Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was born in Hamburg and spent most of his professional career in Vienna. He is a composer who exposes the most fundamental of musical dichotomies: the traditional and the progressive. This C minor symphony, especially, explores this dichotomy. Sketches of the symphony began in 1854 (during his early career), however, it took Brahms twenty-one years to finally finish it in 1876 (at the point of his compositional maturity). This cautiousness was almost certainly a consequence of the cloud of Beethoven Ninth’s symphony that loomed over Brahms. The symphony was, therefore, an attempt to honour the past by creating something new. His use of more ‘classical’ forms earnt him a more ‘traditional’ reputation, even if his romantic and musical ideas clearly represented progressive ideals. It also did not help that he was constantly compared to Richard Wagner, who (mainly through self-proclamation) became the poster boy of progressivity.
The first movement begins with a wash of sound, revelling in its dissonances and reluctance to move. It fits well with the movements’ indication: ‘un poco sostenuto’. The only constant is the pounding beat of the timpani. After this fluctuating introduction, the following allegro feels like the real beginning. The movement follows a sonata form, and could be written off as another Brahmsian look to the past. However, his mastery of orchestral colour is progressive to say the least. Through thematic simplicity (and sometimes harmonic), he is able to sound the orchestra without a need to write fortissimo. In the second movement, he reminisces about the first movements’ introduction all while playing with various solo lines. The sparing use of the basses exemplifies his trademark ‘strength through simplicity’. It allows the listener to point out the structurally important moments of intensity. The third movement enjoys its long, unwinding lines, passed from one instrument to the other. It is very short at only five minutes. The fourth movement begins with a similarly unsure beginning as the first movement. Although more rhythmically secure, the unwinding pizzicato that follows suggests otherwise. The extreme between the strong pizzicato and long, thematically-vague lines creates a sense of uneasiness. Three minutes in, the horns proudly announce a, finally secure, theme. After being followed by a chorale, it quickly returns with even more anticipation than before. And so arrives what the symphony has been leading towards: the famous Alphorn theme. The theme (inspired by the Swiss Alps) is harmonically and thematically simple yet its underlying counterpoint reveals almost Bachian complexities. Following various changes of heart, the symphony ultimately ends with a rather forceful and triumphant reassurance that we are now in C major.
Rita Fernandes, August 2020
(Originally written for the University of London Symphony Orchestra November 2019 concert)
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