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13 Best Brahms Works: Essential Johannes Brahms Pieces

Johannes Brahms is one of the great composers from the Romantic period, and although he was German, he spent a large portion of his life in Vienna. Thought of as one of the three B’s alongside Bach and Beethoven, he had a lot of great compositions throughout his life. Keep reading as we go over the 13 best Brahms works: essential Johannes Brahms pieces you should listen to! 

1. Symphony No. 3 In F major, Op. 90

Johannes Brahms - Sinfonie Nr. 3 F-Dur op. 90 | Semyon Bychkov | WDR Sinfonieorchester

First on our list is Symphony No. 3 In F Major, Op. 90, which is without a doubt the most popular and famous out of all of his symphonies. The third movement has been in television shows and movies and was even in the 2012 London Olympics.

The whole version is about 40 minutes long give or take, and while it might be one of the shortest out of all of his compositions, there’s so much to it that you won’t even realize this fact. This symphony wasn’t finished until about six years after the second symphony, but it was worth the wait. It remains one of his most famous and most beloved compositions of all time. 

2. Symphony No. 1 In C minor, Op. 68

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 | Charles Dutoit & the Verbier Festival Orchestra (full concert)

Next up on the list is Symphony No. 1 In C Minor, Op. 68, which was finished in 1876 when Brahms was 43 years old. It took him years to complete this and publicly release it because he was so intimidated by hearing that he was going to be better than Beethoven. The fourth movement in this symphony is nothing short of a masterpiece with its grandness and mystery, and there is a darkness to it that really just adds to it.

You can hear the melody start shortly after this mysterious and darker intro, and when you get there, it just seems like a disinfectant that brings the sun out of the clouds. If you haven’t heard any of his compositions, this is one of the best ones that you can start out with to see what he’s all about and what made him such a gifted and talented composer. 

3. Die Mainacht (The May Night)

Brahms: 4 Lieder, Op. 43 - 2. Die Mainacht

The May Night, also called Die Mainacht, is a composition that will stir up various emotions as it’s a touching piece that’s all about how the moon rises in May. There is a lot of mystery and power in the moon, and it can be reflective, such as reminding you of what you have or what you’ve lost, and it can be an emotional journey for some. There is a melody at the beginning that is pretty simple, but it’ll move into more dramatic tones as the song goes on, which gives you a darker and more somber feeling. 

4. Symphony No. 4 In E Minor, Op. 98

Brahms - Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98 (Century's recording: Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker)

Up next is Symphony No. 4 In E Minor, Op. 98, which was the last symphony that Brahms would create. He also started a wonderful working relationship with Hans von Bülow during the earlier years in the 1880s when Von Bülow had invited him to be a part of the Meiningen Court Orchestra for a collaboration. That collaboration and friendship seemed in part to be a catalyst for this symphony. 

Hans also was so enamored with Brahms that he came up with the “Three B’s” line, which has become part of his legacy, and this put him right there with Bach and Beethoven. He even wrote that in a letter that he had sent his wife. When you listen to Symphony No. 4 In E Minor, Op. 98, you will be reminded of Beethoven because it sounds very similar to something he’d create. 

5. Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115

Brahms Clarinet Quintet

Clarinet Quintet In B Minor, Op. 115 is one of the best works that you’ll hear of Brahms, and there are so many feelings that you’ll have when you listen to this. The beginning of it is similar to his childhood, and throughout the entire piece, you’ll go through the stages of his life and his life journey. The clarinet is such a powerful musical instrument, and it can convey so many feelings and emotions. By the last phrase, you’ll feel like you’ve heard the ending of someone’s life, and it’s very touching. 

It might remind you of when you watch a movie and hear a song playing as a little child grows up and becomes old because that is the same feeling and vibe you’ll get from it. What we loved about this piece is that it’s going to make you fond of the clarinet once you hear how moving and captivating it is played using this remarkable composition.

6. Violin Concerto In D Major, Op. 77

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77 - Bomsori Kim 김봄소리

Violin Concerto In D Major, Op. 77 is next on this list, which is the one and only concerto piece written for the violin throughout Brahms’ career. He dedicated this to Joseph Joachim, his friend and collaborator for several years. During the writing of this composition, he would go to Joachim for advice and much-needed support since he was such a professional with the violin. 

This piece is both very difficult to pull off and very powerful, and the public seemed to love it since they all applauded it when he performed it. However, some of the better violin players didn’t like his work and thought it was merely an unplayable piece and said that the oboe shouldn’t have had the single melody that was found in it. While some people might not have enjoyed this piece, it has become one of his most regarded works, and when you listen to the movements and phrases, you’ll understand why. 

