While his contemporary Richard Wagner symbolized the progressive dissonances of one German school, Brahms represented the link to tradition. In many ways his music was a culmination of all traditional classical music that came before him, particularly the early Romantics such as Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann -- the latter helped spark Brams' career with his favorable words. Brahms' style may have been conservative, but the detail and beauty of his output was extraordinary --he could take the smallest fragment of theme and extrapolate entire sections from it. His pieces also drew on local traditions, often bringing Hungarian folk rhythms into lively piano pieces. He mastered many classical forms, from rich, texturally inventive piano pieces to pastoral symphonies and chamber music, and his compositions still stand as the most enduring of the repertoire.
Johannes Brahms felt that Schubert was the last composer to be born at a truly propitious time. Brahms' artistic credo was expressed by his famous statement that, "If we can not compose as beautifully as Mozart and Haydn, let us at least try to compose as purely." It is perhaps the conviction that he had come too late to be truly on on a level with those he most admired and understood that gave his music its deep, reflective melancholy. Autumnal is the adjective often given to Brahms' output and it applies even to much of the music of his youth.
In many respects Brahms brings the classical-romantic continuum to an end. He felt no kinship to the "music of the future" that was the mantle of Wagner and Liszt, and throughout his life, Brahms was one of the few composers of his era interested in the classical approach to variations, sonatas, and such 18th century contrapuntal procedures as fugue and passacaglia. In the age of the bravura concerto, where the solo instrument is often merely accompanied by the orchestra, Brahms, in his Violin Concerto and two piano concertos, wrote in a truly classical manner that treats soloist and orchestra as symbiotic equals in the tradition of Mozart and Beethoven. His late Double Concerto even recalls some Baroque procedures.
Like Bach - another great conservative - Brahms sums up what went before him thereby synthesizing the romantic harmony and language of Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn with classical forms and the counterpoint of the Baroque. But this is not to say that Brahms was not at the same time truly of his own era. In fact, Arnold Schoenberg wrote an important essay stressing the forward and radical implications of Brahms' harmony. The first Intermezzo of op. 119 is an example of this with its complex chord structures that verge on the polytonal.
Brahms was born in Hamburg, the son of a double bass player. He received an early grounding in the classics - especially Bach - from his teacher, Eduard Marxsen, who was the dedicatee of his second piano concerto. Another formative aspect of his youth was playing in dives and bordellos in order to bring in extra money for the family. Brahms later acknowledged that this early contact with the opposite sex from such a strange vantage point contributed to his ultimately remaining a lifelong bachelor.
The great love of his life was what was most probably a platonic friendship with Clara Schumann, although there have certainly been speculations to the contrary. Brahms became close to the Schumanns when Robert championed his work, and Brahms consoled Clara during the anguish of Robert's disease. A lasting love ultimately developed for the great artist who was fourteen years her junior. Although their complex relationship had its difficulties, especially when Brahms at one point developed an interest in one of Clara's daughters, they stayed lifelong friends and it was often Clara to whom the tremendously self critical Brahms first sent his works.
Brahms was intensely aware of the weight of the tradition he was trying to uphold. It is estimated the chamber music we have is only one quarter of what he actually wrote. He ruthlessly destroyed anything that he considered unworthy, and thus, we have nothing comparable to Beethoven's sketch books to understand him by. He was certainly a slow and meticulous worker and did not complete his First Symphony until he was forty-three and after eleven years of work, not to mention two orchestral serenades and the First Piano Concerto in preparation for the act. "You have no idea what it is to hear the tromp of a genius over your shoulder," he said referring to the daunting legacy of Beethoven's symphonies. When the similarity of the great last movement theme to Beethoven's Ninth was pointed out, Brahms response was, "any fool can see that."
Brahms was famously brusque and prickly on the surface, although friends knew this was to guard a very sensitive and vulnerable soul. This might be said to describe the music itself. Much of the power and attraction of Brahms' music is the great warmth and generosity of a romantic spirit held in check by the most rigorous intellect. If Brahms wears his heart on his sleeve, it is only after he has painstakingly knitted the sweater from the purest wool. While there are many examples, one that comes to mind is the second String Sextet in G, op. 36. After the mysterious opening and tonally ambiguous first theme group, the second theme comes pouring forth without inhibition and a directness that goes straight to one's heart. An opposite example might be the Bb Piano Concerto, where the warmly noble ascending b flat, c, d of the opening theme is brusquely contradicted by the same notes descending in reverse in the bass at the beginning of the subsequent scherzo in D minor.
After the tremendous effort of completing the First Symphony, the sunnier Second followed relatively easily. It is almost as if Brahms' labor pains on one piece were sufficient to give birth to two. Thus we have the two piano quartets, op. 25 and 26, the two string quartets of op. 51 and the two late clarinet sonatas, op. 120. For all this instrumental music, it is sometimes forgotten that a great deal of Brahms' output was vocal music ranging from wonderful lieder in tradition of Schubert and Schumann to large choral works such as the Requiem, op. 43, inspired by his mother's death, and the work that first made him truly famous.
As Brahms got older his work tended to become more concise; the C minor piano quartet, op. 60, is much more terse than the expansive earlier quartets or the culminating work of his first period, the F minor Piano Quintet, op. 34. He went into a premature retirement after his op. 111 String Quintet in 1890 that was luckily brought to an end by the inspiration of hearing clarinettist Richard Mulfeld. The two clarinet sonatas were followed by the B minor Clarinet Quintet, op. 115, perhaps his greatest chamber piece. The last opuses are mainly keyboard works, primarily the sets of intimate Intermezzi ( 3 Intermezzi, op. 117; Intermezzo, op. 118, No. 2; Intermezzi, op. 119: No. 1 in B; No. 2 in E ) and other Klavierstucke, op. 116-119. In these works one hears the deep last reflections of a century and an era.
