Brahms in the Shadow of Beethoven

Brahms always acknowledged being in the shadow of and heavily  influenced by Beethoven almost to the point of obsessive hero-worship. He was always trying to find his own voice while at rhe same time emulating  the great master. He once expressed his reaction to  this constant creative tension as “ have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven..”

There were other sources of influence on and inspiration for Brahms, but hardly any similar  acknowledgement on record. He might even have developed a complex, most likely an inferiority  complex,  from being compared with this or that great composer from the past, even though some of these critiques could be favorable, for example the  one from Schumann. Yet comparisons could often be odious, So, when someone pointed out to Brahms the unmistakable similarity between the last movement of his First Symphony and  the famous theme from Beethoven’s Ninth, his curt reply was “any fool can see that!”

The Influence of Mozart

Whether consciously or not Brahms was also deeply influenced by some of Mozart’s music, in particular Mozart’s D-minor piano concerto which is believed by many to have been the model for Brahms’ own creation in the same key. Brahms was also known to have been fascinated by Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, particularly its counterpoints, and a  great admirer of Don Giovanni  since his youth; the influence here is less obvious as Brahms never wrote an opera.

100 Essential Recordings

Mozart’s influence  on Brahms is not immediately obvious as that of Beethoven or Schubert. In some respect however it’s probably more deep rooted more probing because Brahms ‘studied’ Mozart’s own sources, especially the great polyphonic masters of the past (cf. below)  whose works  Mozart himself had been immersed in.


The greatest influence on Brahms was probably not the giant shadow of Beethoven but the advocacy, artistic encouragement and  friendship of Robert Schumann, which continued, after Robert’s untimely death, as a professional yet very personal bond between his widow Clara Schumann and Brahms  until Clara’s death in 1896. It was Robert Schumann’s famous and influential article in Neue Zeitschrift fur Müsik hailing the 20 year old Brahms  as the savior of German music and the “rightful heir to the mantle of Beethoven” which propelled him to the forefront of recognized young composers of the time.

The distinct affinity  between the music of Brahms and  his mentor is understandable. May be it was often imitation as a form of compliment or flattery, or a nostalgic look back in fond memory. As an example, it has been suggested  that the poco allegretto of Brahms’ Third Symphony is thematically very close to the Romanze of  Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Indeed the two ‘sound uncannily similar. A sentimental tribute perhaps?

Baroque & Early music

Brahms was always interested in the tradition of “German” music dating back well before Beethoven, Bach or Buxtehude to Eccard, Schütz and Faber. Schumann’s early endorsement acted as a catalyst for Brahms and made him aware of his obligations to uphold  the German musical tradition according to Schumann’s almost grandiloquent utterings. Brahms’ interest in and devotion to early choral and generally polyphonic music is not well known to the general music lovers but he was well known in scholarly circles as a meticulous editor of and authority on old or rare manuscripts going back to pre-baroque  and renaissance periods. His thorough knowledge and expertise were such that he was invited to join the editorial board of the first complete edition of the works of Bach.

Brahms’ research and studies in early music influenced his style and made him a classicist in a romantic era. His contemporaries often blamed him as a reactionary for his classical leanings; the polarizing feud bertween the “Wagnerites” and the “Brahmins” is well known. He was derided at that time, yet it is Brahms who has gained more popularity and accolade now, and won critical esteem in the eyes of  the  post-romantic  or even serial composers like  Arnold Schoenberg.

Hungarian Dances & Gypsy Music

Unlike Dvorak in his  Slavonic Dances, Brahms did not use his own themes for these dances, and was reportedly  accused of stealing from the sketchbook of a   Hungarian violinist.  In reality, the folk roots of many of the so-called ‘tipsy gipsy’  themes in classical music, like any folk tune, can never be ascertained with any certainty. Liszt improvised on these and made his own virtuoso showpieces like the Hungarian Rhapsodies, while Bartók  or  Kodály  ‘collected’ these folk tunes for their extensive research and transformed these into reference miniatures or incorporated them in their distinctive ‘Hungarian’ music. By contrast, Brahms had the less ambitious goal - for once - of  just writing simple, enjoyable music, in the popular Hungarian style, and it paid off for him.

The Hungarian Dances , originally for solo piano, proved to be a great success. Although Brahms orchestrated only about 3 of the 21 dances, other orchestral versions  soon followed as completed by many of his supporters and admirers, notably Dvorak who completed the last 5 of the set. There were of course  a few detractors and music snobs who tried to snipe at these works as cheap claptrap, without much success.

For a while at least  Brahms was out of the shadow of self-doubt and diffidence; there would be no going back now!