Music History 102

The Late Romantics

Johannes Brahms

portrait of Johannes Brahms

Born: Hamburg, May 7, 1833

Died: Vienna, April 3, 1897

Born to a poor family in the slums of Hamburg, Germany, Brahms studied music as best he was able while supporting himself by playing piano at bars and brothels and by turning out arrangements of light music. His early compositions continued in the progressive direction of the waning romanticism: huge sonatas, piano trios, and other works like the Piano Quartet in G minor, for the finale of which Brahms utilizes a flashy gypsy melody. But Brahms later abandoned this track, devoting himself instead to synthesizing the Classical forms with the almost by now forgotten early Romanticism, with its slowly unraveling sense of tonality. In so doing, Brahms created a repertoire of works that amounts to a glowing and majestic apotheosis of the musical traditions of the nineteenth-century.

This twilight quality is evident in the exquisite German Requiem, which was well-known all over Europe by the 1870s. At this time, having written only chamber works, concertos, piano music, and choral pieces, Brahms finally turned to the symphony. The Symphony no. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 was dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth” by a famous conductor because of its magesterial and intense tone. It also contains in the fourth movement one of Brahms’ best loved melodies, which many compared to the famous theme of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony.

Many of Brahms’ later works are undoubtedly his best, including the Four Serious Songs, the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, and the last two of his four symphonies. The symphonies contain much that is stirring, heroic, gentle and melancholy, as can be heard in the wistful third movement of the Symphony no. 3 in F major, Op. 90.

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane