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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 o 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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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 o 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

30 review for Johannes Brahms: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    happy

    I found this a very well researched and readable biography of one of the greatest composers of his generation and the last of the 3 B’s of classical music – Johannes Brahms. Mr Swafford looks a Brahms’ life from his childhood in Hamburg through to his death in Vienna. In telling his story, the author looks at his loves, rivalries, his penchant for brutal honesty and even his agnosticism. His the preface, the author states that writing a biography of Brahms is more difficult than some of the othe I found this a very well researched and readable biography of one of the greatest composers of his generation and the last of the 3 B’s of classical music – Johannes Brahms. Mr Swafford looks a Brahms’ life from his childhood in Hamburg through to his death in Vienna. In telling his story, the author looks at his loves, rivalries, his penchant for brutal honesty and even his agnosticism. His the preface, the author states that writing a biography of Brahms is more difficult than some of the others he has written because Brahms did everything in his power to destroy the raw material of a biographer. He destroyed all the letters he had in his possession and any others that he sent that he could convince the recipients to return, all of his working material for his compositions, and much of his early work that he considered not up to his standards. In spite of these handicaps, I found this an excellent look at man, his methods and his legacy. The son of a horn player, Brahms started in the music business early. He played piano in the cabarets/brothels of the port of Hamburg as a preteen. The author give credence to the stories that he was molested by the ladies employed by those establishments and speculates that this might have been the basis of his not being able to form a lasting romantic relationship. That said, Mr. Swafford does look at the ladies that had influence his life. The most important being the wife/widow of his patron Robert Schumann, Clara. In telling the story of their life long relationship the author speculates that their love never became physical, and in spite of that Clara was the love of his life. Even after the romantic aspect faded, they maintained a strong friendship ‘til her death. Along with her husband she was one of his earliest and most ardent backers. The author makes the point that he was the rock she could rely on as her husband descended into madness and an early death. Clara was a renowned pianist in her own right and often premiered his compositions and built her repertoire around them. In addition to Clara, the author speculates on the other romantic interests in his life and his inability to move from a respectable “courtship” to marriage. That is not to say he was gay – he apparently was a regular patron of the ladies of the evening in what ever town he happened to be living. Mr. Swafford also looks at his rivalry with the other two masters of the time – Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. The author states that Brahms was a devotee of the classical school of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart and detested the "New German School" of Liszt, Wagner and there devotees. That said he apparently was on good personal terms with them. One other aspect of Brahms that Mr. Swafford explores is his irascibility. To say he was blunt in his dealing with others is to put it kindly. He would not humor people. If someone asked his opinion on their composition or playing ability, friend or not, he would tell them exactly what he thought. This led to much tension in his inner circle. Even with this, many of his inner circle remained lifelong friends. In addition to telling Brahms’ life story, the author looks at his music, how it is constructed, and even includes snipits of scores. While I enjoy classical music, much of this was way over my head. That said, I did not find it too distracting from the rest of the narrative and I even learned interesting tidbits that I think will improve my enjoyment of the music All in all this is an excellent look a one of the giants of classical music and well worth the time to read. I rate this a solid 4 stars for Goodreads.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Gary Inbinder

    Schroder: I like Beethoven. But Brahms makes me glad I'm alive. I think I'll go home and listen to Brahms' Fourth. I have the need to have the feeling that it's good to be alive. Charlie Brown: I know what you mean. That's a terrible feeling to have the need of having the feeling of having... Charles M. Schulz: Peanuts Swafford combines the skills of a biographer, musician and historian to provide a vivid portrait of Johannes Brahms, his music, the people he knew and the world in which they lived. Schroder: I like Beethoven. But Brahms makes me glad I'm alive. I think I'll go home and listen to Brahms' Fourth. I have the need to have the feeling that it's good to be alive. Charlie Brown: I know what you mean. That's a terrible feeling to have the need of having the feeling of having... Charles M. Schulz: Peanuts Swafford combines the skills of a biographer, musician and historian to provide a vivid portrait of Johannes Brahms, his music, the people he knew and the world in which they lived. Highly recommended, especially for those who, like Schroder and me, have an affinity for this composer and the occasional need to have the feeling that it’s good to be alive.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    Johannes Brahms is one of the greatest composers of all time. He wrote 4 beautiful symphonies, all of which I have listened to and loved. My favorite piece by Brahms would probably be the Piano Quintet in F minor, because it is very dramatic. The fiery elegance of the piece will take your breath away.

