January 22, 2010

Meet Mr. Brahms

In yesterday's post, we said that we going to address why Philharmonia Baroque is expanding it's repertoire to play works from 1858 and 1878, some of the newest music we've ever played, but not quite. First, however, let's talk about the beloved Romantic composer of these works: Johannes Brahms. Violinist and Philharmonia Baroque staffer David Wilson joins us again:

When Johannes Brahms (pictured left) was born in 1833, his native city of Hamburg already had a musical tradition that was centuries old. Opera, church music and music publishing all thrived throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The city also had a tradition of public concerts – something we take for granted today but was not a given throughout history. This was the environment into which Brahms was born. His family was working class, but valued music and education. Brahms went to school and had lessons on piano, cello and horn. As a teenager, he began to perform in public as a pianist and to write music.

At the age of 20, Brahms was meeting and playing music with many musicians who were or would become some of the foremost performers and composers of their time, including violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom Brahms would later write his only violin concerto, and Franz Liszt. Joachim told Brahms that he really should get to know the Schumanns, Robert and Clara, both of whom were composers. He did so in September of 1853 and a lifelong friendship between the three musicians began. Brahms spent the next ten years performing, composing chamber music and thinking about the creative process and how that relates to life.

In 1855, frustrated with composition to the point of writing that he no longer had any idea how one goes about composing music, he turned to early music – the counterpoint of Bach, for example, and to baroque and renaissance dance forms – as well as folk music for creative inspiration. It worked. (In our time, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt reached a similar creative impasse and, like Brahms, he resolved it through a study and application of the principles of early music.) Brahms’s interest in early music was also reflected in the repertoire he chose for the choirs and orchestras he conducted in Hamburg and Vienna, as well as the repertoire he performed in his piano recitals. In 1850, the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was formed in Germany to publish the complete works of J.S. Bach. Brahms owned a number of volumes (cantatas) of that complete-works edition and may even have been a subscriber of the Society.

In 1869, the first full performance of his German Requiem was greeted so enthusiastically that Brahms finally became known as an important composer throughout Europe. Despite a disastrous stock market collapse in 1873 that trashed the economies of most European countries (and that of the U.S.), Brahms’s own fortunes soared in the 1870s in the form of concert tours, guest conducting engagements throughout Europe, awards and knighthoods, publishing contracts and teaching engagements. He continued to compose in many genres, including large works involving orchestra.

Brahms died of liver cancer on April 3, 1897. Although he was romantically linked to a number of women during his lifetime, he never married.


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