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Brahms, Johannes

Category: Musician or composer


Johannes Brahms ( 7 May 1833 – 3 April 1897) was a German composer and pianist. Born in Hamburg, Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria.

Brahms wrote a number of major works for orchestra, including two serenades, four symphonies, two piano concertos (No. 1 in D minor; No. 2 in B-flat major), a Violin Concerto, a Double Concerto for violin and cello, and two companion orchestral overtures, the Academic Festival Overture and the Tragic Overture.  His large choral work A German Requiem is not a setting of the liturgical Missa pro defunctis but a setting of texts which Brahms selected from the Lutheran Bible.

Brahms's works in variation form include, among others, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel and the Paganini Variations, both for solo piano, and the Variations on a Theme by Haydn (now sometimes called the Saint Anthony Variations) in versions for two pianos and for orchestra. The final movement of the Fourth Symphony, Op. 98, is formally a passacaglia.

see below for credits on all these photos

His chamber works include three string quartets, two string quintets, two string sextets, a clarinet quintet, a clarinet trio, a horn trio, a piano quintet, three piano quartets, and four piano trios (the fourth being published posthumously).

He composed several instrumental sonatas with piano, including three for violin, two for cello, and two for clarinet (which were subsequently arranged for viola by the composer). His solo piano works range from his early piano sonatas and ballades to his late sets of character pieces. His chorale preludes for organ, Op. 122, which he wrote shortly before his death, have become an important part of the organ repertoire.

Brahms thus composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works. The young Brahms gave a few public concerts in Hamburg, but did not become well known as a pianist until he made a concert tour at the age of nineteen. In later life, he frequently took part in the performance of his own works, whether as soloist, accompanist, or participant in chamber music. He also conducted choirs from his early teens, and became a proficient choral and orchestral conductor.


Brahms is a fascinating example of a ‘balanced’ composer marrying emotion and intellect in his works.  His work intellectually was “a masterpiece of counterpoint, the complex and highly disciplined art for which Johann Sebastian Bach is famous, and of development, a compositional ethos pioneered by Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and other composers”. But his music has a beautiful lyrical melodic and romantic aspect.  It is also highly emotional.  The last minutes of Hyperion’s Song of Fate , for example, have been described as “absolutely heart rendering”.  And if you are not moved by his Violin Concerto or Requiem, you have no heart.

Brahms also had a deep sense of tradition and history - in the positive sense - of the need for ritual, magic and ceremony.  He wrote settings for piano and voice of 144 German folk songs, and many of his songs reflect folk themes or depict scenes of rural life. His Hungarian Dances were among his most popular [and profitable] compositions.

Needless to say, this rich sensuous style of music garnered its critics.  His first Piano Concerto was ‘badly received’ in some of its early performances and his works were labelled ‘old-fashioned’ by the - shall we say -  ‘more robust’ German composers.  The conflict between the two schools, known as the War of the Romantics, soon embroiled all of musical Europe. The war was a little bit more than a musical war.  Brahms was a humanist, a lover of all men, kindly and uninterested in race or nationalistic propaganda.  The ‘opposing camp’ were not and used their music to rouse nationalist sentiment and worse.  In 1860, Brahms attempted to organize a public protest against some of the wilder excesses of the Wagnerians' music. This took the form of a manifesto, written by Brahms and Joseph Joachim jointly. The manifesto failed and he never engaged in public polemics again.



Those who have a liking for pigeonholing people’s religious views are confused by Brahms.  It needs to be remembered that religion in its institutionalised and dogmatic form still had a stranglehold on society, even though Lutheranism had for a while freed the German nation of the Catholic yoke, it brought in its turn yet other yokes to bear.  It may be worth reading the entry on this site for Giordano Bruno to get some idea of the problems a truly spiritual man or woman faced until relatively recently.

