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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 / Tragic Overture / Academic Festival Overture
Completed in 1877, Brahms’s remarkable and impressive Symphony No. 1 was the result of a fourteen-year gestation period and established the composer as the leading German symphonist of his generation. This inaugural issue in a major new cycle on Naxos brings together the internationally acclaimed London Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Marin Alsop, fêted by The Guardian as “...well on her way to becoming one of the best Brahms interpreters”.
By Bill Brooks
By Andrew Baer
By Randy Anderson
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor • Tragic Overture • Academic Festival Overture
Brahms’s symphonic aspirations went back at least to the time when Robert Schumann in 1853 had introduced him to the musical world in his press article ‘New Paths’, in which he described Brahms’s piano sonatas as ‘veiled symphonies’ and publicly encouraged the young composer to write for larger forces. It took Brahms another 23 years and several attempts which led elsewhere before he fully came to terms with writing a symphony ‘after Beethoven’, as he put matters. This is the anxiety of influence, or perhaps better the responsibility of influence, writ large: how to make oneself a worthy part of a tradition one admires, how to respond to one’s chosen past with the originality and power it ineluctably demands. During composition of both the First Piano Concerto, Op. 15, and the First Serenade, Op. 11, Brahms thought of each work as a potential symphony, then in summer 1862 he showed the first movement of the First Symphony to friends, as yet without its slow introduction. Almost nothing is known of his work on the symphony in the intervening years to 1876, though for her birthday in 1868 he sent Clara Schumann the alphorn theme used in the finale. He titled it for her on this occasion: ‘Thus the alphorn sounded forth today’, and gave it a poetic text, but, as far as we know, melody and poem are Brahms’s own. By the beginning of the next decade he seemed to have lost heart entirely, remarking to his friend the conductor Hermann Levi: ‘I shall never write a symphony! You have no idea what it feels like, for someone like me always to hear such a giant as Beethoven marching along behind’. Brahms completed the work in October 1876, very probably in part under felt competitive pressure from Wagner’s opening of Bayreuth and presentation of the first complete Ring Cycle. This symphony was the only work for which Brahms fixed a first performance before finishing the composition, and he delivered the score in instalments to his friend Otto Dessoff, who conducted the première on 4th November in the Great Hall of the Museum in Karlsruhe.
That year the University of Cambridge offered Brahms and his friend the violinist Joseph Joachim honorary doctorates. Brahms could not bring himself to visit England, so was unable to accept the honour. Joachim on the other hand came, and he performed Brahms’s Symphony at Cambridge on 8th March 1877. The early press reception in both countries was very warm, and recurrent points of focus were: the chambermusic aspect of the orchestral writing, speculation concerning a possible secret programme, and the relationship to Beethovenian heritage. This last issue became especially important for Wagner and his followers, for he maintained that after Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, only the Music Drama and Symphonic Poem could be justified in the realm of orchestral music. Thus Brahms’s competition with Wagner had its profound side, and his achievement in this symphony constitutes a reaffirmation and revitalization of the fourmovement purely instrumental symphony as a traditional form made new.
Brahms begins with a powerful slow introduction, in which chromatic lines in woodwind and strings diverge over relentless drum beats; this becomes a type of pre-thematic motto for the whole work – these sinuous chromatic lines surround the themes in the first movement, interrupt the sumptuous opening melody of the slow movement, punctuate the phrases of the intermezzo-like third movement, and reach their apotheosis in the dramatic introduction to the finale, where they are at last dismissed by the appearance of the alphorn melody. This evolution is emblematic of the narrative trajectory of the work as a whole: from darkness to light, from strenuous drama to triumphant joy. Brahms gives this narrative an extra dimension in the last movement: his customary practice was to write movements which diversify out from their opening by variation and extension; in this finale, on the other hand, he sets out by presenting a diverse range of material – the dark, foreboding introduction, the alphorn theme (a nature topos, of course), the brass chorale (an ecclesiastical topos), the march-like Allegro theme (a Beethovenian topos) – which, during the course of the movement, he proceeds to relate and integrate, before closing with surely the most overtly euphoric peroration he ever gave us, in musical (and personal) triumph.
‘The Academic has seduced me into a second overture, which at the moment I call “Dramatic Overture” – which again doesn’t please me’, wrote Brahms to a friend in August 1880, shortly after composing his Tragic Overture. The pairing of contrasted works had been a feature of his creativity for some time, Brahms here describing a kind of generic ‘force of attraction’. By September he had arrived at the title ‘Tragic’; he had recently been asked to write incidental music to Goethe’s Faust (a scheme which fell through), and, while some of the music may relate to this request, Brahms kept his titling resolutely general.
At the outset two chords outline a melodic falling fourth – to become a common feature in other themes also – and their challenging harmonic ambiguity continues into the austere modal theme following. These chords act as marker and emblem throughout, though they are on occasion themselves also developed, with reinterpreted rhythm and added notes. Brahms used a type of sonata form in which development is nested within recapitulation: the modal theme acts as first subject, while the second is more distinctly lyrical and richly harmonized; development cuts the first subject to half-speed for a slow march, with energy returning in the brief fugato following; the coda struggles and dies, before emphatic closure. Where then is the drama? The sharply characterized, demonstrative, heightened nature of the musical discourse, with varied pacing and strong contrasts clearly embodies dramatic principles, and the music impacts as assertive, austere, energetic, withdrawn, mysterious, and romantic by turns. And what of the tragic? Brahms said of his two overtures: ‘one laughs, the other weeps’, but there is no specific story here, rather the elevated nobility, the inexorable force and trajectory of pure tragedy itself.
In March 1879 the University of Breslau awarded Brahms an honorary doctorate, the citation describing him as artis musicae severioris in Germania nunc princeps (now the foremost composer of serious music in Germany), a citation which caused Wagner real difficulty. The Academic Festival Overture was Brahms’s artistic response to the honour, written in summer 1880. His attitude to academia was complex: a man of great erudition, especially in literature and music, he did not much like theoretic or aesthetic discourse on music, speaking harshly, for instance, of his friend Eduard Hanslick’s famous treatise On the Beautiful in Music, yet he had enjoyed his brief youthful taste of student life at the University of Göttingen, and he used his new title ‘Doktor’ with relish.
The University had requested a ‘doctoral symphony’, and Brahms’s artistic response seems on the surface like a deflating joke, a ‘pot-pourri à la Suppé’, as he himself ironically described it, stringing together student songs, one of which had words distinctly critical of university authorities. Yet, if one listens closer, the work reveals its more intricate side: common motifs draw together contrasting themes, counterpoint intensifies melody, variations bring telling changes of expression, and an overall binary structure provides scope for development and creates a strong sense of logic and coherence. The Overture concludes climactically with Gaudeamus igitur, the first appearance of this melody in the work, though the opening theme of the Overture proves to have been extracted from its third line in a further example of surface freedom supported by underlying strictness. Thus the Overture succinctly resolves Brahms’s ambivalence to academia, setting off fun in the context of the serious, as at once a good joke and a polished piece of ‘artis musicae severioris’.
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