  4. 5 out of 5

    robin friedman

    Swafford's Biography Of Brahms I read Jan Swafford's monumental 1997 biography of Johannes Brahms (1833 --1897) after reading his biography of the American composer Charles Ives and after reading the 1991 biography of Brahms by Malcolm MacDonald. Swafford has written an outstanding biography of Brahms and a through, perceptive consideration of his music. But greater than either of these accomplishments, his book brings Brahms and late nineteenth century Vienna to life. Swafford has given a great Swafford's Biography Of Brahms I read Jan Swafford's monumental 1997 biography of Johannes Brahms (1833 --1897) after reading his biography of the American composer Charles Ives and after reading the 1991 biography of Brahms by Malcolm MacDonald. Swafford has written an outstanding biography of Brahms and a through, perceptive consideration of his music. But greater than either of these accomplishments, his book brings Brahms and late nineteenth century Vienna to life. Swafford has given a great deal of thought to Brahms, and his book helped me think about the nature of creative gifts, about the relationship between love and calling, and about many matters that are much broader than either biography or music. Swafford gives a great deal of attention to two formative experiences of young Brahms: 1. his childhood of poverty in Hamburg where he played as a pre-adolescent in dives frequented by prostitutes and sailors (this account has been questioned by some writers) and 2. Robert Schumann's article about Brahms at the age of 20, heralding the young man as the heir to Beethoven and predicting a brilliant future for him. Swafford's book emphasizes Brahms' difficulties throughout life in forming a lasting, sexual relationship with a woman other than prostitutes. Brahms exhibited to sort of behavior towards women frequently described in terms of "The Virgin and the Whore". Brahms could only be physically intimate with women he did not respect. Thus, Brahms ultimately rejected the romantic opportunities that came his way in the persons of Clara Schumann and Agathe von Siebold, among other women. He withdrew into a protective shell when friendships with women threatened to become romantic. Yet women were the greatest source of inspiration to Brahms as a composer. He poured into his music what he denied himself as a man. A crusty figure, Brahms was difficult to know intimately, particularly by women. The article by Robert Schumann made Brahms famous from the age of twenty before he had done much. Great things were expected of Brahms, but Schumann's praise burdened the fledgling composer with the fear that he would disappoint Schumann's hopes in him. Brahms worked slowly and became an astonishing musical craftsman; but he felt he had to justify Schumann's confidence as well as meet the standards of the great composers of the past, especially Beethoven. There is a wealth of discussion in this book of Brahms' relationships with both Clara and Robert Schumann, their daughter Julie, the violinist Joachim, the critic Hanslick, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, and many others. The book is set in the last years of liberal Vienna, and Swafford poignantly draws the relationship between Brahms's music and the rise of irrationality, anti-Semitism, and violence that would soon plague the Twentieth Century. I found Swafford's discussions of Brahms' music highly insightful. It is less detailed, perhaps, than Malcolm MacMacDonald's study which discusses virtually every work of Brahms; but there is ample material here to form a basis for an exploration and appreciation of Brahms' works. Brahms' romanticism and his musical formalism and learning are well-explored and tied in with a consideration of his major compositions. Swafford's most thorough musical discussions are of the four symphonies, and he tends to move quicker over Brahms's songs. (This was also the case in Swafford's book on Ives.) I felt I got to know Brahms, in spite of himself, in this book. Brahms devoted himself wholeheartedly to his art, and in the process lost a great deal of the value of human love and human sexual closeness. It was and remains a difficult exchange. More than encouraging the reader to get to know and love Brahms's music, Swafford's biography will help the reader think about and try to compassionately understand people. Robin Friedman

  5. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Davidson

    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 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. In addition, Swafford points out that one of the reasons for the lowering of musical standards (amongst composers and others) is the fact that people don't play two-piano or four-hand one piano renditions of important works anymore, due to the rise of the gramophone, and now the compact disc player. At times, his insights are exceptional. The problem with composer biographies is that those whose research abilities are impeccable rarely have good writing skills, and vice-versa. For those who need to be sure that the information they are getting is absolutely correct, they will have to approach a good reference librarian to recommend an academic rather than a "popular" biography.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

