Johannes Brahms



Brahms’s music doesn’t tell stories and it doesn’t have unpredictable shapes like some music of his time. Mostly it is quite serious. But that doesn’t mean it is dull… not at all! It is full of passion.

Brahms was born in Hamburg to poor parents. He was a talented young pianist. From the age of 13 he had to play the piano in taverns (pubs) to earn extra money for his family.

In 1853 Brahms went on a music tour with a Hungarian violinist called Eduard Reményi. Reményi introduced him to Hungarian gypsy music – he liked it, and often included its folk rhythms and tunes into his music. During the trip Brahms also met Joseph Joachim, a Hungarian virtuoso violinist who became a friend for life, and the composer Robert Schumann. Schumann was really impressed with Brahms.

Brahms didn’t follow the modern trends of the day. He brought traditions of the great Classical composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn into the Romantic Era. He used many Classical structures – like building blocks for his compositions – but the actual music he fitted into these structures was big and full of feeling. Like Beethoven before him, Brahms was brilliant at something called ‘thematic development’: he would take a small bit of music (a melody or rhythm) and keep reusing it in different, clever ways to create a whole piece.

Brahms spoke loudly about his dislike of music by Wagner and Liszt: they had decided that Classical rules were yesterday’s news. They were experimenting with daring, freer forms (structures) and new harmonies (notes played together to form chords).

Through the quality of his music, Brahms is now seen as one of the top composers ever. He was a busy man! He wrote a lot of piano music, four great symphonies, four great concertos, chamber music (for small groups of instruments), A German Requiem (a deeply moving work for chorus and orchestra) and more than 200 songs – called ‘Lieder’ in German. As a baby you may well have drifted off to sleep listening to his Lullaby!

Johannes Brahms, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Here is some of the best of Brahms.

Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90: I. Allegro con brio

This was perhaps the most popular of Brahms’s symphonies while he was alive. It’s a great example of ‘thematic development’: the majestic theme of the first few bars is used to create the whole of the first movement.

Performers: Belgian Radio and Television Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.550280

Ein deutsches Requiem (‘A German Requiem’), Op. 45: IV. Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen

A Requiem is a piece to mourn those who have died – but in his A German Requiem, Brahms is not miserable. He focuses on the people still living. Although his music is sometimes haunting and powerful, it is also full of peace and love.

Performers: Leipzig MDR Radio Choir; Leipzig MDR Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.572996

5 Lieder, Op. 49: No. 4 Wiegenlied (Lullaby)

This beautiful lullaby may be the most famous of all lullabies. The music is gently lilting, like a rocking cradle. The German words are taken from a folksong and mean ‘Good evening, good night’.

Performers: Mitsuko Shirai, soprano; Hartmut Holl, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572380

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which composer was Brahms great friends with?

a. Schumann
b. Wagner
c. Liszt

 Which composer’s music was Brahms not a fan of?

a. Mozart
b. Beethoven
c. Wagner

 Which instrument could Brahms play really well?

a. Double bass
b. Flute
c. Piano

 Who influenced Brahms to include Hungarian folk rhythms in his work?

a. Tchaikovsky
b. Handel
c. Reményi

 What was the only type of music Brahms didn’t write?

a. Opera
b. Chamber music
c. Symphonies

Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Although he was born in Germany, Brahms spent most of his working life in Vienna, Austria.
  2. Brahms was very good friends with the composer Robert Schumann and his wife Clara. When Schumann became ill in 1854, Brahms did everything he could to help.
  3. Brahms started composing when he was 11 years old. But when he was older he found those early things he’d written a bit embarrassing! So he destroyed many of them.
  4. Brahms grew a long beard in 1878.
  5. The War of the Romantics describes the musical argument that happened between Brahms, who was traditional, and Wagner and Liszt who were radical.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Orchestral Works

Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor

The Hungarian Dances are a set of 21 energetic pieces that draw on the spirit of Hungarian folk music. They were originally written for piano duet but were then arranged for a variety of instruments and ensembles.

Performers: London Philharmonic Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.557429

Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor

The Hungarian Dances are a great example of how Brahms was influenced by Hungarian tunes and rhythms in his own music. This one begins at a quick tempo and gets even more frenzied as it gets going.

Performers: London Philharmonic Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.570233

Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80

Brahms wrote this piece as a musical ‘thank you’ to the University of Breslau: it had given him a special degree for his work in music. The music is filled with traditional German student songs and is one of his most popular works.

Performers: London Philharmonic Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.557428

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

Brahms started composing his First Symphony in 1862 but it took him 14 years to finish it. He wanted it to be brilliant and found it hard to write something he was happy with. The struggle was worth it – the symphony is wonderful. People jokingly called it ‘Beethoven’s 10th’ – they thought Brahms was as good as the great master before him!

