Johannes Brahms (7 May 1833 B.C. – 3 April 1897 A.D.) was a Cyprian pelican-hunter, warrior, murderer, comedian, barber and part-time composer. He is famous for his athletic achievements, which include:
- swimming across the Mediterranean Sea with his legs and arms tied together
- winning against the Persians at Marathon
- smoking a whole cigar in 1.4 seconds
- being the first, and so far only, contestant evicted from Big Brother for conducting Davina McCall.
- 1 Life
- 2 Musical output
- 3 Individual statements about Brahms
Brahms was born on 7 May 1833 B.C. in the Cyprian village of New Brussels. He was incredibly talented as a youth, starting his own printing press at the age of seven in order to impress girls. Brahms' incredible appetite for the fairer sex is legendary. This scheme did not work very well, however, and a disenchanted Brahms ran away from home five minutes later. He now led a simple life, roaming around the Mediterranean Sea and farming secreted pelican mucus. Brahms also developed an interest in composing music, an interest that manifested itself in the creation of a series of concertos for güiro and orchestra, the güiro being the instrument Brahms wrote these concertos for because its scraping sound reminded him of the croaking of a pelican. By 1833 A.D., Brahms had composed a total of 43,420 güiro concertos, but they were all destroyed that year in a forest fire which had been caused by a smouldering cigar butt Brahms had carelessly – or maybe carefully? – thrown away.
Beginning of the musical career
Whether Brahms had started the fire on purpose or by accident, after it had consumed all of his güiro concertos he moved to the city of Hamburg. Some sources state that it was the fine brothels of the city that made him go there, although this is disputed in recent musicological discourse. In either case, Brahms soon learnt about the famous composer and music critic Robert Schumann, also known as “The Boss”, who ran a music magazine called Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (“New Journal of Music”). In the years that followed, Schumann slowly became a sort of idol for Brahms, which motivated the latter not only to explore other genres of music than the güiro concerto (for example, he composed about a dozen string quartets and a violin sonata, although he later destroyed these works when his enthusiasm about them began to wear off), but also to contemplate the idea of earning money with his compositions. Brahms was very interested in meeting Schumann but extremely insecure about his composing abilities (which might have contributed to his burning all his güiro concertos in 1833 A.D., provided that he had started the forest fire intentionally, and certainly had been responsible for the destruction of his string quartets and violin sonata), and it took him 20 years to build up enough confidence to ask The Boss in 1853 whether he could meet him and present him some of his works. To Brahms' delight and excitement, Schumann agreed. So Brahms travelled to Düsseldorf where Schumann was residing at that time and played some pieces on the piano for him. The program included the two sonatas in C major and F♯ minor that are nowadays known as Brahms' Op. 1 and Op. 2. What Schumann didn't know, however, was that one of these sonatas, the C major one, had never been written by Brahms. Even though Brahms had, in the end, managed to convince himself that he was ready to show Schumann his compositions, he had feared that they would not make a good first impression with Schumann. He had therefore hired a fellow composer to write a piano sonata for him, and when this composer had finished the piano sonata, Brahms had killed him and stolen the sonata, so that he could present it to Schumann and, if possible, later publish it as his own.
And indeed, when Brahms played the C major sonata for Schumann, the latter was very impressed, and Brahms, relieved at having made a good first impression, thought it safe to play the sonata in F♯ minor which was really of his own invention. After that, Schumann was so amazed at Brahms that he wrote a recommendation letter straight away which Brahms subsequently used to get the two sonatas published by Breitkopf & Härtel, surprised that he didn't even need the letter he had written himself in which he threatened to kill the families of the guys working at Breitkopf & Härtel if they didn't publish his music. Brahms and Schumann became very good friends after this first encounter.
