Bonn’s Beethoven Bombs

Below is the review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by Hoffmann (famous writer of the time), 1 ½ years after a less than successful premier (concert was over 4 hours long, one rehearsal, and very cold concert hall):

“Radiant beams shoot through this region’s deep night, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up in jubilant tones sinks and succumbs, and only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with full-voiced harmonies of all the passions, we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.

How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!…No doubt the whole rushes like an ingenious rhapsody past many a man, but the soul of each thoughtful listener is assuredly stirred, deeply and intimately, by a feeling that is none other than that unutterable portentous longing, and until the final chord—indeed, even in the moments that follow it—he will be powerless to step out of that wondrous spirit realm where grief and joy embrace him in the form of sound.”

About 70 years after the dismal premiere, Johannes Brahms published his Symphony No. 1. In studying the score, it becomes painfully obvious that the old master Beethoven had a profound influence on Brahms. The fact that Brahms was in his 40’s showed a reticence on his part to create a symphonic work. Beethoven’s innovations in motivic development and his ripping apart the anointed sonata form so prevalent and revered in the 18th Century created a problem for Brahms, he himself a towering figure of the latter 19th Century. Was he so intimidated by the greatness of Beethoven that he feared a work of his own would show no or little creativity? Brahms, a great melodist of the highest rank, did dabbled symphonically on a smaller scale with his two long but beautiful Serenades.

Finally, in 1877 Brahms’ first symphony for orchestra was published. It is a work of beauty, of grace, and of intensity. Nearly an hour long, it is far less concentrated than Beethoven’s famed highly motivic Fifth Symphony. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the parallel similarities between these two great symphonies. Both symphonies begin in c minor and end triumphantly in C Major. In Beethoven’s opus, the third movement act as a long almost free falling transition for the glorious fully orchestrated last movement, enhanced for the first time with piccolo, contrabassoon, and trombones. Before the recapitulation if the opening, Beethoven quotes the third movement and once again we go on a roller coaster ride to the final movement ending in 29 measures of C Major to counterweight the previous dense and profound music in c minor.

Brahms sketches a similar plot. He uses contrabassoon but at the start of the work but saves the trombones for movement 4. His last movement starts dark enough in c minor and slowly unfolds to the horn call announcing C Major with shimmering strings underneath; perhaps a nod to Beethoven’s brass opening of his final movement. But in Brahms’ case the first theme is heard somewhat later, introduced first by the strings in a deep vibrant register and still in C Major. But in his recapitulation, Brahms waits until after the reiteration of the opening theme to bring back the horn call, performed usually at a slower tempo. This is followed by Theme II staying in C major. A quick coda which includes a brass chorale heard quietly originally in the first movement but now triumphant. Brahms hints at the Theme I with a third trombone solo, an unusual but brilliant stroke of orchestration.

So is this Brahms vain attempt at being another Beethoven; the third “B”? History tells us Brahms was very self-conscious and didn’t publish anything until it was incubated properly. No, Brahms Symphony No. 1 is a great work written in memory of great passing composer. It is his testament to a great master. But what is really occurring is that the baton is being passed to the next great symphonist. Brahms was himself a transitional figure but proved in his own right his gift of melody, of form, of balance, of orchestration, and of beauty. His work stands alone as a great masterpiece and for others to take note. It was the 19th Century Brahms that ushered in a new era of beauty and grace but never forgetting how he got there.

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