In last week’s prep post for the Albany Symphony’s presentation of Brahms’ First Symphony,we opened up a big ol’ can of worms. To review: while there had been several successful symphonists since Beethoven, none of them had measured up to the new measuring stick. Beethoven changed the game, and for the first time, music audiences were looking at music with a historical eye – not simply asking “do I enjoy this music,” but asking “how will this music be remembered twenty years from now?” From an early point in his career, Brahms was already being championed as the symphonist to finally live up to the standard that Beethoven set, and Brahms struggled to do so. He was notoriously finicky about his compositional process, destroying many works that didn’t live up to snuff, and reworking others for years before releasing them. Brahms’ first symphony is No.68 in his canon of published works. For Mozart and Beethoven, they are numbers 16, and 21 respectively. This is a man who knew that every scrap of music that he wrote would be scrutinized and picked over with a fine toothed comb, and wanted to ensure that control of his legacy would remain with him as much as possible.
You know what really gets me about Brahms’ First Symphony though? How un-Brahmsian it is. Brahms made his reputation early in his career as a pianist, and chamber music composer. Consider some of his earlier compositions – the string sextet in B-flat, the String Quartet Op.51 No.2, the Piano Quartet Op.34, and the Haydn Variations Op.56. While many of these compositions have their moments of passion, none of them have the raw rage and fire that is present in the first symphony. Well, I suppose there is one work that displays something similar – the First Piano Concerto Op.15. Coincidentally, when Brahms began work on the concerto, he intended for it to be his first Symphony (as was often the case, it went through several iterations – first as a symphony, then as a sonata for two pianos before finally finding its current form). Whereas many of these works have a searching, almost meandering, wondering feeling, the concerto and the symphony both have strong feelings of direction and purpose in them, almost as though they were running from something.
Emotional content aside, there is a fate-laden theme present throughout the work. Listen to the very opening of the work (an idea that appears all over the first movement), then juxtapose it with 13:50, 21:45 then with 27:15. This same harmonic idea pushes the work throughout. This is true melodically as well. The earlier works evolve very organically. The first theme in the first symphony (found at 2:45) is very militaristic, supported by marching 8th notes in the lower strings. Sharp angles and hard edges are the order of the day in the first movement of the symphony. The idea that pops up in the violas at the 5:20 mark, and proves to be a major motivating factor in the development – could those be Beethoven’s footsteps chasing down Brahms?
The nod towards Beethoven in the finale (27:10 in the above video) really doesn’t need too much explanation – the wandering opening very clearly resembles the finale of Beethoven’s 9th, where the basses and celli systematically reject the music from each of the preceding movements. The chorale at the thirty-two minute mark is virtually identical in form and contour to Beethoven’s famous setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy.
It appears that Brahms is only really comfortable being himself in the inner movements of this symphony, especially the third movement where Brahms writes a classic quasi-scherzo – it has the ABA form of a scherzo without the devious playfulness of the scherzos that Beethoven made commonplace, and is also more unified in expression – whereas within a scherzo and trio, the trio is almost a full separate composition fit into the scherzo, in Brahms’ 3rd movement, the middle “trio” emerges from the initial material as though it had been there the whole time, and just took a little time to find a voice.
Finally, there is the matter of the Second Symphony to discuss. Brahms spent at least 14 years writing his first symphony (not counting time spent on what turned out to be the first piano concerto), and it was finished in 1876. The second symphony was premiered in 1877. Take a quick scan through the youtube link at the top of the paragraph. Pretty different from its predecessor, right? In fact, it appears to be right in line with the canon of works mentioned in the beginning of this post. And composed so swiftly too! It’s almost as though once the first symphony was composed, Brahms said “whew, I’m glad that THAT’S over with. Now on to what I really want to do!” While the First Symphony deserves a place in the highest levels of the orchestral repertoire, and is a great composition, I wonder whether Brahms liked it as much as he like his other symphonies.