Biography of German Composer Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg to a Lutheran family, and spent much of his professional life in Vienna. He is grouped with J. S Bach and Beethoven to be one of the ‘three Bs’. Brahms was a virtuoso pianist, and premiered many of his own works – many of the pieces that he composed for the piano were written to match his standards. He was extremely skilled at counterpoint, and used a lot of counterpoint to ‘honour’ the ‘purity’ of the structure of counterpoint and to advance them into a romantic idiom, to create new bold approaches to harmony and melody.

Brahms also had a conservative approach towards music, his music firmly being in the roots of the baroque and classical styles. But also he used novel ensemble types and new Eastern-European folk music, of which the fourth movement of his second string quintet is an example of. The second string quintet in G major was published in 1980. Brahms had troubles writing string ensemble music, destroying many of them before publication, but after his success of his string sextet in the 1850s, he adopted the string quintet, writing the piano quintet and two string quintets.

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The quintet is scored for two violins, two violas and a cello, which is an unusual combination. The piece provides a good example of Brahms’ style – it contains a complex sonata form in the first movement, and the final fourth movement portraying a Austrian-Hungarian dance influenced by the Czardas. This piece is also in cyclic form. The first movement, allegro non troppo, is in sonata form, but contains two long transition sections where Brahms develops his musical ideas.

Brahms included material in the movement from his planned fifth symphony, but was never released. The main theme of the exposition features a rising arpeggio theme in G major in the cello, which is then accompanied by light tremolo in the violins and the violas. The music then modulates to D major, where a three note motif which is a reminiscent of a Viennese waltz is heard in the violins, before spreading to the rest of the quintet. In the development, the music modulates into Bb major, after an unexpected cadence at the end of he exposition. Throughout the development, Brahms develops the rising motif theme from the exposition with the tremolo accompaniment to produce new material. The recapitulation also begins unexpectedly, with the first subject from the exposition beginning on the beat of the bar, rather than as an upbeat like in the exposition. The first movement concludes with a codetta finishing abruptly in the home key of G major. The second movement, adagio, is a theme and four variations, which was Brahms’s favourite form.

The whole movement is rooted in D minor, with the theme beginning in the first viola accompanied by the second viola, and a pizzicato inverted arpeggio theme in the cello part, which links to the first movement, which is an example of cyclic form – this links the Beethoven, of whom he was greatly inspired by. In the first variation, the melody is passed onto the first violin, with the pizzicato accompaniment played by the second viola. Brahms also gives a heavier texture in this variation to give a sense of growth.

In the second variation, the inverted pizzicato arpeggio part which was first introduced in the theme is dissected as the first viola and the cello share this figure. Towards the end, all the parts break into triplets, before reaching to an extreme pitch range at the end of the variation. The third variation incorporates cross rhythms, with the re-appearance of motifs from the first movement in the violins and modified accompaniment parts played by the violas and cello.

The final variation reverts back to the beginning theme, but the melody is played by the first violin, which creates a texture that is similar, but also different to the theme. The movement ends with a unexpected D major chord. The third movement, un poco allegretto, is a scherzo-like movement in G minor which follows the second movement in a minuet and trio form. It has a much lighter texture with a mobile bass line and a variety of rhythmic forms such as rising scales and the arpeggio cello theme from the first movement, syncopated.

The main theme for the first section is a dotted minim followed by a crotchet then followed by three quavers. The music then modulates to G major for the, before modulating to a variety of keys and then coming back to G minor, to play the opening theme. The music then modulates into G major for a second time, then ending the movement in a gentle G major chord. The final movement, vivace presto, is an Austrian –Hungarian dance inspired by the Czardas. The main theme is a four note quaver tremolo motif which is first heard in the viola part, then moves onto the first violin part.

Brahms re-introduces the triplet figure from the second movement in the second violin and the first viola which is accompanied by a two quaver figure in the second violas, and later a syncopated bass line played by the cello. As the movement progresses on, Brahms again makes good use of cyclic form, as the tremolo figure from the beginning of the first movement is heard again in the lower instruments. The piece ends with a coda, which is at a faster tempo, which is a typical feature of a Hungarian folk dance.

