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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany on May 7, 1833. (Photo of birthplace below). Brahms's family occupied part of the first floor behind the two double windows on the left hand side. The building was destroyed by bombing in 1943.

Photograph from 1891 of the building in Hamburg where Brahms was born.

Johannes came from a humble but happy background. His father, Johann Jakob Brahms, was a poor (financially) musician who played the double bass in the orchestra of the Stadtheatre at Hamburg. His mother, Henrika Christiane Nissen, was a seamstress never previously married, who was seventeen years older than he was. Johannes had an older sister and a younger brother.

His father gave him his first musical training then he studied piano from the age of seven with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel.

After studying the violin and cello with his father, Johannes mastered the piano and began to compose under the guidance of the German music teacher Eduard Marxsen,

For a time, he also learned the cello, although his progress was cut short when his teacher absconded with Brahms' instrument.

Johannes hated French at school which resulted in a life long hatred of the nation. (He also hated the English).

He was twice invited to accept an honary doctorate at Cambridge. He never made it as he hated the sea and the thought of crossing the choppy English Channel put him off.

Brahms in 1853

From the age of 10 Brahms helped to supplement the rather meagre family income playing the piano in dockside dance halls, cafes, theatres, inns and later brothels. He would have a book of poetry in front of him to distract him from the noisy crowd.

Brahms was clean shaven until he was well past 40, then made up for it with a distinctive, flowing white beard. Though he had the chest development of a tall man, his legs were so short they barely reached his piano pedals.


As a promising young composer Brahms was introduced to the great Franz Liszt in Weimar who promptly played Brahms' Piano Sonata in C at a house recital, heaping praise on the young whippersnapper. Liszt then played his own piano sonata to which Brahms fell asleep to.

A merciless self-critic, Brahms burned all that he wrote before the age of 19 as well as some sketches of later masterpieces. It is known that he frequently reworked pieces over a period of 10 to 20 years, and before achieving the final form he often transcribed them for several different combinations of instruments.

Starting in the 1860's, when his works sold widely, Brahms was well off financially. He preferred a modest life style, however, living in a simple three-room apartment with a housekeeper. He gave away much of his money to relatives, and also anonymously helped support a number of young musicians.

The majority of  Brahms' Requiem was written after his mother's death in 1865, a loss that caused him much grief. The fifth movement was later added after the official premiere at a Good Friday concert in Bremen Cathedral with Brahms conducting, on April 10, 1868. The Requiem proved a triumphant success following its first performance and was soon performed in concert by massed choirs and mighty orchestras. It marked a turning point in Brahms' career placing him among Europe's leading composers.

Brahms venerated Beethoven, perhaps even more than the other Romantic composers did. In the composer's home, a marble bust of Beethoven looked down on the spot where he composed. 

Though agreeable, charitable and charming, to adults Brahms was often brusque and sarcastic, and he sometimes alienated other people. His pupil Gustav Jenner claimed that he was a pussycat really. He wrote: "Brahms has acquired, not without reason, the reputation for being a grump, even though few could also be as lovable as he."

Brahms' sarcasm was a mask against his shyness. Once after a series of offensive remarks to a group of friends, he left the room with the parting words "if there is anyone here whom I have not insulted I beg his pardon." 

He was aware of his shortcomings. On one occasion, a small child offered Brahms a rose and he responded, "Is that meant to represent my prickly nature." 

A practical joker, Brahms would seat visitors in his trick rocking chair which unceremoniously tipped over to the accompaniment of Brahms’ loud guffaws. 

His best friend was Clara Schumann , wife of the composer Robert Schumann, who was 14 years older than him. Whether they ever became lovers after the death of her husband is unknown, but their destruction of their letters to each other may point to something beyond mere privacy.

Another of Brahms’ relationships was with one Bertha Faber, who sung in his women’s choir at Hamburg. The composer renewed his acquaintance with her when he moved to Vienna, by which time she had married. Bertha had the honor of having his lullaby written to celebrate the birth of her eldest child, Hans. 

Brahms only really achieved intimate female companionship with prostitutes. He treated the girls well and they returned his affection. After his death, when asked about his love life, his housekeeper would only say, "he was a very naughty old gentleman."

Brahms had a wide circle of friends. Those who remained his friends, despite his sarcasm were very loyal to him, and he reciprocated in return with equal loyalty and generosity. He was a lifelong friend with Johann Strauss II though they were very different as composers

On one occasion, Brahms fell ill and his doctor instructed him to go on a diet. "But this evening I'm dining with Strauss" he protested "and we shall have chicken paprika." That's out of the question the doctor told him. "In that case" said the composer, "please consider that I did not come to consult you until tomorrow." 

Brahms enjoyed eating out in Vienna's cheap cafes and restaurants, especially his daily visit to his favourite 'Red Hedgehog' tavern in Vienna, which he visited most days often together with Johann Strauss.. There, he would drink strong coffee (so strong only he could make it to his satisfaction).

According to the autobiography of English operatic soprano and composer Liza Lehmann, when she met Brahms, she was left unimpressed by his bluff and coarse manners, particularly when he gobbled up a whole tin of sardines at breakfast and then drank the oil from the tin.

Cats got Brahms back up. The composer spent much time at his window in his Vienna home trying to hit neighbourhood cats with a harpoon manufactured from a bow and arrow.

A keen walker and lover of nature, Brahms often went walking in the woods around Vienna, when he often brought penny candy with him to hand out to children. He also enjoyed walking holidays in Italy. The press noted his style of walking with his hands firmly behind his back.

From 1872 to his death, Brahms lived in a third floor apartment at Karlsgasse, Vienna.

Brahms declined an honorary degree from Cambridge University in 1877 because he had a fear of boats and would not cross the Channel. 

The elderly Brahms met a 25-year-old composer called Claude Debussy in Vienna and took him out to dinner and then onto the court opera to see Bizet's Carmen.

In his last years being comfortable financially, Brahms could afford to do as he pleased. He frequently travelled, both for business (concert tours) and pleasure and often visited Italy in the springtime, and usually sought out a pleasant rural location there in which to compose during the summer.

In 1889, one Theo Wangemann, a representative of American inventor Thomas Edison, visited the composer in Vienna and invited him to make an experimental recording. Brahms played an abbreviated version of his first Hungarian dance on the piano. The recording was later issued on a record of early piano performances. Sadly, the piano playing is largely inaudible due to heavy surface noise, but this remains the earliest recording made by a major composer. 

In 1895 Brahms fell terminally ill with cancer of the liver though he was never told the nature of the disease. He died two years later on April 3, 1897 in his bed watched over by his landlady, having retained consciousness to the last. Brahms was buried in Vienna's Zentralfriedhof (General Cemetery). 

He wrote four symphonies, wrote settings for piano and voice of 144 German folk songs, and many of his lieder reflect folk themes or depict scenes of rural life. However, Brahms never wrote an opera, nor did he ever write in the characteristic 19th century form of the tone poem.

Sources My knowledge and Wikipedia

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