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Johannes Brahms: A Biography Paperback – Dec 7 1999


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (Dec 7 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679745823
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679745822
  • Product Dimensions: 20.4 x 13.3 x 3.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 680 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #90,358 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)


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First Sentence
IN 1826 JOHANN JAKOB BRAHMS, aged nineteen, his gray eyes full of hope and good humor, arrived in the port of Hamburg carrying musical instruments and a Certificate of Apprenticeship. Read the first page
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Davidson on June 30 2013
Format: Paperback
I would tentatively recommend this biography. While it certainly is very long, and definitely not lacking in detail, some of that extraordinary amount of detail is not correct. For instance, on page 48, he describes insurrections taking place in several countries, including “Czechoslovakia” in 1848. In reality, Czechoslovakia did not come into existence until 1918, some 70 years later. What country did he mean? While some people may feel that this is a small point, the author makes reference in his introduction to a number of other errors being pointed out to him since it was published in hard cover. This is not good.

In addition, the author mentions the Frauenchor (women’s choir) that Brahms directed while at the same time as mentioning Brahms’ Marienlieder. While it is not made clear that there is no connection between the work and the choir, their being mentioned together indicates that the Marienlieder was written for women’s voices alone, when in fact it was written for mixed choir. This is never made clear. Then the author goes on to mention that Brahms eventually wrote six Marienlieder, when in fact it was seven. These are not state secrets being held in an obscure archive at an obscure university in Bad Ischl; they are readily available and quantifiable basic facts that the author did not bother to either make clear or verify. These and other faux pas bring into question his research abilities (or rather, those of his assistant[s]), and how far he can be trusted, despite him often citing his sources.

On the plus side, there are few writers who have such a tremendous command of the English language and write as powerfully as Swafford can. I found it often fascinating to read. If nothing else, his tome helped me to appreciate Brahms’ music more than before.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Young American on Nov. 25 2010
Format: Paperback
As someone who is getting to know and love the music of Brahms, I found this book detailed, helpful, and quite absorbing. Swafford's analyses of the music seem authoritative, to the extent that I can follow them. He is especially good on Brahms' " burden of greatness"--he was acclaimed as a genius at the tender age of twenty by Robert Schumann. After that, everything Brahms wrote had to uphold the tradition of great German music (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven) against the more programmatic "New Music" of Lizt and Wagner. Every piece of music by Brahms had to be a masterpiece, and it is a testament to Brahms' toughness and genius that he was able to write so much music that has stood the test of time.

I do find some of Swafford's judgements rather conventional. For example, he repeats the received wisdom that Brahms' last orchestral work, the Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra to be "weary" and backward-looking." The work was unpopular at its debut, and has never been played as much as the Violin and Piano Concertos, probably because symphonies don't want to pay two soloists. To me, the themes of the second and third movements seem very beautiful and memorable, and it's a shame that Brahms was so dependent on the negative judgement of his musical friends--he never wrote for the orchestra again. Buy the superb recent recording (available on amazon.ca) with Repin and Chailly and decide for yourself.

Also, Swafford follows the usual line in saying that Brahms "committed emotional suicide" (sometimes his prose is a bit overwrought) by not marrying Clara Schumann after her husband Robert died in an insane asylum. Theirs is one of the great might-have-been love stories of musical history.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on Jan. 18 2000
Format: Paperback
Swafford's Brahms biography is certainly readable, and the author displays great sympathy with his subject. The problem with this book is that the author perpetuates-- even exaggerates-- a picture of Brahms that is now under serious revision. I don't know if Swafford is entirely to blame, as it is difficult to know to which documents he had access at the time of his writing. But recent work by Kurt Hoffman, and Styra Avin's edition of Brahms's letters show that the usual conception of Brahms's childhood as poverty-stricken and neglected is very inaccurate; and Swafford takes off from this picture of a pitiful childhood as a central principle in Brahms's life, relationships, etc. Hoffman has shown that Brahms could not have played the piano in brothels as a boy, yet Swafford paints us a lugubrious picture of young Brahms possibly suffering sexual trauma at the hands of both the prostitutes and their patrons. Avins's translations of Brahms's letters show us that Brahms had a warm and affectionate relationship with his parents, who did depend upon him to augment the family income, but knew when enough was enough for the boy, and did their best to give him a good education, plenty of diversion and rest. Avins's book has an illustration of Brahms's exquisite handwriting at age nine, which clearly shows that he had been meticulously schooled. Swafford's book is clearly a labor of great love, but _caveat emptor_.
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Format: Paperback
As a music major in college, I read lots of books on music, including many composer biographies. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Swafford's book on the life of Brahms. I am amazed at the thickness of the book, despite the fact that Brahms tried to discourage future biographies by destroying many personal items, such as letters and scores. Many musical biographies tend to focus more on the music than the composer. Swafford's book takes a very itimate look at Brahms the man and how it influenced his work.
The only shortcoming of this book is that it may be a little too academic for most readers. The reading is a tad difficult from time to time, but I still had fun with it.
If you are even remotely interested in Johannes Brahms, I suggest you buy this book because it is an excellent read, and you'll learn a lot! Also recommended is Jan Swafford's "Vintage Guide to Classical Music".
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