Performers: London Philharmonic Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.557428


Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24

When composers write Variations they take a melody (a ‘theme’) and dress it up in different ways – decorate it with extra notes, or give it a different rhythm, for example. This set by Brahms has 25 variations, all based on a theme by Georg Frideric Handel. Brahms dedicated the work to Clara Schumann.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550350

Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35

These piano variations (28 in total) are based on the well-known theme of Paganini’s 24th Caprice for Violin. Somebody said at the time that you need ‘fingers of steel’ and ‘the courage of a lion’ to play them – because they’re really hard! Listen to the theme at the beginning… can you still hear it inside the different variations that follow?

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550350

Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 9

Brahms wrote these 16 variations on a theme by his great friend, the composer Robert Schumann. It was May 1854: Schumann was unwell, and his wife Clara was pregnant. Brahms brought each variation to show Clara as he wrote it – she was a composer too, and she had already written her own variations on the same theme!

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550350

Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn (St Anthony Variations), Op. 56a

The idea of ‘variations’ is to play with a ‘theme’ – alter the tune, change the rhythm, make it faster, slower, add twiddly bits. So a plain theme is best. It’s like starting with blank paper for drawing: on pretty, multi-coloured paper your drawing wouldn’t show up! This theme (not by Haydn, as it turned out) is a good example: lovely, but not too fancy!

Performers: London Philharmonic Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.557430


Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15

This was Brahms’s first piano to be on a really epic (big!) scale. The pianist needs loads of energy to play it. Just listen to the orchestra’s sudden start – it bursts in like a thunderstorm. The piano comes in later, gently to begin with (3:54). Together the orchestra and piano go on an exciting journey – stormy, tender, playful, scary, and full of passion!

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.553182

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83

Brahms wrote two piano concertos. This second one lasts longer than any other piano concerto from the Romantic era. Brahms played its first ever performance himself. At the start, the piano answers the warm French horn greeting then soon has a big section completely by itself, with huge chords spanning the keyboard from top to bottom. Another amazing journey for piano and orchestra!

Performers: Idil Biret, piano; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.554089

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77

Brahms wrote this Violin Concerto for his friend Joseph Joachim. As usual with concertos, there are three movements. 1 and 3 sound powerful and tough. Sandwiched between them, like a jewel, is a beautiful slow movement (Adagio means ‘Slow’). This Violin Concerto is one of the greatest (among thousands) ever written.

Performers: Ilya Kaler, violin; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Pietari Inkinen

Taken from Naxos 8.570321

Double Concerto for violin and cello in A minor, Op. 102

Brahms wrote this concerto for two solo instruments: the high violin and the low cello. So in a concert, these two are out on the stage in front of the orchestra. The cellist sits down; the violinist stands up. Sometimes they take it in turns to play; sometimes they play together. It was the last thing Brahms wrote for orchestra.

Performers: Ilya Kaler, violin; Maria Kliegel, cello; Ireland National Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Constantine

Taken from Naxos 8.550938

Instrumental and Chamber Works

Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25

Brahms played the piano in the first performance of this stormy and passionate quartet – for piano, violin, viola and piano. It is another great example of how he would take a little bit of music and remould it again and again to create the entire piece. Nearly all the ideas in the first movement are made out of the opening four notes.

Performers: Anton Barakhovsky, violin; Alexander Zemtsov, viola; Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt, cello; Eldar Nebolsin, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572798

Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115

Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet (for clarinet, two violins, viola and cello) is one of his last works: many people feel it is his very finest chamber music. Sometimes it’s hard to say why we like music – what it is that makes us smile or cry isn’t always something we can describe in words. Listen to the clarinet’s gentle entrance and beautiful line at the beginning – this is very special music.

Performers: Boris Rener, Clarinet; Ludwig Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.554601

Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78

Brahms wrote three violin sonatas. In this sonata, as in his others, the piano is not just accompanying the violin: the two instruments are equal partners. Sometimes, the violin even accompanies the piano – listen at 1:14, for example, when the piano has the tune and the violin plays accompanying notes. They keep swapping, weaving in and out of each other.

Performers: Ilya Kaler, violin; Alexander Peskanov, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554828

Waltz No. 15, Op. 39

Brahms wrote a set of 16 short waltzes (dances) for piano duet. He wrote them when he lived in Vienna: the waltz was a popular dance there. Brahms’s waltzes were first performed by his friend Clara Schumann and Albert Dietrich. They are light-hearted, delicate and charming pieces. This one is his most famous.

Performers: Christian Kohn, piano; Silke-Thora Matthies, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553139