Generally considered to be one of the greatest German composers, Johannes Brahms combined three centuries of tradition with the folk and dance influences of the mid-nineteenth century to create a unique and influential style. Although stereotyped as a traditionalist, many modernists, Schoenberg in particular, acknowledged his music as progressive and pioneering.
Born in Hamburg on 7 May 1833 to a working-class family, Brahms was well educated and showed a voracious appetite for learning. He studied the piano, cello and horn and gained an early love for Bach, the Viennese classicists, German romantic poets, and folklore. In order to supplement the family's income, he played popular music and taught piano.
A shy and reserved youth, he is thought to have started composing in the mid 1840s, though a lifelong attitude of self-criticism ensured that only his most polished mature works were spared destruction. His lifelong interest in the Hungarian gypsy style also formed at this time as political refugees passed through Hamburg on their way to exile in the US.
The turning point in his life occurred in 1853 when he met Joseph Joachim who introduced him in turn to Robert Schumann, a loyal advocate of Brahms' music in his remaining years. When Schumann died in 1856, Brahms developed passionate romantic feelings towards Schumann's wife, Clara. Clara's feelings, however, were never more than those of friendship or motherly love, but the two remained lifelong friends and a great many works were dedicated to her.
As a result of this disappointment, Brahms felt that he must give up all thoughts of intimate personal relationships and devote himself to music. He became infatuated with many women over the years but always maintained his personal freedom and never seriously considered marriage.
A time for introspection and study, the late 1850s saw Brahms occupied with several choral society positions. He was also identified at this time with the opposition to the literary-oriented music of Liszt and his supporters which, along with the fiasco that accompanied the premiere of his D minor Piano Concerto, almost threatened his career.
The early 1860s saw Brahms undertake trips to Vienna and accept the directorship of the Vienna Singakademie. However, financial problems forced him to undertake lengthy concert tours and it was not until his German Requiem was garlanded with critical acclaim that he became established as a leading composer.
During the 1870s, Brahms's fame spread far and wide throughout Europe and the US; he undertook a number of concert tours and, in 1872, accepted a postion as director of the concerts of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. He amassed a substantial fortune but lived frugally in Vienna, though he was unfailingly generous to others, especially children.
Success with the string quartet and symphony finally came in the 1870s and 1880s when the great orchestral and chamber works were written, including his four symphonies. He also collected European folk music and continued a lifelong interest in early music, overseeing collected editions of Couperin and CPE Bach.
During the 1890s many of Brahms's great circle of friends died, including Clara Schumann in 1896. Reflecting on his life, his compositional output began to decline, though clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld inspired some late chamber works for clarinet.
Brahms's legacy stretched all over Europe, from France (Fauré) to England (Elgar). As an orchestral composer he can be said to be the successor of Beethoven; as a miniaturist, the inheritor of Schumann and Schubert's genius; and in the field of choral music, the true heir to the renaissance and baroque polyphonists. His music's great popular appeal continues to this day.