Johannes Brahms

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About Johannes Brahms

Photographs show an imposing, dignified man with a bushy, patrician beard. But behind the public mask, Brahms was shy, prone to painful self-doubt, and profoundly melancholic. Born in Hamburg in 1833, he rose from a humble background to become the embodiment of German symphonic music throughout the Western world. It was Robert Schumann who recognized and encouraged the young Brahms’ genius, but Schumann’s collapse into insanity left scars that lasted his whole life. He then developed an intense, creatively vital, but puzzlingly unfulfilled relationship with Schumann’s widow, Clara. He remained a bachelor, and there’s no evidence of any significant love affairs, but women were clearly very important to him as friends and artistic confidantes. Brahms’ magnificent symphonies and concertos are still mainstays of the modern concert repertoire. Each of them breathes a confidence that reveals very little of the struggles Brahms had in achieving such mastery: The First Symphony, for instance, was first sketched in 1855, yet it took Brahms two agonizing decades to bring it to completion. For many listeners, however, his most personal and beautiful utterances are to be found in his chamber and piano music and in his songs, where, away from the big public stage, he was able to reveal his true, acutely sensitive, melancholic nature, and nowhere more so than in the glorious, autumnal Clarinet Quintet he composed after his official retirement in 1890. Brahms died in his adopted home city, Vienna, in 1897, less than a year after the death of Clara Schumann.

May 7, 1833

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