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
Martin Frost Plays Brahms
Release Date: 07/08/2014   Label: Bis  
Catalog: 2063   Number of Discs: 1
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Schubert: Symphony No 8; Brahms: Symphony No 3 / Davis
Release Date: 04/26/2011   Label: Profil  
Catalog: 8043   Number of Discs: 1
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Brahms Beloved II / John Axelrod
Release Date: 07/22/2014   Label: Telarc  
Catalog: 34659   Number of Discs: 2
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Dvorák: Requiem;  Brahms / Mertens, Hagel, Et Al
Release Date: 10/31/2006   Label: Profil  
Catalog: 6050   Number of Discs: 2
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Wilhelm Backhaus Live In Vienna - Brahms: Piano Concertos; Haydn
Release Date: 11/15/2011   Label: Profil  
Catalog: 11051   Number of Discs: 2
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Work: Variations on a theme by Haydn

 

About This Work
In Brahms' earliest sets of variations, especially those of Op. 9, the melody is of primary importance. His later studies of Beethoven, however, led to a new variation approach, in which he adhered instead to a theme's basic phrase structure and Read more harmonic pattern. As with the Händel Variations, Op. 24, the eight Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a, are bound by a consistent harmonic motion; at times, this is the only perceptible remnant of the original theme. Since its first performance in Vienna, on November 2, 1873, this has been among Brahms' most popular compositions -- a sprawling masterwork based on the simplest of thematic germs, very much in the tradition of Bach's Goldberg Variations and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations.

Brahms composed both the orchestral and two-piano versions of the Variations on a Theme of Haydn in the summer of 1873, while at the Starnberger See near Munich; during the same months, he completed the String Quartets, Op. 51. The piano variations, Op. 56b, were published first, in 1873 by Simrock in Berlin; the orchestral setting in 1874, also by Simrock.

Commonly referred to as the "St. Anthony" variations, the piece is based on a theme from the first of a set of six Divertimenti (Feldparthien) -- for many years thought to be by Haydn, but now thought to be by Haydn's pupil, Ignace Pleyel -- the second movement of which is based on an old Burgenland (an Austrian state that abuts Hungary) chant entitled, "Chorale St. Anthony."

Brahms shatters the stately atmosphere of the theme with a pulsating horn passage in the first variation, in which the melodic aspect of the theme has all but disappeared. A great outburst from the strings accents the second variation, while the third returns to the character of the theme, if not the original rhythm and pitches. A climbing woodwind tune traces the general shape of the theme in the quiet fourth variation, while the fifth takes off at lightning speed, emphasizing the falling intervals in the original theme. Brass and winds initiate the martial sixth variation, in which the theme is easily recognized. The seventh variation has some of the character of a Strauss waltz, while slithering contrapuntal lines noodle their way through the eighth. The work closes with a passacaglia in which the theme, gently articulated at first by the woodwinds at the opening, returns with the force of the full orchestra. The repeated, five-measure bass line of the passacaglia is derived from the main theme; because the bass line provides the variation material in this last segment, what we have are variations on a variation of the original theme.

-- John Palmer, All Music Guide Read less

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