    A very nicely paced narrative of a great and interesting man and his times. Because of the intelligence of the author and his respect for his subject, I became filled with enthusiasm for Brahms and listened to a lot of his music. I travelled through his life with him from Opus 1 on. About half the music was new to me (thank you, YouTube). Though I'm an amateur, almost all the musical analysis was accessible and helpful. I loved Swafford's way with words - movingly high-flown just where I wanted A very nicely paced narrative of a great and interesting man and his times. Because of the intelligence of the author and his respect for his subject, I became filled with enthusiasm for Brahms and listened to a lot of his music. I travelled through his life with him from Opus 1 on. About half the music was new to me (thank you, YouTube). Though I'm an amateur, almost all the musical analysis was accessible and helpful. I loved Swafford's way with words - movingly high-flown just where I wanted it to be and dry to the appropriate degree at just the right moments.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Timothy

    This is, by far, the best biography of any composer I have read. It not only presented interesting information about Brahms, the man, it also presented concurrent and detailed analysis of some of his seminal works. As I was reading, I would go find a youtube recording, and immediately not only see, but hear was I was reading about. My understanding and appreciation of Brahms the person and the breadth of his composition has been enhanced many fold.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    This lengthy biography was an endlessly fascinating read. Swafford focuses more on Brahms' life , psychology, and relationships than on analyses of his compositional technique and development. There is a lot of detail here, but the prose never bogs down. Swafford has a great deal of insight into Brahms' motivations and his position as a relatively conservative yet daring composer caught between the waning of Romanticism and the emergence of modernism. The analysis and discussion of Brahms' music This lengthy biography was an endlessly fascinating read. Swafford focuses more on Brahms' life , psychology, and relationships than on analyses of his compositional technique and development. There is a lot of detail here, but the prose never bogs down. Swafford has a great deal of insight into Brahms' motivations and his position as a relatively conservative yet daring composer caught between the waning of Romanticism and the emergence of modernism. The analysis and discussion of Brahms' music that does appear in the text makes the latter clear, and helps to explain the richness in in these pieces. He also has a very clear eye regarding his subject, portraying Brahms' as a complex person with flaws that often caused conflict with and even estrangement from even his closest friends and with virtues that drew people to him and cemented life-long friendships. I particularly enjoyed the examination of his relationship with Clara Schumann, which spanned four decades and was foundational to Brahms' personal and professional life.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Richard S

    I don't read many biographies, and I'm not sure why I picked this up, but I immediately liked the book, especially as it was written by a musician. The portions of the book that focus on the music are fabulous, even with my limited understanding, and I believe the author writes about the music the way that Brahms was intended to be appreciated. However the rest, as the book goes on, descends into tedium. The problem really is that Brahm's life is too long and too large, and the author having set I don't read many biographies, and I'm not sure why I picked this up, but I immediately liked the book, especially as it was written by a musician. The portions of the book that focus on the music are fabulous, even with my limited understanding, and I believe the author writes about the music the way that Brahms was intended to be appreciated. However the rest, as the book goes on, descends into tedium. The problem really is that Brahm's life is too long and too large, and the author having set a standard for event reporting, just has too much to report, and can't step back. As a result, I became more distant from the author and from Brahms himself. I acknowledge it is a difficult task, but, to use a Brahms analogy, might have mixed up the writing style, like the last movement of Brahms' 4th, than just use the same reporting style. I can recommend this to a lot of people, especially musicians, and biography lovers who want a change of pace. Brahms was a true giant and I love his music. The book is enlightening in many ways. I just can't recommend it enthusiastically.

  10. 5 out of 5

    James Prothero

    A marvelously readable and balanced biography. I enjoyed it thoroughly. My brother and sister in law, both highly trained musicians that read, will get the parts I missed where Swafford illustrates a point about the music by printing out a section of various scores. Still, even if you cannot do this, it's a worthwhile read.

