Was Johannes Brahms classical music’s underdog?

Over the next few months, WASO will present milestone works from Brahms with our concerts Brahms’ German Requiem, Sibelius and Brahms, and WASO’s Southern Symphony Tour which sees the repertoire of Sibelius and Brahms hit the road.

But the mainstages of Perth are a far cry from Brahms’ humble beginnings…

In Western Australia, we love an underdog, and it could be argued that Brahms was the underdog in the classical music scene of the 1800s. At a time when music was undergoing significant change, Brahms bucked the trend rather than following other composers, and was a bit of a traditionalist who stayed with writing symphonies as his signature works. Other composers had moved on to operas and large dramatic works for orchestra, but even now Brahms is best known for his symphonies and epic piano concertos.


Brahms’ ‘underdog’ story begins with his father, Johann Jakob Brahms. Johann was Brahms’ first music teacher, but also his first critic, who alongside his mother, disapproved of Brahms’ first compositions.

An early career hammering from your parents is not great for self-esteem, and Brahms’ biggest critic turned out to be himself. His first compositions were published under a pseudonym for anonymity, and he later destroyed all his early works. At one-point influential pianist and composer Clara Schumann nominated Brahms in a music magazine as one to watch, after which Brahms wrote to Schumann saying the praise “will arouse such extraordinary expectations by the public that I don’t know how I can begin to fulfill them”. Despite this, the same accolade led to the first publication of Brahms’ work under his own name.

Brahms at age 33. Looking every part the ladies man!

Brahms’ next big set-back was the premiere of his first piano concerto, in which he also performed as soloist. The performance was poorly received, and at the second performance the audience reaction was so hostile that he threatened to leave the stage after the first movement.

The fall-out from the performances led to Brahms’ publishing house refusing to take on his new compositions. Around the same time a written critique from Brahms on the future of German music was leaked and also poorly received, leading to further public damage for the composer.

Just as his prospects of becoming a world-renowned musician came crashing down around him, so too did his love life. Brahms was an emotional soul who simultaneously loved, scorned and yearned for women. When he did have a go at making a widowed Clara Schumann his lover in 1856, they remained extremely close friends. He continued to have a string of short-term relationships throughout his life, but never married.

Brahms at age 40

Possibly the greatest love of his life was his mum (platonic of course, we hope), whose passing became the inspiration for his greatest choral work with orchestra Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem).

Previewing the first three movements in 1867, the work once again received a poor review from the audience, who hissed at the end of the performance. However, Brahms pushed on and premiered the full work just a few months later.

Finally receiving critical acclaim, the work marked Brahms’ arrival on the world stage. Over the next few years Brahms experienced further successes and completed his first symphony, which had been in the works for decades (reports range from 14 to 21 years). From here, Brahms went on to success after success, no longer the underdog. 

Brahms’ music became famous for its utter beauty. Rich with emotion, the powerful, human, uplifting works have grown to become staple repertoire in concert halls worldwide.

Brahms’ German Requiem and his first symphony, performed as part of WASO’s Sibelius and Brahms, are a fantastic introduction to the epic and transcendent music of the composer, for new and long-time listeners alike. You’ll get a colourful insight into the work of a battler, whose sensitivity and intelligence makes for compelling music making. But your love life? Sadly, Brahms won’t give you any help with that.


Brahms’ German Requiem
Friday 25 and Saturday 26 June, 7.30pm
Perth Concert Hall

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