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Johannes Brahms: A Biography Paperback – December 7, 1999
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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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In summation, I was very moved by the book; I am still thinking about it and the life of Brahms, and of course his music. I am glad I bought it. I recommend it despite the mostly small flaws. I will be referring to it again and again; I'll figure out how to use the index to my advantage. Our symphony will be doing Brahms' First Symphony during this season and I'll be right there, listening to a most beloved piece.
However, in my mind questions remain. Although I respect the author's restraint from speculating about Brahms' romantic relationships, I find it hard to believe that he would have only taken inspiration 'figuratively' from the many women who loved and admired him from within his social circles only to find 'fulfillment' in the brothels. As good as Brahms was in protecting his privacy, I think there's more here than meets the eye, and a separate thesis from some music or psychology phD candidate into the sexual psychology of Brahms (speculation and all) could at the very least prove entertaining.
I don't agree with the author's assessment that Brahms was a misogynist. His early experiences (or not) playing in the waterfront bars may have shaped his attitude toward women, but too many examples of him helping women in their careers and his 'affairs of the heart' lead me to conclude that he was an 'equal opportunity abuser', in that he could be ruthless regardless of gender (he could also be very kind and generous). Such may be the curse of genius, having those of us from below pigeonholing an eagle.
My other nits include a bit of redundancy in the book, but forgivable due to its length. What is less forgivable is the use of German terms that are only defined once within the text, and no glossary for them (and they are referred to frequently). Not easy to find in a 700 page book over the course of some weeks of reading (write them down as you go is my advice). I had planned to deduct a star for these nits, but in the end the overall enjoyment of the book trumps all.
Again, a wonderful book about a great genius, composer and man, in the context of a golden age that's on its last legs. They just don't make 'em like this anymore. Enjoy.