  11. 5 out of 5

    James Ward

    This book is a a blend of biographical history and musical analysis, so be ready to sit with You Tube to check out the dozens of music works that are discussed! I loved this book for its insight into the mentality of a composer-musician, and how he coped with his life issues through his music. As a follower of Christ, I was interested to see if the composer of the German Requiem we sang in college had any kind of saving faith. He did not, according to this historian, and eyewitness accounts of m This book is a a blend of biographical history and musical analysis, so be ready to sit with You Tube to check out the dozens of music works that are discussed! I loved this book for its insight into the mentality of a composer-musician, and how he coped with his life issues through his music. As a follower of Christ, I was interested to see if the composer of the German Requiem we sang in college had any kind of saving faith. He did not, according to this historian, and eyewitness accounts of many of his close associates. He did have a friend who conducted the Requiem's premiere who advised Brahms to include the resurrection of Christ in the work. Brahms declined becuase he did not believe in Jesus.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ruth

    It took me a lot longer to finish this book than it did for others of my musical friends who've read this fantastic biography, but that had more to do with my impatience with musical analysis than other factors (after all, the book IS a scholarly work, even though it generally reads as a story anyone would pore over with great interest--so long as the reader loves the music of Brahms, anyway!) It IS a large tome, though--over 600 pages, easily--and there's so much to digest, it takes doing so a It took me a lot longer to finish this book than it did for others of my musical friends who've read this fantastic biography, but that had more to do with my impatience with musical analysis than other factors (after all, the book IS a scholarly work, even though it generally reads as a story anyone would pore over with great interest--so long as the reader loves the music of Brahms, anyway!) It IS a large tome, though--over 600 pages, easily--and there's so much to digest, it takes doing so a bit at a time. In the end, one comes away not only with a greater appreciation for Brahms the man (and his reputation as a grouchy old bachelor is warranted!--but there's so much more THERE than just the myths), but also the other great musical, political, artistic figures who shared his history. This is easily as much a history of Robert and Clara Schumann as it is a Brahms history--also not a surprise, since nearly all classical music lovers know how the Schumanns' lives intertwined with that of Brahms--but there are also fascinating insights into Brahms's relations with Lizst and Wagner (both of whom he disliked, or more correctly--both of whose MUSIC he abhorred) and many others (for instance, he and Tchaikovsky disliked each other, whereas Edvard Grieg and Brahms admired each other's music). There is ample discussion of the women Brahms loved but never married, as well as thoughtful psycho-analysis on the wounds and abuses of his younger years that very likely caused him to remain a bachelor until the end. A fantastic biography of a musical "lion"(one of the three "B's: Bach, Beethoven--and Brahms). Well worth the effort.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Dominic Carlone

    Richly researched and written, it would be a joy for anybody interested in Brahms and his musical century. Swafford's insight into the nuances of the mythical rivalry between Brahms and Wagner is a particular revelation. Also, his ability to place the featured works of Brahms within the context of his life story is masterful, taking us as close as we can get to the mind of the composer in creating them and of his friends (in particular, the Schumanns) upon first hearing them. Of the books faults Richly researched and written, it would be a joy for anybody interested in Brahms and his musical century. Swafford's insight into the nuances of the mythical rivalry between Brahms and Wagner is a particular revelation. Also, his ability to place the featured works of Brahms within the context of his life story is masterful, taking us as close as we can get to the mind of the composer in creating them and of his friends (in particular, the Schumanns) upon first hearing them. Of the books faults, Swafford's habit of speculating on hidden meanings in the letters, etc. of the players in the story (almost invariably to the discredit of the speaker) seems at odds with a professed zero tolerance for speculation in his opening. It's a tendency that is natural enough, especially given Brahms extensive efforts to obscure his life for posterity (by burning letters and so on), but given Swafford's claim that he would steer clear, it left me shaking my head a number of times. But, all in all, the book was indeed a page turner, even if the pages turned a little slowly during the more technical musical analysis (which, I admit, is due to my own sub-amateur knowledge), and I would recommend it without reservation to anybody interested in the subject.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Tyler Knowlton

