Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Life In Five, Part 1: Johannes Brahms

I've decided to try a new series of writings, which I'm calling "A Life In Five". In this series, I intend to depict five key people, events, or things that shaped the lives and thereby shaped the music of the great composers. Consider it a "Cliffs Notes" version of their biographies.

In this first chapter, I focus on perhaps my favorite, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Keeping in mind the intent of this series, if you're looking for a full biography, you can always check the trusty internet or pick up Jan Swafford's great biography.

So how would I sum up Johannes' life in five points? Here we go:

  1. A Childhood In Hamburg's Ports: Brahms' childhood playing the piano in seedier sailor bars amongst prostitutes not only shaped his virtuous piano and composing skills, but also developed within him a deep-seeded level of distrust and even misogynistic attitude towards women. It was to shape almost all of his future relationships with women, including the one who meant the most to him, Clara Schumann.

  2. Robert Schumann' Proclamation - "Germany's Musical Messiah": Brahms did not have much of a chance to slowly arrive on the musical scene. Shortly after arriving at Robert Schumann's doorstep as a 20 year old and playing his Scherzo in E-Flat Minor, Schumann declared him to be the next biggest thing and thrust him into the limelight, with a massive weight of expectations upon his shoulders. Considering the local giants before him (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann) and considering the current competition of Mendelssohn, Liszt and Wagner, it is amazing that Brahms didn't collapse under the weight instantly. Instead, he was somehow able to deliver against the expectations (or so most believed) and rise to the top. In many ways, this can be easily paralleled with today's often heard "The Next Michael Jordan" tag in basketball – the pressure that comes with that tag is immense and in the case that someone can answer that call, it is that much more impressive.

  3. Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner: Brahms' biggest musical (and personal) rivals. On the surface, it came down to an "old school" (Brahms) versus "new school" (Liszt and Wagner) approach to music composition. Brahms rejected the program-music that Liszt and Wagner championed in lieu of the more traditional music forms of their predecessors. Brahms did not respect Liszt's music nor did he respect Liszt as a person (despite limited cordial interactions), and by all accounts the feelings were equally harsh in reverse. Wagner is a bit more interesting, for as much as Brahms seems to have wanted to hate Wagner, it is known that at least a few of Wagner's operas had a great impact on Brahms and he had no choice but to respect them (Tannhauser and Die Meistersingers are two examples). Sometimes greatness can only be achieved with competition pushing you to new limits, and I believe that to be true in this case.

  4. A Best Friend - Joseph Joachim: While he had competition from Liszt and Wagner, he had support from not only the Schumann's but also a great friend in Joseph Joachim. Brahms was not always the nicest man, and in some cases didn't treat Joseph with the utmost respect (Joachim's divorce is an event where this is clear), but it is clear that Brahms admired Joachim as a talented musician (violin) and collaborator. Brahms' Violin Concerto is a towering achievement in the concerto repertoire, and without Joachim's assistance, it may never have existed, at least as we know it today. However, Joachim was not just another great musician – he grew to become a very close personal friend and confidant for Brahms throughout their lives.

  5. Clara Schumann: There is no more drama in Brahms' life than his lifelong relationship with Clara Schumann. So much of their relationship is shrouded in mystery, but enough has lasted to know that it is clear that Brahms loved Clara very deeply, at times romantically, at times as a friend, at times as a sister, at times even as a surrogate mother (she was several years his elder). He was often even perturbed by his feelings for Clara, especially in the guilt that it gave him towards his own mentor, her husband Robert. Nevertheless, there were no relationships in his life, including his parents and siblings, that meant more to him or affected him more than Clara. She tested out almost all of his works (she was an accomplished pianist), she attended premieres of his works, she was the judge for his male and female relationships, she loved him and equally scolded him. For him, she was everything.

  6. (Cheating, sort of) A Demand For Perfection – Burning Many of His Works: We can only imagine how much more musical beauty could exist if Brahms wasn't so hard on himself and didn't burn so many of the works that he personally didn't approve of!

Well, there we have it. Brahms' life distilled down into what I believe to be the 5 most influential people and events in his life. Hopefully this list not only provides a deeper interest in learning about his life, but also a deeper appreciation for his music and the passion that he wrote with! Stay tuned for more in the series…


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