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Johannes Brahms: A Biography Paperback – 1 Jun 2003
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"A mighty attempt to integrate [Brahms's] puzzling persona ... with the human reality [of] Brahms's music.... Absorbing".
-- THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
From the Inside Flap
A "New York Times Notable Book
"This brilliant and magisterial book is a very good bet to...become the definitive study of Johannes Brahms."--"The Plain Dealer
Judicious, compassionate, and full of insight into Brahms's human complexity as well as his music, Johannes Brahms is an indispensable biography.
Proclaimed the new messiah of Romanticism by Robert Schumann when he was only twenty, Johannes Brahms dedicated himself to a long and extraordinarily productive career. In this book, Jan Swafford sets out to reveal the little-known Brahms, the boy who grew up in mercantile Hamburg and played piano in beer halls among prostitutes and drunken sailors, the fiercely self-protective man who thwarted future biographers by burning papers, scores and notebooks late in his life. Making unprecedented use of the remaining archival material, Swafford offers richly expanded perspectives on Brahms's youth, on his difficult romantic life--particularly his longstanding relationship with Clara Schumann--and on his professional rivalry with Lizst and Wagner.
"[Johannes Brahms] will no doubt stand as the definitive work on Brahms, one of the monumental biographies in the entire musical library."--"London Weekly Standard
"It is a measure of the accomplishment of Jan Swafford's biography that Brahms's sadness becomes palpable.... [Swafford] manages to construct a full-bodied human being."--"The New York Times Book Review
Top customer reviews
Swafford gives a great deal of attention to two formative experiences of young Brahms: 1. his childhood of poverty in Hamburg where he played as a pre-adolescent in dives frequented by prostitutes and sailors (this account has been questioned by some writers) and 2. Robert Schumann's article about Brahms at the age of 20, heralding the young man as the heir to Beethoven and predicting a brilliant future for him.
Swafford's book emphasizes Brahms's difficulties throghout life in forming a lasting, sexual relationship with a woman other than prostitutes. Brahms exhibited to sort of behavior towards women frequently described in terms of "The Virgin and the Whore." Brahms could only be physically intimate with women he did not respect. Thus, Brahms ultimately rejected the romantic opportunities that came his way in the persons of Clara Schumann and Agathe von Siebold, among other women. He withdrew into a protective shell when friendships with women threatened to become romantic. Yet women were the greatest source of inspiration to Brahms as a composer. He poured into his music what he denied himself as a man. A crusty figure, Brahms was difficult to know intimately, particularly by women.
The article by Robert Schumann made Brahms famous from the age of twenty before he had done much. Great things were expected of Brahms, but Schumann's praise burdened the fledgling composer with the fear that he would disappoint Schumann's hopes in him. Brahms worked slowly and became an astonishing musical craftsman; but he felt he had to justify Schumann's confidence as well as meet the standards of the great composers of the past, especially Beethoven.
There is a wealth of discussion in this book of Brahms' relationships with both Clara and Robert Schumann, their daughter Julie, the violinist Joachim, the critic Hanslick, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, and many others. The book is set in the last years of liberal Vienna, and Swafford poignantly draws the relationship between Brahms's music and the rise of irrationality, anti-semitism, and violence that would soon plague the Twentieth Century.
I found Swafford's discussions of Brahms music highly insightful. It is less detailed, perhaps, than Malcolm MacMacDonald's study which discusses virtually every work of Brahms; but there is ample material here to form a basis for an exploration and appreciation of Brahms's music. Brahms' romanticism and his musical formalism and learning are well-explored and tied in with a consideration of his major works. Swafford's most thorough musical discussions are of the four symphonies, and he tends to move quicker over Brahms's songs. (This was also the case in Swafford's book on Ives.)
I felt I got to know Brahms, in spite of himself, in this book. Brahms devoted himself wholeheartedly to his art, and in the process lost a great deal of the value of human love and human sexual closeness. It was and remains a difficult exchange. More than encouraging the reader to get to know and love Brahms's music, Swafford's biography will help the reader think about and try to compassionately understand people.
Having looked at reviews on amazon.com, and having read Jan Swafford's generalist book on classical music (really good, by the way) I paid up for this book. I have to say that I often find biographies as dull as ditchwater and struggle with too much technical music stuff but this is a fine exception.
Detailing Brahm's eventful journey through life and his often odd relationships with others (women in particular) you learn of his struggles with large-scale works and of just how he fitted into 19th century art. I could not help but read this book right through in just a few sittings.
Excellent and well worth tracking down.