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Timeline: Johannes Brahms

U.S. Public Domain
Johannes Brahms saw his music as following directly in the footsteps of previous German masters, Bach and Beethoven.

In September of 1895 the Meningen Music Festival in Germany dedicated over two weeks of performances to the music of three composers, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Brahms was 62 years old at the time; so could you possibly imagine a greater honor for a living composer? It’s completely fitting that the music of Johannes Brahms would be included in that line of prestigious and influential German composers. His music walked the line between tradition and the Romantic ideals of the 19th century.

Brahms father was a musician. He played the double-bass and actually got his start as a street performer. Johannes’ early musical education probably came from him; but it became evident early that Brahms was particularly gifted, especially as a pianist. An American agent wanted to take him to the United States to tour as a child prodigy. Instead, Brahms stayed in Hamburg and continued his studies.

Credit US-PD
Johannes Brahms at age 20. Robert Schumann called Brahms the "young eagle".

At 17, Brahms did tour as the accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Eduard Hoffman. It was during this trip that he met Franz Liszt. Though Brahms respected Liszt’s musicianship he did not support Liszt’s abandonment of traditional form and harmony. He vocally opposed this “New German School” and as a result the musical establishment in Germany resented him, making his early career rather difficult.

Brahms felt a much closer connection to the music of Robert Schumann. Robert, Clara and Brahms officially met when Brahms was 20. Robert affectionately called him a “young eagle”. After Schumann was committed to asylum, Brahms traveled to comfort the family and in turn fell madly in love with Clara, though she 14 years older than him. After Robert’s death, Brahms declared his affection, but Clara did not return it. They did remained close friends till her death.

Brahms was a champion of Baroque music, a member of the Bach Gesellschaft, and a collector of folk-tunes, especially Hungarian folk-tunes. He founded a women’s chorus in Hamburg and held several posts in that city as well as Vienna. However it was his compositions that made him famous world-wide.

At the age of 57, he declared that he was done composing. He put together his catalogue and destroyed unfinished or unworthy works. A year later, he met clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld who impressed him so greatly that he took up the pen again and composed four pieces for that instrument.

Not long after Clara’s death, Brahms’ friends began to remark that he didn’t look well. His doctors determined that he was suffering from liver cancer which took his life on April 3, 1897. 3 days later, he was buried in Vienna and all of Europe mourned his passing.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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