Classical Composer : Johannes Brahms
by Betty Fry
So again searching for a way to get the feel of the man behind the music, what else would I play other than Brahms sweet and lovely ‘Cradle Song’.
This famous lullaby has been known to me for so many years, yet until now I only ever thought of it as ‘Brahms Lullaby’. I hummed it to my children without a thought as to who might have composed its lovely sound, or why it came to be a part of the composer’s repertoire.
And I am now both intrigued and delighted to discover how much more pleasure there is in music when one knows something of the composer, and the reasoning behind its making.
‘Cradle Song’ was a variation on an Austrian folk song which Brahms wrote for the first child of his Viennese friend, Berta Porubszky.
The piano arrangement to which I am listening, is a particularly well known version. The calm soothing melody sings out sweetly, while the gently rocking accompaniment and rippling keyboard elaborations are heard above it.
If it were evening it would certainly be sleep inducing. But it is early morning, and instead I find it utterly relaxing, making for a gentle start to a new day that can sometimes be a little too rushed for comfort.
It belongs to a set of works he called ‘Five Songs, Opus 49’, and which he composed in 1868.
The others are ‘On Sunday Morning’; ‘To a Violet’; ‘Longing’; and ‘Twilight’, all of which suggest a softer, paternal side to his character, other than the crusty old bachelor he sometimes affected to be.
There were plenty of women who wanted to marry him, but it seems he preferred his independence if he could not have the woman he wanted.
Johannes Brahms was born in 1833 in North Germany, in a tiny two room flat in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Hamburg.
In this environment Johannes Brahms learned the rudiments of music from his father, a musician who barely managed to keep his family afloat by playing double bass in various bands.
An early plan to train his son as an orchestral player was abandoned when it was found that the young musician had a natural gift for the piano.
Under the tuition first of Otto Cossel, who wisely opposed the idea that he should be taken on tour as a child prodigy, and then of Eduard Marxsen, he made rapid progress and started to improvise his own compositions when he was twelve years old.
But the young Johannes was expected to pay his way, and so, a year later at the age of thirteen he was sent to earn money by playing the piano late at night in Hamburg’s dockside taverns and brothels.
Obliged to do this in order to earn a meager living and keep up his music studies it seems the experience scarred him for life.
The sensitive boy took refuge from these squalid surroundings in the world of German Romantic literature, reading from a book propped up on the music stand, while he played popular tunes for his uncritical audience.
During the day he studied music, and within a year was able to leave for more respectable venues.
In the confines of his tiny home, he enjoyed playing with tin soldiers, and even in later life liked to relax by ordering and re-ordering his collection in their ranks.
However in 1851 he met Eduard Remenyi, a colourful young violinist of Hungarian extraction, whose national musical style fascinated Brahms.
But he was entranced by Hungarian gypsy music long before he wrote his 21 Hungarian Dances, originally for piano duet.
The first set of ‘Hungarian Dances’ appeared in 1869 and initially Brahms’ publishers were uninterested, but changed their mind when the dances quickly became extremely popular with the general public.
In the orchestrated version to which I am now listening, the lion’s share of the melody is given to the strings, which is fitting, since the violin is the most prominent instrument in gypsy music.
Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor is a vivacious piece, with wonderful melodies, mostly for energetic dancing. But it is frequently interrupted by contrasting slower moments.
In one section, slow and fast elements alternate as if in conversation with each other. Throughout, the mood is passionate and hot blooded.
Remenyi took Brahms to see the famous violinist Joseph Joachim who was absolutely spellbound by Brahms music.
From this meeting came an invitation to perform before the King of Hanover, and letters of introduction to Liszt and Schumann, to whom Joachim wrote a glowing account of the ‘new star that has appeared so unexpectedly in the musical firmament’.
However Brahms encounter with Liszt was not a success. He felt extremely ill at ease in the Liszt household. But this was mainly because his humble beginnings, limited schooling, and resultant lack of social polish made him awkward in the company of the grander people his art gave him access to.
After this setback he hesitated before following up the introduction to Robert and Clara Schumann. But when he did so in September 1853, he found a welcome that was warm, friendly, and sincere.
Schumann was overwhelmed by his music, referring to Brahms as ‘the young eagle’ and hailing him as a genius in an article published in a high quality musical journal.
He then sent the young man to Leipzig, where he found two publishers, and met Hector Berlioz.
The following year Schumann suffered a nervous collapse and tried to commit suicide. Brahms rushed back to Dusseldorf to be by Clara’s side.
His motives were those of a loyal friend, but before long he fell in love with her. She greatly valued Brahms support, but kept him at a proper distance.
When Robert died in 1856 she and Brahms parted. They remained the best of friends, but it seems it was then that he determined never to reveal his personal feelings so openly again.
In 1862 he moved to Vienna where he spent the rest of his life increasingly set in his bachelor ways. He lived simply in modest lodgings; enjoyed his food but was not extravagant; his clothes were out of fashion and often untidy, yet always scrupulously clean.
However his uncouth manner kept the world at bay, apart from a handful of close and trusted friends.
I have a watercolour of Brahms’ apartment in Vienna. It looks warm and comfortable. But most of all I note the bust of Beethhoven set on the wall above his piano, a man who had taken the Classical symphony to new heights, and whom Brahms revered above all others.
But apart from his lullabies, Hungarian Dances, Overtures, and Symphonies, Brahms wrote wonderful waltzes, and again my favorite must be his No. 15 in A Flat Major.
It is one of the most graceful of his Opus 39 waltzes, of which there are 16, all written in 1865 originally for piano, but now, playing for me on my CD it has been arranged for strings.
The tune has something of the sound with which I shall forever associate Brahms. Like a soothing lullaby, it suggests the party is drawing to a close. I can see the almost deserted ballroom, and the few remaining couples slowly moving across the dance floor, lost in their dreams.
The Opus 39 waltzes and the ‘Liebeslieder (Love Songs) waltzes, Opus 52, brought Brahms to the attention of a wide public, who bought this music to play at home in quantities that greatly increased his income.
All were written for piano duet (two players at one keyboard), the latter with the addition of a vocal quartet. Later Brahms rewrote Opus 39 for solo piano.
People generally love Brahms for the strength of his musical thinking, tempered by other romantic aspects of his personality; the sunny warmth and occasional tenderness behind the gruff exterior; and the dark but beautiful mood of his closing years.