Johannes Brahms: The Musical Resolution of a Conflicted Personality

Many great composers, neglected during their lifetimes, would say, as Mahler did, “My time is yet to come.” Not Brahms. As one biographer states, “The heyday of his music was his own lifetime.” The greatness of his music was accepted almost as soon as he began composing. Composer Robert Schumann proclaimed him the new musical messiah when he was just 20. The phrase “the three Bs” (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms) was coined after Brahms’s first symphony when he was not yet 40, and the kudos just kept rolling in. Brahms made it big: He knew it, and so did everybody else.

In sharp contrast to the clear view the public had of his music is the personality of the man behind the music. Brahms’s psychological depths remain a mystery, just as they were to his friends, colleagues, lovers, and adoring public. Descriptions of Brahms’s personality were contradictory: He was called gruff, generous, withholding, unpleasant, secretive, shy, mean, serious, boorish, and immature. He could be both fantastically loyal and alienating to his friends, many of whom were the great musical performers and critics of his day. He was a man defiant of convention and full of irony, reserve, and even meanness. While he could be kind and forthcoming with advice and aid and was extremely generous in providing fully for family, friends, and even other musicians, he allowed few close friendships lest they impinge on his freedom. Nevertheless, he was loved and admired by his many friends, including Robert Schumann and his wife Clara and Joseph Joachim, the great violin virtuoso of the age. He never married and had no children. He had a lifelong adoration of Clara Schumann, a succession of infatuations with young singers followed by broken marriage proposals, and habitual transactions with prostitutes. He was deliberately secretive about his life and feelings. He wrote almost nothing about himself, and what he did write he destroyed.

Johannes Brahms was born in 1833, the son of Johann Jakob and Johanna Christiane Brahms. He had an older sister, Elisabeth, and a younger brother, Fritz. His parents were an unusual match. His father was a handsome young man, determined to be a musician and craving an artistic career. But he was more adventurous than talented and barely succeeded making a living as a band musician. His mother was 17 years older than his father (she was 41 on their wedding day), with one leg shorter than the other and lacking in physical beauty. She came from a better social class than her husband, however, and was ambitious. Though uneducated, she had a keen mind, valued writing, and worked hard.

Both parents knew they had an exceptionally talented child and provided Brahms with music teachers and as much education as they could afford. But life was hard in the slums of Hamburg. To increase the family income, Brahms’s father found him jobs playing piano in the neighborhood bordellos. Slight, blond, and beautiful, the young teenager spent nightmare evenings at the piano, surrounded by drunken sailors and prostitutes who made him witness sexual and violent acts. They would even undress him and pass him around the room to be fondled as they pleased.

Brahms was profoundly affected by three years of these emotionally maiming experiences. Psychologically and spiritually wounded, he was sent to live with a relative in the countryside to recover. There he discovered the beauty of nature and was able to bury the trauma. But he was left with emotional and physical scars: He remained small and underdeveloped into his late twenties. He had no facial hair and looked like a lovely blond boy, undoubtedly mortifying for a young man trying to make it in the world as a composer and pianist.

The profound psychological polarities in Brahms’s personality and the traumatic experiences of his youth influenced his life choices. He could not reconcile his discomfort at being constrained by any system or relationship with having a bourgeois lifestyle, wife, children, and steady job. Despite the large amounts of money he earned, he was frugal to a fault. His home was modest. He ate in the cheapest restaurants and dressed like a vagrant, with a large safety pin holding his coat together.

He was a formidable debater; he loved playing the devil’s advocate and the challenge of a passionate, erudite exchange. He more than compensated for his meager formal education with his love of knowledge. His home was full of books, he read voraciously, and he collected musical manuscripts of the great masters. While his cupboards and closets were in dreadful confusion, his books and manuscripts were methodically arranged, and he boasted that he could find any book, even in the dark. Brahms’s impressive musical talent brought him offers of very desirable musical posts, which he always either rejected or vacated after a short spell. He settled in Vienna and became artistic director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society for the Friends of Music). This important position gave him control of a major orchestra and chorus and full programming discretion, but he stayed at this post only a couple of years.

