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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
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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Johannes Brahms: A Biography + Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph
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From Amazon

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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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional and insightful July 10 2001
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 'Anton Rieser' by Moritz) and later of Vienna. It has so many friends - other composers and musicians, and then there are the pieces of music that are so familiar to modern music lovers - the serenades, the symphonies, the Requiem, the songs and chamber music, the concertos. Any sense I had that Brahms was less productive than the great giants he saw looming behind him - Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert - was altered when I read that he had destroyed many of the works he was dissatisfied with, as well as a lot of biographical material, such as letters. Fortunately some resources remain and Mr Swafford uses these continuously.
Brahms was a man as well as a composer/musician and I greatly admired the gentle way Mr Swafford narrated the story of the relationship of Brahms to the women he was so attracted to, but kept at arms length - especially, of course, and tragically Clara Schumann. For me there was a secondary biography here - that of Clara Schumann. She was such a courageous woman to sustain the friendship and the stream of musical advice that Brahms so needed, after Brahms had rejected following the death of Robert Schumann. In my experience, few women are capable of sustaining such a friendship in the face of their own emotional disappointment. Mr Swafford describes Brahms' behaviour without any hint of criticism or speculation - the facts speak sufficiently for themselves. Another aspect of this biography is the explanation of the schism in music caused (precipitated?) by Beethoven's musical experiments - a symphony with a program (the 'Pastoral') and one with words (the 'Choral').
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Wisdom Of Solomon Jan. 3 2001
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. The styles have a lot in common. Both authors write mostly with the lay reader in mind, so even someone like me who doesn't have any background in music can still enjoy the books. Both authors are interested in psychological reasons for behavior and, in my opinion, make convincing arguments concerning certain personality traits of these great musicians. However, both authors are also aware that some of the people that read these books are knowledgeable about music, so there are brief sections that get into technical analysis of the music. Solomon did this by including short chapters scattered throughout his book, devoted solely to musical analysis. Swafford chose to incorporate his musical analysis within the general flow of the book, a few paragraphs at a time. As a lay reader, I liked Swafford's approach better. Since I pretty much didn't understand the technical aspects, it was less boring to have this stuff just a little bit at a time! Swafford's book has two great strengths, besides the fact that he writes beautifully. He goes into detail concerning Brahms relationship with Clara Schumann, a friendship which lasted for approximately 40 years. The second strength is that piece by piece he builds up a picture of Brahms the man so that by the end of the book you will feel that you knew Brahms. The picture is well-rounded, too. Brahms could be rude and arrogant but he also could be sensitive and humble and generous. He also had a tremendous sense of humor. He was very witty, both in his conversation and in his correspondence. He was also a great practical joker. Read more ›
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant life of Brahms June 1 2000
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 secretive Brahms systematically destroyed a great deal of the evidence that biographers might otherwise have used to tell the story of his life.
Swafford can perhaps be taken to task for his failure to acknowledge the recent research that casts doubt upon Brahms' alleged employment in brothels as a very young man. Swafford uncritically accepts the account of Max Kalbeck, an early biographer who knew Brahms. Kalbeck's source, so he said, was Brahms himself. Kalbeck cannot and should not be taken at face value -- nor was Brahms himself incapable of embellishing a good story. The recent research to which the previous reviewer refers casts doubt Kalbeck's account, but to say "that Brahms could not have played the piano in brothels as a boy" is overstating the case, going well beyond the available evidence (as Avins does also in her book). We simply do not know the truth, and probably never will.
The previous reviewer also errs when he says that Swafford "takes off from this picture of a pitiful childhood as a central principle in Brahms's life, relationships, etc." Swafford does not paint Brahms' childhood as "pitiful." He makes clear the love and affection that both of his parents lavished on him and details the educational opportunities that they provided him, in spite of the fact that they were working class people. Brahms' affection for both his parents lasted until their deaths, as Swafford makes clear.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A popular biography which, despite being well written, is questionably...
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. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Matthew Davidson
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Factual Account of Brahms
As someone who is getting to know and love the music of Brahms, I found this book detailed, helpful, and quite absorbing. Read more
Published on Nov. 25 2010 by Young American
4.0 out of 5 stars The ONLY Brahms biography!
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. Read more
Published on Feb. 9 2002 by Neil Blaze
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 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. 18 2001 by C. Noble
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
3.0 out of 5 stars Swafford's Brahms Ignores Recent Scholarship
Swafford's Brahms biography is certainly readable, and the author displays great sympathy with his subject. Read more
Published on Jan. 18 2000
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. 21 1998 by Scott
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