Among chamber musicians, amateur and professional alike, few composers are as beloved as Johannes Brahms. His death 100 years ago is being commemorated with tributes all over the world, not only by chamber groups but by soloists, choruses, and orchestras, all of whom recognize Brahms's unique contribution to the world of classical music.
Born in 1833, six years after Beethoven's death, Brahms was the flag bearer of the Classical tradition. A fanatical admirer of the music of Bach, Brahms was a purist, utilizing traditional forms and the tried and true compositional procedure of counterpoint. Yet he was immersed in the burgeoning Romantic spirit represented by such composers as Schumann and Chopin. With the heart of a Romanticist and the mind of a Classicist, Brahms fused the best of both worlds in his numerous songs, solo works, chamber music, choral works, overtures, and the four symphonies.
Brahms was raised in great poverty but with sustained musical nurturing - his father eked out a living playing a variety of instruments, mostly double bass. Young Johannes began piano lessons at age 7 and theory at 10. He gave his first public appearance at 10, and by the age of 12 was giving piano lessons himself and playing in a number of the city's taverns and waterfront dives. He began concertizing several years later, which provided his most consistent sustenance as a young musician.
Since Brahms wrote only four symphonies, his chamber and vocal music perhaps best trace the scope of his artistic genius. His Horn Trio, Clarinet Quintet, Piano Quintet, the three string quartets, and numerous sonatas and other chamber works are among the highlights of chamber-music repertory.
Personally, Brahms was reputed to be prickly and gruff, direct and often wounding in his commentary. Even lifelong friends such as Clara Schumann and violinist Joseph Joachim, two of the composer's greatest champions, were not always immune from his scathing attacks. A story was circulated about Vienna, reportedly invented by a friend of the composer, that Brahms once left a party declaring, "If there is anybody here I have not insulted, I apologize."
He was also considered sloppy, especially in his mature years when he often wore only flannel shirts and baggy, patched trousers, and he was constantly shoving a cigar in his mouth.
It is something of a paradox that a composer of such gruff exterior could compose works of such pristine clarity, ardent lyricism, and astonishing beauty: The consensus is that Brahms's uncompromising demeanor was complemented by great heart. From the perspective of a century later, it is difficult to listen to the passionate, glorious unfolding of Brahms's music and doubt otherwise.
* Coming Brahms events include a conference on the composer at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., April 17-20, and the Vancouver (B.C.) Symphony Orchestra Brahms Festival, May 29-31.