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During his lifetime, Brahms witnessed a veritable explosion in biographical writing and related publications of letters, memoirs and diaries. The monumental Allgemeine deutsche Biographie (1875–1912) was edited by Rochus von Liliencron (1820–1912), a personal acquaintance of his; a comparable project in Great Britain was the Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900). Significant biographies of famous Austro-German composers also appeared in those years, often written by Brahms’s friends: Otto Jahn’s Mozart (1856–9), Friedrich Chrysander’s Handel (1858–67), Philipp Spitta’s Bach (1873–80) and Carl Ferdinand Pohl’s Haydn (1875–82). But one might also think of the biography of Beethoven (1866–79) by the American Alexander Wheelock Thayer, a project which was taken up in German by Hermann Deiters, Jahn’s pupil and Brahms’s colleague and contemporary. It was Deiters who in 1880 wrote the first book-length biography of Brahms, when the composer still had seventeen years to live.
During his lifetime, Brahms accumulated a sizeable fortune. Although the early days were not without difficulties, his finances then accumulated steadily and virtually uninterruptedly. When he died in 1897, he left behind not only manuscripts of his own works, but also an extensive collection of other composers’ autograph manuscripts (including of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, etc.) as well as bonds worth over 181,000 Gulden. The size of the sum is evident when one compares the rent that he paid his landlady Coelestine Truxa between 1887 and 1897 for his three-room apartment in Vienna’s Karlsgasse, which amounted half-yearly to 347 Gulden and 25 Kreuzer.
Brahms grew up in the Hamburg‘Gängeviertel’, an area of workers, small-scale artisans and tradesmen in modest circumstances [see Ch. 1 ‘Childhood in Hamburg’]. Later on, when he could determine his own lifestyle, luxury still held no appeal.
Brahms witnessed a period of staggering scientific and technological advances throughout Europe and the burgeoning USA. The nineteenth century offered new modes of transportation: musicians could now travel to distant cities to perform. With this mobility came the need for standardisation, both of technological devices as well as musical parameters, such as concert pitch, which varied considerably among cities. Brahms was both interested in, and delighted by, advances which related to music and its performance, from train travel to new research in the natural sciences. Indeed, he became an interlocutor with a number of leading natural scientists of the period.
By the 1830s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in Britain, and German cities were slowly experiencing the effects of mechanisation. A crucial development in both production and communications was the steam engine, which powered factory machinery, facilitating mass production.
Throughout his lifetime, Brahms accompanied dozens of singers in a variety of settings, ranging from huge public halls to his friends’ homes, and conducted many others in choirs. Some of those working relationships were one-offs, arising from the widespread practice of including a set of piano-accompanied songs within most concerts and the expediency and cost-effectiveness of using local talent. Others were deep, enduring partnerships; the timbres and interpretative approaches of those singers are surely ingrained in his vocal music. Overall, Brahms’s singers were generally not part of the international operatic elite associated with Verdi, Bizet and Massenet. Figures like Julius Stockhausen (1826–1906) and Raimund von Zur-Mühlen (1854–1931) were almost exclusively concert singers and, later on, teachers. Most hailed from German-speaking territories, reflecting Brahms’s own concert career.
‘Today, my dear wife, née Nissen, successfully delivered a healthy boy. 7th May 1833. J. J. Brahms.’ Thus, on 8 May 1833 Johann Jakob Brahms announced the birth of his first son Johannes in the local paper, the Privileged Weekly General News of and for Hamburg (Privilegirte wöchentliche gemeinnützige Nachrichten von und für Hamburg). At a time when such announcements were the exception, this was a clear sign of pride. Johann Jakob Brahms or Brahmst, as he also spelled it, was born on 1 June 1806 in Heide in Holstein, the second son of the innkeeper and trader Johann Brahms, who had moved to Heide from Brunsbüttel via Meldorf. His ancestors were from Lower Saxony. Johann Jakob completed a five-year apprenticeship as a city wait in Heide and Wesselburen, during which he learned the flugelhorn, flute, violin, viola and cello, then standard instruments. In early 1826, the young journeyman began his travels with his certificate of apprenticeship, received in December 1825.
When Brahms’s Violin Concerto Op. 77 received its British premiere at the Crystal Palace on 22 February 1879, George Grove began his programme note to the piece: ‘Mr Brahms is no stranger to the Crystal Palace audience; in fact he is very well known here, for his name appears more frequently in the Saturday Programmes than that of almost any other contemporary composer.’
It is certainly true that Brahms’s popularity with British audiences increased significantly from the 1870s onwards as initial suspicion of his complex writing was replaced by growing admiration, particularly for his chamber and orchestral works. However, Brahms himself never visited the country – in fact, he turned down at least six separate invitations to do so, from potential festival commissions to performance opportunities, and two attempts to coax him to Cambridge University to receive an honorary doctorate.
The reception of Brahms’s music beyond his home city of Hamburg began in 1853, when the young composer made his first extended journey and presented his compositions to some of the leading figures of German contemporary music: Robert Schumann, Robert Franz and Franz Liszt. Each reacted to these unpublished works in distinctive ways.
Robert Schumann, with whom Brahms spent the whole month of October in Düsseldorf, was instantly enthralled.
Brahms in Context offers a fresh perspective on the much-admired nineteenth-century German composer. Including thirty-nine chapters on historical, social and cultural contexts, the book brings together internationally renowned experts in music, law, science, art history and other areas, including many figures whose work is appearing in English for the first time. The essays are accessibly written, with short reading lists aimed at music students and educators. The book opens with personal topics including Brahms's Hamburg childhood, his move to Vienna, and his rich social life. It considers professional matters from finance to publishing and copyright; the musicians who shaped and transmitted his works; and the larger musical styles which influenced him. Casting the net wider, other essays embrace politics, religion, literature, philosophy, art, and science. The book closes with chapters on reception, including recordings, historical performance, his compositional legacy, and a reflection on the power of composer myths.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of private musical activity as a testing ground, a compositional setting and, indeed, as a pleasurable activity for Brahms. ‘Private music-making’ deserves a word of explanation first, since private spaces were not always in the home, performers were not always amateurs and repertoire was not strictly divided according to public or private consumption. While Brahms was clearly often concerned to write music suitable for amateur performers, such repertoire was not automatically excluded from the concert platform as a result. Indeed, since the public lied recital was an innovation during his lifetime, some of the pieces which had previously found readier advocates in the domestic space were pushed further into the limelight thanks to pioneering programmers such as Gustav Walter and Amalie Joachim [see Ch. 19 ‘Singers’].
We begin our consideration of Brahms’s politics and religion with the great historical turn that occurred in the centre of Europe in the year 1870. With the decisive German military defeat of France and proclamation of King Wilhelm I of Prussia as German Emperor, the German Question was at last given its definitive Prussian-dominated Smaller German solution. Brahms probably would have preferred a Larger German solution that included Austria, Prussia’s traditional rival for leadership in the loosely bound German Confederation that was established by the Congress of Vienna following Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815. But what mattered most was that Germany had at last emerged from its political impotence to become a nation-state possessed of power and influence in the world commensurate with its long-recognised achievements in the cultural sphere.