Written by Michael Clive
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
By the time he completed his first symphony, Johannes Brahms had successfully negotiated the “promising” phase of his career and was recognized as a master – an heir of the Viennese tradition who earned his place in the distinguished lineage of Romantic composers that started with Beethoven. No critic held Brahms’s music to a higher standard than the composer himself. Yet the idea of the symphonic form bedeviled him throughout his career. Why?
To get a perspective on the expectations of Brahms’s public and his unease, it’s interesting to compare the premiere of his first symphony to the publication of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman in July of this year and the continuing media ballyhoo that surrounds it. This work, like Brahms’s first, entered the world under a very long shadow. For Harper Lee, it was her own To Kill a Mockingbird. For Brahms, it was Beethoven’s Ninth. Both artists were haunted, or perhaps hounded, by public expectation and media speculation. Both were intensely private about their respective crafts.
The premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth was in 1824. In the 52 years that elapsed between that concert and the one that introduced Brahms’s First, the Ninth came to be recognized as one of the most significant of all classical compositions. Other composers followed with more symphonies, but none that satisfied the Austrian-German popular sense that classical music was an art of ever-widening horizons. Enthusiasts still waited for the composer who could continue the symphonic tradition in a way that would be worthy of Beethoven, expanding upon his achievements. How do you follow up another artist’s masterpiece?
Brahms rejected talk of “Beethoven’s Tenth,” but could not avoid the listening public’s hopeful expectations of gravitas for his First. He worked on the symphony for more than two decades, though one could say that the last 14 years were the hardest, as the most intensive periods of composition date from about 1862. The earliest sketches of the symphony, which were in D minor, later became the basis for his D minor piano concerto.
The premiere of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 occurred in the duchy of Baden in southwestern Germany rather than a musical capitol such as Vienna or Berlin – perhaps a strategy to lower the stakes – and was an unqualified success, with responses ranging from dignified approval to outright elation. Brahms went on to write three more symphonies, but the nervousness he felt regarding the form never left him.
What to Listen For
This symphony opens with a complex, nearly chaotic introduction that seems to part like storm clouds revealing a distant landscape. From there on we have a sense that Brahms is in total mastery of complex forces – that the scale and seriousness of this symphony are heard not in its length, but in the superb control and flow of its layered rhythms and inner voices.
Throughout the symphony we hear a voice that is uniquely Brahms, with its sense of perfect flow no matter how many different elements are in play. Yet despite this distinctiveness, the talk of “Beethoven’s Tenth” continued, with some listeners noting similarities to various Beethoven works, including the finale of the Ninth. While some intentional quotations are embedded in Brahms’s music, including the rhythm of the “fate” theme from Beethoven’s Fifth, this symphony leaves us with a grandly scaled melody that is triumphant yet serene, and entirely Brahmsian.