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Johannes Brahms: A Biography

4.41  ·  Rating details ·  704 ratings  ·  57 reviews
A New York Times Notable Book

"This brilliant and magisterial book is a very good bet to...become the definitive study of Johannes Brahms."--The Plain Dealer

Judicious, compassionate, and full of insight into Brahms's human complexity as well as his music, Johannes Brahms is an indispensable biography.

Proclaimed the new messiah of Romanticism by Robert Schumann when he was o
Paperback, 699 pages
Published December 7th 1999 by Vintage (first published November 25th 1997)
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Average rating 4.41  · 
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Mar 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
I found this a very well researched and readable biography of one of the greatest composers of his generation and the last of the 3 B’s of classical music – Johannes Brahms. Mr Swafford looks a Brahms’ life from his childhood in Hamburg through to his death in Vienna. In telling his story, the author looks at his loves, rivalries, his penchant for brutal honesty and even his agnosticism. His the preface, the author states that writing a biography of Brahms is more difficult than some of the othe ...more
Gary Inbinder
May 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, music
Schroder: I like Beethoven. But Brahms makes me glad I'm alive. I think I'll go home and listen to Brahms' Fourth. I have the need to have the feeling that it's good to be alive.
Charlie Brown: I know what you mean. That's a terrible feeling to have the need of having the feeling of having...
Charles M. Schulz: Peanuts

Swafford combines the skills of a biographer, musician and historian to provide a vivid portrait of Johannes Brahms, his music, the people he knew and the world in which they lived.
robin friedman
Dec 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Swafford's Biography Of Brahms

I read Jan Swafford's monumental 1997 biography of Johannes Brahms (1833 --1897) after reading his biography of the American composer Charles Ives and after reading the 1991 biography of Brahms by Malcolm MacDonald. Swafford has written an outstanding biography of Brahms and a through, perceptive consideration of his music. But greater than either of these accomplishments, his book brings Brahms and late nineteenth century Vienna to life. Swafford has given a great
Aug 23, 2015 rated it liked it
Johannes Brahms is one of the greatest composers of all time. He wrote 4 beautiful symphonies, all of which I have listened to and loved. My favorite piece by Brahms would probably be the Piano Quintet in F minor, because it is very dramatic. The fiery elegance of the piece will take your breath away.
Matthew Davidson
Jul 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
I would tentatively recommend this biography. While it certainly is very long, and definitely not lacking in detail, some of that extraordinary amount of detail is not correct. For instance, on page 48, he describes insurrections taking place in several countries, including "Czechoslovakia" in 1848. In reality, Czechoslovakia did not come into existence until 1918, some 70 years later. What country did he mean? While some people may feel that this is a small point, the author makes reference in ...more
Jul 23, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biographies
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.
Jul 29, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
To date I've read three Brahms bios: Geiringer's, MacDonald's, and this one. Swafford's is, by far, my favorite. My memories of the other two have faded, but I believe Swafford's bio is the most comprehensive and also the most personal of the three. Here is Brahms, warts and all. That's what I look for in biography generally, and that's what Swafford gave me. He promised in his introduction to be as kind as he could to those of us who are musicologically challenged. He lied ;-). His discussions ...more
Oct 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: music
This lengthy biography was an endlessly fascinating read. Swafford focuses more on Brahms' life , psychology, and relationships than on analyses of his compositional technique and development. There is a lot of detail here, but the prose never bogs down. Swafford has a great deal of insight into Brahms' motivations and his position as a relatively conservative yet daring composer caught between the waning of Romanticism and the emergence of modernism. The analysis and discussion of Brahms' music ...more
Richard S
Aug 28, 2018 rated it liked it
I don't read many biographies, and I'm not sure why I picked this up, but I immediately liked the book, especially as it was written by a musician. The portions of the book that focus on the music are fabulous, even with my limited understanding, and I believe the author writes about the music the way that Brahms was intended to be appreciated.

