Sunday, August 12, 2007

Reading Brahms's 1st

Since I've been on a Brahms kick lately, I thought I would start Assignment Two of "How to Read a Good Symphony" with Brahms's First Symphony in C minor. I hope I haven't thrown all my eager students off course by starting in the middle of the list.

None of Brahms's four symphonies have the type of cute nicknames that help us remember such works as Schumann's "Spring" Symphony, or Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony, or Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, etc. This may be because each of Brahms's symphonies is so emphatically itself. There is no confusing them with each other, or with the works of any other composer. Once you hear them, they have made an impression - good or bad - that sticks with you.

My first impression of Brahms's First Symphony was not altogether good. In fact, I was perplexed by it. But I think I sensed greatness in it, because I didn't give up on it. I kept going back to it to hear it again, and study it in score, and read what other people had to say about it. Something about it intrigued me, and I really wanted to understand it. Like many other pieces by Brahms, I have found it to be the kind of piece that becomes increasingly precious to me the more I live with it, work on it, and think about it. I do not say "in spite of," but rather because of the time and effort I have spent wrestling with it, it has become a piece that I deeply care about.

I also value it for the lesson it taught me about appreciating art. "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like (and this ain't it)" is a manifesto of inexcusable laziness. Better to say: "True joy is a serious thing," and to seek the joy in a work of art - even one that doesn't immediately please you - through a serious effort to understand it on its own terms. This may require you to study, ponder, and discuss the work at some length. But most of all, it means giving the piece a second, fifth, twelfth, and twenty-seventh chance to shoulder past your guard and reveal the essence you only vaguely sensed when first you said: "I don't know if I like it, but I mean to find out."

Brahms completed his First Symphony in 1876, when he was 40 years old, after a 14-year process of writing and rewriting. Brahms's hestitation to finish tinkering with it, and to have it performed and published, may be a result of his anxiety about following Beethoven's act. Nevertheless Brahms wasn't amused when the piece was facetiously dubbed "Beethoven's Tenth." Supposed similarities to some of Beethoven's symphonies (particulary the 5th and 9th) were emphasized more than Brahms liked, and (in my opinion) out of proportion to their significance. Where the "Beethoven's Tenth" quip might stick, however, is the way this piece expanded the expressive range of the symphony, continuing a process that no one had carried forward since Beethoven's death in 1827.

Movement I begins with one of the most gripping "slow introductions" in symphonic literature. The first thing you hear is the timpanist beating the dickens out of his drum. This is neither a thunderous drumroll, nor a muffled throb; it is more of a furious, relentless pounding. I once saw this performed live, and the timpanist whaled on his drum in big, circular strokes, getting the loudest sound out of it he could without splitting it wide open. Meanwhile, the violins and cellos struggle upward against descending lines in the woodwinds and violas, creating a sense of conflict heightened by unstable rhythm and tonality. Essentially, the first eight measures are a musical scream of anguish. Then Brahms softly and delicately foreshadows some thematic material from the upcoming sonata movement, before building up to a return of the opening conflict music (only now in the dominant key of G). The slow intro peters out softly.

The sonata proper begins with a loud tap on the timpani, followed by four measures of what one might mistake for "fast introduction" material. Actually, a lot of what is yet to come will be based on these notes! But the first full-fledged theme comes in after this phrase: an arch-shaped, soaring phrase consisting of alternating major and minor thirds. (For example: E-flat/G, then E-natural/G.) After you hear this phrase a couple times, a sighing figure from the slow intro reappears. Brahms then works bits of these two ideas together, along with a plunging fragment from the opening phrase of the Allegro, in a passage of intense drama and even anger. This is the "big sound" you might have missed in the opening pages of Brahms's Second!

Around bar 97, things quiet down and you sense that Brahms is making a transition to a second theme group. The theme seems hesitant to appear, however, and the arch-shaped first theme seems equally hesitant to get out of the way, until about bar 130. Then the oboe introduces a relatively cheerful, but very chromatic, theme. Different instruments dialogue back and forth over fragments of this theme. Then the music ramps up to its original mood of vehement passion in a codetta containing two melodic ideas combined in double counterpoint (i.e., the two lines swap places from top to bottom), preparing to repeat the exposition (the first time) or to plunge into the development (the second time).

