Johannes Brahms: A Biography

Johannes Brahms: A Biography

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by Jan Swafford

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An illuminating new biography of one of the most beloved of all composers, published on the hundredth anniversary of his death, brilliantly written by a finalist for the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award. Johannes Brahms has consistently eluded his biographers. Throughout his life, he attempted to erase traces of himself, wanting his music to be his sole legacy.… See more details below


An illuminating new biography of one of the most beloved of all composers, published on the hundredth anniversary of his death, brilliantly written by a finalist for the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award. Johannes Brahms has consistently eluded his biographers. Throughout his life, he attempted to erase traces of himself, wanting his music to be his sole legacy.

Now, in this masterful book, Jan Swafford, critically acclaimed as both biographer and composer, takes a fresh look at Brahms, giving us for the first time a fully realized portrait of the man who created the magnificent music. Brahms was a man with many friends and no intimates, who experienced triumphs few artists achieve in their lifetime. Yet he lived with a relentless loneliness and a growing fatalism about the future of music and the world.  The Brahms that emerges from these pages is not the bearded eminence of previous biographies but rather a fascinating assemblage of contradictions. Brought up in poverty, he was forced to play the piano in the brothels of Hamburg, where he met with both mental and physical abuse. At the same time, he was the golden boy of his teachers, who found themselves in awe of a stupendous talent: a miraculous young composer and pianist, poised between the emotionalism of the Romantics and the rigors of the composers he worshipped--Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. In 1853, Robert Schumann proclaimed the twenty-year-old Brahms the savior of German music.  Brahms spent the rest of his days trying to live up to that prophecy, ever fearful of proving unworthy of his musical inheritance.  We find here more of Brahms's words, his daily life and joys and sorrows, than in any other biography.  

With novelistic grace, Swafford shows us a warm-blooded but guarded genius who hid behind jokes and prickliness, rudeness and intractability with his friends as well as his enemies, but who was also a witty drinking companion and a consummate careerist skillfully courting the powerful. This is a book rich in secondary characters as well, including Robert Schumann, declining into madness as he hailed the advent of a new genius; Clara Schumann, the towering pianist, tormented personality, and great love of Brahms's life; Josef Joachim, the brilliant, self-lacerating violinist; the extraordinary musical amateur Elisabet von Herzogenberg, on whose exacting criticism Brahms relied; Brahms's rival and shadow, the malevolent genius Richard Wagner; and Eduard Hanslick, enemy of Wagner and apostle of Brahms, at once the most powerful and most wrongheaded music critic of his time. Among the characters in the book are two great cities: the stolid North German harbor town of Hamburg  where Johannes grew up, which later spurned him; and glittering, fickle, music-mad Vienna, where Brahms the self-proclaimed vagabond finally settled, to find his sweetest triumphs and his most bitter failures. Unique to this book is the way in which musical scholarship and biography are combined: in a style refreshingly free of pretentiousness, Jan Swafford takes us deep into the music--from the grandeur of the First Symphony and the intricacies of the chamber work to the sorrow of the German Requiem--allowing us to hear these familiar works in new and often surprising ways.  

This is a clear-eyed study of a remarkable man and a vivid portrait of an era in transition. Ultimately, Johannes Brahms is the story of a great, backward-looking artist who inspired musical revolutionaries of the following generations, yet who was no less a prophet of the darkness and violence of our century.  A biographical masterpiece at once wholly original and definitive.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
His music has never ceased to be played and loved in the century since his death (a fact that would have much surprised the composer, who imagined he would quickly go out of fashion); nevertheless, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) has remained an elusive figure. Although he lived well into the era of photography and almost into that of recordingsproviding any interested biographer with recent and tangible gristhis life has not been as thoroughly scrutinized as those of Beethoven and Mozart, for instance. Brahms himself played a roll in creating his own mystery by recalling and destroying letters and documents, leaving very little save for the main outlines of his life as well as a number of anecdotes; his life and personality, however, has never received the kind of close attention that Swafford has lavished on it in this all-embracing book. The author is a practicing musician as well as a skilled biographer (his magnificent Charles Ives was deservedly a National Book Award finalist), and his work here is truly revelatory. To accurately capture Brahms's lifefrom his desperate early, years, playing piano in bordellos in the Hamburg dockland, through the early passionately romantic piano works that led Robert Schumann to hail him at 20 as the new messiah of German music, to the world figure placed on a pedestal as one of the "three Bs" (the others being his cherished Bach and Beethoven)Swafford has gone to a multitude of sources, many previously untranslated, to build a figure of towering paradoxes. Brahms was at once a misogynist, his outlook blighted by his tawdry teenage experiences, and a passionate admirer of women who was almost constantly in love, often with entirely unsuitable young women (though he cannily evaded matrimony, and patronized prostitutes all his life). He was generous and often genial, but just as often overbearing and mean-spirited. Professionally, he carefully removed himself from the musical politics promulgated by his arch-rivals Liszt and Wagner, all the while working to build his own fame, ruthlessly discarding any of his work he thought less than masterly. Swafford has placed Brahms firmly in the musical and philosophical context of his time: a classicist who had extraordinarily advanced notions of rhythm and harmony (and was much admired by Schoenberg), and a composer who proudly carried on the magnificent Viennese tradition even as it was crumbling. All the major works are carefully examined, and Swafford is no less attentive to Brahms's most significant human relationships (the 40-year alliance with the almost superhuman Clara Schumann, for instance, is superbly evoked in all its alternating tenderness and anguish). Swafford's study, clearly a labor of profound affection, is a model biography: eloquent, clear-sighted and often moving. Photos not seen by PW. (Oct.)
London Weekly Standard
A stupendous feat.... It will no doubt stand as the definitive work on Brahms.
NY Times Book Review
An enormously informed life of the first tryly bourgeois composer and (probably) the first composer to feel oppressed and hobbled by the greatness of his predecessors.
Kirkus Reviews
A definitive work about one of the 19th century's most influential classical music composers.

Books coming out in anniversary years too often don't live up to the subject they celebrate. Such is most definitely not the case in Swafford's biography of Brahms, published on the 100th anniversary of his death. This is an exceptionally well written chronicle of this musical master, an extraordinary work, guaranteed to inform and entertain classical music aficionados and tyros alike. That Swafford (Charles Ives: A Life in Music, 1996) had no easy task is clear. Where some leave long paper trails, Brahms, hoping to let his music rather than his personal life be the legacy on which later generations judged him, destroyed countless personal documents, letters, and music scores he deemed unworthy or compromising. But where Brahms was exceptionally careful—he even signed his name "J. Br" to thwart hungry autograph seekers—those around him were not, notably Clara Schumann. A brilliant professional pianist, Frau Schumann, who was married to composer Robert Schumann, was the love of Brahms's life. In their decades-long relationship, they exchanged hundreds of letters, many of which still exist despite Brahms's attempts to get them returned. The letters are simultaneously touching revelations of their relationship—likely never consummated—and perceptive journals of an exciting musical era. Swafford uses the correspondence and other research to paint an exhaustive picture of that era and of Brahms himself. What emerges is a stimulating view of a living paradox, a misogynist who used women as his muse, a generous spirit whose barbed tongue often alienated his best friends. In between, Swafford cleverly uses some 64 musical examples to illustrate Brahms's many musical developments.

For readers of Swafford's biography, Brahms's Lullaby will never sound the same.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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