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A Romantic in the key of genius

Today is the birthday of Johannes Brahms. He was born in Hamburg in 1833 and passed away in 1897, a lifetime that took in the high point of the Romantic era.

Indeed, you could consider Brahms a key man. Much in the way that Mozart gave the greatest rein to the classical form for which Haydn laid the foundations, Brahms built on the potential unearthed by Beethoven, who moved music on into a new age.

Music was Brahms' destiny. His father was a journeyman player who made a meagre living performing in the dodgy dance halls of the North German port. He spotted his son's potential, and got him started on the piano.

The man who would give us the delightful Cradle Song (Brahms' Lullaby) began his playing career in a similar way to his dad's, but his sights were set higher. He read a lot, and he was already composing.

A key early influence was a Hungarian violinist he met while in his teens, Ede Reményi, who earned a place at the Vienna Conservatory, but was kicked out of Austria for his part in an uprising.

He was effectively a travelling minstrel when he teamed up with Brahms, and the Gypsy music that he introduced him to would become a key part of the composer's make-up.

It was another Hungarian virtuoso -- Joseph Joachim, the top violinist of the mid-to-late 19th Century -- who got Brahms the break that made him.

Joachim put in a good word for the young German with one of the main men around at the time, Robert Schumann.

Schumann's ringing endorsement of the new composer saw Brahms shot into the big league.

He became very friendly with Schumann, and his wife Clara, renowned in her own right as a concert pianist and composer. And when Schumann died young, Brahms and Clara became close, though exactly how close we'll never know, for Brahms burnt all their correspondence.

His musical legacy is immense. He covered all bases, from four magnificent symphonies, through concertos for piano and violin, and the broad sweep of his German Requiem, to more intimate chamber music.

In fact, the only thing he didn't write was an opera.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning ghamilton@independent.ie

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