Complete performances of the symphonies by Brahms and Schumann have been among the outstanding events of Simon Rattle’s era with the Berliner Philharmoniker in recent years. The orchestra and the conductor will now directly juxtapose the two composers’ symphonies: a fascinating double portrait. This special cycle launches with Brahms’s and Schumann’s first symphonic works.
Symphony No. 1 in B flat major Spring
Symphony No. 1 in C minor
Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation in co-operation with Berliner Festspiele/Musikfest Berlin
When Robert Schumann presented Johannes Brahms to the music world as an exceptionally gifted pianist and composer of chamber music and lieder in his “New Paths” article in the Leipzig Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, he also pointed the way into a future full of hope for the young man, who was then 20 years old: “If he lowers his magic staff where the massed forces of chorus and orchestra give their powers, then we shall yet have even more wondrous glimpses into the secrets of the spiritual world. May the highest spirit of genius strengthen him for this […].” Brahms, who made a pilgrimage to Düsseldorf in October 1853, responded rather diffidently: “God grant that my work soon give you proof of how very much your kindness lifted me.” The two of them agreed that the path to “great” symphonic writing would not be easy. Probably neither would have anticipated at that time, however, that more than 20 years were to pass until Brahms’s first symphony was completed. At that point Brahms, 43 years old, was the same age as Schumann when his compositional career broke off.
The remarkable parallels in the genres of the oeuvre of the two composers (each wrote three piano sonatas, three string quartets, three piano trios, three violin sonatas and four symphonies) makes it attractive to juxtapose them, as Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker are exploring in a cycle of their own. Unlike Schumann, whose ebullient First Symphony was “written in that springtime impulse which probably assails people every year anew,” Brahms’s First is a dark work in C minor that begins fatefully with a tremendous timpani ostinato; with its “per aspera ad astra” Finale, it links to the Beethoven tradition.
“The memory of Schumann is sacred to me. That noble, pure artist will always serve as my model,” Johannes Brahms acknowledged in a letter of 1873. The mature Brahms, on the other hand, was not overly pleased about the belief which was prevalent during the later 19th century that, as a composer, he was Schumann’s successor, nor did he wish to be described as the pupil of his discoverer, advocate and fatherly friend, particularly since the two men became closer at a time when Schumann’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. There could hardly have been much opportunity for an in-depth exchange on compositional questions. Schumann’s influence was strong, but his impact on Brahms’s work was more subliminal.
The inner attitude of the generation-younger composer towards Schumann, who died in 1856 at the age of only 46, seems to have been ambivalent throughout Brahms’s lifetime anyway, although professional and extremely personal aspects overlapped in a special way. During the years of Schumann’s illness the emotionally inexperienced Brahms developed a strong affection for his wife Clara, the unparalleled pianist and mother of eight children, resulting in feelings of guilt and repressed desires. The relationship between Brahms and Schumann was no less complicated in terms of artistic practice.
Although Schumann made the 20-year-old Brahms famous overnight in the music world with his essay “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths), which was published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1853, hailing him with messianic exuberance as the long-awaited “chosen one” and the artist who was “destined to give ideal expression to the times”, he also saddled Brahms with an obligation that would weigh heavily on him for many years to come. Brahms had barely arrived on the scene when he found himself exploited for partisan purposes, as it were, and thrust into a prominent position in the controversy over the legitimate successor to Beethoven. He may also have felt that Schumann’s essay did not describe him adequately. When the enthusiastic author referred to Brahms as “a player of genius, who can make of the piano an orchestra of lamenting and loudly jubilant voices”, he captured an essential characteristic of the impulsive, passionate composer. Schumann did in fact encounter Johannes Brahms, the romanticist, during his young colleague’s visit of several weeks to Düsseldorf in early autumn of 1853. But it was precisely this facet of the ardent, emotional musician that would increasingly be concealed over the years behind a deliberately serious, almost unapproachable countenance.
