Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor

Legend has it that Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) threw more of his compositions into the fireplace than he ever performed or published. Facts notwithstanding, his reputation for high personal standards—even perfectionism—might explain why his first symphony was twenty-one years in the making.

Another theory suggests that Brahms’ early love of piano solos, songs and small ensembles delayed his acquiring the experience needed to write pure symphonic music for the orchestra.

But it was at age twenty, when Robert Schumann first introduced him to musical society as a young man destined to carry on the great tradition of Beethoven, that he began to carry the weight of great expectations and the persistent fear of failing to meet them.

With a marble bust of Beethoven looking down on him, Brahms began work on what would become Symphony No. 1 perhaps as early as 1854, but he did not produce a complete draft until at least 1868. Even after its premiere in 1876, the symphony was not finished: the original second movement was destroyed and replaced by another.

Brahms acknowledged the musical similarities of his work to the great symphonies of his venerable predecessor, and from its very debut, Brahms’ first symphony acquired the popular nickname of “Beethoven’s Tenth.”

Careful listeners can hear echoes of the famous “fate” motif of the Fifth, horn calls like the Sixth, and shades of the Ninth’s “Ode to Joy.” The seriousness of expression throughout, and suggestion of powerful natural and spiritual forces are indeed worthy of the giant whose musical shadow loomed over Brahms for so long.

But far from imitation, or even homage, Symphony No. 1 solidifies a unique place for Brahms among the greatest musical minds of all time, and along with Bach and Beethoven, the last of the “three B’s.”

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