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Get to Know: Johannes Brahms

Watch & Listen

You’ve heard his name and are curious about his music. But where to start? You probably have a nodding acquaintance with the tune known as Brahms’ Lullaby. And you might have heard that he wrote some symphonies (only four, it turns out). You might even have some singer friends who’ve mentioned a giant Requiem (which has zero connection with the traditional Mass for the Dead). How can we make sense out of this seeming randomness?

There are a lot of clues in that first paragraph. For instance, that famous Lullaby begins with an upward third (“Go to sleep”), the sweetest interval in the Western scale. Brahms loved thirds; he used them in both melodies and harmonies so much that you may reach the point where you recognize a Brahms piece just because of those rich, sweet thirds. It’s a key trait across his output.

The next clue: four symphonies. Why so few? The main reason is that Brahms was a perfectionist. There are stories of him burning his own music because, according to him, it wasn’t up to snuff. On top of that, he felt the inescapable burden of Beethoven’s legacy on his back. The pressure was so intense that Brahms worked on his First Symphony for 21 years. Thankfully, finishing that first one broke the ice, and he completed the next three in much less time.

The last big clue is that Requiem, which tells us that Brahms didn’t just write music for instruments; he also wrote for the voice in the form of choral pieces and solo songs (called lieder), all in German, capped by that massive, evening-long tribute to his mother, A German Requiem.

In addition, he wrote a great deal of intimate music for solo piano and as well as glorious chamber music, combined in our last category.

The Orchestral Brahms

This is the most familiar and beloved Brahms: four symphonies, two piano concertos, a violin concerto, and a double concerto (violin and cello). There are a few other pieces for orchestra, but this short list is the meat of the matter. Many composers have written more, but Brahms’ ratio of hits is an impressive 100%. You will find tremendous rewards in all these pieces, no matter what order you hear them in.

The first and last symphonies are the most serious, in the best sense of the word: epic, tragic, powerful, deeply moving. The middle two are gentler, more lyrical, with No. 2 being the sunniest and No. 3 being the shortest (with the quietest ending). All brim with musical brilliance and beg for repeated hearings.

And you won’t go wrong with any of the four concertos. There’s a seriousness in Brahms that elevates the most virtuosic writing into music far more substantial than any simple “show off” piece. He was an outstanding pianist, so the two piano concertos are closest to his being, but then again, his only Violin Concerto is one of the top three most beloved and most performed in history. The Double Concerto was his final orchestral work and is just as masterly.

The Vocal Brahms

Brahms’ Requiem dominates this category, and a masterpiece it is. Instead of the traditional Latin text recited at funerals and used by composers for centuries, Brahms chose words that offer consolation – more for the living than the dead. In seven mostly lyrical movements, he set psalms and other passages that he chose from the German Luther Bible, leaving out all forms of dogma. It became his first big success and changed his life.

But apart from the Requiem, Brahms’ vocal music occupies a very different universe from the symphonies and concertos, which are big, public statements. Reserve these smaller works for when you want to commune with the heart and mind of this unique composer. Most of his more than 200 songs (solos, duets, and quartets) are private, personal statements, delving into love, loss, and loneliness, and revealing layer upon layer of the reticent, inner Brahms. You can add Brahms to the names of such stellar German songwriters as Schubert and Schumann. He wrote nearly as much for chorus as well, leaving him regarded as the choral great of the late Romantic era.

Intimate Brahms

As we’ve seen, the human voice brought out a more private side of Brahms, but his inner character is also revealed in the many solo piano pieces he wrote throughout his life, especially in his later years. Whenever you encounter a piano recital that includes some Intermezzos, Ballades, or Rhapsodies by Brahms, you are in for a special experience. These miniatures pack passion and tenderness into the briefest of time spans. As these works are frequently expressive of a profound isolation of mind and heart, you will get the most out of them by just going along – allow yourself to enter Brahms’ inner world.

He also composed plenty of chamber music: violin sonatas, cello sonatas, clarinet sonatas, piano quartets, and quartets, quintets, and sextets for strings – just about all of them so good they’re established in the standard repertory. Three supreme examples you should never pass up: the Horn Trio (violin, horn, piano), the Clarinet Quintet (clarinet with string quartet), and the Piano Quintet (piano with string quartet). These masterpieces reside at the top of the heap.

Finally, to nudge you away from the public perception of Brahms as a strictly serious guy, let’s remember his two volumes of Hungarian Dances, which he wrote originally for piano duet (some are orchestrated). Brilliant arrangements of melodies he picked up over the years, they were phenomenally successful in their time, and they continue to be his most recognized music worldwide. Check out No. 5 and revisit a hearty old friend.