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Life Arts    H4'ed 5/7/17

Brahms' First Symphony Warrants His 21st Century Accolade as Beethoven's Greatest Heir

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Johannes Brahms - Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 68 - Paavo Jarvi and the Orchestre de Paris

In the year 1854, 21-year-old Johannes Brahms heard Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for the first time and resolved to write one in the same key (D minor).

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The following year he wrote to his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, "I have been trying my hand at a symphony during the past summer, have even orchestrated the first movement and have completed the second and third." The music of which he was speaking was indeed brought to completion, but not in its originally intended form.

[Note from Stephen Fox: When I was a child, I have very clear memories from the age of four and five frequently sitting at my mother's candle lit dining table and listening to the Brahm's First Symphony and his Violin Concerto. Even at that young age, I was struck by the pounding of the timpani at the beginning, and I wondered what that insistent pounding really meant. I also remembered the stirring hymn-like qualities of the last movement. Now, 65 years later, I am honored to write in depth of these matters and hope to do justice to Brahms, and add my own interpretations of the Protestant nature of that hymn to the literature that analyzes this great genius.]

Unhappy with aspects of his unfinished symphony, Brahms recast the material into a sonata for two pianos, but destiny had yet other uses for this music originally intended to be symphonic, and the sonata's first two movements came to occupy those same positions in the dramatic First Piano Concerto -- still in D minor -- although the last movement found a different venue in the form of the Behold All Flesh section of his German Requiem.

Brahms began his first symphony in the 1850s and completed it in 1876; it was first performed on November 4 of that year in Karlsruhe, Germany. Beethoven died six years before Brahms was born, but his presence loomed over every subsequent 19th century composer. Even Brahms, master composer for both piano and of songs, from an early age, put off writing symphonies and string quartets--two Beethoven most important forms--offering only this honest excuse: "You can't have any idea what it's like always to hear such a giant marching behind you."

In due course, Brahms was able to summon the strength to turn and face the giant, yet it took him nearly twenty years to do so, and only the magnificence of his own First Symphony gave him the courage to leave the ghost of Beethoven behind him permanently.

He wanted to be absolutely certain that he could write something noble enough to live up to his reputation and honor Beethoven's memory. No other composers were able to bring Brahms to realize his own inner visions more than composer Robert Schumann and his pianist wife Clara. In 1854, a year after the young man's first meeting with the Schumanns, Robert wrote to their mutual friend Joachim: "But where is Johannes? Is he not yet ready to let drums and trumpets sound? He should always keep in mind the beginning of the Beethoven symphonies; he should try to make something like them."

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Schumann was never to realize the fruits of his advice, for he died tragically in an asylum in 1856, but his admonition to Brahms resulted, eventually, in the C-minor First Symphony, for whose beginning and ending Brahms mined his ultimate inspiration in Beethoven.

An 1862 version of the First Symphony's opening movement did not have the imposing introduction which later was appended, an introduction in which the composer reveals, at a slow pace, all the important materials we meet in rapid motion in the movement proper, the Allegro. In the matter of thematic transformation, epitomized by the introductions to the Symphony's first and fourth movements as they presage their Allegros, Brahms was much closer to the methods of Liszt and Wagner than to those of Beethoven.

The intensity of the introduction with the drums opening the symphony is like the pounding of a fetal heart in the musical child that is in the process of being born. This immediately gives way to a sober urgency that recalls an angry young Brahms. This movement and the fourth are introductions to the compositional methods Brahms practiced with such incomparable mastery: motifs are transformed through changes of rhythm, dynamics, timbre; they are combined, fragmented, and developed with an unerring sense of each and every of their cerebral possibilities. It was not until this severely self-critical composer was satisfied with his work that he allowed the First Symphony to be performed, in 1876, some 20-plus years after he made his first efforts to compose this symphony.

Music critic Kelly Dean Hansen wrote: "The First Symphony is, with respect to Mahler's "Titan," the greatest First Symphony ever written, from the pounding timpani of the first movement's introduction to the blazing C-major chords at the end."

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