7. Piano Quintet In F Minor, Op. 34

BRAHMS — Quintet in F minor, Op. 34

Piano Quintet In F Minor, Op. 34 makes the list, and this is without a question one of his masterpieces because it’s beautiful and perfect for both the string and piano. Regardless of what genre this is, it’ll remain one of his best works because it’s just perfection. 

He dedicated this to Princess Anna, and it’s more of a Romantic-era piece compared to some of his more Classical-era work. If you listen to the first movement and the fourth movement, you can hear the harmonies, which set it apart from the Classical style. While there is a little clam found in this, it’s mostly a darker piece and will give you a more stormy and dark feeling as you listen to it. 

8. Hungarian Dances

21 Hungarian Dances, WoO 1: Hungarian Dance No. 1 (orch. J. Brahms)

We want to discuss Hungarian Dances, which also makes the list of Brahms’ best work. This is a series of 21 compositions that were developed and completed between the years 1852 to 1869. There are a lot of Hungarian dance styles in this composition, which is very much done in gypsy-like style dance movements. 

He had been introduced to Ede Reményi, who was a Hungarian violinist, around 1850, which was the inspiration for Hungarian Dances. There are melodies performed in string, while the bassline is very oom-pah, and you’ll find that these were some of his most popular and profitable. There are two specific dances that stand out among the others, which are both one and five.

9. German Requiem 

Brahms - Ein Deutsches Requiem / German Requiem + Presentat° (Century's recording : Otto Klemperer)

German Requiem is another one of Brahms’ works that we need to talk about, and it’s done on a much bigger scale so there is an orchestra as well as a chorus, and you’ll find solos in both baritone and soprano. What’s amazing about German Requiem is that it’s about 70 minutes long, so you’re going to find yourself immersed in thinking about both life and the possibility of the afterlife in this piece.

This piece is largely inspired by his mother dying, so there’s a lot of darkness, sorrow, and mourning in this beautiful piece. It’s so haunting and amazing at the same time that it’ll give you chills.

Around nine years before this, he also lost Robert Schumann, who was both a mentor and friend, and it’s believed his death also was a big part of the German Requiem coming together in such a memorializing and tributary manner. This is such a beautiful and amazing piece that we feel it’s one of the most honest and emotionally open pieces of classical music that you can play to honor someone. 

10. Piano Quartet No. 2 In A Major, Op. 26

Brahms - Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26. Borodin Quartet, Pavel Nersessian

We wanted to talk about Piano Quartet No. 2 In A Major, Op. 26 because this is one of his best compositions with very deliberate and steady movements. You can feel the youthful energy in it, and there is a sense of tenderness within his movements as well.

There is a cello and violin that go so well together in it during a specific phrase, and it’s overwhelming the amount of emotion it’ll make you feel. Whether you listen to the previous piano quartet or the next one, you’re going to feel calm and blissful when you listen to this. 

11. Academic Festival Overture 

Symphonic Gems: Brahms - Academic Festival Overture - Blomstedt | Concertgebouworkest

Next is the Academic Festival Overture, which is one of the top Brahms pieces that he composed, which he did in 1880. He wrote this after finding out that he was going to have an honorary doctorate given to him by the University of Breslau as sort of a thank-you to the school. He was a known joker, so the title is kind of a joke and part of his weird humor. 

There is a little of an academic element to this composition but also there are melodies that are found in it that are similar to the types of drinking songs that the students would sing during this time. It is almost 10 minutes long, and it has a huge orchestra with it, which makes it easily one of Brahms’ best compositions. 

12. Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52 

Brahms: Liebeslieder Waltzes for Piano 4-hands

We can’t talk about some of Brahms’ best work without talking about Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52. This is one of his best works because it’s just wild, and he isn’t constrained by his typical academic structure. There are so many beautiful parts to this that’ll make you smile from ear to ear while also making you feel free and like you can do anything, which is what he did throughout this piece. It’s enchanting while being special and a spectacle, and hearing him without that control he normally had is magical. 

13. Cello Sonata No. 2 In F Major, Op. 99

Brahms - Cello Sonata No.2 in F Major, Op.99 (C.rc.: Pierre Fournier, Wilhelm Backhaus / Remastered)

Lastly on our list is Cello Sonata No. 2 In F Major, Op. 99, which is one of the best Brahms pieces out of them all because it’s so slow and has so much structure to it. The cello is perfect and in range the entire time while the piano is colorful and full of imagination.

What we loved the most about this piece is that it’s very emotional and touching, and at the same time, modern and full of amazing dynamics. When you listen to this, it’s going to take you to another place, and its slow rhythm is going to either make you fall asleep or put you into the biggest and longest daydream you’ve ever had.

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