5 Things to Know About Brahms to Better Appreciate His Music
Let's take a look at how Brahms started composing, how he faced his insecurity, and how his life influenced his music.
On May 28, the Redlands Symphony performs two great works by Johannes Brahms — the witty Academic Festival Overtureand his powerful Third Symphony.
But what makes this composer so special? We've come up with five things that would help every music lover to better understand the music of Johannes Brahms.
1. Brahms owed the start of his career to Robert and Clara Schumann.
When he was 20, Brahms visited the famous musical couple with a letter of introduction from his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim. Robert and Clara were deeply impressed with the young composer, and a lifelong friendship was born. Robert introduced Brahms to the world in “New Paths”, an article he wrote for the New Journal of Music, in which Robert portrayed Brahms as a kind of musical messiah who would lead the world forward to new greatness after Beethoven.
2. He suffered from imposter syndrome.
From a young age, Brahms felt pressured that, in order to be a “great” composer, he would have to prove himself the rightful heir to Beethoven. As much as he appreciated Robert Schumann’s article, it also left him feeling insecure and worried that he’d never be able to live up to the high expectations the public now had of him.
This insecurity directly impacted Brahms’ compositional output. Believing that whatever he wrote would have to be worthy of being “Beethoven’s 10th,” he didn’t complete his first symphony until he was 43 years old.
Even after the success of his early symphonies, he continued to be concerned about his legacy. He contacted many of his friends over the years and asked them to send him any copies they had of his youthful music so that he could destroy them. He was so thorough in deleting his musical history that very few of these early works remain.
3. Brahms' fans were in an intense (and sometimes violent) rivalry with Wagner lovers.
German music lovers were divided into two camps during the mid-19th century — both of which claimed to have inherited Beethoven’s mantle. On one hand, Brahms’ fans emphasized classical form and emotive constraint, with an attachment to traditional harmony. Opposing them were the fans of Wagner and Liszt, who believed that Beethoven’s true legacy was in innovation, leading to new forms, new types of harmony, and new extremes of dramatic and emotional expressiveness.
These two camps — sometimes known as the Leipzig and Weimar schools — had passionate followers, and it wasn’t unheard of for fist fights to break out between them at prominent concerts.
Ironically (or perhaps typically), the composers who served as the icons of each movement were vocal about admiring one another's music, even when they disagreed with their aesthetics.
Even back then, fans loved to make some drama.
4. His music features innovative rhythms.
While his melodic and harmonic writing tended to be conservative, Brahms took rhythmic fluidity to new limits compared to other German composers. Brahms’ music is filled with irregular rhythms juxtaposed against one another. It’s likely that his interest in rhythmic freedom can be traced back to the Hungarian and Roma folk music with which he was fascinated as a young composer.
5. His life motto made its way into his music.
When he first met Joseph Joachim (for whom he would write his Violin Concerto), he was both impressed and amused by the violinist’s life motto. Claiming that a life performing music made it nearly impossible to maintain any romantic relationship, Joachim called himself “frei aber einsam” (“free but lonely’).
In the blend of serious and humorous that was typical of Brahms, he adapted Joachim’s motto to his own life, changing it to “frei aber froh” (“free but happy”). While he never admitted to any explicit use of this motto in his music, Brahms’ works feature a suspiciously high frequency of a motif using the notes F-A-F, including the opening three notes (F-A♭-F) of his Third Symphony, which the Redlands Symphony performs on May 28!
Join us at Memorial Chapel in Redlands and experience Brahms for yourself at this fantastic concert!
Learn more about Brahms
Browse our blog for more articles, playlists, and virtual performances to enjoy the music of one of our favorite classical music composers.
- Discover the String Music of Mozart & Brahms
- The Passion and Tenderness of Johannes Brahms
- Insights into Brahms' Symphony No. 4
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