Brahms “Unbound” But Not Unsung

Apr 10, 2017

Editor’s Note: Our thanks for the following official text, which explains this event better than we could ever do—as we love music, but have no formal knowledge or appropriate language.

He once quipped “A symphony is no joke.” As the third “B” in the classical music triumvirate of “Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms,” Johannes Brahms became most famous for his lush orchestral scores. Brahms was equally masterful, however, as a composer for the voice—as the Pasadena Master Chorale will reveal in “Brahms Unbound—a cappella music by the master” on April 22 and 23.

“Brahms (1833-1897) worked with choirs for much of his life,” explains Artistic Director Jeffrey Bernstein. “And I feel that Brahms is most at home with the choir. There’s a quality to his vocal writing that makes it irresistible—his gift for melody, his intimate knowledge of the choir and how voices work in combination, and the sheer expression of the sound of human voices.”

The program will alternate large sacred works, such as the famous motets Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz, O Heiland reiß die Himmel auf, and Warum ist daß Licht gegeben? with two sets of songs, op. 42 and op. 104. The pieces are scored for many different combinations of voices in four, five, six, and eight parts.


Johannes Brahms, 1853; public domain.


“Brahms never wrote an opera,” Bernstein notes. “But his songs are in every serious classical singer’s repertoire. The works we will perform bear his stamp unmistakably. They’re lush and intricate, driving and reflective and, ultimately, incredibly satisfying.”

Bernstein also raves about the acoustics at Altadena Community Church. “To hear a cappella music in this beautiful, reverberant space will be an immersive and captivating experience,” says Bernstein. “How fortunate we are that Brahms’ oeuvre of choral music spans nearly his entire career.”



(The early 1850s) was a critical time for Brahms because he was on a collision course with his own expectations, the expectations of others, and the conflicting musical currents of the day. It was at this juncture that he stopped publishing, curtailed concertizing, and started on a self-directed path that would lead him to the discovery of his musical voice.

A number of events prepared him for this moment:

  1. In 1848 Brahms heard in concert a young violinist, Joseph Joachim, whose playing made a profound impression. Later they toured together and developed a productive exchange devoted to the study of counterpoint.
  2. In 1853, Brahms met Robert Schumann, who lauded him in an article in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik as the new voice of German music,[9] and the worthy successor to Bach and Beethoven. Schumann also routinely urged young musicians to study the polyphonic choral masterworks of the Renaissance.[10]
  3. In 1854 following Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide, Brahms joined the Schumann household. His study of Renaissance and Baroque music began with the music contained in the Schumanns’ library.[11]

This study of “early music” is of primary importance because not only does it lead to Brahms’s maturation as a composer, it is centered in his composition of choral music.
—”Brahms’s Choral Music and His Journey to Contrapuntal Transcendence” by Joseph Schubert,


Johannes Brahms, ca. 1893; by C. Brasch, Berlin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


Tickets for “Brahms Unbound—a cappella music by the master” available on a “Listen First, Then Give” basis. Guests reserve a ticket at no cost and then decide—after the performance—whether they’d like to make a donation.


Brahms Unbound—a cappella music by the master
Saturday & Sunday, April 22nd and 23rd at 7:30 p.m.
Altadena Community Church in Altadena, 943 E. Altadena Dr., Altadena 91001
Reservations made online at
For more info, visit
Or call 1.626.208.0009


“What a giftless bastard!”

“I have played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms,” wrote Tchaikovsky in his diary in 1886. “What a giftless bastard!”

Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky had a lot to say about Brahms’ music — all bad. “Brahms is a celebrity; I’m a nobody. And yet, without false modesty, I tell you that I consider myself superior to Brahms.”

But it was really the Germanic music style he hated.… Tchaikovsky’s idea of music was simply different: color, melody, grace, direct, simple emotion. Brahms was interested in something else.

Composer Benjamin Britten complained, “It’s not bad Brahms I mind, it’s good Brahms I can’t stand.”

Needless to say, this is no longer the majority opinion, as Brahms and his music are almost universally loved by those who care about classical music.

One critic explained: “Tchaikovsky’s music sounds better than it is; Brahms’ music is better than it sounds.”

So, it comes as a surprise that when the two composers actually met each other, they got along very well.… They met on New Year’s Day, 1888, when violinist Adolph Brodsky was rehearsing a Brahms trio. Brodsky had premiered Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and both composers were invited to dinner after the rehearsal. Tchaikovsky entered the room while the music was still playing, and after dinner, they drank together and got along famously.

Brahms was doing his best to be friendly, Tchaikovsky noted, and the Russian composer found he actually liked the German, who was so different in character. Tchaikovsky was elegant and smoked fine cigarettes; Brahms was a German burger, smelled of old man and tweed, and smoked cigars, with the ash falling in his beard.

Yet, the fact they could get on well together never changed his opinion of Brahms’ music.
—”Brahms and Tchaikovsky” by Richard Nilsen at


Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Johannes Brahms.



Rudolf Dührkoop [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


Music was introduced to Brahm’s life at an early age. His father was a double bassist in the Hamburg Philharmonic Society, and the young Brahms began playing piano at the age of seven.

By the time he was a teenager, Brahms was already an accomplished musician, and he used his talent to earn money at local inns, in brothels and along the city’s docks to ease his family’s often tight financial conditions.

In 1853 Brahms was introduced to the renowned German composer and music critic Robert Schumann. The two men quickly grew close, with Schumann seeing in his younger friend great hope for the future of music. He dubbed Brahms a genius and praised the “young eagle” publicly in a famous article. The kind words quickly made the young composer a known entity in the music world.

But this music world was also at a crossroads. Modernist composers like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, the leading faces of the “New German School” rebuked the more traditional sounds of Schumann. Theirs was a sound predicated on organic structure and harmonic freedom, drawing from literature for its inspiration.

For Schumann and eventually Brahms, this new sound was sheer indulgence and negated the genius of composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.

In the early 1860s Brahms made his first visit to Vienna, and in 1863 he was named director of the Singakademie, a choral group, where he concentrated on historical and modern a cappella works.

Brahms, for the most part, enjoyed steady success in Vienna. By the early 1870s he was principal conductor of the Society of Friends of Music. He also directed the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for three seasons.

His own work continued as well. In 1868, following the death of his mother, he finished “A German Requiem,” a composition based on Biblical texts and often cited as one of the most important pieces of choral music created in the 19th century.

Brahms’ commitment to his craft showed he was a perfectionist. He often destroyed finished pieces he deemed unworthy, including some 20 string quartets.

These later years for the composer saw him living a comfortable life. His music, since 1860 anyway, had sold well, and Brahms, far from flamboyant or excessive, lived a frugal life in his simple apartment. A shrewd investor, Brahms did well in the stock market. His wealth, however, was rivaled by his generosity, as Brahms often gave money to friends and young musical students.




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