Cleveland Orchestra. George Szell
Philadelphia Orchestra. Eugene Ormandy
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The Hard Way To A Symphony
When Robert Schumann made the acquaintance of the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms from Hamburg and was confronted by his earliest piano works, he immediately recognised that he was dealing with someone who would become one of the truly great men in his profession. He wrote that Brahms had "made out of the piano an orchestra of lamenting and loudly rejoicing voices" and prophesied that listeners could anticipate "a wonderful glimpse of the spirit world" if Brahms should decide to point his magic wand in the direction "where the concerted forces of chorus and orchestra lend him their strength".
Even though Brahms thought orches-trally in his early piano works, he did not find it easy to take the final step in the direction of large-scale orchestral compositions. The shadow of Beethoven was too overpowering, causing Brahms on one occasion to exclaim: "I will never write a symphony! You have no idea what it feels like for someone like me always to hear a giant like that [Beethoven] marching along behind me." The first sketches for a symphony adapted from a sonata for two pianos (which has unfortunately disappeared) were made in 1855, but after numerous alterations they were finally turned into the First Piano Concerto in D minor, which is famous for the orchestral conception of the piano part. His two Serenades, written in 1857/58 and 1858/59, also indicate that Brahms was trying to come to terms with the new medium. In the meantime he made a number of attempts at writing a symphony, but just could not manage it. In 1862 he once again stopped work after the first movement and wrote to his friend Joseph Joachim: "After 'Symphony by J.B.' you may for the time being put a?"
The Haydn Variations, which were finished in the Summer of 1873, constitute an important milestone on the road to the first symphony. Here Brahms put his studies in orchestration to the test, and for once he was very much taken with one of his own compositions. The Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a are based on the "St. Anthony Chorale", taken from the second movement of the Divertimento in B flat (Hoboken II: 46), about which he wrote: "The theme of my 'Haydn Variations' is the (whole) Andante from a Divertimento for wind instruments. The orchestration is exactly the same as Haydn's, except for the violins." These Variations also occupy an important place in Brahms's output as the only set of variations originally intended for orchestra. Even here Brahms remained faithful to the piano, for he immediately arranged a version for two pianos.
This successful composition appreciably strengthened Brahms's self-confidence and so, in the Summer of 1874, he turned once more to his first symphony, the first movement of which had been lying in a drawer for 14 years. The work now proceeded more smoothly and in the Summer of 1876, more than 20 years after his first attempts, Brahms's First Symphony in C minor was completed and had its first performance in Karlsruhe in the November of the same year. "It is only a modest little symphony", said Brahms, seeking to put a stop to the repeated comparison with the symphonic writing of Beethoven. In fact the bon mot that Brahms's First Symphony was actually Beethoven's Tenth is meaningless and interferes with our awareness of Brahms's unmistakable musical language. This is characterised by dark colouring and a rich orchestral sound which, remarkably enough, is not due to any increase in the size of the orchestra but to a new dense compositional technique. The relationship to Beethoven's music was therefore more a matter of association, as Theodor Billroth tersely summed it up: "As a result of studying it I became increasingly convinced that the whole symphony is pervaded by the same atmosphere as Beethoven's Ninth, and yet your own artistic individuality comes out particularly clearly in this work."
Initially the public does not seem to have appreciated this "artistic individuality", neither did it make Brahms's reputation. It is significant that this was based on the piano works for four hands which he had already written in the 1850s and '60s: the Hungarian Dances.
The first two volumes appeared in 1869, the second two in 1880. In the Summer of 1880 Brahms wrote to his friend Theodor Billroth from his summer holiday home: "1 am living extremely comfortably at 51 Salzburger Strasse [...] I don't need to recommend Ischl to you and your family for your holiday, I am sure you know of it [...] You ought to think about it and take a look at it! Soon [...] the Hungarian [Dancesl are coming out; I think we shall enjoy them [...] Yours ever). Brahms."
These dances seem to have been enjoyed by many people and one may imagine many pleasant evenings in which, attended by "Punch and Ice Cream" as ETA. Hoffmann, in an entirely different context, described it with such light-hearted irony, the Hungarian Dances were played by two musically competent friends of the host family - to the "edification" of all those present. Richard Wagner, who wanted to belittle the success of Brahms's works by calling him a "Jewish Czardas player", miscalculated and could do no damage to the general appreciation of Brahms's inspired pieces, which so perfectly caught the Hungarian idiom.
Here works for the piano are again associated with their orchestral version, since Brahms himself orchestrated some of the dances, although he left the orchestration of Dances No. 17 to 21 to the warm-hearted Antonin Dvorak, who was living in Vienna in very straitened circumstances. Brahms regarded him very highly and spontaneously tried to help him whenever he could, after they first met in 1878. He wrote to him: "I have no children, I no longer have anyone to care for, so consider my property as your own"
-Annette Kreutziger-Herr (translation: Gery Bramall)