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
Arthur Rubinstein Plays Brahms
Release Date: 06/12/2012   Label: Rca  
Catalog: 760992   Number of Discs: 9
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Leon Fleisher Plays Beethoven & Brahms
Release Date: 08/07/2012   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 1918052   Number of Discs: 5
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Brahms: Complete Piano Trios, Clarinet Trio, Horn Trio
Release Date: 10/14/2014   Label: Hyperion  
Catalog: 22082   Number of Discs: 2
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Brahms: Symphonies, Concertos / Pollini, Batiashvili, Thielemann
Release Date: 09/16/2014   Label: Deutsche Grammophon  
Catalog: 002133400   Number of Discs: 4
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Brahms: Viola Sonatas
Release Date: 02/11/2014   Label: Msr  
Catalog: 1479   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Tragic Overture, Op. 81

 

About This Work
Brahms composed this work on holiday during the summer of 1880, and Hans Richter led the first performance with the Vienna Philharmonic on December 26 of that year. In two different editions of Essays in Musical Analysis, Sir Donald Francis Tovey Read more pontificated at length about the tragedy Brahms had in mind for this companion piece to the jolly Academic Festival Overture. From Ischl in the Austrian Alps the composer wrote to his publisher, "I could not refuse my melancholy nature the satisfaction of composing an overture for a tragedy." To his friend the conductor Carl Reinecke he said of the pair that "one of them weeps, the other one laughs," as with the comic and tragic masks in Greek and Roman theater.

Brahms did not, however, give any further hint of a specific "tragedy," nor had he suffered any recent private loss or given any indication of uncommon sadness. He wasn't, in truth, very fond of the title Tragic, referring to the work at one point as the "Dramatic Overture" although a canvass of his friends failed to produce an alternative that anyone liked better. Interestingly, 64 measures at the end of the exposition appeared in a sketchbook from the year 1869, which was principally concerned with the working-out of his Alto Rhapsody and Liebeslieder Waltzes. By then, inward grief over his mother's death had been sublimated in A German Requiem, and he had made the pleasant decision to live permanently in Vienna.

A melancholy streak in Brahms' personality that dated from childhood surfaced regularly in his later music, but "Melancholy Overture" wouldn't have sounded half so well as Tragic, although it more nearly fits the mood of Op. 81. In the event, this structurally traditional work (unlike the Academic Festival) opens with a pair of Beethovenian chords used thematically later on to set up the gloomy and agitated D minor main subject in 2/2 time. This is developed considerably before we hear a more lyrical second subject in F major. A third subject (the one from his 1869 sketchbook, with dotted rhythm and horn punctuation) adds a further element of contrast before the development proper begins Molto più moderato -- much slower than the exposition tempo. This development is brief, however, after which the three subjects are recapitulated in reverse order, as Beethoven's did in the Coriolan Overture, and Wagner's in the Flying Dutchman.

-- Roger Dettmer, All Music Guide Read less

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