Johannes Brahms was an advocate of pure music, of traditional symphonic forms, carrying on Beethoven’s legacy, and yet there’s hardly any other composer whose works are more personal and emotional. His struggle with faith in the Requiem and Four Serious Songs, his love letter to both Clara and Robert Schumann in the First Piano Concerto, his autumnal clarinet sonatas, looking back at his life; Brahms pours his heart out in every single composition and takes the listener on an unforgettable emotional journey.

Johannes Brahms © WikiCommons | Public Domain
Johannes Brahms
© WikiCommons | Public Domain

“I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard!” Tchaikovsky and Brahms (who share a birthday) got on better than this quote might suggest. And who knows, maybe Brahms, a bit of a curmudgeon himself (“If there is anyone here whom I have not insulted, I beg his pardon.”), appreciated the criticism more than we think.

1Symphony no. 4 in E minor, Op.98

“It is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.” The critic Eduard Hanslick, who attended a private performance of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony performed on two pianos prior to its premiere, was bowled over. “I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people,” he wrote. It’s a mighty symphony and an unusual one in many ways: there is no exposition repeat in the first movement; the Scherzo is in 2/4 time (rather than triple time); and the finale takes the form of a passacaglia, adapting a chaconne theme from one of Bach’s cantatas.


2Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77

Brahms met Joseph Joachim through Clara and Robert Schumann in 1853, and it soon became a fruitful artistic collaboration and friendship. Although Brahms closely consulted Joachim during the composition process and the violinist not only wrote the cadenza, but also persuaded Brahms to modify the most challenging solo parts, the concerto is still regarded as one of the most difficult pieces of the repertoire. Joseph Hellmesberger even quipped it was “a concerto not for, but against the violin”. Nevertheless, the premiere, played by the dedicatee Joachim, was a rapturous success.


3Clarinet Sonata in E flat major, Op.120 no.2

Brahms’ Indian summer of chamber works was inspired by hearing the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, clarinettist of the Meiningen Orchestra. The E flat Sonata is a glorious work, opening in autumnal mood before shifting to an impassioned Hungarian Dance-style second movement, followed by a set of variations. It’s one of the finest works in the entire clarinet repertoire.


4Hungarian Dance no. 5 in F sharp minor

Brahms’ 21 Hungarian Dances are among his most popular works. They were originally written for piano duet but were later orchestrated (although only three are by Brahms himself). The Fifth is perhaps the best known, a csárdás which Brahms believed was a traditional Hungarian folksong, unaware it was a tune written by Béla Kéler.


5Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Op.45

Unlike a traditional liturgical Requiem in Latin, Brahms chose texts from the German Lutheran Bible. They form a much more personal testament, reflecting his Lutheran baptism and background, but also his struggle with faith during his upbringing and increasingly pessimistic adult life. Instead of commemorating the dead, Brahms searched for words of comfort for those still alive and avoided any references specifically to Christ. The first three movements of the final seven were – without great success – performed in Vienna on 1st December 1867, six movements were performed in Bremen Cathedral in April 1868 and the missing fifth movement was added for the first complete performance in Leipzig in February 1869. It was his Requiem for the living that won the deeply religious Brahms international fame.


6Symphony no. 3 in F major, Op.90

Aimez-vous Brahms? In the 1961 film Goodbye Again, based on a novel by Françoise Sagan, a young Anthony Perkins seduces a more mature Ingrid Bergman, not least by taking her to a Brahms concert. The Poco allegretto of the Third Symphony draws through the drama, the melody in the cellos depicting the longing of the main characters for each other. Although it was better received than Brahms’ Second, the premiere in 1883 was less of a love affair for some audience members. Hissing Wagner devotees disturbed the performance from the standing area of the Wiener Musikverein.


7Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115

The Clarinet Quintet is one of the pinnacles of chamber music, easily the equal of Mozart’s quintet. Also composed for Mühlfeld, it opens in nostalgic fashion and the work often shifts between major and minor keys. But there is a Hungarian gypsy, improvisatory feel to the central section of the Adagio, which is followed by a gentle Andantino. The finale – just like Mozart’s quintet – is a set of variations, but Brahms brings things full circle by returning to themes from the first movement in a coda that ends with a wistful sigh.


8Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, Op.15

A thundering low D from the depths of the orchestra, a powerful tension with the strings entering in the wrong key (B flat major), before the opening storm leads to shivering themes and the soloist enters with a quiet, glowing melody. The composition (1854-1858) of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto was as much an emotional journey as that first movement. His close friend, Robert Schumann, was committed to an asylum in 1854 after attempting suicide and died two years later. Brahms honoured him with the words “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Dominus” over his sketch of the opening of the Adagio, “Dominus” being a term used to address Schumann in their circle. It was also the time when Brahms grew closer to Clara. Although she loved him “like a son”, Brahms’ feelings for her were more complex. The Adagio, dedicated to Clara (“I’m painting a soft portrait of you which should become the Adagio”) is of unspeakable sadness, of longing and heart-break.


9Three Intermezzi, Op.117

“A veritable fountain of pleasure,” is how Clara Schumann described Brahms Three Intermezzi, Op.117 in her diary. Brahms considered them more as “monologues” for playing at home rather than for public performance, works to be “absorbed slowly, in peace and solitude”. The opening Intermezzo in E flat major is based on a Scottish lullaby, Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament. It is tender music of sombre reflection.


10Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), Op.121

Brahms’ last set of songs draws from biblical texts reflecting his own beliefs and lack of them. He completed the work in May 1896, at a time when he himself was suffering from liver cancer and a heartbreaking loss: his beloved Clara Schumann had died after suffering a stroke a couple of months earlier. The first three songs (Denn es gehet dem Menschen; Ich wandte mich, und sahe an; O Tod, wie bitter bist du) deal with death and transience of life, while Wenn ich mit Menschen- und Engelszungen redete has an outlook of faith and hope.