This ambivalent pattern also defined his love relationships. Brahms’s greatest love was for the unobtainable Clara Schumann. She was not only beautiful but also famed for her piano playing and musical erudition. The Schumann marriage was a union of love, sharing work and family. When Brahms met Clara, he was 20 and still a sensitive, delicate, shy boy. She was 14 years older and the mother of six children. Both Schumanns deeply admired Brahms for his genius, and he became like a member of their family. After Robert’s death, it was Brahms who helped Clara through her loneliness and grieving. They also went on vacation together (it is rumored that this was the one time their love was sexually consummated), and they remained close friends for life.

It was in Brahms’s music that his conflicted personality found a balance. His music derived from the legacy of Schubert, Schumann, and the late Beethoven, as well as from European folk songs and gypsy music. He deftly couched his romantic, melodious, emotional music in the classical form, creating a protective boundary that contained the emotionalism of his compositions in an articulated form and structure. He openly abhorred the wave of ultra-romanticism embodied in the works of Liszt and Wagner, with their unabashed theatricality and virtuosity. He preferred to reach back to Bach, Handel, Palestrina, and medieval church modes. He worked and reworked his compositions with a discipline verging on obsession, and, while he often ignored advice, he was himself extremely critical of his own works, apparently destroying all that displeased him.

Brahms faced the death of his good friend Robert Schumann in 1856 and of his mother in 1865 by composing Ein Deutsches Requiem, a masterpiece about love, loss, and comfort. The Requiem was actually written in three stages over a period of 14 years. The first stage was based on an unfinished piece he had started and then abandoned in 1854 when Robert Schumann attempted suicide.

The second stage of the Requiem was inspired by the death of his mother. Her loss moved Brahms to complete the first and fourth movements and to compose the third and seventh. As with his recovery from early adolescent abuse, nature was probably more healing than human contact. The glaciers and blue lakes of Zurich, where he went to compose and rest, probably inspired the idyllic fourth movement and the magnificent vision of the sixth. Interestingly, when the first three movements were previewed, Clara Schumann, violinist Joseph Joachim, and the great music critic Eduard Hanslick all complained about the fugue in the third movement, whose repetitive pedal point in D allowed none of Brahms’s usual harmonic scope. Brahms called this “the eternal D,” and despite some revisions he refused to alter the music. He wanted its relentless musical effect to underline the importance of the accompanying text: “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment shall touch them.”

He wrote the fifth movement, the third stage of the composition, after the Requiem’s official premiere in 1868. The soprano solo was a uniquely defenseless expression of his grief over his mother’s death and of his own loneliness. Its insertion into the middle of the piece balanced the whole Requiem musically and thematically.

Robert Schumann was the major influence on Brahms’s interest in and use of biblical texts. Schumann had not only taught him to read the Bible but also to interpret it in the context of a broader, humane view of mortality and death. While Brahms was not actively religious, he was embedded in the cultural Protestantism of his time. He was deeply interested in the words of the Lutheran Bible as great German literature. His work was named Ein Deutsches Requiem to emphasize the cultural and political importance of the German language, which to him represented Germany’s history, unification, and identity.

In the Requiem, Brahms transformed the traditional liturgy of the requiem mass into a psychological poem. Treating the verses of the Bible as poetry, he used 16 different passages from the Old and New Testaments to make his emotional points. When the famous conductor Karl Reinthaler agreed to prepare the work for Brahms’s baton for the official premiere, he objected strenuously to the “heresy” of finding no mention of Christ in it. Brahms would change none of it. He wanted a personal statement without any of the limitations that religious beliefs interposed, “because I am a musician, because I needed it,” he said. The response to the Requiem brought him much of what he also needed – comfort and accolades from friends, colleagues, and grateful audiences.

Brahms can be said to have truly given his life to his art. Through his genius, his utter devotion to his work, and much personal sacrifice, he turned his own suffering and psychological trauma into a sublime if agonizing world for himself and a thrilling experience for his audiences. We can only be grateful.

— Pilar Montero and Arthur Colman

  1. D. Beller-McKenna, Brahms and the German Spirit. Harvard University Press, 2004.
  2. K. Geiringer, Brahms: His Life and Work. Oxford University Press, 1947.
  3. J. Swafford, Johannes Brahms: A Biography. Vintage Press, 1997.