However the rest, as the book goes on, descends into tedium. The problem really is that Brahm's life is too long and too large, and the author having set
James Prothero
Jul 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A marvelously readable and balanced biography. I enjoyed it thoroughly. My brother and sister in law, both highly trained musicians that read, will get the parts I missed where Swafford illustrates a point about the music by printing out a section of various scores. Still, even if you cannot do this, it's a worthwhile read. ...more
James Ward
Dec 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is a a blend of biographical history and musical analysis, so be ready to sit with You Tube to check out the dozens of music works that are discussed! I loved this book for its insight into the mentality of a composer-musician, and how he coped with his life issues through his music. As a follower of Christ, I was interested to see if the composer of the German Requiem we sang in college had any kind of saving faith. He did not, according to this historian, and eyewitness accounts of m ...more
Apr 13, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Dominic Carlone
Jan 22, 2015 rated it liked it
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
Tyler Knowlton
Mar 26, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: music
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
William Battersby
Jun 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music, biography
In the introduction to this fine, well-researched biography, author Jan Swafford announces his intention “to take [Brahms] off the pedestal and put him back in the world of the living, with his feet on the ground.” This he accomplishes to a remarkable extent. The book bristles with details about Brahms’s personal life, his artistic ideals and process, his travels, his business side, and more. Of such Brahms biographies as I know, this one provides more detail on the great composer’s in some ways ...more
May 03, 2020 rated it it was ok
The author is verbose, repetitious, sometimes overconfident and pretentious. He often falls into the trap of trying to capture the gist of a musical piece by elaborating on psychological states and conflicts of the author. Thus, several pages make for a truly tiresome and irritating read. That Brahms' life was a continual struggle between unbridled feeling and self-imposed restraint may be true, but to immediately transpose this into a musical tension between form and "emotions" or, even worse, ...more
Szabolcs Sebestyén
Sep 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: zene
This is the best biography I have ever read. Swafford finds the equilibrium how to describe the life of a composer, without being very technical on his music. Most people know Brahms, the composer. However, we know very little about Brahms, the human being. Brahms excellently shows Brahms' human side, and helps us understand his works through his personality. We get to know a grumpy man, whose misogyny originates from his childhood, and who feared that he would be just a footnote in the history ...more
Jun 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I was surprised to find that this book was out of print, undeservedly so. Having come from Jan Swafford's excellent biography of Beethoven, I had high expectations for this one, expectations which were not left disappointed. This book provides an excellent overview of both Brahms the man, and his times, written in an engaging and accessible manner. The musical analysis is not too dense for the uninitiated, and should offer readers a deeper insight into the music we all so love and revere.
Aug 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Johannes Brahms: A Biography / Jan Swafford. Despite the fact that I am truly tone deaf and basically musically illiterate, I took up my friend’s recommendation (on a printed annual greeting) to read this book. I have now read it—apart from, say, a dozen pages of musical analysis--and I can report that it was worth my while. Fortunately, I do like detailed biographies and at 636 pages of text, this book fit the bill. Swafford expertly delineates Brahms’ personal complexity, his musical giftednes ...more
Feb 23, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
honestly i think that when you read a biography of someone you really esteem or admire (so, in my case, any composer), at the end of the book you are grieving for them, too. even if they died 150 years ago. i am doing my own small grieving for the wonderful (and flawed) man brahms now. this book was really awesome. again, just like the beethoven biography by this same author, it's packed with so much information and great analysis. i'm going to have to do a homage to brahms and listen to all the ...more
David Oliver
May 15, 2021 rated it it was amazing
It is hard to imagine a better biography of Brahms. As with his great work on Beethoven, Jan Swafford's writing is warm, lucid and compelling; sympathetic yet invariably objective, and grounded in meticulous research and a deep understanding of what it is to be a composer. Every chapter contains gems of wisdom and insight, but Swafford's account of the 'St Anthony Variations' and its significance, and his explanation of sonata form, are simply brilliant. I found this book not just truly informat ...more
Jul 18, 2020 added it
Jan Swafford is a national treasure. He writes clearly, and in his biographies of Brahms and Beethoven has created narratives that sweep you along. Sometimes he delves into the deep waters of music theory, and even though I'm a musician, I sometimes find these excurses difficult to follow, so I know it's even more difficult for non-musicians. Nevertheless, if you have any interest in classical music, I believe you'll enjoy Swafford's biography of Brahms. ...more
Ville Saarinen
Dec 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
What a fantastic biography. Paints a really detailed and nuanced picture of Brahms the (imperfect) man, but also sheds light on the context — the evolution of music in central Europe in the 19th century — very effectively.

A companion playlist:
Feb 02, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Aside from too much untranslated German and a tendency to go too deeply into the musical mechanics for a general interest book, I give this book high ratings. The biography was good, the psychological insights were reasonable but not out of line. I can say I know a great deal about Brahms music and life for having read it. It compares favorably with the author’s book on Beethoven.
Ivan Fernandez
Apr 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Awesome portrait of a mighty genius who - by perfecting the symphonic tradition of his cherished predecessors- was as revolutionary as the more obvious romantics of his time. A must read for every lover of classical music.
Carl J.
Sep 13, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Highly readable, exacting Lee researched, and wonderfully thorough. It’s long, but there’s no reason that this book cannot be enjoyed by Brahms fanatics and casual fans alike.
Jennifer Huang
Feb 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: music
So good. I almost cried when he dies at the end (spoiler alert).
Aliya Peterson-Rodriguez
Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent and engaging! Wonderful details and great musical analysis within. Highly recommend
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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.


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