Extracted from Michael Steen’s book The Lives and Times of the Great Composers, these concise guides, selected by The Independent’s editorial team, explore the lives of composers as diverse as Mozart and Puccini, reaching from Bach to Brahms, set against the social, historical and political forces which affected them, to give a rounded portrait of what it was like to be alive and working as a musician at that time.
It was Schumann who first hailed Brahms as ‘the natural heir and successor to Beethoven’, and that is how many have seen him since, although to Brahms himself it was something of a burden. With his devotion to classical precepts, he proved himself a master of all the major forms bar one. His four symphonies, his concertos, his vast body of chamber music, where discipline underpins the wonderful romantic harmonies, remain central to the repertoire. During his own life, it was the rapturous reception of his German Requiem which established him beyond all doubt. The only form he never attempted was opera, which would have been ill-suited to his virtues as a composer.
Michael Steen shows how Brahms came to be raised up as the champion of traditional values against the new music of composers such as Liszt and Wagner, in one of the most bitterly fought controversies of the age. On tour as a young man from Hamburg, Brahms met the violin virtuoso Joachim, who introduced him to Schumann. During Schumann's period of insanity and especially after his death, Brahms developed a lifelong friendship with his widow, Clara. Steen chronicles his autumns teaching in Detmold, his passing loves, and eventual move to Vienna, where he would spend his winters, escaping to a variety of resorts to compose over the summer. He died at 63, still a bachelor.
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