Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Brahms, Quartets for Four Solo Voices and Piano

Johannes Brahms in 1860
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) in 1860, during his tenure as director and conductor of the Hamburg Frauenchor (the “Hamburg Women’s Choir”)

A Brahms trivia question: what was the only regular, paying job Brahms ever held?

Answer: that of a choral conductor. 

When we think of Brahms and his music, we typically think of a “serious” German composer of primarily instrumental music: his four magnificent symphonies; his violin concerto and two piano concerti; his many works for solo piano; and his superb chamber music, the most varied set of chamber works by a single composer since Mozart. Unless we are, ourselves, choral conductors or hard-core choristers, we do not think of Brahms as a composer of choral music. But in fact, he spent a significant portion of his career not just composing for chorus but conducting choruses as well.

Three rather event-packed years passed between the time Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann in Düsseldorf in October of 1853 to the time he moved back home to Hamburg in October 1856 at the age of 23.

Robert Schumann, driven to madness by syphilis, attempted suicide in February 1854, some 4½ months after Brahms first met him. Brahms rushed to Clara’s side, and during Robert’s subsequent institutionalization, became not just her rock of support but a surrogate father to her seven children. Despite their age difference of 14 years, Johannes and Clara fell in love, though it was a love that could not be consummated while Robert was still alive.

Robert died on July 29, 1856, and the moment of truth arrived for Johannes and Clara. Properly chaperoned, they took a vacation together to Switzerland. We do not know what they said to each other, but apparently Brahms had already decided – despite all that they had shared over the previous 2½ years (perhaps because of it) – that he could not marry Clara. He was just 23 years old, and he required a life of his own.…

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