    Maybe I don't love Brahms enough, but I found this book to be too detailed. It would go on an on about very minor little historical characters and their interaction with Brahms. I felt like I was sifting, along with the researcher, through piles and piles of papers to get to the essence of who Brahms was. I wish he would have been more willing to not share EVERYTHING he researched. I finally gave up after reading about 450 pages of this tedious book. I will say that it is well researched and con Maybe I don't love Brahms enough, but I found this book to be too detailed. It would go on an on about very minor little historical characters and their interaction with Brahms. I felt like I was sifting, along with the researcher, through piles and piles of papers to get to the essence of who Brahms was. I wish he would have been more willing to not share EVERYTHING he researched. I finally gave up after reading about 450 pages of this tedious book. I will say that it is well researched and contains a lot of info but I would only recommend it to serious Brahms enthusiasts or to those who have read a bio of Brahms before and want to fill in some of the details of his life.

  15. 5 out of 5

    William Battersby

    Not only one of the best biographies of a composer I have read, but one of the best biographies of anyone! This book is engaging, earthy, detailed and magisterial all at the same. The reader feels he/she really gets to understand this not-always-very-approachable man and links the great events of his life with his music. Unlike many music biagraphies, you can read it and enjoy it without having heard a note of Brahms' music. But in truth if you do read it you will want to listen to the music of B Not only one of the best biographies of a composer I have read, but one of the best biographies of anyone! This book is engaging, earthy, detailed and magisterial all at the same. The reader feels he/she really gets to understand this not-always-very-approachable man and links the great events of his life with his music. Unlike many music biagraphies, you can read it and enjoy it without having heard a note of Brahms' music. But in truth if you do read it you will want to listen to the music of Brahms (and Joachim) and you will hear far more in it than you ever knew there was. Highly recommended.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

    In the introduction to this fine, well-researched biography, author Jan Swafford announces his intention “to take [Brahms] off the pedestal and put him back in the world of the living, with his feet on the ground.” This he accomplishes to a remarkable extent. The book bristles with details about Brahms’s personal life, his artistic ideals and process, his travels, his business side, and more. Of such Brahms biographies as I know, this one provides more detail on the great composer’s in some ways In the introduction to this fine, well-researched biography, author Jan Swafford announces his intention “to take [Brahms] off the pedestal and put him back in the world of the living, with his feet on the ground.” This he accomplishes to a remarkable extent. The book bristles with details about Brahms’s personal life, his artistic ideals and process, his travels, his business side, and more. Of such Brahms biographies as I know, this one provides more detail on the great composer’s in some ways complicated relationships with women. More than other works of its type, too, it succeeds in depicting the closeness, indeed many-sidedness, of Brahms’s life-long friendship with Clara Schumann. Swafford, too, does much to trace the rise and fall in the affective curve drawn by Brahms and Joachim. This is revealing, since Joachim was the first major artist to recognize Brahms early in his career, and even many years later, after the two had become distant in a personal sense, remained a stout professional associate, supporter, and champion of Brahms’s music. One caveat: the book contains occasional glitches, such Swafford’s insistence on calling the Karlskirche in Vienna a cathedral, whereas it is only a parish church, if a prominent one. This notwithstanding, the book is a great and informative read and one I strongly recommend to all lovers of classical music.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Miles

    The author is verbose, repetitious, sometimes overconfident and pretentious. He often falls into the trap of trying to capture the gist of a musical piece by elaborating on psychological states and conflicts of the author. Thus, several pages make for a truly tiresome and irritating read. That Brahms' life was a continual struggle between unbridled feeling and self-imposed restraint may be true, but to immediately transpose this into a musical tension between form and "emotions" or, even worse, The author is verbose, repetitious, sometimes overconfident and pretentious. He often falls into the trap of trying to capture the gist of a musical piece by elaborating on psychological states and conflicts of the author. Thus, several pages make for a truly tiresome and irritating read. That Brahms' life was a continual struggle between unbridled feeling and self-imposed restraint may be true, but to immediately transpose this into a musical tension between form and "emotions" or, even worse, between form and expressiveness, is superficial and rush. There is no opposition like the one Mr. Swafford continually advocates. Brahms' works are wonderfully expressive: all he has to say is precisely expressed through his forms. Emotions are thundering throughout Brahms' works, and much more so for being shaped and powerfully developed through highly refined forms. On the bright side, Brahms' life and personality emerge from the book, together with a perspective on his views and his musical development; but the book would much benefit from being cut to half its present size.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Szabolcs Sebestyén

