BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 / Tragic Overture / Academic Festival Overture
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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor Tragic Overture Academic Festival Overture
Brahms's symphonic aspirations went back at least tothe time when Robert Schumann in 1853 had introducedhim to the musical world in his press article 'NewPaths', in which he described Brahms's piano sonatas as'veiled symphonies' and publicly encouraged the youngcomposer to write for larger forces. It took Brahmsanother 23 years and several attempts which ledelsewhere before he fully came to terms with writing asymphony 'after Beethoven', as he put matters. This isthe anxiety of influence, or perhaps better theresponsibility of influence, writ large: how to makeoneself a worthy part of a tradition one admires, how torespond to one's chosen past with the originality andpower it ineluctably demands. During composition ofboth the First Piano Concerto, Op. 15, and the FirstSerenade, Op. 11, Brahms thought of each work as apotential symphony, then in summer 1862 he showedthe first movement of the First Symphony to friends, asyet without its slow introduction. Almost nothing isknown of his work on the symphony in the interveningyears to 1876, though for her birthday in 1868 he sentClara Schumann the alphorn theme used in the finale.
He titled it for her on this occasion: 'Thus the alphornsounded forth today', and gave it a poetic text, but, as faras we know, melody and poem are Brahms's own. Bythe beginning of the next decade he seemed to have lostheart entirely, remarking to his friend the conductorHermann Levi: 'I shall never write a symphony! Youhave no idea what it feels like, for someone like mealways to hear such a giant as Beethoven marchingalong behind'. Brahms completed the work in October1876, very probably in part under felt competitivepressure from Wagner's opening of Bayreuth andpresentation of the first complete Ring Cycle. Thissymphony was the only work for which Brahms fixed afirst performance before finishing the composition, andhe delivered the score in instalments to his friend OttoDessoff, who conducted the premi?¿re on 4th Novemberin the Great Hall of the Museum in Karlsruhe.
That year the University of Cambridge offeredBrahms and his friend the violinist Joseph Joachimhonorary doctorates. Brahms could not bring himself tovisit England, so was unable to accept the honour.
Joachim on the other hand came, and he performedBrahms's Symphony at Cambridge on 8th March 1877.
The early press reception in both countries was verywarm, and recurrent points of focus were: the chambermusicaspect of the orchestral writing, speculationconcerning a possible secret programme, and therelationship to Beethovenian heritage. This last issuebecame especially important for Wagner and hisfollowers, for he maintained that after Beethoven'sNinth Symphony, only the Music Drama and SymphonicPoem could be justified in the realm of orchestral music.
Thus Brahms's competition with Wagner had itsprofound side, and his achievement in this symphonyconstitutes a reaffirmation and revitalization of the fourmovementpurely instrumental symphony as a traditionalform made new.
Brahms begins with a powerful slow introduction,in which chromatic lines in woodwind and stringsdiverge over relentless drum beats; this becomes a typeof pre-thematic motto for the whole work - thesesinuous chromatic lines surround the themes in the firstmovement, interrupt the sumptuous opening melody ofthe slow movement, punctuate the phrases of theintermezzo-like third movement, and reach theirapotheosis in the dramatic introduction to the finale,where they are at last dismissed by the appearance of thealphorn melody. This evolution is emblematic of thenarrative trajectory of the work as a whole: fromdarkness to light, from strenuous drama to triumphantjoy. Brahms gives this narrative an extra dimension inthe last movement: his customary practice was to writemovements which diversify out from their opening byvariation and extension; in this finale, on the otherhand, he sets out by presenting a diverse range ofmaterial - the dark, foreboding introduction, the alphorntheme (a nature topos, of course), the brass chorale(an ecclesiastical topos), the march-like Allegro theme(a Beethovenian topos) - which, during the course of themovement, he proceeds to relate and integrate, beforeclosing with surely the most overtly euphoric perorationhe ever gave us, in musical (and personal) triumph.
'The Academic has seduced me into a secondoverture, which at the moment I call \Dramatic Overture"- which again doesn't please me', wrote Brahms to afriend in August 1880, shortly after composing his TragicOverture. The pairing of contrasted works had been afeature of his creativity for some time, Brahms heredescribing a kind of generic 'force of attraction'. BySeptember he had arrived at the title 'Tragic'; he hadrecently been asked to write incidental music toGoethe'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 fallingfourth - to become a common feature in other themesalso - and their challenging harmonic ambiguitycontinues into the austere modal theme following. Thesechords act as marker and emblem throughout, thoughthey are on occasion themselves also developed, withreinterpreted rhythm and added notes. Brahms used atype of sonata form in which development is nestedwithin recapitulation: the modal theme acts as firstsubject, while the second is more distinctly lyrical andrichly harmonized; development cuts the first subject tohalf-speed for a slow march, with energy returning in thebrief fugato following; the coda struggles and dies,before emphatic closure. Where then is the drama? Thesharply characterized, demonstrative, heightened natureof the musical discourse, with varied pacing and strongcontrasts clearly embodies dramatic principles, and themusic impacts as assertive, austere, energetic, withdrawn,mysterious, and romantic by turns. And what of thetragic? Brahms said of his two overtures: 'one laughs, theother weeps', but there is no specific story here, rather theelevated nobility, the inexorable force and trajectory ofpure tragedy itself.
In March 1879 the University of Breslau awardedBrahms an honorary doctorate, the citation describinghim as artis musicae severioris in Germania nuncprinceps (now the foremost composer of serious musicin Germany), a citation which caused Wagner realdifficulty. The Academic Festival Overture wasBrahms's artistic response to the honour, written insummer 1880. His attitude to academia was complex: aman of great erudition, especially in literature andmusic, he did not much like theoretic or aestheticdiscourse on music, speaking harshly, for instance, ofhis friend Eduard Hanslick's famous treatise On theBeautiful in Music, yet he had enjoyed his brief youthfultaste of student life at the University of Gottingen, andhe used his new title 'Doktor' with relish.
The University had requested a 'doctoralsymphony', and Brahms's artistic response seems on thesurface like a deflating joke, a 'pot-pourri ?á la Suppe',as he himself ironically described it, stringing togetherstudent songs, one of which had words distinctly criticalof university authorities. Yet, if one listens closer, thework reveals its more intricate side: common motifsdraw together contrasting themes, counterpointintensifies melody, variations bring telling changes ofexpression, and an overall binary structure providesscope for development and creates a strong sense oflogic and coherence. The Overture concludesclimactically with Gaudeamus igitur, the firstappearance of this melody in the work, though theopening theme of the Overture proves to have beenextracted from its third line in a further example ofsurface freedom supported by underlying