Brahms One – not just the best symphony of 1876.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

On my chronological journey through the history of Western classical music, I have just come to the the end of the year 1876 with the glorious climax not only of that year but of the decade or maybe even longer, in Brahms’ powerful, passionate and engagingly complex First Symphony. I have always loved Brahms’ music and I have been impatient these last ten years to come back to his symphonies, chamber music and concerti. My music project has demanded a great deal of self-discipline – more than I thought I had – but now that I have arrived at the beginning of the composer’s golden period, it all feels worthwhile.

My long wait was appropriate considering in some ways the 19th Century itself had a long wait for these works too. Much has been written about Brahms’ First Symphony being the greatest work in this form since Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the ‘Choral’ (1824) though most musicians would agree that Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, the ‘Great C Major’ (1826 but not performed until 1839 – long after Schubert’s death) came up with the next great symphony just a couple of years later. It took a Brahms, and there has only been one of those, to bring intellectual vigour to the complexities of a truly developed symphonic form. Brahms salutes Beethoven in this work, knowing that he was treading in a giant’s footsteps and we can hear his references to the old masters’ 5th and 9th Symphonies but Brahms erudition allows him to raid ideas from Renaissance choral music, the symphonies of Haydn who invented the form, the long-held melody symphonies of Schubert and the intellectual grit of his musical guru, Robert Schumann. All of this is in Brahms’ First but it is not just about the past – in the white heat of invention he shows the way forward to Mahler and, dare I say it, Schoenberg and beyond.

On my slightly nerdy journey through the music of the 19th Century, I was hoping to find counter arguments to the long held view that no one else reached these heights during the interregnum between Beethoven/Schubert and Brahms. OK, there are four symphonies by Berlioz but only his Symphonie Fantastique (1830) has claims to being even loosely “symphonic” whether it fits in here or not it is another debate, but at least two of the others, are great pieces of music too. Similarly there is debate over the two symphonies of Franz Liszt (1811-1886), The ‘Dante’ Symphony (1856)  and the two versions of the ‘Faust‘ Symphony (1854, 1857). The Dante is really a set of two symphonic poems but ‘Faust’ for all its revolutionary harmony and structure and Lisztian excess is a programme symphony and, I think, great. As are two of Mendelssohn’s four mature and delightfully tuneful symphonies, the ‘Scottish’ (1829) and ‘Italian’ (1833) and Schumann’s powerful and complex 2nd (1846) and Romantically atmospheric 3rd, the ‘Rhenish’ (1850) but we know, whenever we go back to the Beethoven and Schubert symphonies that none of the other guys’ works are in the same league wonderful though they are in their different ways.

So I’m discounting Berlioz (well almost), Mendelssohn and Schumann from the greatest symphony since Beethoven/Schubert debate whilst awarding a special prize to Berlioz’  Harold In Italy (1834) and Romeo and Juliet (1839) symphonies for originality, to Schumann’s Second Symphony for almost getting there and to Mendelssohn’s Italian for being joyful and making me happy. I am keeping Liszt’s Faust Symphony and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique on board though because they are not only thrilling pieces but they also represent a different way of seeing the post-Beethoven symphony. Liszt gets the chutzpah prize too for just daring to go so wild.

There are nine symphonies by Louis Spohr (1784-1859) four by Franz Berwald (1796 – 1868), eight by Niels Gade (1817-1890) and, during this period, nine out of the eleven symphonies by Joachim Raff (1822-1882) as well as two youthfully charming ones by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) and just one, a light but youthful masterpiece (1855) by Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875) . I have enjoyed listening to these works and have learnt a lot about this period between the two Bs by tasting these lesser mortals but no one is going to claim the supreme accolade for any of these works.  I will award two prizes here, Gade’s First for giving us another Mendelssohn Symphony and Raff’s Fifth for demonstrating that a second rate composer can actually speak with an original voice and entertain us in the process. I’m afraid I have to add Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies (the later ones are outside this period) to this list of minor symphonies too but with a special minus for Tchaikovsky’s 3rd where he tries much too hard and produced one of the most tedious symphonies of the entire 19th Century. If you want a Russian symphony from this period, you’re better off with the Second Symphony (1862-1876) of Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) a lively, dramatic and concise work with wonderful melodies even if it lacks the true symphonically developed ideas of a Beethoven or Brahms but then no one else on this list had that either.

The first five of the nine symphonies by Antonin Dvorak (1841 – 1904) were written before 1876  too but only the Fifth (1875) can be truly mentioned in the same breath as the greatest of the above mentioned also-rans. It is a lovely lyrical piece full of promise and definitely worth its place in the  main symphonic repertoire even if it will never dislodge the later four mature Dvorak symphonies in reputation. So another prize for Dvorak’s 5th – for being truly delightful.

So that’s it you may think, between Beethoven/Schubert and Brahms (1826 – 1876) no one quite got there with a great symphony. Well, no actually, or maybe yes actually, it’s a matter of opinion. Let’s not forget Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) whose Second and Third symphonies in their earliest versions are all well inside this period and whose great Fourth Symphony, the ‘Romantic’ (1874) fits too even if it is the 1878 revision which is mostly played these days. Bruckner’s monumental Fifth Symphony too was completed in the same year as Brahms finished his First but it too underwent massive revisions in 1878. If we ignore the post-1876 revisions of Bruckner’s first five symphonies, we still have three massive symphonic achievements that are certainly on a level with the best of Schumann.

So first prize for the best symphony written between 1826 and 1876 has to be a tie between Schumann’s Second and Bruckner’s Fourth which is broken when Bruckner’s later 1878 revision is considered. Then Bruckner has it by a whisker. As for Brahms, well, sorry all you other guys, but listening again to Brahms’ First Symphony (1876), all the critics were right. After Beethoven and Schubert, Brahms just blows all the other symphonies out of the water.

That just leaves the Berlioz and Liszt. They represent a special case in the history of the symphony, not in the main line between Beethoven and Brahms but none the less great and, by the time we get to Mahler, we can appreciate their importance for later symphonists. Brahms is still the man though who has to be seen as the greatest exponent of the abstract symphonic music since Betthoven and Schubert.

It was a long time in coming, these last weeks of listening to Brahms One and I haven’t been disappointed. I remembered my old LP version of the work, long since disappeared, and tried to get it on CD only to find it unavailable in the UK or across Europe. After listening to other old favourites, Toscanini, Furtwangler and Bruno Walter and the exciting modern version by John Eliot Gardner, I couldn’t forget my all time favourite, that 1976 recording by the young James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with his sprung rhythms and truly pulsating and sung phrases played with New World vigour and excitement by the CSO. I wondered if I had exaggerated my memory of Levine’s white hot intensity in this recording over all these years but, thanks to an American friend who sent me a copy, I discovered that it is every bit as wonderful as I remembered and it will remain my favourite recording of this piece. Now that I have moved into 1877, I am listening to Brahms’ Second Symphony and Levine (and Brahms) doesn’t disappoint here either.

James Levine

Here is Levine’s Chicago version of the second movement of the First Symphony – just listen to it and you will see why I am so enthusiastic. In Brahms and Mahler, Levine is my favourite conductor.

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