F-A-E" Sonata as a gift for Joachim, and, when Brahms came up with his own motto, he decided to use the pitches of its initials -- F-A-F -- as the motto theme for his Symphony No. 3 in F, Op. 90.

Brahms composed the Symphony No. 3 in the summer of 1883 after a five year long sabbatical from symphonic work. It is often considered the other three symphonies' "poor sister" -- a prominent feature, yes, on any symphonic season calendar, but not quite the same stunning pinnacle of symphonic achievement that each of the other three is. How wrong that notion is!

If mass consumption has less taste for the Third Symphony's odd mix of overt heroism and dense formal logic than it has for the apparently more sensuous, even voluptuous, music of the second or fourth symphonies, or the Beethovenian spiritual journey of the First Symphony's outer movements, that is hardly evidence of a shortcoming on the composer's part. And indeed there is something heroic about the Symphony No. 3, enough to prompt Hans Richter, who conducted the premiere of the piece, to suggest that Brahms give it the subtitle "Eroica" (a suggestion that Brahms didn't take). It is a heroism utterly unlike the kind brought to mind by the composer of the actual "Eroica" Symphony, however. How could a symphony that begins with a musical manifestation of the bittersweet words "free but happy" approach Beethoven's Third or Fifth in raw grittiness?

The symphony is in four movements: Allegro con brio, Andante, Poco allegretto, and Allegro. The winds open the first movement with a three-chord rendition of F-A-F (actually A flat), after which a tempestuous first theme, also outlining F-A-F, takes over. The second theme is as beautiful a melody, pulsating with warmth, as one might hope for.

The melody of the Andante is rather like that of the First Symphony's third movement, and not just because it is first given by a clarinet; it also has the same initial rhythm and the same gentle intervallic circle. Poco allegretto is hardly a scherzo; it is almost mournful.

The finale rekindles some of the first movement's dramatic fire. The quiet, unison theme of the opening is like the long-lost twin of the quiet, unison theme at the opening of the Second Symphony's finale, except that what is in the Second Symphony a joyous occasion is in the Third Symphony intense and shadowed. The F-A-F motto appears again in the final bars, this time winding downward towards the final serene F major chord by way of luxurious string tremolandos.

-- Blair Johnston, All Music Guide Read less

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