    This is the best biography I have ever read. Swafford finds the equilibrium how to describe the life of a composer, without being very technical on his music. Most people know Brahms, the composer. However, we know very little about Brahms, the human being. Brahms excellently shows Brahms' human side, and helps us understand his works through his personality. We get to know a grumpy man, whose misogyny originates from his childhood, and who feared that he would be just a footnote in the history This is the best biography I have ever read. Swafford finds the equilibrium how to describe the life of a composer, without being very technical on his music. Most people know Brahms, the composer. However, we know very little about Brahms, the human being. Brahms excellently shows Brahms' human side, and helps us understand his works through his personality. We get to know a grumpy man, whose misogyny originates from his childhood, and who feared that he would be just a footnote in the history of music. His unfulfilled love for Clara Schumann is a beautiful human story that ensured that Brahms would become one of the greatest composers of all time, since he made a decision and turned away from love, and instead chose music. As Swafford writes it: "He was ready to substitute an archetypal, and unilateral, Brahmsian bargain: to live with yearning rather than fulfillement." A must-read for anyone who wants to know the person behind the music.

  19. 4 out of 5

    MrSlowreader

    I was surprised to find that this book was out of print, undeservedly so. Having come from Jan Swafford's excellent biography of Beethoven, I had high expectations for this one, expectations which were not left disappointed. This book provides an excellent overview of both Brahms the man, and his times, written in an engaging and accessible manner. The musical analysis is not too dense for the uninitiated, and should offer readers a deeper insight into the music we all so love and revere. Brahms I was surprised to find that this book was out of print, undeservedly so. Having come from Jan Swafford's excellent biography of Beethoven, I had high expectations for this one, expectations which were not left disappointed. This book provides an excellent overview of both Brahms the man, and his times, written in an engaging and accessible manner. The musical analysis is not too dense for the uninitiated, and should offer readers a deeper insight into the music we all so love and revere. Brahms' life and career were full of dichotomies: the romantic young Kreisler vs. the classicist Herr Doktor Brahms, the musical conservative vs. the innovative composer of rhythmic ingenuity, the upstanding north German vs. the resident of frivolous Vienna, the man who longed for a home and family of his own vs. the man who did everything in his powers to ensure he remained "frei aber froh" (free but happy, or should that be lonely).

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    Johannes Brahms: A Biography / Jan Swafford. Despite the fact that I am truly tone deaf and basically musically illiterate, I took up my friend’s recommendation (on a printed annual greeting) to read this book. I have now read it—apart from, say, a dozen pages of musical analysis--and I can report that it was worth my while. Fortunately, I do like detailed biographies and at 636 pages of text, this book fit the bill. Swafford expertly delineates Brahms’ personal complexity, his musical giftednes Johannes Brahms: A Biography / Jan Swafford. Despite the fact that I am truly tone deaf and basically musically illiterate, I took up my friend’s recommendation (on a printed annual greeting) to read this book. I have now read it—apart from, say, a dozen pages of musical analysis--and I can report that it was worth my while. Fortunately, I do like detailed biographies and at 636 pages of text, this book fit the bill. Swafford expertly delineates Brahms’ personal complexity, his musical giftedness, and both his personal and professional relationships. The extensive references to various “schools” of music was extremely interesting to me. The amount of scholarship is immense. I have been considerably enlightened.

  21. 5 out of 5

    J.

    Jan Swafford is a national treasure. He writes clearly, and in his biographies of Brahms and Beethoven has created narratives that sweep you along. Sometimes he delves into the deep waters of music theory, and even though I'm a musician, I sometimes find these excurses difficult to follow, so I know it's even more difficult for non-musicians. Nevertheless, if you have any interest in classical music, I believe you'll enjoy Swafford's biography of Brahms.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ville Saarinen

    What a fantastic biography. Paints a really detailed and nuanced picture of Brahms the (imperfect) man, but also sheds light on the context — the evolution of music in central Europe in the 19th century — very effectively. A companion playlist: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3tn... What a fantastic biography. Paints a really detailed and nuanced picture of Brahms the (imperfect) man, but also sheds light on the context — the evolution of music in central Europe in the 19th century — very effectively. A companion playlist: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3tn...

