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: Complete Edition
Release Date: 04/29/2014   Label: Brilliant Classics  
Catalog: 94860   Number of Discs: 58
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Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1, Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 / Shure, Bernstein, New York Philharmonic
Release Date: 07/09/2013   Label: Doremi Records  
Catalog: 8017   Number of Discs: 3
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Brahms: Hungarian Dances / Ivan Fischer, Budapest Festival
Release Date: 11/09/1999   Label: Philips  
Catalog: 462589   Number of Discs: 1
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Brahms: Symphony No 2; Wagner: Tannhauser Overture / Kempe
Release Date: 11/19/2013   Label: Ica Classics  
Catalog: 5119   Number of Discs: 1
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Brahms: Clarinet Trio, Cello Sonatas / Collins, Watkins
Release Date: 07/29/2014   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 10825   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Double Concerto, Op. 102

 

About This Work
Brahms wrote this work during the summer of 1887, and conducted the premiere himself on October 18 in Cologne, with Joseph Joachim and Robert Hausmann as, respectively, the violin and cello soloists. Brahms had just turned 20 when he met Joseph Read more Joachim (1831-1907), already a celebrated violinist at 22 and destined to be acclaimed also as a composer, conductor, and educator. It was Joachim who commended his new friend to Robert and Clara Schumann, thereby assuring his celebrity. For 30 years the two were fast friends despite the distance usually separating their power bases: Joachim's in Berlin, Brahms' in Vienna finally. "Jussuf," however, had a weakness -- obsessive jealousy of his wife Amalie, whom he accused of adultery in 1881 with his (and Brahms' and Dvorák's) publisher, Fritz Simrock. Brahms disbelieved, and said so in a consolatory letter to Frau Joachim. During divorce hearings she produced this letter in court, and the judge agreed publicly with its contents.

As a result, Joachim cut off communications with Brahms for six years, although he continued to play the composer's music. Finally, seeking to repair the damage, Brahms composed the "Double" Concerto as a peace offering; the effort was successful, although their camaraderie of former years was never fully restored. In addition to composing the "Thun" sonatas of 1886 for violin and cello, Brahms had been studying Baroque concerti grossi, so the sound of string instruments was in his ear. This concerto would be his last orchestral work.

From the Swiss vacation resort of Hofstetter on Lake Thun, he wrote to several persons about his "strange flight of fancy...for fiddle and cello." But first he sent a postcard to Joachim, received on July 19, 1887, by which time Brahms had completed the work and was copying solo parts. When Joachim responded enthusiastically by return mail, Brahms asked him to arrange a play-through with Robert Hausmann, who had introduced the Op. 99 Cello Sonata a few months prior; Brahms himself would accompany on the piano. This took place at Clara Schumann's home in Baden-Baden in September (her diary notes that "Brahms and Joachim have spoken to one another again after years of silence"). Although neither the Cologne premiere nor the first Vienna performance was a success, the concerto finally entered the repertory, even if it never enjoyed the success of his violin concerto or the two for piano.

The opening Allegro (A minor; 4/4) begins with the kernel of the main theme, then a cello "recitative," and finally the kernel of a more lyrical second theme. Next, the violin has a turn, though the cello intrudes after five bars, following which the orchestra finally gets to play a 44-bar exposition of themes already previewed. Soloists perform the traditional second exposition, but there is not, in the development or recapitulation, a lot of unison playing. Thoughout, the soloists are not stars with a supporting cast, but merely leading characters in a primarily orchestral drama. Unison passages appear in the A and A' sections of the sweetly autumnal, folk-flavored, song-form Andante in D major (3/4 time). The solo instruments dovetail or briefly overlap in an F major middle section, until a magical enharmonic transition leads back to unison playing.

The lighthearted but "not too lively" rondo (vivace non troppo) has repeating A sections with a staccato-marcato rhythm that wrong-headed playing can accelerate and by so doing adulterate. The B section is broader, with chords on the cello that the violin echoes. The C section, in F major, is similarly broad but longer, before the A material returns one more time, with a jaunty tilt of the cap and a kind of jig -- all the more entertaining in light of Brahms' short stature, bushy beard and, by then, Santa-like corpulence.

-- Roger Dettmer, All Music Guide Read less

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