Johannes Brahms: From Humble Beginning To Master

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On this edition of The Romantic Piano, David Dubal features part one of two episodes devoted to Johannes Brahms, one of the piano’s great masters.

Brahms was born May 7, 1833 and grew up in an unhappy family circumstance in Hamburg. Pressed for money, his family was also challenged by the alcoholism of Brahms' father. By adolescence, he was forced to help the family make a livelihood. At a very early age Brahms displayed a remarkable gift for music and after two years with his first music teacher, he was sent to study with Hamburg’s finest music teacher who quickly felt that the youngster was a born composer. He gave Brahms the most extensive theoretical grounding, forging the foundation for Brahms’s later extraordinary discipline and his endless curiosity about music past and present. In fact, one may call Brahms the world’s first true musicologist.

Brahms, like Beethoven, would eventually gravitate to Vienna and the spirit of the waltz was always with him. He wrote sixteen waltzes, more in the spirit of Schubert, though instead of Johann Strauss.

By 18, the precocious Brahms had written over one hundred works, all assigned to the fire, except two early piano sonatas and a scherzo, which he played for Clara and Robert Schumann when he visited them in 1853 in Dusseldorf. Schumann and Clara were both dumbfounded by his energy and his genius. Robert Schumann was on the edge of his mental sanity, but was able to write his first critical article in years calling Brahms "the great hope of German music." Indeed Schumann was right, as it was Brahms who held tight to the forms developed from Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. He held steady to the classic forms in the midst of Liszt's and Wagner's vision of the future of music.

Brahms himself was an important pianist. Not only did he play all of his solo piano music and chamber works in public, but he had a wide repertoire from Bach to Schumann. Of his large output, the piano figures in mostly all of his music. It is also interesting to note that with his critical stringency, every work Brahms ever composed is perfect of its kind, and everything he composed is in the international repertoire.


Intermezzo for Piano, Op. 117 No. 2 in B flat minor / Wilhelm Kempff

Fugue for Piano in B flat Major on a theme by Handel, Op. 24 / Solomon

Waltz for Piano, Op. 39 No. 1 / Maria Grinberg

Sonata for Piano no 3 in F minor, Op. 5 / Julius Katchen

Waltz for Piano, Op. 39 No. 15 / Byron Janis

Rhapsody for Piano, Op. 79: No. 2 in G minor / Frank Levy

Intermezzo in C major, Op. 119, No. 3 / Myra Hess

Pieces (6) for Piano, Op. 118: No. 5, Romance in F Major / Artur Rubinstein

Ballade for Piano, Op. 10 No. 3 in B minor / Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli

Pieces (4) for Piano, Op. 119: No. 4, Rhapsody in E Flat Major / Van Cliburn

Hungarian Dances (10) for Piano solo No. 5 / Julius Katchen