Brahms wrote a number of major works for orchestra, including two serenades, four symphonies, two piano concertos (See First Piano Concerto; Second Piano Concerto), a Violin Concerto, a Double Concerto for violin and cello, and a pair of orchestral overtures, the Academic Festival Overture and the Tragic Overture.
His large choral work Ein deutsches Requiem ("A German Requiem") is not a traditional, liturgical requiem (Missa pro defunctis), but a setting of texts which Brahms selected from the Lutheran Bible. The work was composed in three major periods of his life. An earlier version of the second movement was first composed in 1854, not long after Robert Schumann's attempted suicide, and was later finished and used in his first piano concerto. The majority of the Requiem was composed after his mother's death in 1865. The fifth movement was later added after the official premiere in 1868. The complete work was then published in 1869.
Brahms's works in variation form include the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel and the Paganini Variations, both for solo piano, and the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn in versions for two pianos and for orchestra. The final movement of the Fourth Symphony (Op. 98) is also formally a set of variations.
His chamber works include three string quartets, two string quintets and two string sextets, as well as a clarinet quintet, a clarinet trio, a horn trio, a piano quintet, three piano quartets and three piano trios. He composed several instrumental sonatas with piano, including three for violin, two for cello and two for clarinet (which were subsequently arranged for viola by the composer). His solo piano works range from his early piano sonatas and ballades to his late sets of character pieces. Brahms also wrote about 200 songs and is considered among the greatest of Lieder composers (with Schubert and Schumann). His chorale preludes for organ, which he wrote shortly before his death, have become an important part of the organist's repertoire.
Brahms never wrote an opera, nor did he ever write in the characteristic late-19th-century form of the tone poem, strongly preferring to compose absolute music that does not refer to an explicit scene or narrative.
Despite his reputation as a serious composer of large, complex musical designs, some of Brahms's most widely known and commercially successful compositions during his life were aimed at the thriving contemporary market for domestic music-making, and are small-scale and popular in intention. These included his arrangements of popular dances, in Hungarian Dances, the Waltzes Op. 39 for piano duet, the Liebeslieder Waltzes for vocal quartet and piano, and some of his many songs, notably the Wiegenlied, Op. 49 No. 4 (published in 1868). This last item was written (to a folk text) to celebrate the birth of a son to Brahms's friend Bertha Faber, and is universally known as Brahms' Lullaby.
Brahms venerated Beethoven, perhaps even more than other Romantic composers did. In the composer's home, a marble bust of Beethoven looked down on the spot where he composed. His works contain a number of apparent imitations of Beethoven. Thus, the beginning of Brahms's First Piano Sonata is very close to the opening of Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata; and the main theme of the finale of Brahms's First Symphony is reminiscent of the main theme of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth. (When the latter resemblance was pointed out to Brahms, he replied that any ass – jeder Esel – could see that.)
His work Ein deutsches Requiem was partially inspired by his mother's death in 1865, but also incorporates material from the Symphony he had started in 1854 but later abandoned following Schumann's suicide attempt. He once wrote that the Requiem "belonged to Schumann". (The first movement of this abandoned Symphony was re-worked as the first movement of the First Piano Concerto).
Brahms also loved the Classical composers Mozart and Haydn. He collected first editions and autographs of their works, and edited performing editions. Even more remarkable than this was his deep learning and study of the pre-classical composers including Gabrieli, Hasse, Schütz and especially Bach, among others. He had many friends among the leading musicologists of his day and he edited works by composers such as Rameau and Francois Couperin. He was well ahead of his time in his creative interest in this "Early Music" as composer, performer and scholar and particularly looked to such older music for inspiration in the arts of strict counterpoint. In fact, many of the themes to his better-known works are borrowed from Baroque sources, such as Rameau's The Birds and Bach's The Art of Fugue.
Brahms's affection for the Classical period may also be reflected in his choice of genres: he favored the Classical forms of the sonata, symphony, and concerto, and frequently composed movements in sonata form. Although Brahms is often labeled as the most "Classical" Romantic composer, this label does not reflect his works. It was his public divide between the musical schools of Richard Wagner and himself that gained him this label, as he often criticized Wagner's "lack of counterpoint" in his compositions. The work of Brahms is fully Romantic in style, blurring the lines of compositional form as much as any other composer was doing at the time. The rivalry between Brahms and Wagner, however, left a large divide in the musical community, those who were on the side of Brahms, and those who favored Wagner's music. Although Wagner was a fierce rival of Brahms, later in his life, Brahms admitted how much he respected Wagner's compositions.
A quite different influence on Brahms was folk music. Brahms wrote settings for piano and voice of 144 German folk songs, and many of his lieder reflect folk themes or depict scenes of rural life. His Hungarian dances were among his most profitable compositions, and in orchestrated versions remain well known today.
Brahms was almost certainly influenced by the technological development of the piano, which reached essentially its modern form during his lifetime. Much of Brahms's piano music and many of his lieder make use of the deep bass notes and the pedal to obtain a very rich and powerful sound.
Many authors consider that by the end of his life Brahms was an agnostic. In spite of all this, one of his greatest influences was the Bible. He loved reading the Bible, especially Luther's translation. His "Requiem" employs biblical texts to convey a humanist message, with a focus on the living rather than the dead. Author Walter Niemann declares, "The fact that Brahms began his creative activity with the German folk song and closed with the Bible reveals...the true religious creed of this great man of the people."