Johannes Brahms

The son of a double bassist in the Hamburg Philharmonic Society, Brahms demonstrated great promise from the beginning. He studied the piano from the age of seven and theory and composition from 13, gaining experience as an arranger for his father's light orchestra while absorbing the popular alla zingarese style associated with Hungarian folk music. In 1853, on a tour with the Hungarian violinist Reményi, he met Joseph Joachim and Liszt; Joachim, who became a lifelong friend, encouraged him to meet Schumann. Brahms' artistic kinship with Robert Schumann and his profound romantic passion for Clara Schumann, 14 years his elder, never left him. After a time in Dí¼sseldorf he worked in Detmold, settling in Hamburg in 1859 to direct a women's chorus. Though well known as a pianist he had trouble finding recognition as a composer, largely owing to his outspoken opposition to the aesthetic principles of Liszt and the New German School. He finally won a position of influence in 1863-64, as director of the Vienna Singakademie, concentrating on historical and modern a cappella works. Around this time he met Wagner, but their opposed stances precluded anything like friendship. Besides giving concerts of his own music, he made tours throughout northern and central Europe and began teaching the piano. He settled permanently in Vienna in 1868.

Brahms' urge to hold an official position was again met by a brief conductorship but the practical demands of the job conflicted with his even more intense longing to compose. Both the "German Requiem" and the Variations on the St. Antony Chorale were rapturously acclaimed, bringing international renown and financial security. Honors from home and abroad stimulated a spate of masterpieces, including the First and Second Symphonies, the Violin Concerto, the songs of opp. 69-72 and the C major Trio. In 1881 Hans von Bí¼low became a valued colleague and supporter, "lending" Brahms the fine Meiningen court orchestra to rehearse his new works, notably the Fourth Symphony. At Bad Ischl, his favourite summer resort, he composed a series of important chamber works. By 1890 he had resolved to stop composing but nevertheless produced in 1891-4 some of his best instrumental pieces, inspired by the clarinetist Richard Mí¼hlfeld. Soon after Clara's death in 1896 he died from cancer at the age of 63, and was buried in Vienna.