• Golden Age Composer Portrait Brahms
  • Johannes Brahms

    In 1853, composer Robert Schumann announced a promising young talent to readers of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the leading musical journal of the day. "Sooner or later," Schumann imagined, "someone would and must appear, fated to give us the ideal expression of the times, one who would not gain his mastery by gradual stages, but rather would spring fully armed like Minerva from the head of Jove." His prophecy proved true: he had discovered Beethoven's heir. "His name is Johannes Brahms, from Hamburg," Schumann declared. "He carries all the marks of one who has received a call" and would take up the symphonic mantle from Beethoven.

    At the time, Brahms (1833-1897) was just five years past his solo debut as a pianist, which he made in 1858, playing works by Bach and Beethoven.

    His earliest extant compositions date from 1851—only two years prior to Schumann's fateful pronouncement. He likely destroyed his juvenilia; subjecting himself to intense self-criticism, he mercilessly censored his own oeuvre throughout his life. He worked first in the genres of the piano sonata and art song, saving the most exalted genres of the string quartet and symphony for much later in life.
  • Notes on the Piece

    Brahms’s music often seems somehow nostalgic, even regressive. Eschewing the excesses of his Romantic contemporaries Liszt and Wagner, he sought refuge in the corseted Classical structures of Haydn and Mozart. When he realized that concert organizers had started to privilege the music of dead rather than living composers on their programs, Brahms began emulating the dead. He embraced such archaic musical genres as the motet and serenade, created a set of variations on a theme by Haydn, and rejected the fire and brimstone of grand opera for instrumental miniatures. The idea was to enter the pantheon of past masters even while still very much alive.

    Critics of a Romantic mindset have been carried away by this idea, however, asserting that Brahms was nostalgic to the point of being melancholic, a condition defined by musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann as an “individual, albeit historically mediated state of mind and spirit.” Maybe this is true, or maybe Brahms consciously chose to manufacture this autumnal mood. Art is, after all, artificial.

    His Clarinet Quintet in B Minor of 1891, a late, post-retirement work dedicated to clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, is haunted from start to finish by the genial ghost of Mozart, whose own clarinet quintet from a century before was its obvious model. The four movements mimic Mozart’s formal structures while enriching his syntax. Had Mozart lived past the time of Wagner, Brahms seems to suggest, his music would have sounded like this. The most beautiful move in this meltingly beautiful composition comes in the agitated finale with the gradual reappearance of the main theme from the second-movement Adagio, followed by the main theme of the first-movement Allegro. The themes fade in, fade out, and then fade in again, as though unable or unwilling to say goodbye. Also significant is the narrow tonal range of the score: The second movement modulates from B major to B minor to B-flat minor and then to B major again. The palette is extremely refined, limited to shades of a single hue rather than distinctly different colors. It is as though Brahms wanted to inflect his musical materials instead of dramatizing them.

    With this and his other late clarinet pieces, Brahms signed off and put down his quill. But in one respect, his Clarinet Quintet is less about the past than the future. The technique used to manipulate musical motifs—the thematic fragments that generate the forms—has much more in common with 20th- rather than 18th- or 19th-century composition. This technique is called “developing variation,” and it involves using musical themes less as stable melodies than repositories of motivic ideas to be explored throughout a movement or even an entire piece. For modern composers seeking a means to hold their works together outside of the major and minor key system, developing variation was crucial. The technique was codified by the arch-modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg in an essay called “Brahms the Progressive,” which generously portrays Brahms as a harbinger, not an anachronism.

  • Watch

    Jeremy Geffen introduces Brahms's Clarinet Quintet in B Minor

  • Watch


    The Guarneri Quartet and David Shifrin, clarinet, perform the third movement of Brahms Quintet for Clarinet in B Minor.

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