Brahms the Genius/Brahms the Man:Composer, Son, and Friend
It is always interesting to trace the evolution of the cult of genius surrounding any artist whose work has become “classic” in the sense of having stood the test of time.
The posthumous image of composers deemed “great” is shaped by both fact and myth. During Brahms’ lifetime (1833-1897), many of the first authoritative biographies of earlier composers such as Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven were written by German scholars in the late-19th century, pioneers in that newly developing discipline Musikwissenschaft, or musicology. Many of these biographers were Brahms’ close friends, to whom he was drawn by a mutual interest in German late-Renaissance and Early Baroque music. Almost immediately after his death in 1897, Brahms himself became the subject of many biographical studies, most emanating from his circle of musicologist cronies (A fortunate circumstance for his reputation, to be sure). Even a cursory reading of this primary biographical material shows Brahms as a man who, while an artist of the highest caliber, transcended in many ways the stereotypical image of the composer as an emotionally disengaged, socially awkward, totally self-absorbed genius, all-mind and no mensch. What is astonishing about Brahms is the fullness of his human development and it is out of that fullness of both heart and intellect that his German Requiem was composed.
Many of us can identify with Johannes Brahms’ life journey. He grew up in the wrong part of Hamburg, Germany, in a family short on both living space and money. His parents were a mismatched pair – his father, at first a modestly successful free-lance musician, two decades younger than his mother. Brahms had two siblings, a sickly sister named Elise and a musically talented, but personally somewhat irresponsible brother, Fritz. Reading descriptions of their living conditions during Johannes’ earliest years drive home the point that Brahms grew
up in circumstances that were humble by any Western standard. Yet the home
was by all accounts a stable and loving one and Brahms grew into and always remained a devoted son, a family man who supported his parents and siblings both financially and emotionally all of his adult life.
Two cataclysmic personal events in Johannes’ young adult life provided the initial impetus for the composition of the Requiem. Both events profoundly altered the direction of his life both personally and professionally. On July 29, 1856, the composer Robert Schumann, friend and mentor to the young Brahms and one of the first leading musicians to recognize and promote his genius, died in a mental asylum, two years after attempting suicide by throwing himself in the Rhine River. Brahms had been living with the Schumann family since the suicide attempt supporting Clara emotionally and helping her raise her large family. During this time Clara and Johannes had fallen in love. Yet by 1858 they had sorted through their feelings and had decided not to marry although they remained the closest of friends. After recovering from the emotional upheavals surrounding his relationships with the Schumanns, Brahms rededicated himself to composing and promoting his career as a composer-pianist-conductor. He also began to search for a home-base, a city in which he could live a comfortable personal life and which would at the same time provide enough scope for his immense musical gifts. His strongest desire was to go home and live in Hamburg near his family. By this time his mother was quite aged and his parents had separated. (The letters of 1864 between Johannes and his father concerning his mother, Christiane, are quite touching.) However,on February 2, 1865, Christiane died of a stroke. By the time Johannes arrived in Hamburg she was already dead. As a mother, she had shaped his personality and moral character and although not musical herself, she had been totally supportive of his ambitions and successes. In the years immediately following her death Brahms worked on the Requiem, parts of which were performed in Vienna as early as 1865. Yet Brahms was not satisfied with the overall emotional and musical impact of the work until 1868 when he finally added to the then six-movement work (which had already been performed in both Vienna and in Bremen at the Cathedral), a seventh movement featuring solo soprano which he positioned as movement five. Brahms intended its poignant and gentle quality to evoke the spirit of his mother.
After the premiere of the completed version in the Cathedral in Bremen,
Germany, the musical world was forced to acknowledge that Brahms, at the age of 35, was a major compositional talent. The Requiem masterfully combines choral and solo voices with orchestral writing of great power and subtlety. By composing it Brahms may, in fact, have freed himself psychologically from his fixation on Beethoven’s symphonic legacy, allowing him to compose his first symphony a few years later (1876) with a fully self-assured style. And yet for all of its intricacy, the enormous choral fugues in movements 2, 3, and 6, that rival those in the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and countless other astonishing musical details, Brahms uses this massive musical superstructure to sublimate, channel, and transform his personal grief; through this specific music he connects to the universal experience of grief, loss, and healing. As a primary means to this end, Brahms chose his own texts, using passages from the Old and New Testament and from the Apocryphal Books, rather than relying on the long-established tradition of using the millennium-old Latin text from the Requiem Mass. His choices were deliberate, in order to keep the music as free as possible from sectarian dogmas, to express something at once deeper, more personal, and more universal than the religious traditions often allowed. And in our current troubled times when grief and death have once more become, as always both personal and universal, and when tradition, culture, and religion threaten to irrevocably divide us, it is both cathartic and comforting to sing this timeless masterpiece whose emotional journey through darkness and into light helps us reaffirm our common humanity.
Dr. Vicki A. Seldon
Associate Professor of Music
Prairie View A&M University
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