Johannes Brahms is one of the giant figures of late 19th-century music, and his symphonies are of sufficient import that they tend to fall into the “No classical music collection is complete without them” category. I personally consider them as such: they are amazing, tremendous works that look back to Mozart and Beethoven (and earlier) with their skillful handling of form; they combine moments of muscular defiance with heartfelt lyricism; they have moments that want to linger and other moments that propel the listener with such force that it feels as if Nature herself is taking a hand.
Brahms was, at heart, a classicist, and his music stands in high contrast with the other dominant school of thought in Western (and German) music at the time, the fiery Romanticism of Richard Wagner. Brahms and Wagner were rivals, and even though it was Wagner who “won out” by having the greatest influence on the history of music as it unfolded after both men were gone, Brahms has never been forgotten, and indeed, as the pendulum inevitably began to swing back the other way after Wagnerism began to give way, Brahms’s music found even greater acceptance.
Brahms himself was a troubled figure. He never married, and it’s almost certain this is because his lifelong love was actually Clara Schumann, wife of his good friend, composer Robert Schumann. Some of his music is deeply spiritual (particularly his German Requiem), but his known religious beliefs bordered on pure agnosticism. Brahms was musically conservative, and yet there are moments of his that sing with the voice of any of the Romantics, and in his works live the spirit of the Viennese woods that he loved deeply. He had a reputation for being a gruff and introverted man, and yet the friends he made were fiercely loyal and lifelong.
Brahms’s First Symphony, in C-minor, was one of the works he found most vexing in its composition. It took him over twenty years to compose it, from the first sketches to its premiere performance. Why did it take so long? Well, Brahms was a perfectionist (to the point that he personally destroyed some of his own works), and there was social pressure on him as well, applied by his musical contemporaries, for Brahms to basically pick up where Beethoven had left off. Even for a musical genius who would achieve his own place in the pantheon, this was probably too much to ask of the man, and the result was the tortured creation of a First Symphony that saw some material rejected and reused in a piano concerto, other material unused outright, and a twenty-year journey of composition. Did it pay off? Indeed it did, and not just because an over-excited colleague introduced the work, upon its long-awaited first performances, as “Beethoven’s Tenth”.
The symphony begins with a fascinating introduction as the high strings and winds pursue a melodic line that climbs upward, while the lower strings and winds undertake a line that marches downward (both doing this as the timpani pounds a relentless drumbeat in the background). The result is a work that starts with two lines pulling against one another, and a mood of tension from the opening bars. Leonard Bernstein used the opening bars of this symphony in a televised lecture on conducting and the issues that face the modern conductor, many years ago; these bars pose a number of such problems for the conductor to solve. The two lines have to be balanced so as the create the right sense of tension, the tempo must be right, and so on.
The first three movements of this Symphony are amazing, but for me, the real magic comes in the fourth and final movement. Again, an introduction that creates tension and mystery — but this time, suddenly, it’s as if (and I hate using metaphors like this in discussing music, but sometimes it can’t be helped) the clouds part. The horns sound a call that, according to Brahms, is an echo of an Alpine horn call he once heard while walking in the woods, and it certainly sounds like that. Then, after the horn call is finished, the high woodwinds repeat it (listen for the single trumpet in the background here, sounding just four descending notes, in a spot that Chicago Symphony trumpeter, and personal hero of mine, Adolph Herseth once claimed as his favorite spot in all of music). Then the low brass sounds a chorale theme that sounds almost liturgical in nature…and the movement’s main section begins, with a major-key melody whose resemblance to the famous “Ode to Joy” theme in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has inspired much comment over the years.
This last movement is one of the grandest movements of symphonic music that I know. It is a model of power and majesty, perfectly cast with not a single note out of place, and when the payoff finally arrives at the end — with the orchestra’s entire brass section sounding out the Chorale theme in a magnificent fortissimo — the effect is as overwhelming as any I know in music.
Here is the Symphony No. 1 in C-minor, by Johannes Brahms.
Next week: The sunniest of Brahms’s symphonies, the Symphony No. 2.