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Johannes Brahms: A Biography [Paperback]

Jan Swafford
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 7 1999 Vintage
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

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The brilliant biographer of a quintessentially American, prototypically modern musician (Charles Ives) proves just as masterful in probing the life and art of a 19th-century German composer. Writing with passionate clarity that perfectly matches the genius of Brahms (1833-97), Jan Swafford traces the emotional wellsprings of this secretive man's music without trivializing art into mere autobiography. A composer himself, Swafford understands and lucidly conveys Brahms's unique position in musical history: beloved by many, emulated by few, the triumphant yet melancholy heir of a tradition coming to an end in his lifetime. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

A definitive work about one of the 19th century's most influential classical music composers. Books coming out in anniversary years too often don't live up to the subject they celebrate. Such is most definitely not the case in Swafford's biography of Brahms, published on the 100th anniversary of his death. This is an exceptionally well written chronicle of this musical master, an extraordinary work, guaranteed to inform and entertain classical music aficionados and tyros alike. That Swafford (Charles Ives: A Life in Music, 1996) had no easy task is clear. Where some leave long paper trails, Brahms, hoping to let his music rather than his personal life be the legacy on which later generations judged him, destroyed countless personal documents, letters, and music scores he deemed unworthy or compromising. But where Brahms was exceptionally careful--he even signed his name ``J. Br'' to thwart hungry autograph seekers--those around him were not, notably Clara Schumann. A brilliant professional pianist, Frau Schumann, who was married to composer Robert Schumann, was the love of Brahms's life. In their decades-long relationship, they exchanged hundreds of letters, many of which still exist despite Brahms's attempts to get them returned. The letters are simultaneously touching revelations of their relationship--likely never consummated--and perceptive journals of an exciting musical era. Swafford uses the correspondence and other research to paint an exhaustive picture of that era and of Brahms himself. What emerges is a stimulating view of a living paradox, a misogynist who used women as his muse, a generous spirit whose barbed tongue often alienated his best friends. In between, Swafford cleverly uses some 64 musical examples to illustrate Brahms's many musical developments. For readers of Swafford's biography, Brahms's Lullaby will never sound the same. (16 pages of illustrations, not seen) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Factual Account of Brahms 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
3.0 out of 5 stars Swafford's Brahms Ignores Recent Scholarship Jan. 18 2000
By A Customer
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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4.0 out of 5 stars The ONLY Brahms biography! Feb. 9 2002
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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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars The best classical music book I have ever read!
This book is so easy and fun to read! A shear joy! There is so much detail and great stories in this book. Stuff we have never seen before. Read more
Published on Nov. 5 2001 by Martin Hanson
5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional and insightful
This is perhaps the finest biography that I have ever read. It evokes so well the atmosphere of Hamburg in Brahms' youth (which added to what I had read of an earlier period in... Read more
Published on July 10 2001 by A. G. Plumb
5.0 out of 5 stars A great portrait of a MAN, not a COMPOSER
As I noted in the title of this review, this book is a great portrait of the man who was Brahms. The fact that he was a great composer is almost seconary. Read more
Published on Jan. 19 2001 by C. Noble
5.0 out of 5 stars The Wisdom Of Solomon
If you have ever read Maynard Solomon's biographies of Mozart and Beethoven, and enjoyed them, you will definitely like Swafford's biography of Brahm's. Read more
Published on Jan. 3 2001 by Bruce Loveitt
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific Book, This is THE book to read on Brahms!
I have been reading and re-reading this book for months. I enjoyed some passages so much that I read them several times! I just love it! Read more
Published on Sept. 30 2000 by Anthony G. Holland
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine, well-researched biography, probably definitive
This will probably be the definitive Brahms biography for some time to come. The oft-told story of Brahms' relationship with the Schumanns, and of Robert's decline and death,... Read more
Published on Sept. 6 2000 by Ed Ting
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant life of Brahms
This is a brilliant biography. It is well-written and engaging from first to last. It gives a well-rounded picture of a complex and difficult subject -- difficult because the... Read more
Published on June 1 2000 by Stuart Bloom
5.0 out of 5 stars A Delight For Fans of Brahms
Highly readable. This large tome fills in all the information on Brahms that your college Music History class left out. Read more
Published on Jan. 14 1999
5.0 out of 5 stars The window forced open on a consciously private genius.
Since Brahims himself did not understand his genius--how could others? By adroit reading between the lines, Jan Swafford understands this man. Read more
Published on Nov. 22 1998 by Scott
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