In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Johannes Brahms

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Music Johannes Brahms
George S. Bozarth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0044


The secondary literature on Johannes Brahms (b. 1833–d. 1897) has long focused on discussion of aspects of his life and times, and on analytical assessments, viewing his instrumental works as representatives of “absolute” music. More recently, scholars have undertaken research into the performance practices of Brahms and his contemporaries, and have considered a number of hermeneutic approaches to his works. Born in Hamburg, Brahms also lived in Detmold, where he directed the court music in the autumns of the years 1858–1859, and Vienna, where, after a decade of frequent visits, he took a permanent apartment in 1871 and served as music director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (1872–1875), which after his death inherited many of his manuscripts as well as his library of books and music. Brahms’s compositional output encompassed all genres except opera. Traditionally seen as the supreme exemplars of late-19th-century “absolute” music, Brahms’s works have begun to be interpreted as music full of experiential content and extramusical references. Brahms took a broad view of the history of music, copying and studying works from the late Renaissance through to his own time, subscribing to the collected editions and “monuments of music” series issuing from Austria and Germany (and keeping company with numerous scholars), and performing music from this three-hundred-year period. The influence of earlier music on his own compositions was profound, as he embraced the cult of Palestrina and took part in the revival of J. S. Bach’s music. The result was not only the composition of neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque works but also the creation of a musical style founded on contrapuntal practices. The other pillar of Brahms’s music was folksong and dance, from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, extending a compositional tradition begun in the late-18th-century music of Haydn, Mozart, and others. The profound influence of C. P. E. Bach and the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) style of Mozart and Beethoven is evident in all of his minor-key compositions. The looming presence of Beethoven attracted Brahms to Beethovenian genres, but also caused him to abandon writing piano sonatas early in life and to delay greatly completing and releasing his first string quartets and symphonies until he had discovered “new paths” in these genres. The formal and tonal procedures of Schubert provided a source of inspiration and guidance to Brahms in the early 1860s, his first rich period of chamber music. Brahms closely studied the music of Mendelssohn and Schumann, making allusions to these composers in his own works and critically assessing the musical structure of their works. Brahms’s relationship to Wagner and his music has been the topic of many writings.

Reference Works

In addition to encyclopedia articles, such as Bozarth and Frisch and Schmidt 2000, the essential reference tools for Brahms include various handbooks, bibliographies, and catalogues, including a catalogue of Brahms’s extensive library of books and music. Much of his correspondence has been published, and numerous biographies drawing upon primary sources are available.

  • Bozarth, George S., and Walter Frisch, “Brahms, Johannes.” In Grove Music Online.

    A dictionary article discussing the salient features of Brahms’s life and music (by genre), accompanied by an extensive bibliography and list of works with dates composed, published, and first performed.

  • Schmidt, Christian Martin. “Johannes Brahms.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Vol. 3. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 626–715. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 2000.

    After surveying the salient features of Brahms’s life, Schmidt considers eight aspects of his music: motivic integration and form; variations; the influence of early music; his work in lyrical forms (character pieces and songs); the choral and orchestral works of large dimension; Hausmusik and other social choral and instrumental music; folksong; and posthumous views of his music. Accompanied by an extensive bibliography and list of works with dates composed and published.

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