Brahms, Johannes (brämz, Ger. yōhänˈnĕs bräms) [key], 1833–97, German composer, b. Hamburg. Brahms ranks among the greatest masters of the romantic period. The son of a musician, he early showed astonishing talent in many directions; he chose as a boy to become a pianist. As accompanist to the violinist Eduard Reményi he attracted the notice of Johann Joachim, who introduced him to leading musical circles. Brahms became the devoted friend of Robert and Clara Schumann, both of whom admired his compositions. His later activities as pianist and as choral conductor were not very successful, but after he settled in Vienna his compositions brought him enough money to support himself in simple comfort. Brahms never married, although he had several love affairs and remained deeply attached to Clara Schumann for years after her husband's death.
In his music the romantic impulse is restrained by a reverence for the forms of the past. This blend of romantic feeling and classical spirit is exemplified in such works as his Variations on a Theme by Handel (1861), for piano, and the orchestral composition Variations on a Theme by Haydn (1873). In his day, Brahms's conservative romanticism was contrasted with Richard Wagner's dramatic romantic style, and a controversy raged between supporters of Brahms and the followers of the "neo-German" school led by Liszt and Wagner. His extreme self-criticism led him to destroy much of what he composed, limiting the number of his existing works but ensuring a uniformly high quality.
Brahms wrote four symphonies, which are considered among the greatest in symphonic music. Major choral works include Ein deutsches Requiem [a German requiem] (1866) and Schicksalslied [song of destiny] (1868), both for chorus and orchestra. The Violin Concerto in D (1878), the Piano Concerto in B Flat (1878–81), and the Piano Quintet in F Minor (1864) are staples of the concert repertory. Brahms also composed sonatas, capriccios, intermezzos—works in almost every genre except opera. Throughout his life he devoted attention to chamber music and songs, which vary from simple accompaniments for folk songs to solemn compositions such as Vier ernste Gesange [four serious songs] (1896). Many of his exquisite romantic lieder, in which the words, melody, and piano accompaniment are inseparably blended, are favorites among singers, and his lullaby has long been a familiar melody throughout the world.
See his letters, ed. by M. Kalbeck (1909), Life and Letters (1997), S. Avins, ed.; biographies by H. Gal (tr. 1963, repr. 1977), K. Geiringer (3d ed. 1981), and J. Swafford (1997); studies by B. James (1972) and G. S. Bozarth (1989).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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