Friday, November 6, 2009

Who Really Composed the Brahms Requiem?

Yesterday The Hartford Symphony issued an email promotion for the upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem by the HSO and The Hartford Chorale. The message included the photo of Johannes Brahms shown at left. I suppose that this near-iconographic image of Brahms, taken in 1889 when the composer was 56, is useful as a sort of shorthand to communicate “Brahms-ness.” Certainly this is the image most of us bring to mind when we think of Brahms: the bearded elder statesman of German music of the mid-19th century. But many of his compositions with which we are most familiar were written much earlier in his life, before he grew the famous beard and before age and illness had whitened his blond hair and beard.

I was thinking about this on Monday night, as The Hartford Chorale finished its final piano rehearsal of Brahms’ first masterwork, the Requiem. (We’ll perform the work four times late next week; dates and ticket details are at the end of this post.)

Brahms was just 35 when he completed the Requiem in 1868, 33 years before the famous photo shown above was taken. At left is a portrait of Brahms from 1866 or 1867, around the time he was composing and revising the Requiem (which had its premiere in 1868).

To me (having just turned 50), 35 seems very young, but as we hear in the Requiem, Brahms had certainly achieved musical maturity, though he may still have appeared youthful.

Does this beardless face surprise you? Though Brahms had tried several times in earlier years to grow a beard, it was not until 1878, when he was 45, that he succeeded. He never shaved the beard off, grew it long and full, and remained bearded for the remaining 19 years of his life. So though we usually think of Brahms as bearded, he was actually beardless for most of his adult life.

Here’s a selection of photographs of Johannes Brahms from his youth to his old age. It’s a remarkable sequence. He was considered very good looking, especially in his younger years. Though many young ladies sighed after him throughout his life, he remained unmarried.

The lovely oval portrait at left shows Brahms around 1853, probably aged 20. He remained very boyish, with an unchanged voice and beardless cheeks, until well into his forties.

This pencil portrait of Brahms, also dating from 1853, is by the French artist Jean Joseph Bonaventure Laurens (1801-1890). It's my favorite of all Brahms images.

Here he is around 1860 (left), still boyish at age 27 but beginning to express the seriousness and strength that would characterize much of his music.

The intense and stubborn character for which he was famous is evident in this portrait from 1862, around age 29 (right):

The next photo at right is my other favorite portrait of Brahms, made in 1874 when he was forty-one. I love his thoughtful expression and the sense of quiet confidence that implies an intense inner vision. His eyes were bright blue.

In this portrait (left) from 1878 (about ten years after he completed the Requiem), we see that Brahms has finally succeeded in growing a blond-brown beard.

His incessant cigar smoking aged him prematurely, and he was to die of liver cancer in 1897, at age 64. The photo shown below at right was taken in 1896, when he was already ill. But his sense of humor is evident in those twinkling blue eyes.

The Hartford Chorale’s rehearsals for Brahms' Requiem – youthful and mature, powerful and tender – have been wonderful, and tickets are selling briskly.

Don’t miss what promises to be a magical performance! Call for your tickets today!

The Hartford Chorale
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem

Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Friday, November 13, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.
Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Hartford

To purchase tickets, contact:
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
PHONE 860.244.2999
or online at
Discounted tickets may be available via for some concerts.


  1. Hi Sarah - I love all the detail you have researched and wondered how I can get permission (do I need permission?) to use one of the photos you have put up on the blog. Our choir is singing the Brahms Requiem soon and I thought we should use a photo of Brahms on the poster.
    Thanks for your help.

  2. Hi Alice,

    I found all the photos from online sources.


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