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ivan Fernandez

    Awesome portrait of a mighty genius who - by perfecting the symphonic tradition of his cherished predecessors- was as revolutionary as the more obvious romantics of his time. A must read for every lover of classical music.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Huang

    So good. I almost cried when he dies at the end (spoiler alert).

  25. 4 out of 5

    Aliya Peterson-Rodriguez

    Excellent and engaging! Wonderful details and great musical analysis within. Highly recommend

  26. 5 out of 5

    Howard Sundwall

    An outstanding biography. You may know the music; read this and you'll know the man.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bill FromPA

    This is an absorbing biography of a man who did his best to frustrate biographers – destroying all his musical sketches, a vast number of compositions he deemed unworthy, and apparently as many of his letters as he could convince his correspondents to return to him. Swafford promises to reveal the life whose traces Brahms was trying to obliterate, to give the reader “Brahms without the beard”. He has probably succeeded in this more than have previous biographers, marshaling what facts he can, a This is an absorbing biography of a man who did his best to frustrate biographers – destroying all his musical sketches, a vast number of compositions he deemed unworthy, and apparently as many of his letters as he could convince his correspondents to return to him. Swafford promises to reveal the life whose traces Brahms was trying to obliterate, to give the reader “Brahms without the beard”. He has probably succeeded in this more than have previous biographers, marshaling what facts he can, and supplementing them with informed speculation, to discover the stories underlying the many stormy phases of Brahms’ closest and most significant relationships. As part of the “de-bearding” of Brahms, Swafford notes more than once that the composer patronized prostitutes; he sees this, along with the fact of a young, probably pre-pubescent Brahms being forced by his father to play piano in waterfront dives that were combination barrooms and brothels, as being of key significance for Brahms’ relationships with “respectable women” and his lifelong bachelorhood. Given the importance Swafford attaches to this, it would have been helpful if he had provided a little more background on the nature of prostitution in late 19th century Vienna, its legal status, and social attitudes toward it. Still, we read this biography because Brahms is one of the towering figures of Western music, and though Swafford concentrates on giving us the life, he must deal at length with the work as well: its inspiration, composition, performance, and reception; in this, he is an excellent and informative guide. The author, a composer himself, has a good ear for music and his many analyses of Brahms’ works (all the symphonies and many of the chamber works, as well as the early piano sonatas and the ‘Haydn’ Variations) are convincing and enlightening; even his asides, such as an endnote on Brahms’ orchestration, show a sure perception of aural truths. In discussing the inspiration for certain pieces in the life of the composer, he treads on dangerous ground: assigning specific biographical and programmatic aspects to compositions of the man who became the standard bearer for the concept of “absolute music”, famously composing music that exists only for itself and is only “about” the internal relationships of its constituent elements, disdaining any external referents. Nevertheless Swafford lays out his arguments for extra-musical meaning in Brahms clearly and, sometimes at least, persuasively; his points are always worth contemplating given his mastery of the facts of the composer’s life. He is less enlightening, however, on music his subjects find wanting or even bad. Brahms and Clara Schumann absolutely loathed the music of Liszt, but their objections to a specific piece they attack, the Sonata in B Minor, arguably Liszt’s masterpiece, are left at fairly vague generalizations. Swafford’s own characterization of Wagner’s Parsifal as “perhaps the highest expression in art of pseudo-spiritualized Germanic anti-Semitism”, un-annotated as if this were an objective description, is surely based on Robert W. Gutman’s tendentious distortion of this opera, an interpretation disputed by most Wagner scholars and based more on the atmosphere of Bayreuth in the 1880s and beyond and some of Wagner’s late after-the-fact writings on the opera rather than on any engagement with or understanding of the work itself. Since Brahms did all he could to maintain the privacy of his private conversations, we have only a few personal memoirs from his friends which give an occasional look into his opinions and ideas, nothing like Cosima Wagner’s diaries which provide a deluge of Richard Wagner’s opinions and commentary on all sorts of matters musical and non-musical. But because of the insatiable, and probably dishonorable, curiosity of posterity, such scraps as are preserved seem fascinating far beyond their content or importance, for example Brahms’ rejoicing in the defeat and death of General George Armstrong Custer, “Of course I know it won’t help the poor fellows; but at least it was granted them to take one good bath in the blood of their persecutors!”