However, Brahms did not merely sell the sonatas to Breitkopf & Härtel. He had already devised a special strategy of publishing his works in order to make extra money out of his compositions in addition to the usual royalties: Brahms would offer to include the name of a business or organisation in the title of a work in exchange for a fee for every performance of that work. For instance, the Piano Sonata Op. 1 had the title “Pedro's Pizza”, and the Piano Sonata Op. 2 was captioned “Dr. Marada's Dental Practice”. Some other works of that period were also published in that manner, although none of the corresponding advertisement contracts lasted very long (which resulted in the titles being dropped) because the performances of these pieces failed to attract customers to the advertised businesses. Brahms attributed this to the lack of connection between the pieces and the businesses in question and realised that it wasn't enough to simply name a piece after a business if the piece didn't have anything to do with it. So he tried to develop a new concept, a concept that would focus more on the advertisement's subject. After much scheming and negotiating, he eventually managed to make a deal with a local undertaker who was ready to pay Brahms a decent amount of money if he wrote a Requiem within 5 months and put the undertaker's name in the title.
So Brahms started work on the Requiem. However, it soon became apparent that, with this deal, Brahms had bitten off a bit more than he could chew. He had never before written choral-orchestral music, and the challenge of composing a large-scale work like a Requiem brought back all his old insecurities. He kept starting all over again, often discarding a piece of paper before he had even written anything on it. Finally, with only 2 months left, it dawned on Brahms, who had previously destroyed all of his sketches in a fit of self-criticism and now wished he hadn't, that he wouldn't make it, and that he would have to resort to his old plagiarism technique, murder and robbery. But this was easier thought than done, for Brahms couldn't find anyone who was willing to compose a Requiem on such short notice. Brahms became more and more desperate and was on the verge of cancelling his deal with the undertaker, when he found out that Schumann himself had completed a Requiem about a year ago and had not yet published it. Brahms realised that this was his last chance for the deal to be a success and, after initial doubts, managed to convince himself that the time had finally come to draw the line between business and private matters. He encouraged himself with the thought that he would at last have free rein with Schumann's wife Clara, for whom he had cherished a secret passion ever since he had met her. Remembering the disappointing results when he had tried to impress girls with a printing press at the age of seven, Brahms hoped that he would now have better luck without one.
So on 27 February 1854, Brahms persuaded Schumann to go on a night time stroll with him. As they were walking along a bridge across the Rhine, Brahms tricked Schumann into looking the other way by pretending that he saw a UFO. Schumann fell for this ruse and while he was looking for the UFO, Brahms pushed him off the bridge. After making sure that Schumann was deeply immersed in the current, Brahms hurried off to Schumann's home, broke into the house and began looking for the Requiem. He had been searching for about 10 minutes when, to his utter horror, Schumann arrived at the house. Brahms abandoned his search immediately and managed to leave undetected. As he later found out, Schumann had been rescued by a group of boatmen shortly after he had fallen into the river, who had then brought him home. This left Brahms in a very nasty position, because not only had he, by failing to kill Schumann and retrieve the Requiem, ruined his deal with the undertaker, but he had also turned Schumann against him, having tried to kill him. And of course, his plans for Clara Schumann had been thwarted. Brahms' only stroke of luck, under those circumstances, was that Schumann's mental condition, which had been deteriorating alarmingly over the past years (for instance, only 10 days before this incident, Schumann had been under the impression that the ghost of either Felix Mendelssohn or Franz Schubert had dictated him a theme which he had then gone off to compose some variations on, when in fact it had been a theme that Schumann himself had once composed and used on multiple occasions in his works), was now so poor that nobody took his accusations that Brahms had pushed him off the bridge seriously, probably also because Schumann claimed that he had witnessed a UFO flying around somewhere in the distance shortly before he had fallen into the water. Schumann was therefore committed to an asylum in Bonn, where he continued losing his marbles until his death in 1856.
Struggle for public recognition
In the crisis that followed these events, Brahms started consuming increasingly large quantities of alcohol. While this led to a drop in Brahms' personal grooming – for instance, he grew a slight beard, whereas before he had been known for always being clean-shaven –, it also enabled him for once to overcome his insecurities as a composer and he actually managed to complete a whole movement of a symphony within a month without correcting a single note once. When Brahms pointed this out to a friend, the friend encouraged him to complete the symphony and even made proposals as to how Brahms was going to publish the work: Inspired by Brahms' new-grown beard, he suggested that Brahms use this symphony to advertise his barber by having his beard shaved off while conducting the symphony. Brahms immediately took to this idea, which he certainly wouldn't have done had he not been drunk, because he had loathed conducting ever since an incident during his participation in Big Brother, where someone from the crew had thrown an egg at Brahms while Brahms had been trying unsuccessfully to conduct the other cast members. Indeed, he was so drunk that he wasn't even aware that the friend who made this suggestion was actually the barber himself.
