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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 / Haydn Variations
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"the beauty of this interpretation shines through"
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a
In 1853 Robert Schumann detected in the young Brahms "a man singled out to make articulate an ideal way of the highest expression of our time". Here indeed was the long awaited successor to Beethoven, and Schumann was prepared, like some St. John the Baptist, to declare the fact. The "veiled symphonies in sound" that Schumann had heard were not transformed into real symphonies until relatively late in Brahms's life. Much, after all, had been expected of him, and this may explain in some measure his relative diffidence, his distrust of his own abilities.
Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833. His father was a musician, a double bass player, and his mother a seamstress some 17 years older than her husband. The family was poor, and as a boy Brahma earned money by playing the piano in dockside taverns for the entertainment of sailors. Nevertheless his talent brought him support, and teaching from Eduard Marxsen, to whom he later dedicated his B Flat Piano Concerto, although claiming to have learned nothing from him.
After a period earning a living in Hamburg as a teacher and as a dance saloon pianist, Brahms first emerged as a pianist and as a composer in 1853, when he went on a brief tour with the refugee Hungarian violinist Ede Remenyi, later to be appointed solo violinist to Queen Victoria. In Hanover he met the already famous young virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim and with the latter's introduction visited Liszt in Weimar. The later visit to Schumann in Duesseldorf, again brought about through Joachim, had more far-reaching results. Schumann was soon to suffer a mental break-down, leading to his death in 1856 in an asylum. Brahms became a firm friend of Clara Schumann and remained so until her death in 1896.
The greater part of Brahms's career was to be spent in Vienna, where he finally settled in 1863, after earlier seasonal employment at the small court of Detmold and intermittent periods spent in Hamburg. In Vienna he established a pattern of life that was to continue until his death in 1897. He appeared as a pianist, principally in his own compositions, played with more insight than accuracy, and impressed the public with a series of compositions of strength, originality and technical perfection. Here was a demonstration that, contrary to the view of Wagner or Liszt, there was still much to be said in the traditional forms of music. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was not the last word. Critics, indeed, hailed Brahms's First Symphony in 1876 as Beethoven's Tenth. Brahms came to occupy a unique position in Vienna, his eccentricities and gruff tactlessness tolerated as Beethoven's had been, his musical achievement unquestioned, except by the fanatical supporters of Wagner.
By 1854, encouraged by Schumann, Brahms had started work on a symphony, writing material that was later to form part of the first of the two piano concertos. The first inklings of the C Minor Symphony appear in 1862 in a letter from Clara Schumann to Joachim. Brahms had sent her the first movement of the symphony, which had delighted her.
The following years brought anxious enquiries from Joachim and from the conductors Hermann Levi and Albert Dietrich about the completed symphony. It was not until 1876, however, that Brahms completed the work to his own satisfaction. The first performance was given the same year at Karlsruha under the direction of Otto Dessoff, and three days later at Mannheim with the composer conducting. The symphony was at once accepted as all that the admirers of Brahms had hoped for, hailed by the critic Hanslick as an inexhaustible fountain of sincere pleasure and fruitful study and seen by many contemporaries as a continuation of the achievement of Beethoven, to the expressed indignation of Wagner.
Hanslick drew attention to the Faustian conflict of the massive opening movement, expressed musically in the great chords with which the symphony opens and their chromatic implications. The movement goes on to an Allegro in which hope and despair seem to strive together. The E Major slow movement is entrusted principally to the strings, with a solo oboe adding its own serene element. The third movement moves a third higher again, to the key of A Flat Major. The clarinet, accompanied by the plucked notes of the cellos, opens the movement, which has a central contrasting section in B Major. The final movement, a major creation of power and intensity, with its contrapuntal complexity, mastery of orchestration and incredible control of form, opens with a dramatic slow introduction, the French horn and then the flute leading to a calmer mood. The horn appears again to bring us to the final Allegro, a clear successor to the finale of Beethoven's last symphony, providing the necessary triumphant optimism that had earlier seemed impossible,
It was through the librarian of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Karl Ferdinand Pohl, that Brahms came across the Feldpartiten of Haydn, written for wind band. This was the immediate source of the theme of Brahms's Haydn Variations. In fact the theme was of older origin, a pilgrims' hymn, in honour of St Anthony, used by Haydn during the course of his employment in Bohemia as a musician in the house of Count Morzin. The Variations were written during the summer of 1873, which Brahms spent at Tutzing on the Starhembergersee, near Munich. The work was first performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in November of the same year.
The B flat major theme first appears in something like its original guise, scored for wind over pizzicato cellos and double basses, with the original serpent part replaced by the double bassoon. The first variation allows the violins their own embellishment of the theme, the orchestral texture darkened by double bassoon and timpani. A livelier version in B flat minor follows, almost making of it a Hungarian dance, leading to a flowing version of the melody, offered first by the oboe, then by the violins. The fourth variation returns to the minor key in a more melancholy mood, to which the fifth variation is in marked contrast, with its woodwind instruments in thirds and its colour brightened by the addition of the piccolo. The sixth version of the theme is one of emphatic energy, dominated initially by the French horns, leading to a gently pastoral seventh variation and an eighth in which muted violas and cellos are joined by the other instruments in a mysteriously hushed minor version. The Finale, after the gradual appearance of the instruments in contrapuntal imitation, leads to a grandiose restatement of the theme.
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BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 / Haydn Variations