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Johannes Brahams: a Biography


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About the Author

Jan Swafford lives in eastern Massachusetts.


His music has never ceased to be played and loved in the century since his death (a fact that would have much surprised the composer, who imagined he would quickly go out of fashion); nevertheless, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) has remained an elusive figure. Although he lived well into the era of photography and almost into that of recordings‘providing any interested biographer with recent and tangible grist‘his life has not been as thoroughly scrutinized as those of Beethoven and Mozart, for instance. Brahms himself played a roll in creating his own mystery by recalling and destroying letters and documents, leaving very little save for the main outlines of his life as well as a number of anecdotes; his life and personality, however, has never received the kind of close attention that Swafford has lavished on it in this all-embracing book. The author is a practicing musician as well as a skilled biographer (his magnificent Charles Ives was deservedly a National Book Award finalist), and his work here is truly revelatory. To accurately capture Brahms's life‘from his desperate early, years, playing piano in bordellos in the Hamburg dockland, through the early passionately romantic piano works that led Robert Schumann to hail him at 20 as the new messiah of German music, to the world figure placed on a pedestal as one of the "three Bs" (the others being his cherished Bach and Beethoven)‘Swafford has gone to a multitude of sources, many previously untranslated, to build a figure of towering paradoxes. Brahms was at once a misogynist, his outlook blighted by his tawdry teenage experiences, and a passionate admirer of women who was almost constantly in love, often with entirely unsuitable young women (though he cannily evaded matrimony, and patronized prostitutes all his life). He was generous and often genial, but just as often overbearing and mean-spirited. Professionally, he carefully removed himself from the musical politics promulgated by his arch-rivals Liszt and Wagner, all the while working to build his own fame, ruthlessly discarding any of his work he thought less than masterly. Swafford has placed Brahms firmly in the musical and philosophical context of his time: a classicist who had extraordinarily advanced notions of rhythm and harmony (and was much admired by Schoenberg), and a composer who proudly carried on the magnificent Viennese tradition even as it was crumbling. All the major works are carefully examined, and Swafford is no less attentive to Brahms's most significant human relationships (the 40-year alliance with the almost superhuman Clara Schumann, for instance, is superbly evoked in all its alternating tenderness and anguish). Swafford's study, clearly a labor of profound affection, is a model biography: eloquent, clear-sighted and often moving. Photos not seen by PW. (Oct.)

"A mighty attempt to integrate [Brahms's] puzzling persona ... with the human reality [of] Brahms's music.... Absorbing".


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