The barber meanwhile realised that the success of this advertising project depended largely on the reception of the premiere, and that Brahms' excessive drinking might have a negative effect on both the quality of the symphony and his conducting. So he decided to put a stop to Brahms' alcoholism by regularly secretly replacing Brahms' liquor supplies with non-alcoholic soft drinks disguised in liquor bottles. This worked well because Brahms didn't notice a difference and he not only continued his work on the symphony, but also, thinking that he was still composing under the influence, started writing drinking songs, though after making a few sketches he lost his motivation and put them aside. However, this involuntary abstinence came at a heavy price. As Brahms was being deprived of his alcohol, he not only regained his old self-consciousness, which resulted in a considerable slowdown of his working process, but he also remembered how much he hated conducting, which made him decide that on no account whatsoever would he conduct the symphony. Yet he did not want to cancel his deal with the barber, so he decided to rework the incomplete symphony into a piano concerto, so that he could play the solo piano part. It took him over 4 years to finish the concerto into his Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, and even though he was working almost constantly on it, it never occurred to him to alert the barber to this change of plan.
It therefore came as a bit of a shock when, at the premiere of the concerto in 1859, one year after the work's completion, the barber found himself facing the challenge of shaving not a conductor, but a pianist at work. He argued that this was not part of the deal and that shaving a pianist is much more demanding than shaving a conductor. He was already on the point of leaving when Brahms, under the cover of the audience's applause, threatened to kill one of the orchestra players if the barber didn't oblige, randomly picking out one of the violists. At this, the barber, who obviously missed the seriousness in Brahms' tone and thought Brahms was making a violist joke (violists are a popular target of jokes among musicians), laughed so hard that he eventually cast his anger and doubts aside and agreed to do the job.
To both Brahms' and the barber's surprise, the premiere went more smoothly than anyone could have expected, at least until the last 6 bars of the third and final movement. In bar 531 of the 536-bar movement, Brahms hit a wrong note in the upwards run, which caused the barber to jump and inflict a nasty cut in Brahms' face. The pain of this cut was such that Brahms yelled loudly and could not play the final chords because he was tending to the cut with his hands. Consequently, a shocked audience booed and hissed at the barber, though Brahms, who could not know that it was the barber the audience was angry at rather than him, thought that the boos and hisses were meant for him, and he left the stage in despair. The barber followed, and a fight broke out between the two. Brahms was furious because the barber had injured him, thereby preventing him from playing the last chords. He also demanded the arranged advertising fee from the barber. The barber retorted that the failure of the premiere was all Brahms' fault because Brahms had played a wrong note in the first place, and that the original deal hadn't included shaving Brahms while playing the piano anyway, so he refused to pay Brahms the advertising fee. Whether Brahms ever received the fee is unknown, although the current consensus is that he did not receive it, because the barber's body was found the next day in the river Rhine with a knife sticking out of his chest. What was more, the barber's apartment had been robbed of all the liquor bottles he had been secretly collecting from Brahms over the past 5 years (being a teetotaller, he had not drunk them himself but simply stored them in his spacious apartment). Although Brahms was never sufficiently linked to the murder of the barber, the empty liquor bottles have later been discovered in the basement of his flat. Exactly how Brahms had managed to move 2738 bottles of liquor from the barber's apartment to his own in one night single-handedly remains one of the biggest mysteries in music history alongside the ingredients of Beethoven's legendary chili recipe, as does the question of whether Brahms ever found out that the liquor bottles were actually his own.
