Thursday, April 28, 2011

Brahms' First: Years in the Making

This post about Brahms' 1st Symphony is a transcript of a pre-concert talk of mine from several seasons ago. For more about the composer talking about his creative process at the time he completed the symphony, check out this post at the Harrisburg Symphony Blog.

The Harrisburg Symphony, conducted by Stuart Malina, performs Brahms 1st at their next Masterworks Concerts – May 14th & 15th at the Forum. Also on the program, Brahms' Violin Concerto with concertmaster Odin Rathnam celebrating his 20th season as the orchestra's concertmaster and a little something called “Brahms Fan-Fare” by Stuart Malina who always considers himself a Brahms Fan.
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On a bright February day, Robert Schumann jumped into the Rhine, a suicide attempt that became his last public act before being taken away to an asylum. A few days later, Johannes Brahms jotted down a musical idea in his notebook, the opening of a new symphony.

In an article called “New Paths,” Schumann, a composer and writer about music, declared Johannes Brahms the heir to Beethoven, anointing him the Musical Messiah for the future of Classical Music.

Brahms, a short man with long blondish hair, boyish looks and a voice barely changed, long before he grew that famous beard, was 20.

He’d appeared on Schumann’s doorstep the previous September to play some of his piano music for him but after he’d started to play, Schumann tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Wait a moment, my wife must hear you.” And that was how Brahms met one of the greatest pianists of the day.

That month, Clara Schumann turned 34.

And so the long association with the Schumann family began, though unfortunately it was too late for Robert to teach him how to become the Musical Messiah: five months later, Schumann would be taken to the asylum where he would remain the last two years of his life. Clara, a few months away from giving birth to her eighth child, needed to increase her concert schedule to bring in much needed money, so their new friend Brahms stayed home to help raise the children, including their 9-year-old daughter Julie.

Meanwhile, that first sketch of a symphony just wouldn’t turn itself into one: he even had a dream where he was playing it as a piano concerto. The ideas for a second movement scherzo, dropped from the concerto, were later used in the German Requiem and he wrote a whole new finale in the Hungarian style. The whole process of conversion to completion into the Piano Concerto in D Minor took three years. It was not long after Schumann’s death that Brahms realized he was in love with Clara and decided this relationship had to end. Clara wrote a letter after seeing Brahms off to the train station, feeling as if she’d been to two funerals in three months.

Brahms then worked briefly with a women’s chorus in his hometown of Hamburg. When he fell in love with one of the women in the choir, he wrote a happy chorus called “Bride’s Song” but when he broke off that relationship, he wrote a companion “Grave Song” full of dire thoughts about Fate. The symphony sketch that became his 1st Piano Concerto started off with a dramatic roll on the kettledrums, but in the new “Grave Song,” it became relentlessly pounding kettledrums.

Not long after this, Brahms asked his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, to send him some large-sized manuscript paper because he was starting to work on a symphony again: this time, what had started out as chamber music for winds and strings was going to be turned into a symphony, but shortly afterward he changed his mind: “If in these days after Beethoven you presume to write a symphony, they’d better look entirely different!” The original manuscript called it a Symphony-Serenade before he crossed out the word “Symphony.” It became his 1st Serenade in D Major, a chance to practice his skills at writing for orchestra on something less substantial than a full-blown symphony.

Brahms was 25.

Meanwhile, Wagner and Liszt were championing the “New Music” which Brahms thought would send music into the “manure pit.” This didn’t earn him any points with contemporary composers who were still waiting to see what Schumann’s Anointed was going to produce. And so he began a third attempt at a symphony under this cloud. Meanwhile, a Viennese critic, examining the few pieces Brahms had produced so far, wrote that rather than looking back to Beethoven and Schubert (whose Unfinished Symphony hadn’t surfaced yet) – composers who’d been dead only thirty years – he was looking back to earlier centuries for inspiration from Bach (only recently rediscovered) and the Renaissance (virtually unknown to the general public). He would create something new by learning from the old. Followers of the New Music thought this silly.