Brahms read the Bible as translated into German by Martin Luther.  He also used passages from the Bible.  But he chose his texts carefully – very carefully.  His Requiem, for example, employs biblical texts but primarily to speak words of comfort to the bereaved.

Another fascinating aspect of his beliefs is his understanding of ‘judgement’.  He appears to have had an understanding of both personal judgement, but also an almost prophetic understanding of the idea of the ‘new aeon’.  He uses Hebrews 13:14 - "here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come" -  and 1 Corinthians 15:51–52  - "the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed".  Brahms is reported to have said,

As far as the text is concerned, I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and instead use Human; also with my best knowledge and will I would dispense with passages like John 3:16. On the other hand, I have chosen one thing or another because I am a musician, because I needed it, and because with my venerable authors I can't delete or dispute anything. But I had better stop before I say too much.

Interesting n’est-ce pas? 

John 3:16 Authorized (King James) Version (AKJV)
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

One of the key activities that one must pursue as one progresses along the spiritual path is to question and doubt everythingNietzsche, for example, developed this into almost an art form, and it is clear that Brahms in his later years was also extremely good at doing the same

The devout Catholic Antonín Dvořák, the closest Brahms ever came to having a protégé, wrote in a letter: "Such a man, such a fine soul—and he believes in nothing! He believes in nothing!"

So he was deeply spiritual and on the spiritual path – what inspired him?




As a person Brahms has been described as kindly and humanitarian.  He was fond of nature and often went walking in the woods around Vienna, bringing penny candy with him to hand out to children.  Brahms frequently travelled, both for business (concert tours) and pleasure. From 1878 onwards, he often visited Italy in the springtime, and he usually sought out a pleasant rural location in which to compose during the summer. He was a great walker and especially enjoyed spending time in the open air, where he felt that he could think more clearly.

 He appears to have not had much time for pompous snobbish adults, Brahms was often brusque and sarcastic to social climbers and the pedantically intellectual, [a trait often found in those who are spiritually inclined]. He was uninterested in fame and ‘honours’.  He declined an honorary doctorate of music, for example, from the University of Cambridge in 1877.

Brahms was an extreme perfectionist.  Many people who ‘hear’ the music they wish to recreate for others are, but one factor that contributed to Brahms's perfectionism was that Schumann had announced early on that Brahms was "destined to give ideal expression to the times", a prediction that Brahms was determined to live up to. This prediction hardly added to the composer's self-confidence, but it did produce some stunning work as a consequence; he rather ruthlessly destroyed much of his own work when it didn't meet his own standards.  This inspiration by ‘heard celestial music’ is one reason why Brahms' music is either a recreation of 'angel voices' or one that is pure celestial songline and as such contains no explicit scene or narrative.  He never wrote an opera or a symphonic poem.


Brahms was also totally uninterested in money.  He amassed a small fortune in the second half of his career when his works sold widely, but despite his wealth, he lived very simply, with a modest apartment – a mess of music papers and books – and a single housekeeper who cleaned and cooked for him. He was often the butt of jokes for his long beard, his cheap clothes and his not wearing socks and shoes – which is a sure sign of a mystic!  Brahms gave away large sums of money to friends and to aid various musical students, often with the term of strict secrecy.

Brahms praised and supported his friends and had many life-long friendships.  He was exceptionally loyal and generous to his real friends, and those who he counted as friends were in turn very loyal to him. He was a lifelong friend of Johann Strauss II, for example, even though they were very different as composers. Brahms even struggled to get to the Theater an der Wien in Vienna for the premiere of Strauss's operetta Die Göttin der Vernunft in March 1897 before his death.

In 1875, the composer Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) was still virtually unknown outside the Prague region. Brahms was on the jury which awarded the Vienna State Prize for composition to Dvořák three times, first in February 1875, and later in 1876 and 1877.  Brahms also recommended Dvořák to his publisher, Simrock, who commissioned the highly successful Slavonic Dances. Within a few years, Dvořák gained world renown.