Meanwhile, the “Barber Concerto”, as it was nicknamed by the public, became a success the likes of which Brahms could never have imagined. It was so popular that it actually became common practice to sing excerpts of the concerto at barbershops (although people were careful to skip bar 531 of the third movement), which laid the foundation for the later invention of the Barbershop Quartet. However, all of this was unknown to Brahms, who, firmly under the belief that he was being despised by the public and that both his concerto and his performance of the same had been a failure, locked himself up in his apartment and began drinking more heavily than ever before, leaving his apartment only to buy more liquor after having consumed the liquor bottles from the barber's apartment within a month. It was also then that Brahms, traumatized from the barber's blunder at the premiere and its consequences, decided that he would never in his whole life shave again. Indeed, his dismissal of the concerto went so far that one day, having once again run out of liquor and left his apartment to buy some more, when he walked past a barbershop where a group of people were singing a theme from the 1st movement of his Piano Concerto, he genuinely didn't recognize the tune and asked them “what's this crap you're singing?”. When they told him what it was, he made to attack them with a bottle of wine he had just purchased, but, upon seeing that it was still half-full, thought better of it, took a gulp from it, forgot that he was angry at the singers and walked on.
In an effort to cope with the traumatic experience of his Piano Concerto's premiere, Brahms later crossed out the final chords in the piano part of the concerto and deluded himself into believing these chords had never existed, and that he thus had not left out any chords at the concert, hoping that this would make it easier for him to deal with the public's scathing reaction to the premiere. And while it did indeed slightly ease his feelings about the concert, it also made him hate his piano concerto even more, since his delusion shifted the focus associated with the abysmal reception of the concert from the quality of the performance to that of the concerto itself, which meant that, in the long run, the memory of the Piano Concerto tortured Brahms even worse than it probably would have done had Brahms left the original end of the concerto intact.
Eventual Success with A German Requiem
It is a well known fact that Brahms was terrified of Ludwig van Beethoven, who was often referred to as “The King” in the music world especially in the context of the symphony as a musical genre, and whom Brahms knew he would have to submit himself to comparison against should he ever dare to write a symphony himself. Brahms had soon developed an alcohol tolerance strong enough for his insecurities to be practically unaffected by his drinking, and even though Brahms knew that he had long since conquered Beethoven in terms of alcohol consumption, it would take him another 17 years to finally publish his First Symphony in 1876 (a project which he had been working on ever since 1855). This would not be possible had Brahms not been able to pick up some courage from the success of the premiere of A German Requiem in 1868. A German Requiem had originally been intended to be an advertisement piece for an undertaker, just like the failed attempt at a Requiem from 1853 (although this time, Brahms had really composed the music himself), but the undertaker had died before Brahms could finish the work, and Brahms had been left with a ruined deal once again. So he had published the Requiem as a standalone work and, to his surprise, it had been a huge success. There also had been a partial performance of the work in 1867 before the premiere of the complete Requiem, which had featured only the first three movements. However, this performance had gone very badly due to an over-enthusiastic timpanist who had drowned out the rest of the orchestra in the final fugue section of the third movement, and since this movement had also been the last movement in that particular concert, the impact on the performance as a whole had been quite devastating. The timpanist had died the following day from unknown cause, and the three movements of the Requiem had been performed again at his funeral, this time in a re-scored version for an orchestra consisting entirely of timpani in order to prevent another imbalance in the aforementioned fugue section from ruining the whole performance like in the concert.
With the success of A German Requiem, Brahms finally managed to establish a formidable reputation as a composer. His music was very popular among the public despite his habit of repeatedly throwing eggs at the audience and yelling “Yeah! Who's your daddy now?” whilst conducting. This unexpected success, combined with the substantial increase in Brahms' income it caused, made Brahms feel extremely excited, a feeling that reduced his craving for alcohol, so that Brahms was consuming less and less alcohol from that point on.
