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Johannes Brahms: A Biography Paperback – Dec 7 1999

4.6 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Vintage Books ed. edition (Dec 7 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679745823
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679745822
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 3.8 x 20.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 680 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #42,378 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

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.

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Top Customer Reviews

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 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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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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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