Johannes Brahms (1833)
It was on this date, May 7, 1833, that German composer Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg into a Lutheran family, the son of a musician. Studying piano from age 7, Brahms made his first concert tour at age 19. He was given early support and encouragement by Clara and Robert Schumann. During his 45-year career, Brahms wrote a number of major works for orchestra, including two serenades, four symphonies, two piano concertos, a Violin Concerto, a Double Concerto for violin and cello, and two companion orchestral overtures, the Academic Festival Overture (1880) and the Tragic Overture (1880). Brahms succumbed to cancer at age 63 on 3 April 1897.
Equally adept at composing sacred and secular music, Brahms was an apostate from Christianity. For example, his Requiem (1868), whose full title is A German Requiem, To Words of the Holy Scriptures, comforts the bereaved with biblical texts while omitting the concepts of salvation and immortality. Indeed, Brahms told Carl Martin Reinthaler, director of music at the Bremen Cathedral, that he would have gladly have called the work Ein menschliches Requiem (A human Requiem) and refused to add references to “the redeeming death of the Lord,” such as John 3:16, as Reinthaler had suggested. His letters to his friend Heinrich von Hertzogenberg, who was likewise a Rationalist, show that he was an agnostic. His devout Roman Catholic pupil, Antonín Dvořák, wrote incredulously of Brahms, “Such a man, such a fine soul—and he believes in nothing! He believes in nothing!”
The lyrics of the first of his Four Serious Songs, written the year before he died, express his disbelief in personal immortality (quoting Ecclesiastes 3:19-22, one of the most skeptical parts of the Bible)—as he admitted in a letter to Herzogenberg:
For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts, as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
All go unto one place; all are of the dust and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?*
Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.