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Johannes Brahms: A Biography

4.39 of 5 stars 4.39  ·  rating details  ·  238 ratings  ·  21 reviews
An illuminating new biography, published on the 100th anniversary of the composer's death, brilliantly written by a finalist for the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award. Throughout his life Johannes Brahms attempted to erace traces of himself, wanting his music to be his sole legacy. But Jan Swafford provides a warmly human evocation of an elusive genius. of illus.
Hardcover, 699 pages
Published November 25th 1997 by Knopf
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Roger Hecht
Many reviews of this book claim that it is one of the best biographies they've read of anyone. That was my reaction. As much as I love Brahms's music, I was never that interested in Brahms as a man. I started the book on the recommendation of a friend, and as it turned out Swafford made me interested in Brahms, the person. He drew me into the composer's world, not only by making Brahms come alive, but by making his entire era come alive. In many ways, the book is not just about Brahms. There is ...more
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 ...more
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 ...more
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.
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 ...more
Daniel
I almost didn't want to read it after I read the introduction, but I was won over once the focus was Brahms and not Swafford. I read this when I was a caste away in Orange County California and I think some of my happiest memories from that first stranding are of reading this book.

The only problem is that at times Swafford admits that Brahms is not as great as Beethoven. Of course he isn't, but whenever he did that I wanted to put the book down and go read another Beethoven biography. It's not t
...more
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
...more
Aaron
Swafford writes with excellent prose for a biography, and his attempts to write more about the "man behind the music" are mostly successful. Because (as Swafford notes) Brahms was able to burn or drown much about himself, and wanted his biographers (such as Kalbeck) to portray him a certain way, some of what Swafford does about Brahms' personal life is either a best educated guess, or conjecture. Thankfully, he does say for example, "we will never know" on some of these conjectures. He also writ ...more
Linda Owen
I'm sad to have finished this marvelous book-- almost as if I were leaving a good friend behind after a week or two in each other's company. Jan Swafford has certainly breathed life into the last of the "Three Bs" with this biography. If Brahms thought he was hiding his inner life and erasing his artistic past by destroying his letters and manuscripts, he apparently forgot how many friends, enemies and frenemies around him were watching closely and keeping notes. Swafford has meticulously compil ...more
Eliot
Readers of liner notes know all about Brahms as a grumpy perfectionist haunted by a sense of his own belatedness in a field in which Beethoven had done it all. It is hard not to find such a character relatable and human. Swafford's massive biography situates Brahms's grumpiness in historical and political context, revealing Brahms as a political liberal with musically conservative tastes who became the target of a Wagnerian musical avant-garde that was, paradoxically, aligned with the political ...more
Mark Loring
Awesome book! Very engaging and readable...As a musician I feel a deeper connection with a composer when I know about his/her life. Each piece of music is actually the biography of the composer if that makes sense. Now when I play a composition by Brahms I imagine him walking through the Alps and also his unrequited love for Clara Schumann (Wieck). Even if you are not a musician you will enjoy it!
Jack
In a veritable tome of a biography, Swafford seems to manage to recount every waking moment of Brahms' life. That said, it's a wonderful read that almost dangerously blurs the line between author and subject, and one has to wonder where his incredible knowledge and insight about Brahms ends and where his opinions begin, because it can really be difficult to discern. But therein lies the very quality that makes this one so worth it! It's a sincerely honest portrayal of a peculiar character in all ...more
Tyler
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
...more
Megan
Well, I don't know if I can really say I am "currently reading" this, as I just loaned it to a friend. I WAS currently reading it, though. About 200 pages in I decided to put it down (or loan it out, rather), with the intention to return. I read an article by Swafford excerpted from this book that painted Brahams as a sarcastic, trickster, self-conscious of his talent--sure that all the true greats in music had already come before him. So while that storyline is very interesting--the book is als ...more
Nathanial
Oct 06, 2007 Nathanial rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: composers with a grudge
Shelves: music, biography
Have you noticed that the good folks at goodreads have added a handy little feature for us to figure out how to rate your books? As you scroll the cursor over the field of stars, it allows a few words to pop up if you let it rest over one star or another: the first star says, "didn't like it," the second star says, "it was ok," et cetera. Anyway, I liked this book, although I read only the first half of it and that was almost a year ago. Just wanted to dish about the star feature.
David Williams
One of the best biographies I have read.
Emily Byrd Starr
Thorough examination of the life and works of Johannes Brahms. I especially appreciated the author's engaging writing style (some biographies can be a little dry in my experience). Both informative and an enjoyable read!
Virginia
Other than a bit too much analysis of specific musical works, this was a very balanced and well-researched biography of Brahms. As much about Clara Schumann as about Brahms. a Great read, nice and long too. I was sorry when it was over.
Ed Rapoport
Excellent biography and musical/cultural history of central Europe in the last half of the 19th century. Brahms' enigmatic relationship with Robert Schumann's widow Clara was especially fascinating.
Drunken_orangetree
Good on the biography, though I think he does a little too much mind-reading. Very scanty on the music.
Alicia
The definitive Brahms biography.
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Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His musical works range from orchestral and chamber to film and theater music, including four pieces for orchestra, Midsummer Variations for piano quintet, They That Mourn for piano trio, They Who Hunger for piano quartet, From the Shadow of the Mountain for string orchestra and the theatrical work, Iphigenia, for choir, instruments and a narrator.

Swafford's
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More about Jan Swafford...
The Vintage Guide to Classical Music Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph Charles Ives: A Life with Music The New Guide to Classical Music The Handel and Haydn Society: Bringing Music to Life for 200 Years

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“Part of what Brahms and others could never quite get over was that Bruckner the composer of epic symphonies behaved, much of the time, like a nincompoop.” 2 likes
“What elevates one and not another to the level of genius is not only talent and ambition and luck, but a gift for turning everything to the purpose. ... Perhaps that is a common element in the story of genius: beyond talent and ambition and luck, in some degree you have to be forcibly booted out of everyday life and everyday goals. In any case, it was like that with Brahms. The fulfillment of love was denied him so that other things might take wing.” 0 likes
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