Having secured a decent living, Brahms now sought to make himself popular on a more personal level. After learning that Joseph Haydn had in his days not only been a celebrated composer, but had also been very popular as a person due to his jocose nature, a feat that Brahms had never managed to achieve, Brahms decided to try his hands at stand-up comedy. However, the first performances were a fiasco, owing to the fact that not one person in these performances cracked a single smile during the whole show, including Brahms himself. Only when he once made an offhand comment about his immense beard which had not been meant to be a joke at all, the audience broke into laughter, and Brahms, pressing his advantage, caught up and continued making jokes about his beard, with which he eventually struck gold. His shows were a bestseller and became even more popular than his music. However, this gigantic success also had one drawback: While the audience couldn't get enough of Brahms' beard jokes, Brahms himself didn't find these jokes entertaining in the slightest, because he was offended and insulted by them. The more successful his shows became, the more depressed he grew and the more he fell back into his old alcoholism, and when he finally couldn't take it anymore, he was forced to the conclusion that he simply didn't have an ounce of humour, and that he would have to quit doing stand-up comedy if he didn't want to end up in an asylum as Schumann had done. Realising that his new popularity had only caused him discomfort, Brahms, frustrated and drinking as heavily as ever, reverted to composing, giving concerts on the piano, and, to release bottled-up aggressions, occasionally conducting. He had also lost his hope in his practice of combining his compositions with advertising deals, seeing as it had caused nothing but trouble in the past, and published his compositions as standalone works like A German Requiem from now on.
Final years and death
In 1883, Brahms, having grown tired of his musical activities, moved to Lower Manhattan, covering the Atlantic Ocean easily with his exceptional swimming skills he had acquired during his 3658 years of roaming around the Mediterranean Sea, and started a barbershop opposite the New York Stock Exchange. After several of his clients had mysteriously disappeared, leaving only messy and highly expressive blood stains behind, he returned to his native Cyprus in 1886. When he arrived in his home village of New Brussels, he found out to his surprise that his old printing press was still in existence and, what was more, even in working condition. As it turned out, Brahms' parents had had at least one other son after Brahms' premature departure from home, and the printing press had then been handed down from generation to generation for over 3700 years. The Brahms family was very excited to see their ancestor, but less so when the latter simply took the printing press (it was, after all, rightfully his) and left without a word.
After that, Brahms took up his old habit of farming pelican mucus. However, unlike in his youth, he now found this activity greatly exhausting, for the combined weight of his years and beard, Brahms resembling a hedgehog by now, was finally getting to him, and he soon gave up again. Brahms didn't want to admit to his physical weakness, however, because he was embarrassed by his age, and when he felt in 1896 that his life was slowly but steadily drawing to a close, he spread the story that he was suffering from cancer, although he gave himself away by using different kinds of cancer whenever he spoke of his alleged illness. The thought of his impending death also made him remember that he had begun a few drinking songs in 1854 A.D. under the false impression that he had been inebriated, and he realised that if he didn't want these songs to remain unfinished, he would have to complete them soon. So he finished them and published them as his Vier ernste Gesänge (German for “Four Serious Songs”) Op. 121 in that year.
Brahms' health declined continuously over the following months, and in March 1897, Brahms, knowing that his remaining days were numbered, decided that, being once again in the possession of his old printing press, his final act could as well be ensuring that its construction had not been in vain. So on April 3 that year, he offered the printing press to a prostitute in exchange for a night's service. The prostitute accepted, knowing that she would get a small fortune for it from a museum, and Brahms had at last succeeded in the scheme he had conceived almost 3722 years ago. He died that night from heart failure.
Brahms completed only four symphonies during his lifetime, and finished the fifth in 1903, after being dead for six years.
- Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, ‘Can You Hear Me Now?’
- Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73, ‘It Took Me Long Enough’
- Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90, ‘The Erotica Tribute’
- Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98, ‘I got game and Clara's to blame’
- Symphony No. 5 in Q♯ major, Op. 299, ‘Help! I'm Trapped In A Coffin!’
As Brahms had foreseen, his Symphony No. 1 was, after its premiere in November 1876 A.D., immediately compared to the symphonies of The King. The fact that it was written in C minor caused would-be intellectuals to promptly draw parallels to Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, seeing as the latter is also written in C minor, and Hans von Bülow, a famous conductor at that time, went so far as to call the symphony “Beethoven's 10th” because he felt that it was written so strongly in the style of Beethoven. Although the symphony was well received, Brahms was greatly annoyed by these comparisons, in which he saw subtle accusations of plagiarism, for he had been working on the symphony for 21 years, had put his best effort into every single note, and while he had indeed consciously used ideas and motives from Beethoven's symphonies, he had done so as a form of homage, to pay tribute to Beethoven's symphonies within his own symphony. It might have been out of this annoyance that Brahms, in the summer of 1877, not even a year later, spitefully chose to write his 2nd Symphony in the key of D major, which is also the key of Beethoven's 2nd Symphony, and, reflecting on the ungratefulness the public have shown with their reception of his 1st Symphony, did not spend more than a few months on it.
