He was a composer who had to practice the piano at a piano manufacturer’s showroom because his family was too poor to afford an instrument of their own. He was raised in a Protestant home and was very familiar with the Bible, studying the Scriptures into his adulthood. And his friendship with composer and musicians Robert and Clara Schumann started when he was only twenty years old, but continued until Clara’s death less than one year before his own passing. He even stayed with Clara’s seven children so she could resume her career as a concert pianist and support her family after Robert’s death. Moreover, he is a composer who has the rare distinction of having his own lullaby named after him. Who is this shy bachelor who composed over 250 works? Johannes Brahms.
It is interesting how many elements of Brahms’s life mirror those of Ludwig van Beethoven’s story. Both men grew up in poor homes and worked hard to provide for their families. Beethoven’s deafness caused him to be somewhat reclusive, and Brahms grew a long, bushy beard to hide his face because he was so shy. Brahms was a great admirer of the deaf composer, and he was as deliberate and careful in his compositions as Beethoven had been. Some listeners have even nicknamed Brahms’s first symphony “Beethoven’s Tenth” because of its drama, power, and similar musical theme.
Just as Beethoven enjoyed going for walks so he could admire nature and then write of it, Brahms often took long walks through the woods with his hands behind his back (another mannerism identified with Beethoven’s hiking style). Both men composed music that combined traditional classical themes with Romantic expressions of their appreciation of beauty and life. Moreover, both bachelors used notebooks regularly in their daily activities. Beethoven’s notebooks were used for communicating with others because of his inability to hear, as well as for jotting down musical ideas as they occurred to him. Brahms’s notebooks were for recording his compositions and for copying down quotations from books he had read.
Perhaps the greatest testimony of Johannes Brahms effort in music is that his works are still among the most played, most recognized, and most admired in all of classical music. He is often associated with the “Three B’s” – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. And his lullaby has soothed more children to sleep in the past one hundred years than perhaps any other work. (Just for fun, Brahms’s “Lullaby” had gone through so many different editions and arrangements at one point that Brahms suggested to his publisher that another version of the song should be made in a minor key for naughty children.)
If you’d like to learn more about this composer, consider reading Opal Wheeler’s The Young Brahms while listening to his lullaby (“Wiegenlied, No. 4” from Funf Lieder, Opus 49) or his greatest work, his Second Symphony, sometimes called his “Pastoral Symphony.”