Johannes Brahms’ Greatest Works
One of the greatest composers in the Romantic era, Brahms’ astonishing mastery of musical genres and techniques was heightened by his ability to imbue his works with emotion.
Among the usual suspects of well-known classical pieces, it’s rare to find a work by Brahms. Perhaps this is because he’s often considered primarily a composer of chamber music. But those who dig deeper will discover that among his more than 200 works, there are absolute gems that rank him among the greats, like Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Beethoven.
We’ve put together a list of what we think are his greatest works, as well as some of our audience’s favorites, to help you enjoy this often overlooked master composer.
Plus, on May 28, 2022, we'll be performing two of these works live on stage.
6 Brahms’ Works Beloved by Redlands Symphony Staff
1. German Requiem
Brahms’ German Requiem was so revolutionary for its time that it stirred the pot when it was first performed. The clergy at the Bremen Cathedral, the site of the first performance, insisted that more traditional music be played moving forward.
Indeed, it was a new twist on the traditional requiem, which typically offered prayers for the dead. Brahms’ German Requiem, however, was focused on comforting the living. Brahms’ focus on the living was emphasized by his comment that “I would very gladly omit the ‘German’ as well, and simply put ‘of Mankind.’”
While clergy may have been hesitant about the piece, it was a milestone for Brahms’ musical career. The longest and most grandly scored piece he ever wrote, it also engages with traditional music in a way that other composers rarely did.
2. Symphony No. 1
Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 was more than twenty years in the making. He resolved to write it in 1853 after hearing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time. However, his first attempts were recast. Pieces of it can be found in his First Piano Concerto and in a section of his German Requiem.
But Brahms did not give up — in large part thanks to the support and encouragement of Robert and Clara Schumann, whom Brahms met in 1854. While his Symphony No. 1 was written in C minor, as opposed to Beethoven’s D minor inspiration, Brahms did indeed look to Beethoven at the opening and closing.
Robert and Clara Schumann were an integral part of launching Brahms’ career, and they both helped the young composer work through his insecurity at standing in Beethoven’s shadow.
3. Violin Concerto in D major, op. 77
Violin concertos hold a special place in Brahms’ history. At only 12 years old, Brahms made his musical debut in London playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. However, he wouldn’t go on to compose his own until much later.
The majority of his work on the concerto was completed during the summer of 1878, but he continued to refine the work until it premiered on New Year’s Day of 1879.
It opens with an idyllic, pastoral atmosphere in D major. The harmony then shifts to the distant key of C major, turning darker and dissonant. In this same back and forth fashion, the solo violin makes a dramatic entrance, as the piece’s melancholic lines build upon one another to a thrilling conclusion.
Brahms composed his Violin Concerto for his friend and violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim was influential in helping Brahms cement his life motto: “frei aber einsam” (“free but lonely’).
4. Symphony No. 4
The Fourth Symphony is one of Brahms’ darkest. Composed during the summers of 1884 and 1885, it’s filled with tragedy — a fact that can be felt from the quiet sigh of violins at the opening. This minor third interval links each movement, as they are echoed and counterbalanced.
While the harmonic and motivic choices Brahms made were eventually recognized for their beauty, they earned him some criticism early on. Yet there were those who immediately recognized Brahms’ accomplishment, like Eduard Hanslick, who said, “The symphony demands complete mastery; it is the composer’s severest test — and his highest calling.”
Back at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, our music director and conductor, Ransom Wilson, collaborated with our musicians to create a video to showcase Symphony No. 4's themes when we could not perform it live on stage in 2020.
5. Piano Concerto No. 2
As with much of his work, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 took many years to finish. But the result is a deeply complex piece, filled with passion.
The opening — a lone horn calling out and answered by the piano — is deceptively benign, as it’s followed by a keyboard cadenza. Ultimately, the piece ends bubbling with elegance and charm, highlighting once again Brahms’ seemingly endless creativity.
6. Symphony No. 3
One of the magical elements of Brahms’ technical mastery is that he was, in fact, still a Romantic. This is no more brilliantly displayed than in his Symphony No. 3, which pairs technical perfection with powerful emotion.
Brahms cycles melodies from earlier movements into later movements in order to trace a dramatic narrative. This is yet another example of how Brahms revolutionized symphonic music. At the time, this technique was more characteristic of program music than abstract symphonic music.
We’re excited to perform this masterwork live at our May 28, 2022 concert. We hope to see you there.
Brahms’ Audience Favorites
There are also a number of pieces by Brahms that strike a chord with our audience — and many others worldwide.
1. Academic Festival Overture
Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture is arguably his most famous piece, and with good reason. It’s one of the most untethered and jubilant pieces he wrote. This is likely due to the fact that the material is borrowed from drinking songs and other lively tunes — some of which were banned at the time.
Less discussed than the glass-clinking inspiration is how Brahms opens the piece. It begins with “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus” (“We had built a stately home”), a tune he plucked from a student organization that advocated for the unification of the independent German states. “Wir hatten gebauet” was so controversial that it had been banned for decades.
Thankfully, by 1881 it was able to be premiered, and we can also share it with you on May 28th, 2022.
2. Liebeslieder Waltzes
Brahms’ Liebeslieder (Love-Song) waltzes were instant hits when they were published. Engaging and uptempo, these works pay homage to the fantastically popular Johann Strauss, Jr. (aka the Vienna "Waltz King") and Franz Schubert.
The Opus 52 collection was written rather quickly, apparently conceived as an unordered set of songs. This offered great appeal to party musicians, as it made it easy to pick a few favorites to perform. Ultimately, the pieces were published in an order that seems to have been arranged in three groups of six, with the last of each group being the most complex.
3. Variations on a Theme by Haydn (aka Haydn Variations)
Brahms’ Haydn Variations are based upon a woodwind octet written by Joseph Haydn. The piece was presented to Brahms in 1870 by his musicologist friend, Carl Ferdinand Pohl, who believed the work to be unknown.
Three years later, during the summer of 1873, Brahms composed a set of variations on the woodwind theme using two pianos. This creates a clear texture, helping to elevate contrast and lyrical counterpoint throughout the piece. The result is a work that alternates between menacing and playful.
Additional Reading (and Listening)
Thank you for reading. Let us know on Facebook if there are more composers you would like us to write about. We’ll be planning a Beethoven article soon, too.
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In the meantime, visit our blog for more inspiring content to add music to your day.
- Revisit our past concerts with narration by our Music Director and conductor
- Browse curated playlists to better enjoy classical music
- Discover Mozart’s greatest works
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