Brahms (1833-1897) has been one of our greatest musical heroes for well over a century now, and his popularity with the public today is irrefutable. Every one of his 24 chamber works has earned a place in the sun. There is not another major composer about whom one can make a similar claim, not even Beethoven. In the purely symphonic world, he is represented by a mere dozen or so compositions, but again, every one is a masterpiece, and all are pillars of the repertory: four symphonies, four concertos (two for piano, one for violin, and a rare case of a double concerto for violin and cello), two serenades, two overtures, and the Haydn Variations. He wrote no operas, but he ranks with Schubert and Schumann as one of the great Lieder composers of the century. Likewise, in choral music nearly every work is a masterpiece of the first order. One reason for this extraordinary consistency of work was that Brahms himself was intensely self-critical. He repeatedly sought advice and assurance from close friends and colleagues about his latest compositions as they progressed, especially from Clara Schumann, Joseph Joachim, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg and Theodor Billroth. Anything that failed to meet his own exacting standards was destroyed.
Nevertheless, strangely enough, during his lifetime, and well into the twentieth century, Brahms was regarded by many with suspicion and prejudice. To some, he was a reactionary, a classicist adrift in a sea of romanticism. “Music of the Future” was being written by the likes of Liszt, Wagner and Strauss while Brahms was, as many saw him, mired in musical conventions of the past. Yet in emotional tone Brahms was as romantic as any of his contemporaries: fiery passion, aching melancholy and deeply personal utterances are as pronounced in Brahms as in any of the firebrands of arch-Romanticism like Berlioz, Liszt, or Wagner.
Though born in Germany, Brahms spent most of his professional life in the world’s musical Mecca, Vienna. When he died, his adopted city gave him one of the grandest funerals in its history, while flags in his native Hamburg flew at half-mast.