Walter Niemann was born in Hamburg on 10 October 1876 into a notable musical family. His father was the composer and pianist Rudolph Niemann while his uncle, Gustav Adolph Niemann, was a renowned violinist and an important musical influence in Finland. Niemann studied under Engelbert Humperdinck and was also a pupil of Carl Reinecke at the Leipzig Conservatory, earning a doctorate (on early ligatures and mensural music) in 1901. Niemann first worked as a teacher in Hamburg and served as editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in Leipzig through 1904–06. Between 1907 and 1917 he was critic for the Neueste Nachrichten in Leipzig, though he was later to give up both of these positions in order to devote himself to composition. He also taught on the faculty of the Hamburg Conservatory. In 1927, Hermann Abert described him as “the most important composer for the piano today, who understands how to make music which is fine and colourful, even though he often strays into the salon”.
As well as a gifted pianist and composer Walter Niemann was a respected intellectual and author of numerous scholarly and literary works—the most renowned of which was Brahms, published in 1920 then translated into many languages. Meister des Klaviers: Die Pianisten der Gegenwart und der letzen Vergangenheit (Master of the Piano: Past and Present) was published in 1919 and was long considered a classic. He also wrote popular biographies of composers; that of Brahms emphasized the composer’s North German roots at the expense of his later Viennese years. As a reviewer he was often outspoken in his criticism of ‘pathological’ and ‘sensuous’ composers such as Richard Strauss, Mahler and Schoenberg, and was threatened in 1910 with a libel suit by Reger. Conversely, he praised nationalists and folk-influenced composers such as Pfitzner, Sibelius and MacDowell, and was influential in the popularizing of Scandinavian composers in Germany. Following the Second World War, Niemann’s idiom fell out of favour: he died largely neglected in Leipzig on 17 June 1953.