In the coda, a contrapuntal dialogue between the violins and the violas can be heard, before a triumphant finish with three G major chords. Another work that Brahms was given great credit for was his Horn trio in Eb major, op. 40. It commemorates the death of his mother, Christiane, who was a violinist. Brahms is said to have composed this piece while walking in the ‘Black forest’ near Baden-Baden – many of his pieces were influenced by walking in the countryside as he was a keen walker. In this piece, the horn’s timbre gives a rather rural effect, in conjunction with the serene opening of the first movement.

The trio consists of four movements, with a very unusual combination of a natural horn, violin and piano, which is an autobiographical reference – his mother played the horn, his father the violin and himself the piano). But for this trio, Brahms decides not to use the valve horn, which was increasing popularity at the time due to its larger technical capabilities, but the natural horn – the natural horn has a darker, more melancholic tone than the valve horn, which adds to the rural and the empty atmosphere of the piece.

The first movement, Andante, is the first major work which does not follow the Classical sonata form style, instead it follows a structured ‘song form’ with the structure A-B-A-B-A, where the A section is a long, haunting vocal melody with a simple accompaniment, and the B section is where motivic development takes place to give contrast to the A section – it is generally faster, predominantly in C minor, and are often referred to as ‘lively rhapsodic segments’. Because of the limited motivic capability of the natural horn, the violin frequently joins with the piano to make an accompanying textural interest.

The beginning of the movement portrays a sound world which is grounded in a calm setting that is reflective and mournful. The movement’s affection is dominated by tragic simplicity of the natural horn’s melody, which often echoes the violin part. The second movement is a scherzo, and here Brahms exploits the hunting associations of the horn with a great dynamic effect, evident from the start with the piano’s galloping staccato crotchets and the bold joint violin and horn entry.

Throughout this movement, there is an apparent focus on exciting rhythms by using many devices such as strong off-beat accents and the use of syncopations. After the scherzo, the movement moves into the trio which is of a slower tempo. The trio is in G# minor, and references the sentiment of the first movement with its unfolding extensive song-like melody. Although the trio provides a contrasting character, this movement itself is mainly joyful and celebratory and for this character, many have read it as a stage of mourning where Brahms reflects on the fond memories of his deceased.

The third movement, Adagio mesto, is a slow and sorrowful movement, and is one of Brahms’ most passionate and intimate slow movements. The movement is in Eb minor, and the melancholic timbre of the natural horn creates a mood that is unmistakably that of a funeral lament. The first theme leads on to a delicately textured contrapuntal presentation of the second theme where once again Brahms uses simplistic melodic lines to a devastatingly moving effect.

After a development over a slow tremolo piano accompaniment, the second theme returns with the dynamic marked ‘ppp quasi niente’ which means like nothing on the solo violin. There is also an appearance of a new theme, a quiet fanfare-like motto in F major, providing an ambiguous glimpse of hope and release of built-up emotion, but this is extinguished by a berceuse. The movement concludes with the violin and horn affirming the Eb minor tonality whilst the piano bitterly undermines the berceuse sentiment with grating semitonal clashes.

The final and fourth movement, Allegro con brio, is in a 6/8 metre and is in the home key of Eb major. This movement ‘banishes’ the darkness of the third movement with a vivacious ‘hunting’ gigue which immediately links back to the second movement, the scherzo. The main hunting theme is a reworking of the F major theme which was extinguished by a berceuse in the third movement. Here it is realised as a point of hope and celebration, and helps to interlink the last two movements together, despite their very contrasting characters.

There are plenty of dialogues between the violin and the horn, especially in moments which imply a sense of playfulness, often evoking pastoral or spring-like images. The piece concludes with a resolute extended cadential figure, firmly rooted in the home key of Eb major – a reference to Beethoven. Through Brahms’ works, it can be seen where he had got his inspirations from. Even though he many of his works followed the classical styles and techniques, he had a distinct way of changing them and making them into his own.

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Biography of German Composer Johannes Brahms. (2016, Nov 11). Retrieved from