Jan Swafford Biography of Brahms

I just finished a very good non-fiction biography of the German Romantic Era composer/pianist/conductor, Johannes Brahms, by Jan Swafford. Swafford titles it simply, “Johannes Brahms: A Biography”. The author is also an American composer and musicologist who has written biographies on many of the great composers besides Brahms, such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Charles Ives.

Jan Swafford [American composer-author]

For fans of Brahms or aficionados of classical music, I recommend this book. I would not actually recommend this for someone who has no interest in classical music or Brahms, as there is much technical information on his compositions and much discussion of the composers during Brahms life and before in this long book.

Johannes Brahms [Born May 7, 1834 in Hamburg, Germany-Died April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria]

This is a wonderful book about the complex Johannes Brahms on his life and compositions, many of which Swafford explains in professional detail. It is almost like getting two biographies in one as Clara Schumann is intertwined in so many ways in Johannes Brahms life, especially after the tragic death of her husband, Robert Schumann. It wasn’t an all storybook relationship, as they had an on and off love [not necessarily physical-it really isn’t known] for each other, with so many rocky occasions and disputes, but they seemed to always turn back to each other. Clara was so wonderful to Johannes even going through so many hardships in her life. While in the end, Johannes and Clara never married, they could never do without each other.

As I stated before, besides the great information of the lives of Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann, Swafford goes into detail on so many of Brahms compositions in a way that only a professional composer could. Don’t worry if your not a composer or a professional musician…like me, you can still enjoy this book to help you understand the man, Brahms, and his music.

What I would do many times is keep my I-phone close as I was reading the book and when I came to a part of the description of one of Brahms pieces, I would actually play the piece [or at least some of the movement] Swafford was describing, on You Tube. I love Brahms music so it was satisfying to come to a piece I have never heard before and listen to the beautiful music that I had not heard before. Examples of such music are Brahms so very moving and beautiful “Schicksalslied” [Song of Destiny], his glorious song of triumph, “Triumphlied”, and his Alto Rhapsody.

If there is one piece that initially vaulted the young Brahms into becoming one of the giants of the Romantic Era I believe it was his German Requiem, that was mentioned many, many times in this book as being important in Johannes development as a great composer.

While at times Brahms seemed self-centered and uncaring toward others, he was a very complex man who actually [whether he wanted them or not] had many friends. That is why there is this section near the end of the book that brought tears to my eyes that I would like to quote directly from Jan Swafford’s “Brahms: A Biography”:

“Brahms still hoped for long life, he knew that it was past dark and the comedy nearly done. It had come to this, so he wept.

At the end of the symphony [Brahms’ 4th symphony] the ovation roared on and on, hats and handkerchiefs waving all over the hall, men of the Philharmonic on their feet bellowing and waving along with the crowd. Brahms stood weeping quietly in the torrent of love the Viennese were giving him, his wasted hands clutching the balustrade. Finally, with a nod of his head he stepped back, and the Golden Hall saw him no more.”

As mentioned in this post, one of the pieces I was unfamiliar with but became familiar with after reading this book was Brahms beautiful Song of Destiny: “Schicksalslied”:

Thank you Mr. Swafford for taking the time to write this great biography of Johannes Brahms. I look forward in the future of reading your other biographies of some of the great composers of classical music.

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