Whereas Schumann often referred to the flight of inspiration as the crucial moment of artistic invention and was clearly sceptical of “long reflection” when composing, Brahms tended to be suspicious of impulsiveness and spontaneity. Steeped in the ideals of the Protestant work ethic – economy, perseverance, discipline – he strove for “lasting” music which, thanks to its painstaking craftsmanship, would stand up to comparison with the greatest masters of the past. Naturally, Brahms also welcomed spontaneous ideas, but he regarded them at best as points of departure for the creative process: “What one actually calls invention, meaning a real idea, is, so to speak, a higher perception, inspiration, that is to say, I can’t help it. From then onward I cannot disdain this ‘gift’ enough, and through incessant labour I have to make it my legitimate, well-earned property.”
Schumann, who often composed during manic episodes, also forced himself to iron discipline. From a certain point in time he apparently even refrained from freely improvising at the piano for fear of uselessly exhausting his ideas. For the most part self-taught as a composer, he continually tried to perfect his skills through rigorous study of counterpoint. Although he had composed almost exclusively for the piano during his early creative period, between 1840 and 1843 Schumann explored other important musical genres in succession – from the lied (1840) to symphonic works (1841) and chamber music (1842) to oratorio (1843).
From the beginning both Schumann and Brahms were fully aware of the social prestige of the symphony. “I was quite happy and only wished that you were my wife and I could also write such symphonies,” Schumann confessed in a letter to Clara in December 1839, after hearing a rehearsal of Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony in Leipzig, which he himself had discovered among Schubert’s papers. In his early years Brahms was also plagued by the idea that he would not enjoy sufficient status and recognition to marry until he had achieved success with large-scale orchestral music. As a consequence, after the disastrous failure of his First Piano Concerto at the Leipzig performance he broke off his engagement to Agathe von Siebold, the daughter of a Göttingen doctor.
Many accounts have described how intimidated composers of that time were by the expectations associated with the symphonic genre. Beethoven’s symphonies had taken on the character of community-building “speeches to humanity” (Adorno); they had thus become a kind of public appeal which was actually repugnant to contemporaries in the restorative, domestic era after Napoleon’s defeat. The historically unparalleled congruence of great ideas and grand gestures in Beethoven’s symphonies, the combination of dramatic force and inner logic – all this set a standard in which the mere attempt to create something new and universally valid appeared to be either naïvely inflated self-esteem or a near-heroic deed. The appropriate quotation on this score comes from Brahms, of course, who during the early 1870s let conductor Hermann Levi know why he would never compose a symphony: “You have no idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching along behind you.”
After two failed symphonic projects, a coincidental encounter became a source of inspiration for Robert Schumann. While looking through previously unknown manuscripts with Franz Schubert’s brother Ferdinand, he came across the score of the “Great” C major Symphony. The “complete independence of Beethoven’s symphonies,” the “novelty of the instrumentation” and the “splendid, romantic” tone had a triggering effect on Schumann. Like Schubert, he opened his “Spring” Symphony with a fanfare motto, but not only as homage. Unlike that of his great model, this motto theme influences nearly all the themes in the work, until the epilogue theme in the finale is finally transformed into a fanfare itself. The impulsive motto theme is inspired by a poem of Adolf Böttger dedicated to spring. With the return of the fanfare motto at the end of the symphony, nature seems to be in full bloom.
No other composer referred as directly to Beethoven’s symphonic works as Brahms did in his First Symphony, not only with the obvious allusion to the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the main theme of the finale. Like Beethoven’s Ninth, Brahms’s work is also resolutely focussed on the finale and – despite the allusion mentioned above – presents a highly individual solution of the “symphonic problem”. What was still lacking in the complex thematic construction of the first movement, with its chromatic themes and dramatic timpani blows, and was suggested only tentatively in the inner movements is realized in the finale: the instrumental song, vocally conceived music which manages without words and, by drawing on the folk tune, chorale and hymn, ideally depicts the musical terrain explored in Brahms’s First Symphony.