Soon after the development starts, however, Brahms puts on the brakes. Everything goes quiet, the opening arch-theme is spun out more slowly, and the motives of the exposition muse among themselves in a calmer atmosphere - though not a peaceful one; there is too much mystery and subdued tension for that. A rhythmic figure, similar to the "dit-dit-dit-dah" pattern from the third movement of Beethoven's Fifth, grows in importance and summons a series of chorale-like phrases from the orchestra. This four-note pattern throbs in the background while the winds and upper strings toy with ideas from the unlikeliest-seeming parts of the movement: the codetta and the opening phrase of the sonata (remember the bit that sounded like a "fast intro"?). The development ends in an expanded version of that opening phrase, transformed into an all-but-agonizing buildup to the recap.

The recap ends in a tonic (C minor) cadence in bar 458, but after so much tonal uncertainty, and even tortured twisting, it is not surprising that Brahms adds a coda. What isn't expected is the veering off into a new key and subsequent transition back to the tonic. The movement ends with echoes of its opening themes and a warm glow of C major.

Movement II is a very slow, gentle, luminous piece populated by a wealth of musical ideas. One that weaves straight through it like a golden thread is first heard in bar 3, in a phrase whose hint of E minor undermines the tonic key of E major. Throughout the movement Brahms continues to fiddle with your sense of rhythm and tonality. He exchanges the expected series of self-contained, four-bar phrases for a tone of informal conversation, a characteristic of Brahms that someone interestingly called "musical prose." Overall, the movement has a kind of ABA form, but with a significantly varied return of the A section. The most noticeable difference is the violin solo at the end, in which Brahms seems to lean close to the listener and confide his most intimate, personal thoughts.

Movement III is another one of Brahms's medium-tempo, graceful intermezzos in ABA form. It opens with a clarinet theme in A-flat, a theme at once buttery-smooth and oddly asymmetrical sounding. After a contrasting section reminiscent of a rustic dance, this first theme comes back for one more phrase. Then, at bar 98, a change of key (B major) and metre (6/8) ushers in a new, jig-like idea. This jig rhythm hangs on long enough to overlap with the return of the opening theme. A varied repeat of the opening section follows, including a brief appearance by the rustic dance theme (sounding more incongruous than ever) and, at the end, a brief but satisfying return of the jig theme.

Movement IV, rather unusually, begins with a slow introduction in C minor. Listen carefully to the first phrase in the violins; it is a minor-key version of the main theme of the movement. This foreshadowing reappears several times during the intro, interspersed with accelerating pizzicato passages and stormy atmospherics. The minor key gives way to C major at bar 30, as the horn introduces a noble theme that Brahms first notated in a musical postcard to Clara Schumann in 1868 (with the caption "Thus the alphorn played today"). After thoroughly dealing with this horn theme, Brahms touches off a brand-new sonata movement at bar 61. It starts with a dignified theme that many people have compared to the finale theme of Beethoven's Ninth, though I think the resemblance is rather slight. This is only the beginning of a movement full of confident, masculine joy and a wealth of ideas. The horn theme pokes its way in from time to time, and both it and the chorale-like main theme get split into fragments in the development.

The big surprise in this movement is that the recap is telescoped into the development (which ends forcefully in C minor, whereas the exposition ended in E). Due to the sheer scale of the movement, however, you're unlikely to miss a separate recapitulation - though that nice chorale melody never comes back after the development! A coda of goodly length closes the symphony. It builds up in strength and speed, taking motives from the chorale theme and coming to a huge climax based on a trombone phrase heard toward the end of the slow intro. This unleashes a C-major conclusion of unadulterated triumph and glory.

IMAGES: Trombone; timpani; clarinet; French horn; flute. EDIT: After a long and fruitless search for a video of the first movement - if such a video exists, I don't know about it - I'll settle for this performance of the 3rd movement by conductor Robert Debbaut:

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