The start of Johannes Brahms' career as a musician is inseparably connected with Clara and Robert Schumann. His early musical education was supported by his father, himself a musician, and began in Hamburg, the city of his birth. After showing quick progress, he was introduced to the well-known composer Eduard Marxen, who instructed him in piano and composition. Brahms had actually begun to compose very early - his first known composition is a fantasy on a waltz, and shows his talent both as pianist and composer.
Through a friend, Brahms came into contact with Joseph Joachim, the most famous violinist of the time, who in turn recommended that he introduce himself to Robert Schumann in Düsseldorf. This he did, finding in Schumann a great ad-visor and very important supporter. Brahms felt enormous respect for Robert and was fascinated by his wife Clara, herself a famous musician. Slowly but steadily his relationship with Clara began to intensify. The much older Clara and Johannes developed a very close personal relationship with each other, especially after Robert had moved to Endenich near Bonn to live his last years in a sanatorium.
At the time of his first encounter with the Schumanns, Brahms was only 20 years old. Robert was immediately struck by the great talent of his younger colleague and made Brahms known in his famous article 'Neue Bahnen' ('New Paths'), written for the 'Neue Zeitschrift für Musik' ('New Journal of Music'). He exuberantly praised the young Brahms 'He has a calling!' These types of compliments fortunately did not go to the young Brahms' head and during his whole life he never lost his very high scruples about the quality of his work. Schumann did all he could to interest the renowned publishing house Breit-kopf & Härtel in Brahms' compositions. However, the young composer was very reluctant to blindly follow the advice of his mentor and simply release every-thing he had composed. We know from a letter which he wrote to Schumann shortly later, that 'I do not intend to publish any of my earlier trios' - his first published piano trio is the one in B major Op. 8, written when he was only 19 years old. Brahms even went so far as to physically destroy works he had written, if he judged them not to be of significant value.
The Sonata in F sharp Major is his Op. 2 and had been composed in 1852, when Brahms was only 19 years of age. It is a powerful work, which in its scale exceeds much of what had been written for solo piano until that time. Similarly, the scope of many of his early compositions is enormous, his other piano sonatas Op. 1 and Op. 5, being of similar size. This is also the case with the above-mentioned Piano Trio Op. 8 and with his First Piano Concerto Op. 15. All these works were written before his 26th birthday! In other words: although Brahms very carefully made sure of the quality of his compositions, he was, even in his early years, not afraid to deal with very large forms. The F sharp minor sonata is dedicated to Clara Schumann. Brahms' respect for the famous musical couple is shown in a most respectful and polite letter to Robert, asking his permission: 'Would I be allowed to prepend my second work with the name of your spouse?'
The D Major Variations on an Original Theme are one of two variation sets under the same opus number composed in 1857. At the time, Brahms was again living in Hamburg, hoping to get the position as director of the Philharmonic Concerts. Unfortunately, his hopes did not materialize, and he thus only lived in Hamburg a few years more before eventually moving to Vienna. During his time in Hamburg he was, however, able to meet the Berlin music publisher Fritz Simrock, who then began to publish Brahms' works. Even though Brahms had become a renowned figure by then, he had quite some trouble finding a publisher. After his First Piano Concerto had been a failure at its premiere and because of the fact that his music was in general difficult to play, publishers had become reluctant to invest in Brahms‘ works. Simrock changed this. He believed in Brahms and the variations were one of his first releases of Brahms' music.
The Four Piano Pieces Op. 119, contai-ning three intermezzi and a concluding rhapsody, are one of Brahms' last compositions. Towards the end of his life, Brahms' health was weak - he produced only little and hardly any larger works. His Op. 119 was written in 1893 along with Op. 116, 117, 118 - all of them being series of piano pieces of capriccios, intermezzi, rhapsodies. During this year Brahms was still relatively productive, while in 1894 he only wrote the two Clarinet Sonatas Op. 120. In 1896, followed by the Four Serious Songs Op. 121, and the Eleven Organ Preludes Op. 122 - written less than one year before his death. Almost all these compositions show Brahms as someone who was aware that his life would soon come to an end. Almost all of the music of this last creative period displays great intimacy and depth; he turns away from superficial virtuosity or technical difficulty. These late works require great care and sensitivity from the musicians.