Now friends again with Clara Schumann, Brahms sketched a number of chamber works one summer, continuing to work on the opening movement of a symphony “from previous sketches,” sending her a copy of the rough draft by July 1st. This is essentially the first movement of the 1st Symphony as we know it, but without the famous introduction. It was finale that was the real thorn. When Joachim heard about it, he hoped to be able to give the premiere that October. Little did he know it wouldn’t be 14 weeks but 14 years before it would be finished. There was also an F Minor String Quintet that didn’t seem just right, so he put it back in the oven.

Brahms was now 29.

He hoped to get the conductorship of the Hamburg Philharmonic. He’d just gone to Vienna when a letter reached him that in he fact he did not get the job. If he had, he might have had a use for that symphony, but still, why did it take so long to actually finish it? But in Vienna, he could walk the places were, only 35 years earlier, Beethoven had walked. When his G Minor Piano Quartet was played at the home where Mozart had composed “The Marriage of Figaro,” one of the musicians said “Here is the heir of Beethoven.”

Brahms was now 30.

Meanwhile, many things were happening: his parents separated and then his mother died, he wrote “A German Requiem” and he was turned down a second time for the conducting post in Hamburg. The String Quintet became a sonata for two pianos. Clara found him insufferable and often dis-invited him to dinners, and she’d wonder why he wrote all these dark, depressing pieces. Perhaps at 34, he felt he was too old to have his career ahead of him (at that age, Beethoven had composed his “Eroica” and Schubert was already dead 3 years). She suggested maybe he should get married: little did she know he was already in love – with her daughter, Julie.

Brahms suggested Clara should move to Vienna and perhaps spend less time concertizing – like she was doing this for fun? She needed the money and now two of her children were ill. Their friendship cooled once again. The 2-Piano Sonata which Clara said begged to be orchestrated was turned into the F Minor Piano Quintet. Then came the premiere of the German Requiem which left Clara in tears: here, she felt, was the realization of the promise her husband had seen 14 years earlier! After the performance, they quarreled and parted with more tears.

There was an old piano quartet in C-sharp Minor he’d never finished, the first one he’d started back when he was first in love with Clara; he started work on it again, changing it to that dramatic key of C Minor. And he wrote two melodies – a song better known as Brahms’ Lullaby composed for an old-girlfriend-now-married-with-her-first-child (in the accompaniment, he quotes a Viennese waltz she’d sung to him back in the days they were friends, so while she’s singing a love-song to her baby, another love-song is being sung to her). The other was scribbled down on a postcard from Switzerland, supposedly an old alp-horn tune he’d heard to which he added these words: “High on the mountain, deep in the valley, I greet you a thousand times!” This became the melody that would soar out in the horn over shimmering strings once the last movement of the C Minor Symphony succeeded in struggling through its opening turmoil, allowing the finale to unfold its great hymn.

And the melody worked its magic on Clara – they were friends again, he visited the family, began the Love-Song Waltzes for four voices and piano duet, all about young love, shy to build: Clara wondered who the young girl was that inspired these delightful tunes? Then, a few days after his 36th birthday, she told Brahms some great news – Julie was engaged to marry an Italian count! She had no idea why Brahms, struck speechless, just ran out of the house. Then it hit her who the young girl was behind the “Liebeslieder Waltzes.” No one had any idea. Brahms was devastated and the rest of the waltz-songs changed mood, now focusing on jilted love and broken vows. He wrote his bitterest piece, the “Alto Rhapsody” which he dubbed his “Bridal Song,” a grueling battle with grief and despair. He vowed he would never marry.

Settling into a new apartment where he ended up spending the remaining 24 years of his life (eventually, he would die there), his routine was now fixed: up early, strong coffee, walking, then working or loafing. The piano was the focus of this small apartment, with its huge bust of Beethoven in the corner. He worked things out in his head rather than through laborious drafts like Beethoven. He was a great believer in walking and his carpet was well-worn with his constant pacing. Friends who listened at the door to hear if he were busy would not hear much when he was – a few notes at the piano, some humming, footsteps. Brahms had said a composer’s most valuable piece of furniture was a wastebasket: when he was done with a piece, he burned all the sketches.

