Johannes Brahms: Simultaneously Old and New

Johannes Brahms: Simultaneously Old and New

German composer Johannes Brahms is probably one of the most recognizable and notable composers of all time. Born in 1833 and raised in Hamburg, Brahms later moved to the musically-rich city of Vienna, Austria, where he influenced the musical scene, and became one of the movers and shakers in the Romantic movement.


Simultaneously conservative and progressive, Brahms used both traditional techniques. His music encourages intellectual listening as opposed to fellow German composer Richard Wagner, whose music he called only a wash of sound. Additionally, although he used the Baroque technique of starting a theme and then messing with, he does something new in that all things in the piece are based on this one theme—the accompaniment, the melody, everything—as opposed to sonata form which has many themes.


Brahms is in the same tradition as Beethoven in his composing because, unlike other popular composers of the time, Brahms appreciated many of the same elements as Beethoven in his works. Brahms reveres Beethoven and explicitly quotes snippets of his music in a number of his own compositions. Brahms comes very close to Beethoven in part of his symphony. Additionally, Brahms can do both light as well as dark, which Beethoven failed at later in his compositional career. Brahms has many of the wonderful qualities of Beethoven in his composition, as well as a few that Beethoven never mastered and that he is a composer of whom to be proud, but still, Brahms is no Beethoven and, as original as Brahms is, is still using some techniques which Beethoven created and perfected. 


Brahms may have incorporated both the old and the new into his work because of his ideas about inspiration, or “a gift,” from above. Brahms thought that there is “no real creating without hard work.” He also said that if he left a fragment of a composition alone for a time, when he returned to it is has taken a better shape in his mind. These statements are significant because Brahms takes into account both inspiration and perspiration into account when detailing how he composes. It is interesting that he says if he leaves a part of a composition untouched for a time, it has taken shape in his brain, both because this seems to leave out some of the hard work he discussed earlier and really solidifies his a genius of a mind, one that can work even without a conscious effort.


What do you think of Brahms’ compositions? Do you think he has mastered both the old and the new?