Happy 186th Birthday Johannes Brahms!

Happy 187th Birthday Johannes Brahms! (1833-1897)

Brahms’ music is not only beautiful, often profound, and richly enjoyable. It also saves lives:

The author William Styron is one example. Deep in the pit of depression in 1985, Styron came to the point of carefully planning to kill himself, with a shotgun, in a secluded spot near his home. But when he was driving there, Brahms’** Alto Rhapsody came on the radio.

[**Note to grammar cops: I KNOW it’s supposed to be “Brahms’s”; but that construction both looks and sounds dumb to me, and I choose to ignore it here.]


The melancholy beauty of this brief piece so touched Styron that he turned around, drove home, put away the shotgun, then checked into a hospital. And he survived. His concise memoir of that ordeal, Darkness Visible, is an unforgettable reading experience.

Styron-Darkness-CoverThere’s a lot of melancholy in Brahms. But it’s not schmaltzy or overwrought, like much of Tchaikovsky. Restrained and finely wrought.

It comes out for me perhaps most exquisitely in the slow movements of his larger pieces (by all means click and listen):

the Violin Concerto

and the Double Concerto for Violin & Cello;

and with almost unbearable poignance in the First Symphony.

But perhaps the saddest yet most uplifting piece for me is Section Five of his oratorio A German Requiem, here featuring soprano Barbara Hendricks.

Don’t you love his hair?

Yet the point of Brahms is not to wallow in sadness; in music, Brahms’ music, the melancholy is the kind that enables one to bear up, if only because of the beauty and skill of expression.

Besides, Brahms is not all sad. The Second Symphony‘s First Movement is for me the essential evocation of the Romantic, by which I mean the upbeat part of a successful romance.
And one of the peaks of his art has to be the final movement of his Fourth SymphonyIt’s thrilling simply to listen to, fully living up to the composer’s notation: “Allegro energico e passionate.” But then the piece becomes even more impressive after reading the notes and discovering that it is also a meticulously disciplined passacaglia built around a simple eight-note theme by Bach.

And Brahms had fun, with Hungarian dances and a lullaby (Yes, THAT one) which even inspired this cartoon:








So anyway, today (and this season) would be a good time to Turn On, Tune In, and Drop a load of Brahms into your ears. Today, and just about any other day. Maybe especially these days.
Yes, regular helpings will do you good. Hey –remember William Styron; it might even save your life.


5 thoughts on “Happy 186th Birthday Johannes Brahms!”

  1. Actually, Chuck, you are correct to add the apostrophe but not the additional “s.” The Associated Press Stylebook, as well as other style manuals, say to form the possessive of a singular proper name ending in S, use only an apostrophe. I enjoy your blog.

  2. I’m not the writer that William Styron was, but my life too, was saved by Brahms. In 1970, I was a very depressed 13 year old. I am not using the word “depressed” lightly- my home life consisted of living with a mother who terrified me, and visiting and trying to save an alcoholic father who was only to live two more years.
    I was numb to the world. Two well meaning choirmasters did not know the details of my home life (nobody did), but suspected something behind my numbness, and arranged for me to go to music camp in the far away state of Montana. At the end of my two weeks there, I was invited to listen in on an impromptu sightreading session. Having nothing else to do, I went to hear them. There, underneath flourescent lights, sitting on the desk of a molded plastic chair, the 1st violinist said, “let’s go” , gave a cue and 6 people (4 of them students at the U of Montana) played the opening notes of Brahms’ Sextet in B flat Major, op.18.
    In that moment, my life changed. I was overwhelmed by a sheer beauty I never knew could exist in the world.
    I got home and bought myself a record and listened to it religiously (another term I am not using lightly) for the next decade of my life. It accompanied away from home, it was the present I gave to friends when they were suffering, and it was the impetus that propelled me into my career as a professional musician.
    Interestingly enough, my favorite recording that I listened and re-listened to was a Casals Prades Festival, found in my public library. At the climax of the 1st mvt., the 1st violinist, Alexander Schneider, gets so overwhelmed that he loses his place: you hear him falter, drop out, then come back in a few measures later. Those were real live recordings….and with something that would never be released today.
    Yet, in our time of astounding technical perfection in playing, I rarely hear the love that those musicians gave in their playing. It spoke to me as a lonely teenager, and said “Listen to this! Isn’t Brahms wonderful??” (as opposed to, “Listen to us! Aren’t we great?”)

    Great art can remind us we are not alone in the depths of despair. And sometimes, when great art is also beautiful, it can remind us that there is something beyond despair, deeper and longer lasting, able to console us.

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