Official Release: 16 July 2021
Having a great father (even a spiritual one) may be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the presence of a towering paternal figure may encourage his children or disciples to give their best, to spare no efforts in the attempt of following in his footsteps. A great model may be very inspiring and motivating for his disciples or heirs. On the other hand, however, a forebear’s perfection may stifle the efforts of the younger generations. Learning is a complex and lengthy process, characterized by trials and errors; and when a young person is constantly confronted with a fully-fledged and accomplished result, the temptation to find one’s own attempts disappointing or hopeless is constant.
This experience marked the approach of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) to the genre of the symphony. A rather precocious genius and an extraordinary pianist, Brahms had conquered the admiration and love of other geniuses, among whom Robert and Clara Schumann. They had soon realized that this young and amiable man had the potential for becoming one of the greatest musicians of the era – as would indeed happen. Brahms had lived in close proximity with them for years, developing a deep and sincere friendship with the couple; moreover, he had learnt many secrets of the musical art from Robert and Clara, discussing and playing music with them. Both Robert and Clara were excellent pianists in turn; and, as was customary at that time, playing published or extemporaneous piano reductions of symphonic works was part of the time they spent together, constituting both a teaching/learning tool and a delightful pastime.
Brahms had already composed several works when he became acquainted with the Schumanns, and would continue writing throughout his comparatively long life. And although his immense talent shone forth from his piano works and chamber music pieces, it soon became clear that a great symphony was expected of him.
But, even though Schumann was no minor genius, it was not Robert’s shadow the one which prevented Brahms from realizing this expectation for his entire youth. It was the shadow of Beethoven, who had died in 1827 (i.e. six years before Brahms’ birth!) but whose influence was not fading. Indeed, it could be said that Beethoven had been admired and revered during his lifetime, but that only the Romantic era created the “Beethoven worship”, the identification between the deceased composer and the prototype of human creativity and perfection. Music was the religion of the Romantics, particularly in Germany; the idolization of Beethoven was a kind of cult, in which religiosity, spirituality, philosophy, aesthetics, social practices and even nationalism tended to converge.
In 1854, a 21-years old Brahms heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time. He was so enthused and enthralled by this magnificent masterpiece that, with the elan and courage of a young musician, he resolved to try his hand at what was then perceived as the highest genre of musical composition, the symphony. While this place was occupied by opera in Italy, the Romantic cult for “absolute music”, prompted also by the writings of Kant, Hegel and Schelling, considered the symphony as the paradigm of artistic perfection.
The young musician’s audacity was encouraged by his mentors. In that same year, Schumann wrote to Joseph Joachim, another great musician and common friend: “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”. Actually, Brahms had been drafting and writing a lot, and, in 1855, he wrote to 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”.
After so promising a start, it may come as a surprise (and it certainly surprised Brahms’ contemporaries) that the premiere of his First Symphony would take place more than twenty years later, in 1876. The movements Brahms had composed in this youthful enthusiasm were not discarded: they were initially reworked as a Sonata for two pianos and later constituted the material for his First Piano Concerto, op. 15. This also reveals that Brahms’ piano maintains a powerfully orchestral dimension, and that, at the same time, it was not unusual for him to transfer a musical concept from the piano to the orchestra and vice versa. Actually, many of his important symphonic works exist in original published versions for one or more pianos or pianists: this, of course, corresponds to a common practice at Brahms’ time, allowing both accomplished amateurs and music students or professionals to acquaint themselves with great symphonic works which could not be performed regularly or everywhere. But this also reveals a flexible concept, in which piano and orchestra are, at least partially, interchangeable.
As briefly hinted, the process of crafting his First Symphony took many more years for its completion. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony represented, in the eyes of the Romantic composers, the summit of musical perfection. It was seen both as the paragon of the German symphonic tradition, and as the beginning of a new path of integration between instrumental and vocal music. These two views soon came to originate two competing fields: those in favour of “absolute music” and those foreseeing a Gestamtkunstwerk, a work of “total art” including the integration of various artistic disciplines, or preferring the genre of the symphonic poem or program music.
Whilst Brahms eschewed musical partisanship, in spite of himself he soon became the champion of the former field, that of “absolute music”. As his fame and success were increasing, the musical world’s expectations started to weigh considerably on his shoulders; and it soon appeared that his First Symphony had to be nothing less than a masterpiece.
Brahms did not flee this challenge; he only wanted to let this masterpiece germinate slowly, continuously rewriting and revising what he had already written. In 1862 the first movement was basically conceived, although it still lacked the initial introduction; by 1868 the Symphony had been moulded in its main structure and elements. It was only in 1876 that the Symphony was really finished, and Brahms kept changing some details up to the very last moment. His preoccupation with the Symphony is revealed by the fact that he would not send the manuscript to his publisher before having heard it performed in public; moreover, he arranged for a few relatively “peripheral” premieres (e.g. in Karlsruhe) before presenting it to the Viennese critics.
In spite of his worries, however, the Vienna performance was plauded and praised by the two leading figures of musical criticism in the Habsburg capital, i.e. Eduard Hanslick and Hans von Bülow, who had championed the two rival parties up to that moment.
In 1878, Brahms eventually wrote to his publisher, offering him the possibility of publishing a four-hands piano-duet version of the Symphony, to appear before the symphonic score. When he was arranging his symphonic works for piano or piano duet, Brahms justifiably felt authorized to intervene on the text creatively, with more freedom than what is usually accorded to an external arranger. The result, then, represents both a taster of the symphonic version and also a new original work. Eventually, the symphonic score with its parts and this arrangement were published jointly in summer 1878.
Two years later, in 1880, and possibly also in consequence of his newly established success as a symphonist and as Beethoven’s heir, Brahms was offered an honorary degree as a Doctor of Philosophy by the University of Breslau. Following a request by the University authorities, he created the Academic Festival Overture (Akademische Festouvertüre op. 80), which he conducted, along with its “twin” work, the Tragic Overture op. 81, in 1881.
The title of “academic” should not be intended as referring to academicism; in fact, the piece represents an ironic, good-hearted and joyful homage to the goliardic spirit. Its four main themes, corresponding to four different but intertwined sections, are each inspired by one traditional students’ song. The first is by the title of Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus (“We had built a majestic house”), the second is Der Landesvater (“The Ruler”), the third is Das Fuctislied (dedicated to first-year students) and the last one is the international university song, Gaudeamus igitur.
These two symphonic works lose nothing of their invention, creativity, beauty, fascination and solemnity when played at the piano; Brahms was a master of piano writing and knew perfectly well how to create a variety of timbres and sonorities on the piano. Thus, in spite of their being part of the great symphonic repertoire, these famous works can still have something to reveal to today’s listeners when heard in this creative, interesting and challenging arrangements.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2021
Johannes Brahms: (b Hamburg, 7 May 1833; d Vienna, 3 April 1897). German composer. The successor to Beethoven and Schubert in the larger forms of chamber and orchestral music, to Schubert and Schumann in the miniature forms of piano pieces and songs, and to the Renaissance and Baroque polyphonists in choral music, Brahms creatively synthesized the practices of three centuries with folk and dance idioms and with the language of mid- and late 19th-century art music. His works of controlled passion, deemed reactionary and epigonal by some, progressive by others, became well accepted in his lifetime.