His times: Beethoven might have died six years before Brahms was born, but in a musical sense the former composer still dominated the landscape of the German-speaking world and beyond – and got inside Brahms’s head to quite a remarkable degree.
Despite the copious musical developments of the mid-to-late 1800s, Brahms stuck to the previous century’s principles, writing music shaped and enriched by already existing ground-plans that many had already ditched. This was an age of upheaval when Lutheran Germans from Hamburg, as Brahms was, were seen as more conservative and sober in temperament than their southern counterparts.
His music: Brahms was notoriously self-critical and it took him twenty years to write his first symphony. It shows in the music’s utter perfection, complete directional security and almost total lack of wasted notes. The symphony moves from minor key to major key on the model laid down by Beethoven, but the chromatic shape yet wide reach of the first movement’s melody is unmistakeably Romantic and yearning. In a sense this epitomises Brahms’s musical language in which the ‘venerable tradition’ (as he saw it) of German counterpoint and symphonic structure were allied to progressive harmonies and melodies, tinged with Romantic angst and the faintest suggestion of nostalgia.
Himself: Brahms, who apparently walked daily to his favourite Vienna hostelry The Red Hedgehog with his hands clasped behind his back, had a reputation for being serious, brusque and occasionally sarcastic. He lived simply and gave away large sums of money to support other musicians. Brahms never married, but had a close and undeniably unusual relationship with the widow of his mentor Robert Schumann, Clara.