Affectionately known as one of the “Three Bs of Music,” there’s Bach and Beethoven, and then there’s Brahms. Born in Hamburg, Germany, composer, pianist, and conductor Johannes Brahms wrote much of his vast body of classical music while living in his beloved Vienna, Austria-Hungary. The Romantic era during the 1800s can’t be discussed without mentioning the music of this great musician.
From the mid to late 19th century, he debuted some of the classical genre’s most cherished pieces. And he did so with the help of two good friends who would have profound influences on him, fellow composer Robert Schumann and Schumann’s wife Clara, a pianist who often assisted with Brahms’ creative process. Not only did his close relationship with the Schumanns reflect in his vibrant works, but as he developed himself as a musician, he garnered the praise and friendship of some of the industry’s brightest stars including Richard Strauss and Antonin Dvorak.
From his crowd-pleasing symphonies to his controversial pieces, we unpack the stories behind this daring, visionary composer’s most beautiful musical releases.
9. 21 Hungarian Dances, No. 5 Allegro
Brahms’ Hungarian Dances features a suite of 21 “dances” that capture the beauty and passion of the rich Hungarian culture and its traditional folk dancing. First intended for two pianists, the piece expanded to feature a full symphony with a vibrant strings section. Brahms’ friend and fellow composer Antonin Dvorak helped compose this popular masterpiece. The ‘No. 5 Allegro’ is often considered to be the heart of the piece. It boasts a dynamic melody with a lively rhythm, communicating the allure and pride of Hungarian history. Brahms’ 21 Hungarian Dances would go on to become one of his most enduring (and lucrative) works.
8. Wiegenlied (Lullaby), Op. 49, No. 4
Now a popular nursery rhyme melody parents often sing to their newborns, its original form was composed by Brahms in 1868. Originally titled, ‘Brahms Lullaby,’ with lyrics later added in from various traditional German poems, his composition featuring one lone piano and a soothing melody is still a go-to rendition for listeners. Also called ‘Wiegenlied Op. 49 No. 4,’ the composer wrote it for a good friend of his from childhood, Bertha Faber, who had just given birth to a son. When Faber and Brahms were growing up, he developed romantic feelings for her but never acted on them. She was actually the first to sing the words written for the composition after they were finished. Supposedly, in some renditions, there’s a “hidden” countermelody that was added in just for Faber, which mimics a song she used to sing to Brahms when they were children.
7. German Requiem
With a poignant, mournful tone, one might think ‘German Requiem’ was written for a funeral, especially because the loss of his mother and good friend Robert Schumann inspired the piece, but it has actually been called a “mass for the living.” While Brahms grappled with religion throughout his life, this magnum opus contains a religious theme throughout (this was smoothed out with the help of his friend Clara Schumann, the late Robert Schumann’s wife). Written over the course of several years, this momentous piece would go on to define much of what made the German composer so magnetic to future generations. Lasting over an hour, it was a huge undertaking featuring a full orchestra plus vocal work by a chorus featuring soprano and baritone ranges. Its haunting presence is underscored by the ups and down Brahms faced while composing the piece. When pressured by authoritative figures to make the composition more demonstrably religious, he refused, saying he wanted the piece to be deeply “human” as opposed to deeply religious despite its spiritual nature. This was a daring move to make during his time, and one that adds a great deal of context to the complexities of the everlasting piece.
6. Violin Concerto in D Major: III
While Brahms’ ‘German Requiem’ was a bit controversial due to religious differences between those working on the piece, his ‘Violin Concerto’ continues to spark a frenzy because of different reasons. It is the only violin-based piece he ever wrote, and because the stringed instrument wasn’t his forte he leaned on his good friend and violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim for collaboration. With a slight haphazard feel, the concerto has proved to be one of his more difficult pieces to master, with the third movement being the most popular to tackle. It is often a pillar during various symphony seasons due to audience appreciation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a favorite among violinists tasked with performing the composition. Two classical figures, Hans von Bülow (who was actually a big fan of Brahms) and Joseph Hellmesberger, once remarked that the piece was “against the violin” as much as it was for it.
5. Symphony No. 4
His 98th work, ‘Symphony No. 4’ remains one of his most popular. Steeped in philosophy, while Brahms wrote the spirited piece he was reading a new translation of an ancient work by Greek “tragedian” writer Sophocles. While many of his compositions are in major keys, this work marks a switch to E minor. The elegant piece has long drawn comparisons to another bastion of classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven. While conductor Hans von Bülow was critical of Brahms’ violin concerto, their longtime friendship meant honesty didn’t destroy closeness between them. After Brahms wrote this powerful piece in a remote area of Austria, Bülow brought the German composer to Meiningen, the German town where he resided as the local orchestra’s director, to collaborate. ‘Symphony No. 4’ premiered with the Meiningen Court Orchestra in 1884.
4. Variations on a Theme by Haydn
One of Brahms’ most historically significant pieces, ‘Variations on a theme by Haydn’ contains a mysterious origin story. Now also referred to as ‘Saint Anthony Variations,’ it was long postulated that the composer credited fellow musician Haydn in the title because a wind section from one of his works served as inspiration for the theme of Brahms’ own piece. However, down the road scholars speculated its veracity because Brahms’ attribution to Haydn can’t be confirmed by any definitive evidence. During the composer’s time period, publishers would sometimes use a famous composer’s name in the title of works to help promote fledgling pieces, and this is one theory that has been posited to help solve the mystery. While the work’s origin remains unclear, what is clear is its historical significance. While Brahms originally wrote ‘Variations on a theme by Haydn’ for two pianos, he also eventually composed a full orchestral rendition which remains the most popular. According to experts, this type of independently constructed set of variations for orchestra, along with a set of variations for piano, was the first of its kind.
3. Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15, II
This early work by Brahms solidified himself as a premier composer of the Romantic period. Debuting in the mid 1800s to resounding applause in Hanover, Germany, ‘Piano Concerto No. 1’ took the musician’s professional career to new heights. This tour de force was one of Clara Shumann’s personal favorites. Brahms’ close confidant particularly loved the second movement highlighted here. Set against a full-bodied orchestral strings section, his piano composition creates an uplifting journey for the listener, which mirrors what he was experiencing with his professional endeavors at the time.
2. Piano Quintet
While Brahms’ ‘Piano Concerto No. 1’ is meant for a full orchestra, his ‘Piano Quintet’ is meant for a smaller setup, though it packs an incredible punch. Equal parts chaotic and haunting, this stormy piece features a piano and two violins. To give it that extra stormy theme, he added in a viola and cello. The wild composition is often credited as some of the composers’ best work. Premiering in 1865, Brahms wrote the quintet piece for Princess Anna of Hesse, a member of German royalty.
1. Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90, III
With this late 1800s work, Brahms put to bed any of the last criticisms and doubts fellow composers and professionals had in regards to his work. Some felt his first symphony left much to be desired. But by ‘Symphony No. 3’ it was clear a mastermind was at work. He even won over the likes of Richard Strauss, who would go on to become one of the 20th century’s most important classical figures. When listening to the piece, it’s easy to understand why it caused such a stir after its debut. Embodying the inspiring and empowering ideals of Romantic era composing, the work’s grace and dynamics have made it one of Brahms’ lasting pieces. It is his shortest symphony, clocking in at about 40 minutes. But it is the third movement that has continued to capture the hearts of so many after all these years. It has been used many times in TV shows and movies, and even the great Frank Sinatra included it in one of his tunes, Fawlty Towers.