Towards the end of his life, Brahms offered substantial encouragement to Ernő Dohnányi and to Alexander von Zemlinsky. Brahms thus worked with and was close friends with some of the leading performers of his time, including the violinist Joseph Joachim, which leads us on to other sorts of love, his love of women.

Clara Schumann

Joseph Joachim had given Brahms a letter of introduction to Robert Schumann, and Schumann, amazed by the 20-year-old's talent, published an article entitled "Neue Bahnen" (New Paths) in the 28 October 1853 issue of the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik alerting the public to the young man, who, he claimed, was "destined to give ideal expression to the times."  Brahms although grateful for the friendship shown him was not happy with the article, fearing it would "arouse such extraordinary expectations by the public that I don't know how I can begin to fulfil them ..."

Schumann and Brahms collaborated on a number of pieces intended to be played by Joachim.  Schumann's wife, the composer and pianist Clara, writing in her diary wrote that he was

…  one of those who comes as if straight from God. – He played us sonatas, scherzos etc. of his own, all of them showing exuberant imagination, depth of feeling, and mastery of form ... what he played to us is so masterly that one cannot but think that the good God sent him into the world ready-made. He has a great future before him, for he will first find the true field for his genius when he begins to write for the orchestra.

After Robert Schumann's attempted suicide and subsequent confinement in a mental sanatorium near Bonn in February 1854, Clara was "in despair," expecting the Schumanns' eighth child. Brahms hurried to Düsseldorf. He and his friends visited Clara often in March 1854, to divert her mind from Robert's tragedy by playing music for or with her. Clara wrote in her diary:

that good Brahms always shows himself a most sympathetic friend. He does not say much, but one can see in his face … how he grieves with me for the loved one whom he so highly reveres. Besides, he is so kind in seizing every opportunity of cheering me by means of anything musical. From so young a man I cannot but be doubly conscious of the sacrifice, for a sacrifice it undoubtedly is for anyone to be with me now.


Later, to help Clara and her many children, Brahms lodged above the Schumann apartment in a three-storey house, setting his musical career aside temporarily. Clara was not allowed to visit Robert until two days before his death. Brahms was able to visit him several times and so could act as a go-between.

Brahms and Clara had a very close and lifelong relationship. They had great affection but also respect for one another. Brahms urged in 1887 that all his and Clara's letters to each other should be destroyed.  But Clara kept quite a number of letters Brahms had sent her. Eventually correspondence between Clara and Brahms in German was published. Some of Brahms's earliest letters to Clara show him deeply in love with her.

Brahms felt a strong conflict between love of Clara and respect for her and Robert, leading him to allude at one point to suicidal thoughts. Not long after Robert died, Brahms decided he had to break away from the Schumann household.

the path to the Sun is a very hard one .....

And so unrequited love turned into a strange sort of friendship.  Brahms and Clara kept up correspondence and Brahms joined Clara and some of her children for some summer sojourns. In 1862, Clara bought a house in Lichtental, and Brahms from 1865 to 1874 spent some summers living in an apartment nearby.

Clara was 14 years older than Brahms. In a letter to her 24 May 1856, two and a half years after meeting her, and after two years either together or corresponding, Brahms wrote that he continued to call her the German polite form "Sie" of "you" and hesitated to use the familiar form "Du."  And from her reply it is clear that whereas Johannes loved her for herself, Clara writing in her diary said  "I love him like a son". Brahms wrote on 31 May:

I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you, and do as many good things for you, as you would like. You are so infinitely dear to me that I can hardly express it. I should like to call you darling and lots of other names, without ever getting enough of adoring you.

In a letter to Joachim in 1859, three years after Robert's death, Brahms wrote about Clara:

I believe that I do not respect and admire her so much as I love her and am under her spell. Often I must forcibly restrain myself from just quietly putting my arms around her and even—I don't know, it seems so natural that she would not take it ill.

