Friday, November 16, 2018

Brahms - Symphony No. 1 In C Minor Opus 68

The first symphony of Brahms, by his own admission, took 21 years to complete from initial sketches in 1855 to finishing touches in 1876 when he was 43 years old. He had been composing since 1853 (at least his Piano Sonata In C Major opus No. 1 dated from then) and had composed many songs, chamber music, and some pieces for orchestra. But no symphony. He had begun a symphony earlier in his career, but this work eventually became the Piano Concerto No. 1, opus 15 in 1858.

He was an accomplished and well-known composer and performer for over 20 years, so why did the first symphony take so long? To begin with, Brahms was a very self-critical composer. His official opus numbers run to 122, with many other compositions not having any opus numbers. But he also destroyed many works that he deemed inferior, such as the 20 string quartets Brahms admitted to destroying.  Also during Brahms lifetime the symphony as a form of expression in the Romantic era was something of an anachronism, not least of all because many thought that the form had been taken to its limits by Beethoven. That is one reason that the composers of the New Music movement such as Wagner and Liszt did not write symphonies, at least in the traditional sense. Add to that the fact that Brahms revered Beethoven's music and his friends thought that he was the heir-apparent symphonist to Beethoven, which even in a composer of Brahms' caliber, resulted in having doubts whether he could live up to the expectations.

And the doubts were not easily overcome. After the premiere, Brahms insisted on having it performed two more times to give him opportunity to polish it further. He even wanted three more performances before he had it published, but his publisher refused. 

I. Un poco sostenuto - Allegro - Meno allegro - The symphony begins with an introduction, the only one of Brahms' four symphonies that had one, that was only added after the rest of the symphony had been written. When friends would encourage him to write and finish a symphony, Brahms has been quoted as saying, "You can’t have any idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching behind you!" with the giant being Beethoven. This introduction that begins in 6/8 time, with its heavily plodding gravitas could be thought of as a musical representation of those footsteps of Beethoven. But it isn't only footsteps we hear. The soaring syncopated violins play an odd counterpoint to the steady beats of the timpani. The eighth bar then shifts to 9/8 time and creates more metrical variety. A trill in the violins brings this to a close and a return to 6/8 time. Strings alternate playing phrases pizzicato and with the bow as fragments of themes appear. There is a gradual return to the beginning with a key change to G minor. More snippets of themes are heard until the music descends to pianissimo in anticipation of the movement proper beginning.

Now some of the motives heard in the introduction come to the fore and are heard in their extended versions. A great rhythmic sense is heard and felt in this theme. A long transition then ushers in the gentler second theme in E-flat major, also based on a motive in the introduction. another transition section begins with the final theme of the exposition. Brahms instructs that the exposition is to be repeated, and if it isn't, the listener misses out on a startling and abrupt return to C minor.

The development section begins with a shift in the key to B major. Themes are played against each other with numerous modulations to other keys, and there is a distinct rhythm heard through much of the movement; the famous short-short-short-long rhythm of the main motive from Beethoven's 5th Symphony, also a symphony in C minor. As this entire symphony was like Brahms homage to Beethoven, may the use of it been intentional or merely coincidence? The music builds to a climax, and the recapitulation appears. It is not a traditional recapitulation of the themes heard in the exposition, as Brahms shortens the first theme somewhat. The final theme is extended and the coda begins with pizzicato strings. The movement slows and modulates to C major for a quiet ending.

II. Andante sostenuto -  The severity of the first movement needs something of contrast to follow. While the next two movements may seem a little light weight compared to the outer two, it is by design. Brahms understood that very well, and so the second movement is of lighter character and more lyrical in nature, but that does not make it light weight music in the least. String tone begins the movement with support from the bassoons and horns. The oboe enters with its tune to the accompaniment of first other woodwinds, then the strings join in. The strings then have a dialogue with another motive that reaches a minor climax before the oboe returns. The interplay of instruments continues until the opening returns with the theme now taken up by the solo violin. The horn takes up the tune at the end while the violin plays arabesques. The movement ends gently, and reminds the listener that Brahms, along with his many other musical gifts, had a real gift for lyrical melody.

III. Un poco allegretto e grazioso - Brahms breaks from the Beethovian symphonic model by not composing a scherzo. It is an intermezzo, a designation Brahms used many times in his music. The movement begins in A-flat major in 2/4 time with a simple solo by the clarinet. This theme is in irregular 5-bar phrases which gives it a different kind of sound. Brahms was known for his irregular phrase structure, and it is one of the distinctive features of his style. The middle section, the trio in all but name, switches to 6/8 time and B major. It is more spirited than the first section. There is a return to the opening material, with a short coda that reprises some of the material from the trio and the movement ends in A-flat major. It is the shortest movement in the symphony, but Brahms has much going on in the short time it takes to play it.

IV.  Adagio - Più andante - Allegro non troppo, ma con brio - Più allegro - The symphony moves back to the more serious and complex with the final movement. It begins with an introduction, but it is a much different type of introduction than what is heard at the opening of the first movement.

The introduction to the finale begins in a dark and brooding manner. It is in the minor mode, and the twisting opening is followed by a mysterious section for pizzicato strings. This plan is repeated, and the music swells in volume and intensity with up and down passages for the strings. At the sounding of the timpani, horns seem to herald a new beginning as the famous tune that Brahms derived from an alp horn tune he heard in Switzerland.

This is followed by a chorale for brass and the alp horn tune is heard again. This all leads up to the grand tune that so many have thought similar to Beethoven's 'Ode To Joy' tune from the 9th Symphony. it also caused the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow to call the symphony 'Beethoven's Tenth'. Given von Bülow's caustic wit, there's no assurance that the comment was a compliment. When listeners pointed out the similarity of his 'tune' to Beethoven's, it irritated him but he admitted it by saying in his own brand of caustic wit, "Any ass can see that!"
This theme marks the beginning of the exposition. After it has been heard in various forms, the theme goes through a transformation until a fragment of the alp horn theme leads to the second theme. There is a seamless transition to a development section of great diversity. Brahms asserts his skill as a contrapuntalist in sections, and the music begins to wind down as the alp horn theme is heard again.  But instead of a repeat of the main theme, the second theme is heard fully worked out. 

Fragments of the alp horn theme are heard, and the brass build to powerful music as the strings add to the excitement. The music pulls up for a moment as the chorale first heard at the beginning of the movement returns. The music continues to build in this most magnificent of codas until it ends in C major. 

Brahms completely thwarted his apprehension with the symphonic form with his First. It is a work that, as with many of Brahms' compositions, looks backward with respect to the past while it breaks new ground. He went on to write 3 more symphonies, each a masterpiece in its own right, but the First is arguably his best known and most popular.