Best Works by Brahms: Top 10 Pieces by the Romantic Composer
From the Cradle Song to his Third Symphony, you’ve probably heard more Brahms in everyday life than you thought.
Spending most of his time in Vienna, he evolved among part of the musical elite of the mid-Romantic era, befriending Robert and Clara Schumann, as well as the violinist Joseph Joachim and the conductor of orchestra Hans von Bülow.
While many of his contemporaries experimented with programmatic or descriptive music, Brahms gained a reputation for being more conservative, preferring to stick to “absolute music”. Its harmonies and orchestration are, however, deeply rooted in the romantic tradition and allow for truly sublime listening. Here are ten of his finest moments that are definitely worth listening to.
Hungarian Dances (1869–1880)
Brahms was introduced to “gypsy” music by the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi, whom he met in 1850. His 21 Hungarian dances were originally written for piano four hands, where two pianists play on the same keyboard, but are now best known in their orchestral arrangements.
They were immensely popular throughout Brahms’ life and were probably his most profitable works. Today our 1 and 5 remain popular, the latter being based on the Hungarian dance style of the czardas with its snappy character, oom-pah bassline and stunning string melodies.
Opening of the academic festival (1880)
The Academic Festival Overture was composed in the summer of 1880 as a tribute to the University of Breslau, after Brahms discovered he was to receive an honorary doctorate.
Although quite uninspiring at first glance, the title of the piece is truly an example of the composer’s wry sense of humor and love for a good joke. Throughout its almost ten minutes, the piece references melodies used as drinking songs by students of the time, with a masterful application of compositional techniques to satisfy the “academic” part of its audience.
The piece is truly one of Brahms’ finest orchestral works, requiring one of the largest ensembles of any of his compositions. He directed the premiere himself during the graduation ceremony, where his humorous credentials did not go unnoticed!
German Requiem (1865–1868)
by Brahms german requiem (or, to give it its full title, A German Requiem, on words from the Holy Scriptures) is a large-scale work for choir, orchestra and solo soprano and baritone. It opens with a sublimely chilling chorale motif, setting the scene beautifully for the next 70 minutes.
Brahms suffered the loss of his mother in 1865, and his friend and mentor Robert Schumann nine years before, who it has been speculated may have inspired this piece. He put the text together himself, drawing on Luther’s German Bible, and conspired with Clara Schumann, whom he was very fond of, on the title.
Where the traditional Requiem Mass in Roman Catholicism begins with a prayer for the dead, A german requiem is a mass for the living.
Violin Concerto (1878)
Brahms wrote only one violin concerto, dedicating it to his close friend and nearly lifelong collaborator, Joseph Joachim. The composer leaned heavily on the 19th-century violin virtuoso for support and guidance when composing, noting that he had no patience for slurs that indicated slant rather than phrasing.
Despite Joachim’s willingness to help, not all of his recommendations were taken into account. The concerto is technically challenging and musically brilliant, and although audiences greeted the piece with enthusiastic applause, many violinists and critics of the time had less flattering things to say. Hans von Bülow and Joseph Hellmesberger are both credited with saying that the concerto was as much “against the violin” as it was for him, Henryk Wieniawski called it “unplayable”, and Pablo de Sarasate s complained that the oboe had the only melody in the second movement and refused to play it.
Joachim gave the premiere in Leipzig in 1879 and Brahms, who had a reputation for being difficult, complained about the interpreter’s decision to preface his new piece with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto: “it was a lot of D major – and not much else on the program”.
Read more: 10 of the best romantic composers in the history of classical music
Wiegen-boundbetter known today as lullaby Where cradle songis arguably the most well-known play ever written by Brahms, having pervaded popular culture everywhere.
Lied (German song) for voice and piano, Brahms dedicated his composition to his friend Bertha Faber to congratulate her on the birth of her second son. The hapless songwriter in love had had a soft spot for Faber in their youth, and he disguised a song she used to sing to him as a counter-melody woven into the lines of the piece.
Symphony No. 4 (1884)
In the early 1880s, Brahms was invited by conductor Hans von Bülow to collaborate with the Meiningen Court Orchestra. This was the start of a fruitful relationship, which saw the premiere of Brahms’ last two symphonies, Nos. 3 and 4.
Von Bülow was such a fan of Brahms that he listed him among the “Three Bs” alongside Bach and Beethoven in a letter to his wife – a distinction that remains very much tied to the composer’s legacy today.
Brahms is known to be a more conservative composer than many of his romantic contemporaries, and this symphony has been compared by many to the great work of Beethoven himself.
Variations on a theme by Haydn (1873)
Also known as Saint Anthony Variations, by Brahms Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn is a theme with eight variations and a finale, originally written for two pianos but much better known in its orchestral version.
The piece is derived from a theme entitled “Chorale St Antoni”, which Brahms discovered in a work for wind ensemble attributed to Haydn. More recently scholars and scholars have disputed that it was written by Haydn, suggesting that 19th-century publishers may have sold it under his name to make it more profitable.
The theme begins with a series of unusual five-bar phrases, which certainly caught Brahms’ attention since he structured each variation around it. Each of the eight variations has its own distinctive character, and the piece culminates in a beautiful finale that consists of a theme and variations in itself. The compositional complexity demonstrated by Brahms here is unmatched in the Romantic era and translates into approximately 20 minutes of absolute musical glory for the listener.
Read more: Brahms: 15 facts about the great composer
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1858)
Brahms’ First Piano Concerto is the work that truly cemented his name in the compositional pantheon, both in his day and in the history books. Premiered by the composer himself in Hanover in 1859, it was the first of his orchestral works to receive great public acclaim – and who can blame them?
From its inception, the full force of the mid-19th century orchestra performs a sonic introductory slap, complete with timpani rolls, string tremolos, wind trills and the sound of orchestral sections struggling to supremacy.
With the middle movement described as “exquisite” and “beautiful” by Clara Schumann, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 deserves its place in the top ten.
Quintet with piano (1865)
Brahms’ Piano Quintet is truly the the best of the best when it comes to his bedroom work. Dedicated to Princess Anna of Hesse, it is written for the typical piano quintet composition: piano, two violins, viola and cello.
Known for its more classical leanings, the quintet is one of Brahms’ more romantic undertakings, with more interesting harmonic experimentation, especially in the first and fourth movements.
The quintet has a predominantly somber mood throughout, toned down somewhat by the quiet second movement, but pushed in its finale to a burst of stormy intensity.
Symphony No. 3 (1883)
Brahms’ Third Symphony was written nearly six years after its predecessor, Symphony No. 2. At around 40 minutes in length, it is the shortest of Brahms’ symphonic productions but by no means the poorest. .
The young Richard Strauss, who at the time was working as an assistant to Hans von Bülow, had hitherto been undecided about Brahms and his music, but he was convinced of his genius by the third symphony and shamelessly complimented the fourth.
The third movement of Symphony No. 3 is the most famous, having been widely adapted in music, film and television from the 1940s to the present day, appearing in a song by Frank Sinatra, Fawlty Towersa video game and as part of a gymnastics routine at the London 2012 Olympic Games.