He toyed with the idea of writing an opera – on the fairy tale that became “The Love for Three Oranges” which Prokofiev would later use; another was about gold prospectors in California! – but he decided, like marriage, opera was something he would never try, either. In 1873, he wrote a set of variations for two pianos based on a theme Haydn had used and before he’d finished them two months later he realized they needed to be re-worked for orchestra. His next work was not a symphony but a string quartet, one he’d started working on 20 years earlier – also in the dramatic key of C Minor. He said he had written enough music for twenty quartets before he’d finished one.

Brahms was now 40.

Then the stock market crashed and Vienna was hit hard. He had success, though, with three new works – the Haydn Variations and two string quartets. Now he decided it was time to pick up the symphony... but the C Minor Piano Quartet intervened, the third time around. In it, he’d used a theme based on what Schumann called his “Clara Theme,” a musical depiction of the letters of her name. Clara never liked this first movement, finding it too dark and depressing. Brahms wrote to friends hinting it was inspired by Goethe’s “Werther,” about a man, in love with another man’s wife, who commits suicide by shooting himself with a pistol borrowed from her husband. He told a friend he was working on “highly useless pieces in order not to have to look into the stern face of a symphony.” That summer he took a vacation by the Baltic Sea and by the end of August had completed the last movement of the symphony that had first come to him 22 years earlier and whose first movement he’d completed 14 years before. Once he’d figured out what to do with that finale, it took him a few summer months to complete it.

Rather than starting with the dramatic rolling of the kettledrums as it had first started, the symphony now began with relentless fate-like treading of the drums, later incorporating into its first theme one of the rhythmic motives from Beethoven’s 5th with its “Fate-Knocks-at-the-Door” motive as it appeared in the scherzo (the triplet figure, dee-duh-duh DAAH). The final movement began out of the mists like Beethoven’s 9th, searching for a theme before landing on the hymn tune that someone told him sounded just like The Ode to Joy (“any ass can see that,” Brahms responded). What most people didn’t see was where the opening idea of that theme may have came from.

Remember Schumann’s “Clara Theme”? C - B - A - G# - A (in the key of A Minor) with the G# standing in for the R, and the B – or as the Germans called it, “H” (since “Chiara” was Italian for Clara, meaning “bright”) for the L. Schumann often crafted themes like this through a “secret alphabet.” When Brahms was in love with a girl named Agathe, he buried his love for her in his G Major String Sextet by spelling out her name in the melody (minus the T) which he answered with A-D-E, German for “farewell.” It was just a personal association, not that the listener should hear it, necessarily.

Back to the C Minor Symphony’s finale. In the searching violin not-yet-a-theme peering over the mists, he writes C - B - C - A-flat which in C Minor resolves to the G (A-flat on the piano is the same note as G-sharp which should resolve into A Minor). Now look at the “Clara Theme” above. He wouldn’t quote it outright, necessarily, but it’s characteristic of the way Brahms might alter a theme, switching notes around as it evolves. This is then followed by that great alp-horn tune he’d sent to Clara on a postcard seven years before, greeting her a thousand times. A conscious personal association? When it finally resolves to that great Beethoven-like hymn, the tune, now firmly in C Major, is C - B - C - A - G.

Perhaps in addition to having to deal with the ghost of Beethoven in his first symphony, he also needed to deal with the ghost of Clara?

Brahms was now 43. And two years later, after finishing his 2nd Symphony and the Violin Concerto, he grew his beard.

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- Dick Strawser


  1. Anonymous1:48 PM

    I love all great composers' music, but there is something about Brahms that speaks to my heart and soul like no other. He would be my 'desert island' composer for sure.

  2. Anonymous1:35 PM

    Thank you for this outline of Brahms' personal and creative life. Its clarity makes it memorable. Thank you. Brahms is my desert island composer as well.