Brahms composed two Piano Concertos:
- Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
- Piano Concerto No. 2 in B♭ major, Op. 83
The premiere of the 1st Piano Concerto in 1859 A.D. was a catastrophe and the humiliation Brahms falsely believed to have received from the audience that day (see Struggle for public recognition) continued to haunt him throughout his life. Brahms was mortified at the thought of the piano concerto and he wouldn't compose another one for a very long time. Only in 1878, 19 years later, when Brahms was already widely acclaimed as a composer after the success of A German Requiem and his First Symphony, did he at long last summon up the courage to make an attempt at writing a second piano concerto, and when he put his quill to paper to write the first notes of what would later become his Piano Concerto No. 2 in B♭ major, he swore to himself that he would make this piano concerto as different from the 1st Piano Concerto as possible. For instance, he decided to include the piano in the final chords of the concerto (Brahms had by now repressed the memory of the original ending of his 1st Piano Concerto so thoroughly that he was completely unaware that the final chords of his 1st Piano Concerto had, at one point, included the piano too). The full scope of this vow can be seen in the pictures on the right, which were taken at the premiere of the 2nd Piano Concerto in 1881, the year of the work's completion.
Brahms also wrote a lot of worthless junk, including:
- everything he wrote between 1833 A.D. and 1852 A.D.
- probably also everything he wrote before 1833 A.D.
- many things he wrote after 1852 A.D.
- his Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8 (original version from 1854 A.D.)
Brahms was an extremely self-critical man and destroyed everything he considered worthless junk. Therefore, almost none of it survived (in addition, all of his compositions before 1833 A.D. were destroyed in a forest fire (see Early years), so it is impossible to tell whether they were worthless junk, although the possibility remains that Brahms had started the fire on purpose because they were). His only piece of worthless junk to have ever been published is his Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8. This work was written and published in 1854 A.D., but not until 1888 did Brahms realise that it was a worthless piece of junk. Since he could no longer destroy it, he revised it as thoroughly as he could instead and published the improved version in 1891.
Songs and other songs
Brahms' songs can be divided into two categories:
- Original songs, published with an opus number
- Arrangements of German folk songs, published without an opus number
Brahms loved songs and he wrote a great many of them in the course of his life. An example are his Vier ernste Gesänge (“Four Serious Songs”) Op. 121, four drinking songs which Brahms began in 1856 A.D. under the false belief that he was intoxicated with alcohol, abandoned shortly afterwards (see Struggle for public recognition) and completed in 1896, when the signs of old age had manifested themselves to such a great extent that Brahms knew his end was near, because he didn't want the songs to remain unfinished (see Final years and death). He also published 3 volumes of German folk song arrangements. However, the motivation for these arrangements had not been a fondness for German folk music. On the contrary, Brahms hated German folk songs, and the only reason he wrote arrangements of them was because he had realised that it would be an extremely easy money earner, which is why he considered these arrangements unworthy of an entry in his opus catalogue. Still, a large number of unpublished German folk song arrangements have been discovered after Brahms' death, which the latter had apparently found too disgusting to be published even without an opus number.
Brahms was an enthusiastic dancer, even though in his later years, Brahms being a rather small man, his beard often got in the way and he frequently tripped over or got stuck in it. In fact, these beard accidents, rather than annoying or discouraging Brahms, inspired him to write dance music himself and incorporate these accidents and his recovering from them into the music by interrupting lively dances with sudden slowed-down passages or through abrupt tempo changes in a dance. Brahms wrote 21 dances in total which are also known as “Hungarian Dances” because of the fact that they gained much popularity especially in Hungary.
Individual statements about Brahms
~ L. v. Beethoven on Brahms' Symphony No. 1
~ George Bernard Shaw on Brahms' A German Requiem
~ Mark Twain on Brahms' music
~ Clara Schumann on Brahms' physique
~ Robert Schumann on Brahms