BRAHMS’ LULLABY

Today is the birthday of German composer Johannes Brahms, born in Hamburg in 1833. He began studying the piano at the age of seven, and he picked it up quickly. As a teenager, he would play in brothels and taverns to earn money for his family. He met composer and music critic Robert Schumann when he, Brahms, was 20 years old and the two became close friends. Schumann took the younger man under his wing and introduced him to musical society, calling him a “young eagle” and a genius. Brahms’ musical style was traditional, even conservative, and so he often found himself at odds with the more avant-garde “New German School” composers like Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt.

Brahms stepped in to help Schumann’s wife, Clara, with the running of the household when her husband attempted suicide and went into a mental institution. Brahms fell in love with Clara, who was 14 years Brahms’ elder. He wrote to Schumann in the sanatorium, saying, “How long the separation from your wife seemed to me! I had grown so used to her uplifting presence and had spent such a magnificent summer with her. I had grown to admire and love her so much that everything else seemed empty to me, and I could only long to see her again.” Brahms’ love for Clara was unrequited, though, even after Schumann’s death. Brahms never married.

Brahms’ Lullaby is one of the most recognizable melodies in the Western world. Brahms composed it in 1868 for an old friend, Bertha Faber, to commemorate the birth of her second child. The lyrics came from a German folk poem. The lullaby’s real title is “Guten Abend, gute Nacht,” – which means “Good evening, good night” – or the less eloquent Opus 49, Number 4. Clara Schumann played the piano for the piece’s first public performance in 1869.

-TEXT FROM WRITER’S ALMANAC, MAY 7, 2015

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