Brahms never married.  He entered into an engagement, but soon broke it off, with Agathe von Siebold in Göttingen in 1859. Brahms wrote to Agathe: 'I love you, I must see you again, but I am incapable of bearing fetters.'
They never saw one another again.


Brahms was also left handed

Brahms was the middle of three children born to a town musician Johann Jakob Brahms (1806–72), and Johanna a seamstress seventeen years older than Jakob.  They were extremely poor, initially living near the city docks in Hamburg and later moving to Dammtorwall, a small street near the Inner Alster.  Brahms received nearly all of his early musical training from his father.  His only lessons were for the piano from the age of seven, but this may well have been so that Brahm’s could help out the family’s finances - the adolescent Brahms contributed to the family's income by playing the piano in dance halls, which must have been a wonderful introduction to melody and rhythm.  Brahms also learned the cello.


He began to compose quite early in life, but later destroyed most copies of his first works; for instance, Louise Japha, a fellow-pupil of his piano teacher, reported a piano sonata that Brahms had played or improvised at the age of 11, which he destroyed. His compositions did not receive public acclaim until he went on a concert tour as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi in April and May 1853. On this tour he met Joseph Joachim at Hanover, and went on to the Court of Weimar.   

After Robert Schumann's death at the sanatorium in 1856, Brahms divided his time between Hamburg, where he formed and conducted a ladies' choir, and Detmold in the Principality of Lippe, where he was court music-teacher and conductor. He was the soloist at the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 1, his first orchestral composition to be performed publicly, in 1859. He first visited Vienna in 1862, staying there over the winter, and, in 1863, was appointed conductor of the Vienna Singakademie. Though he resigned the position the following year, and entertained the idea of taking up conducting posts elsewhere, he based himself increasingly in Vienna and soon made his home there. From 1872 to 1875, he was director of the concerts of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde; afterwards, he accepted no formal position.


Brahms considered giving up composition when it seemed that other composers' innovations in extended tonality would result in the rule of tonality being broken altogether. Although Wagner became fiercely critical of Brahms as the latter grew in stature and popularity, Brahms himself, did not return the criticism and deeply admired Wagner's music, although he despaired at the nationalistic political and aggressive tone of Wagner's theories.

In 1890, wearied by all the changes and conflicts, the 57-year-old Brahms resolved to give up composing. But the call of creativity was too strong and in the years before his death he produced a number of acknowledged masterpieces. His admiration for Richard Mühlfeld, clarinetist with the Meiningen orchestra, moved him to compose the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 (1891), and the two Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120 (1894). He also wrote several cycles of piano pieces, Opp. 116–119, the Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), Op. 121 (1896), and the Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ, Op. 122 (1896).

While completing the Op. 121 songs, Brahms developed cancer.

His last appearance in public was on 3 March 1897, when he saw Hans Richter conduct his Symphony No. 4. There was an ovation after each of the four movements. His condition gradually worsened and he died a month later, on 3 April 1897, aged 63.

Brahms is buried in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, under a monument by Victor Horta and the sculptor Ilse von Twardowski-Conrat.




An additional observation can be found via Holderlin, Johann and Brahms - Hyperion's song of destiny, which has information on both the background to Holderlin's poem and a link to a youtube performance of the choral work itself.

A complete list of Brahms' works can be found by following this LINK

The photos on this page are by the professional Ukrainian photographer Anton Jankovoy.  They seemed to suit the ethereal and heavenly nature of Brahms' music and the man himself, who was undoubtedly with the gods all the time.

Anton's beautiful photos of space were included in the “Open Space” exhibition (2013) which also included photos from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Anton Jankovoy has said:

«My only aspiration in a photograph is to wake up in everybody the realization of the meaning and beauty of life. The only way to see the world is the way children see it and it is the only one way to feel this world the way it is and appreciate the joy of the creation».

More examples of his work can be found on his website - follow the LINK.


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