Johannes Brahms

Academic Festival Overure, op. 80

            By the late 1870s Brahms’ position as a preëminent composer was well recognized.  He was almost universally admired for his first two symphonies, his two serenades, and the “Haydn” variations.    So, in 1879 the University of Breslau in Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland), in the best tradition of universities everywhere, brought honor to the distinguished composer—and distinction to itself, of course—by awarding him an honorary doctorate.  Typically, Brahms modestly sent a letter of thanks to the university, and called it a day.

Hungarian Dances No. 5 & No. 6, WoO 1

            Who, indeed, can resist the spirited, soulful music of the “Hungarian” Gypsies?  Well, apparently, almost no one of the gifted, leading composers of nineteenth-century Europe, including such luminaries as Liszt, Schubert, and a host of others.  And, most notably, our Johannes Brahms—he of the most classical bent, the most serious mien, and the most redoubtable reputation as a composer.  The “gypsy” style appears frequently in compositions by important serious composers of the time, including several of Brahms’ important works: the violin concerto, the G minor piano quarter, and others.   In 1853, early in his career, Brahms accompanied the virtuoso Hungarian violinist, Ede Reményi on a concert tour, which included several works in the Hungarian Gypsy style. 

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, op. 15

        Brahms wrote two piano concertos, separated by the passage of some twenty-two years.  This first one is the product of his relative youth, having been completed in 1859, when he was twenty-five.   A youthful work it is not, however.  Brahms had labored over it for most of the decade of the 1850s, and during that time it underwent several substantial transformations.   Originally, Brahms had conceived of the work as a sonata for two pianos—he was a fine pianist, and that medium naturally fell easily to him.  But, as he worked, he came to understand that the imposing nature of his ideas for this composition suggested the full powers of the symphony orchestra.   Ultimately, his difficulties in casting it into the form of a symphony, not to speak of his incomplete mastery of the ski

Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb Major, op. 83

          “This is a chosen one.”  Robert Schumann so characterized Johannes Brahms in his famous article that introduced the young Brahms to the public.  Little did he know!  Brahms went on to become the last great successor of the artistic mantle of musical Classicism that led from Joseph Haydn, through Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.  That’s taking the rather narrow view, of course, for there were others who followed who revered the classical attributes of restraint, balance, clarity of form, elegance, and general equipoise that came to characterize the collective features known as classical musical style.   And they stand in clear contrast to the sweeping trends and excesses of music Romanticism that came to dominate European music until the cataclysm of World War I.

Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, op. 68

        “This is a chosen one.”  Robert Schumann so characterized Johannes Brahms in his famous article that introduced the young Brahms to the public.  Little did he know!  Brahms went on to become the last great successor of the artistic mantle of musical Classicism that led from Joseph Haydn, through Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.  That’s taking the rather narrow view, of course, for there were others who followed who revered the classical attributes of restraint, balance, clarity of form, elegance, and general equipoise that came to characterize the collective features that came to be known as classical style.   And they stand in clear contrast to the sweeping trends and excesses of music Romanticism that came to dominate European music until the cataclysm of World War I.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op. 73

        Simply put, the composers of the nineteenth century after Beethoven tended to divide themselves into two groups.  The progressives were true “Romantics,” and were greatly influenced by the extra-musical ideas that were the subjects of contemporary literature, poetry, and painting, among others.  They devised new genres, such as the tone poems of Smetana and Liszt, the music dramas of Wagner, and the characteristic piano pieces of Chopin.  This music, to use a phrase still common among seekers of meaning in music, was about “something”--meaning something familiar to human existence

Symphony No. 3 in F Major, op. 90

        Generally speaking, the composers of the nineteenth century after Beethoven tended to divide themselves into two groups.  The progressives were true “Romantics,” and were greatly influenced by the extra-musical ideas that were the subjects of contemporary literature, poetry, and painting, among others.  They devised new genres, such as the tone poems of Smetana and Liszt, the music dramas of Wagner, and the characteristic piano pieces of Chopin.  This music, to use a phrase still common among seekers of meaning in music, was about “something”--meaning something familiar to human existence

Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, op. 98

        “This is a chosen one.”  Robert Schumann so characterized Johannes Brahms in his famous article that introduced the young Brahms to the public.  Little did he know!  Brahms went on to become the last great successor of the artistic mantle of musical Classicism that led from Joseph Haydn, through Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.  That’s taking the rather narrow view, of course, for there were others that followed who revered the classical attributes of restraint, balance, clarity of form, elegance, and general equipoise that characterized the collective features that came to be known as classical style.   And they stand in clear contrast to the sweeping trends and excesses of musical Romanticism that came to dominate European music until the cataclysm of World War I.

Tragic Overture, op. 81

            In 1879 the University of Breslau in Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland), awarded Brahms with an honorary doctorate, and he returned the favor by writing his beloved Academic Festival Overture, a delightful potpourri of traditional songs known to all at German universities.  He evidently felt the need to balance this work with a darker, more intense one.  So, in the same year that he wrote the first (1880), he turned out the Tragic Overture—the two more or less comprising bookends of the only overtures that he wrote.   After a first performance in Vienna to a mixed reaction, the Tragic Overture was played with its companion, the Academic Festival Overture, at the latter’s première in Breslau.  The motivation for composing the former was evidentl

Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op. 56a

            Good things often come in modest packages, and this work is unquestionably one of those.  Many have observed that Johannes Brahms was the major successor to the legacy of Beethoven in a century filled with musical progressives who moved in other directions.  The darlings of that time—and in many regards, of today, as well—were those, like Wagner and Liszt, who opted for hyper expressive means that explored new forms and which relaxed the conventions of the classic style.  Brahms was the champion of those who eschewed extra-musical associations (stories and ideas, if you will), and persisted in composing music that referred to nothing but itself.  He resisted more than anyone the blandishments of Wagner and company.

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