Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was one of the leading composers in late German romanticism, as well as a fine pianist and conductor. Early in his career, he worked mostly around his native Hamburg, where he established a girls’ choir and also toured as a pianist. Robert Schumann helped bring Brahms to the attention of the public by declaring him, “the Chosen One…to give ideal expression to the times.”

Brahms applied several times unsuccessfully for the music directorship of the Hamburg Philharmonic, even moving to Vienna in 1862 to establish a reputation that would impress the Philharmonic’s management. When he was passed over, he remained in Vienna, composing and concertizing. He conducted the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde concerts until resigning in 1875. He worked solely as a composer from then on.

Brahms was a classicist who worked with most forms, save for the tone poem, opera, ballet, and mass. His conservative reputation put him at the center of a conflict with the New German School of Wagner and Liszt, but Brahms was more progressive than was supposed, particularly in harmony. Arnold Schoenberg praised him, and Anton Webern credited Brahms with anticipating the atonal Second Viennese School.

Most of Brahms’s orchestral works appeared relatively late in his career. He was especially intimidated by the symphony, which he considered the highest form of orchestral writing. Beethoven had set the standard, and Schumann’s endorsement put even more pressure on him. He began early work on a symphony, but that material ultimately became his first piano concerto (1858). The first sign of his next attempt was a sketch he gave Clara Schumann in 1862, but he destroyed most other evidence of his progress. In the meantime, he produced many major works, gaining experience and financial security. After A German Requiem established him as a major composer in 1868, and the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn cemented his popularity in 1873, he returned to the symphony in earnest. After some 20 years, his first symphony premiered in Karlsruhe in 1876, and several performances followed. Though the work gained popularity somewhat slowly, it was instrumental in resurrecting the symphonic form for many composers, including for Brahms, who wrote three more symphonies over the next ten years.

The first movement, in C minor, is large in scale, with rich, warm string textures, strong bass, muscular rhythms, and powerful urgency. It seems to reflect Brahms’s struggle in writing it and perhaps the pain he witnessed in Robert Schumann’s mental health decline. The introductions to the first and final movements are the only such constructs in Brahms’s symphonies. Donald Tovey called the first movement introduction (written after the rest of the movement) “a gigantic procession of cloudy figures destined to take shape in the themes of the first movement.” It is driven relentlessly by the timpani, while strings move up and winds down, pulling against each other. Ominous dread is manifest in the sharply dropping intervals in the winds; gentle reponses come from a smoothly flowing and syncopated string line, and a lyrical oboe melody of triplets. In the Allegro, the dropping intervals become a heavy upbeat-to-downbeat rhythmic figure that lends the music a granitic and determined yet striving quality. The flowing string lines range from heroic to exalted. The triplets appear later to add vigor and motion to the earlier seriousness.

The songlike Andante sostenuto is reflective and serene, with a strong bass line and dark orchestral coloring. Notable are two lyrical oboe solos and a beautiful, sweeping string melody. Toward the end is a sweet duet for violin and horn that harkens back to Brahms’s horn trio. The sublime violin solo that concludes the movement—the only one in his symphonies—recalls the one in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

Un poco Allegretto is the most lighthearted movement. The breezy clarinet melody suggests Brahms’s early Serenades; the second, more chromatic theme is darker with nervous accompaniment. The extensive trio is festive, but the bridge out of it darkens things until the opening clarinet solo returns, only to be cut short, as winds and strings end the movement in quiet expectation.

The C minor introduction to the finale begins in slow mystery that gives way to urgent plucked strings. The pattern repeats, and things become agitated, with strings rushing to a thunderclap of stormy timpani. The sun then emerges with a broad horn theme in C major. Trombones and bassoons sing a chorale, and the horn melody returns. Thereafter the Allegro remains in C major, paralleling the tonal journey from c minor that Beethoven took in his Fifth Symphony. It begins with the theme famously likened to the “Ode to Joy” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The theme will return fuller and richer in the cellos, but only in fragments after that. There is no more struggle or mystery, and no development other than going back over material. Rhythm is direct; textures are clear. Brahms even exults with the opening motif from Beethoven’s Fifth: first quietly in the oboe, then joyfully in the horn. Crushing chords follow, like a giant stomping through newly acquired turf, clearing the way for the reappearance of the horn’s “sun” motif. A fragment of the main C major theme presented by bass trombone is enough to launch the coda, where the solemn trombone chorale is now proclaimed by the entire orchestra to a triumphant close.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is also the Operations/Personnel Manager), and is a local freelancer. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener's Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony.

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