  28. 4 out of 5

    Henry Sturcke

    A weighty book about a weighty subject. I concur with those readers who found that Swafford does a fine job of outlining the life and times, interspersed with a judicious amount of analysis (not overly-technical) of many of the most interesting works of this composer (some of them unknown to me before reading the book). The author succeeds in creating a portrait of a man by turns charming and crotchety who had both the gift of making friendships and of straining them, as well as an artist fully A weighty book about a weighty subject. I concur with those readers who found that Swafford does a fine job of outlining the life and times, interspersed with a judicious amount of analysis (not overly-technical) of many of the most interesting works of this composer (some of them unknown to me before reading the book). The author succeeds in creating a portrait of a man by turns charming and crotchety who had both the gift of making friendships and of straining them, as well as an artist fully aware of his worth and yet modest. From the time he appeared on the Schumanns’ doorstep as a slight, improbably beautiful youth with long blond hair and twinkling blue eyes, to his twilight years, prematurely aged, four decades later, Brahms’ entire career was played out in the public eye to a degree few artists before or since have endured. It is no surprise that he was an intensely private man. He did what no composer before him had done, live independently from his earnings as a composer, supplemented by his fees as conductor or performer of his own works and those of others. In part this was due to his freedom-loving nature, but it wouldn’t have been possible if his career had not coincided with the largest musically-literate public the world had yet seen. One section I found particularly interesting was the first part of chapter 17, in which Swafford shares his insights in Brahms’ creative process, a combination of inspiration and diligent craftsmanship. Overall, the quality of the writing is high, although it did seem to sag toward the end. Perhaps I was tiring after more than 600 pages, but it does seem as if the last few years are sketchily filled in and plagued with more repetition than earlier parts of the book. The narrative impact picks up, as does the pathos, as Clara Schumann declines and dies, followed immediately by the onset of Brahms’ own mortal illness. Swafford closes the book with a chapter he calls epilogue and provocation. I had the sense that this not was not only the title of the section, but also an assessment of Brahms in the course of music history. Although his works remained unceasingly popular in concert hall and recordings, he appeared for the past century to represent a dead-end in the development of the western musical tradition. The author concludes that this composer is now, after the storms of modernism, once again relevant for the future of music. An interesting thesis. Some readers have faulted one aspect of Swafford’s account, namely the credence he gives to Brahms’ psycho-sexual development through his many nights supporting the family playing piano in Hamburg’s notorious red-light district (the tales of which originated with Brahms himself). I haven’t yet read the book by Kurt Hoffman that challenges this notion, but read this book with this challenge in mind. I felt that while Swafford does repeatedly bring this in for its explanatory power, in the end his depiction of Brahms’ personality stands, whatever the truth of the matter.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jacqueline Bolier

    Moving ... brilliant writing and comprehensive anthology

  30. 4 out of 5

    Will White

    I share other reviewer's enthusiasm for this remarkable biography. What makes it so very extraordinary is that the author compels and sustains the reader's interest in the life story of a man who did little else besides producing extraordinarily beautiful music, consistently, over a period of four decades. There are no zany escapades à la Berlioz, no radical shifts in style like Stravinsky, no Wagnerian scrawls and theories. Beginning in his early maturity, Brahms lived according to a set pattern I share other reviewer's enthusiasm for this remarkable biography. What makes it so very extraordinary is that the author compels and sustains the reader's interest in the life story of a man who did little else besides producing extraordinarily beautiful music, consistently, over a period of four decades. There are no zany escapades à la Berlioz, no radical shifts in style like Stravinsky, no Wagnerian scrawls and theories. Beginning in his early maturity, Brahms lived according to a set pattern, vacationing in Italy, composing in the Austrian countryside, and conducting business in Vienna. His work was remarkably consistent, and his musical style barely changed during his adult life. He maintained a tight circle of friends and associates which grew little by little with each passing year. And yet, Jan Swafford has wrought a literary work of such merit and such feeling for the subject and his music, that it reads like a page-turner. I can't recommend this volume highly enough, and I look very much forward to tackling his new biography of Beethoven next.

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