In and Out of Beethoven’s Shadow

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Brahms: Symphony No. 1

William Steinberg / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Westminster WGS 8166

Any ass can see that.

-Johannes Brahms replying to a comment that his First Symphony sounded too much like Beethoven


Hans von Bulow, the Romantic conductor and composer, said that Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 could just as well be called Beethoven’s Symphony No. 10, and there is excellent reason for his quip.

Brahms was forty-three when he completed it, in 1876, on one of the Baltic Islands (one can imagine him, trademark mocha on the table in front of him, taking his usual afternoon nap on a lounge chair). His Piano Concerto No. 1 was begun as his first symphony, and it is basically a symphony with an extensive piano part. The problem for Brahms and the symphony undertaking was essentially Beethoven, from whose shadow he’d had been trying to get out of for some time. Being a Beethoven-phile like any self-respecting composer of the day, he knew he would have to surmount the master in order to attain his own orchestral voice. And like all struggles against a father-idol, it was a neurotic one. The anxiety of influence indeed. His First Symphony, therefore, is a coming-to-terms with Beethoven’s monolithic hold, a Freudian act of overcoming.

To quote Michael Steinberg in his Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, the symphony is a “dense thicket” of sounds in more or less “contrary motion”. There’s always a certain hardness to Brahms’s music, a rigid adherence to form, which he was well aware of, and wished at times that he had Dvorak’s ear for melodies. But the First Symphony is Brahms at his most elegiac.

The Big Theme of the work comes in the Allegro, and here Brahms finally tackles the shadow of Beethoven in a huge way, and you can practically hear his personal, agonized bout with LvB at every measure. (There’s a hair-raising moment in Celibidache’s recording for EMI in which the conductor lets out a startling guttural shout, and I always think of this as him channeling Brahms).

In many ways, the Big Theme is a distorted mirror-image of the Ode to Joy, and it’s introduced with one of the great pauses in classical music, like a breath being inhaled before Brahms makes the plunge to paraphrase Beethoven and then to strike out on his own. The theme itself is a crystalline, undecorated hymn. Then, without dallying, the music hurtles forward, propelled by the final note of the theme, which is not to be heard again in its pure form.

The finale is a coruscating, accelerating, halting iteration of the theme going through stupendous, thrilling transfigurations. With an enormity that seems to come from an abyss of pent-up emotion, Brahms unleashes the full orchestra in a torrent of string tremolos and recapitulations of what’s been heard from beginning to end, before finding its own ferocious autonomy. This is Brahms moving away from Beethoven’s supersonic orbit and hurtling along to his own trajectory, even if the gravitational pull of Planet Beethoven is a constant.

What an apple on a scale has to do with the symphony, as this Westminster design has it, is anyone’s guess.

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