Saturday, December 10, 2005


Brahms: Symphony No.1, C minor

That Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) viewed the writing of a symphony with more than ordinary apprehension is indicated by the chronology of his orchestral work. He had published two serenades of quasi-symphonic scope, a large piano concerto, and the "Haydn" Variations before completing a symphony on which he had been at work for almost twenty years. Begun in Brahms' early twenties, the C minor Symphony is by no means a youthful work. It represents a considered whipping into shape by a fully matured man. It is unfortunate we have no revealing notebooks to show us the early ideas out of which, twenty years later, Brahms evolved this symphony. Certainly, as it stands, the C minor has had any young quality taken out of it. It is predominantly a dour work and, except for the introduction to the first movement and the finale, could be interpreted as the last composition of an embittered old man. The introduction is in an effective swirl of nebula---music of enchanting loveliness in itself. However, its function is problematical. If out of it rose the vigorous germinative themes essential to the construction of a recognizable symphony, it might seem as much a stroke of architectural genius as the sublime adagio introduction to Mozart's E flat Symphony. But nothing of this sort takes place. Instead the spineless nature of the introduction pervades the first three movements. Suddenly, in the finale, Brahms hits upon a truly energizing first theme, about which it might be carping to say that it is in part lifted from the chorale finale to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony were it not for the fact that zealots of the Brahms cult make such a point of repeating the master's famous growl when someone mentioned this resemblance: "Any fool can see that!" The point is that this strong Beethovian theme, whether hit upon by accident or purposely, is just the right sort of material on which to erect a soundly constructed symphonic movement. This Brahms proceeds to do with complete success. But it must be said that a triumphant conclusion---almost a swift victory march---after three vast movements of transitional music produces an odd effect.

Unlike Mozart, whose first Symphony was written at the age of eight; or Schubert, who attacked that formidable type when sixteen; or Mendelssohn, who did the same when fifteen,---Brahms withheld his hand from the exacting, supreme effort of symphonic creation until he had reached his forty-third year. It is true, this elaborate and impressive First Symphony had occupied his attention during the preceding ten years, but this again confirms his reluctance to plunge prematurely and self-confidently into a task of such magnitude and serious artistic spirit.

Despite its often abstruse style, the music of Brahms presented enough of striking, spontaneous, instantly prepossessing and frankly beautiful features to win him a host of enthusiastic friends; and upon the appearance of his First Symphony, these ranks re-echoed with the cry "The Tenth Symphony!"---implying that this was the full-blooded successor of Beethoven's Ninth; it was an imprudent burst of enthusiasm that did more harm than good to the reputation of the sufficiently great and accredited master. The "Tenth" has never been written, and perhaps never will be; it is as unlikely as the prospect of an equivalent successor to Shakespeare's dramas. It is sufficient to affirm that the First Symphony of Brahms is a creation of superlative significance, which holds its place worthily beside (not beyond) the "immortal nine" of Beethoven.

This First Symphony, in C minor, Op.68, completed in 1876, is the only one of the four of Brahms in which he adopts the venerable tradition of a separate Introduction, in sostenuto tempo. It foreshadows the thematic components and the dramatic character of the Allegro; and the final allusion to it, as Independent Coda, rounds out the Movement in a most effective and impressive manner. The design of the first Movement is sonata-allegro, evolved with such superb logic, unswayed purpose, perfection of proportion, such masterly provision for well-placed and well-balanced contrasts, and such monumental dramatic vitality, as only so great a genius could achieve; and the music is, in its every measure, harmonious and truly beautiful.

The most significant structural feature, and one that is unquestionably original with Brahms, is the adoption of a brief but striking phrase which precedes the Exposition, and for which the term Basic Motive seems most fitting, since it underlies the entire Movement, either as generative or as a component factor. The themes are all based upon it, or derived from it. The subordinate Theme is, for a few measures, identical with the principal one: such similarity between the chief Themes has been repeatedly done before---beginning with Haydn---and is recognized as one of the conditions of the early symphonic Movement. The first Codetta also displays remarkable likeness to the principal Theme; the Basic Motive is set forth in the upper most tones, while the principal Theme is given to the basses, "upside down."

It would be impossible in the narrow limits of this discussion thread to point out every masterly trait of the music. The hearer may, and should, trace for one's self the course of thematic manipulation, as far as can be perceived. The chromatic form of the Basic Motive renders it everywhere easily recognizable.

The second (slow) Movement, in the unexpected key of E major, is a sustained, serene lyric conception, of a richer and more eloquent romantic quality. Its design is the First Rondo-form. Of note, again, is the close relation of the subordinate Theme to the principal one; its melody is counterpointed against the first two measures of the latter.

The third Movement is neither a Scherzo nor of any of the dance-types; but it fits admirably into the psychological scheme of the Symphony. It is one of those graceful, intimate, delightfully smooth conceptions, that were as essential and precious a part of Brahms' musical spirit as were the surges of passion, and the somber, deeply earnest pathos that characterize his more serious moods. The design is Second-Rondo.

An Introduction in Adagio tempo, of extremely impressive, grave character, precedes the final Allegro, and refers thematically to it in every detail. Of its three Sections, the first and second employ motives of the Allegro, while the much longer third Section, in more animated tempo, presents an apparently new, wonderfully beautiful Song of Hope, which falls like a ray of sunshine athwart the somber, ominous background of the opening Phrases. A grief quartet of trombones and bassoons (the "Second Part" of the Song) seems to add assurance to the message of comfort. A recurrence of the first melody (as "Third Part") leads over into the Finale proper. This begins with the principal Theme, a melody of folk-song simplicity and quiet power, in conception akin to the principal Theme of the Finale in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony---emphatically not a blundering imitation, but the natural coincidence of kindred genius. The subordinate Theme is traced as counterpoint against a Ground Motive (a brief figure repeated several times, as basso ostinato---persistent bass); and this Ground Motive corresponds to the four accented beats (first, third, fifth, and seventh beats) of the principal Theme.

The design of the Allegro exhibits a noteworthy digression from the traditional form, which is wholly original with Brahms: there is no separate Development, in the specific sense; the Recapitulation follows the Exposition immediately (as in the sonatine-allegro form); but this Recapitulation is systemically and very broadly extended by "developing" each successive factor in unaltered order, during ten masterly Sections---that is, up to the reannouncement of the subordinate Theme. The latter then appears, in its proper key (transposed to C major), and from there on, the Recapitulation agrees literally with the Exposition. The form is therefore, strictly speaking, sonatine-allegro, enriched by thus fusing the process of Recapitulation with that of Development. Exactly this same scheme will be found again in the Finale of the Third Symphony.


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