New Paths and Farewell
Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto and Brahms’s First Symphony
Beginnings and Endings
“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living.” This statement was not made by Johannes Brahms but by one of his contemporaries who, at least where beards are concerned, was a good match for the composer in his later years: Karl Marx. What Marx described with his comment in 1852, Brahms experienced first-hand during the following years, especially after Robert Schumann in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1853 publicly prophesied the “new paths” on which a certain Johannes Brahms from Hamburg would provide “wonderful glimpses into the mysteries of the spirit world”. After such praise, it was understandably not easy for the 20-year-old Brahms to give the world what Schumann predicted. His First Symphony, in particular, was preceded by a long struggle over what, if anything, still remained to be said in a symphony after Beethoven.
Béla Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto – which the Hungarian composer, who had emigrated to the US, was still working on four days before his death – is quite different: not a powerful pioneering work, but an intimate, relaxed farewell piece by a musician well versed in this genre. The young Bartók had already composed a Rhapsody for piano and orchestra as his op. 1 in 1904, in which the brilliant style of Franz Liszt can still be heard. Two decades passed before Bartók returned to this genre with his First Piano Concerto – a work full of ferocity and aggressiveness. The Second followed in 1930, also bursting with energy but more balanced and playful, including the smartly satirized theme from Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet in the opening bars. Finally in 1945, like a distant echo, the Third, evoking Bartók’s role models, such as the Beethoven of the G major Concerto, op. 58, and Brahms, who was particularly revered during Bartók’s early years at the Budapest Academy of Music. As a piano virtuoso, Bartók devoted himself intensively to Brahms as it was; in his late concerts he still played Brahms’s works in the piano duo with Ernst von Dohnányi, but particularly with his former student Ditta Pásztory. Bartók composed the Third Piano Concerto for her, his second wife. György Sándor played the premiere in Philadelphia in 1946, however, and Ditta Pásztory seems to have avoided the work later as well – for unknown reasons.
From the New World
On the face of it, the work continues the line of its predecessors: it has three movements, although Bartók expanded the traditional form with animated elements which are interpolated into the slow movement. The Adagio religioso is the centrepiece of the Third Concerto, since it is not only conceived as the formal axis of reflection but also broadens the expression. The piano contrasts a chorale of moving serenity with the canonical melody in the strings, until bird calls are suddenly heard in the woodwinds – nature awakes, and with it a band of spirits who seem to approach with shimmering ornaments in the piano part. This almost impressionistic image already dominates the light first movement, which opens with a delicate web of sound in the violins and violas, against which the pianist unfolds a simple but modally sophisticated melody. The rondo finale is more virtuosic; symphonic and folkloric elements are juxtaposed. A “limping” rhythm characteristic of Balkan music is developed from interwoven syncopation; a sparkling neobaroque fugato and a hunting fanfare are heard.
In view of the period of time that separates this work from the earlier concertos, its stylistic demarcation is superfluous; one is not surprised that Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto sounds different from his Second. And, when one considers the composer’s personal situation, the special position of this work is obvious. Bartók was a strong opponent of totalitarianism and fled to the US in 1940, but he was even less at home there than other emigrants of that time. When Bartók died in a New York hospital on 25 September 1945, the last 17 bars of the piano concerto were still incomplete; his student Tibor Serly was able to reconstruct them from sketches. The practical arrangement of the score, to which Bartók would presumably have made some corrections, was undertaken by the pianist Louis Kentner, the Schoenberg pupil Erwin Stein and the conductor Eugene Ormandy, who contributed to the quick acceptance of this masterwork on the concert stage.
“You have no idea what it feels like to constantly hear that giant marching behind me.” Karl Marx did not say that about Hegel but rather Johannes Brahms about Beethoven, which is why he would “never compose a symphony”, as he wrote in a letter to the conductor Hermann Levi during the 1870s. A text about Brahms’s First Symphony, which he thankfully did compose, would not be complete without this quotation or Hans von Bülow’s comment referring to it as Beethoven’s “Tenth Symphony”. The composer, who was never at a loss for pointed remarks, also made the following observation about the often mentioned similarity of his work to Beethoven’s Ninth: “Yes, and what is even more remarkable, any jackass can see that.” The more dog-eared the Brahms editions in orchestra music libraries become through extensive use, however, the less modern ears dwell on the model that weighed so heavily on Brahms. His music stands on its own; as the Eroicaof its day, the C minor Symphony, premiered in Karlsruhe on 4 November 1876, marked the start of the last heroic age of this genre, which ended a generation later with Mahler’s late work. Brahms had been working on a symphony since the 1850s. By 1862 he had finished the initial version of the opening movement of the First Symphony, still without the slow introduction; the final bars were added 14 years later. The “new paths” anticipated by Schumann were paved with sketches discarded in despair and, not infrequently, complete works that had not satisfied their composer’s expectations.
“Like a breath of spring air after the long, dreary days of winter”
When one considers the fact that the slow introduction of the symphony was not added until later, the composer’s self-criticism is understandable. Without an introduction, the compact, boldly harmonized allegro theme would have made a very abrupt appearance, but the majestic introduction prepares us for something great when, above the unrelentingly insistent pounding of the timpani, within the dense orchestral texture an ascending line in the strings holds its own against a descending line in the winds. A major third higher, the second movement Andante in E major leaves the tragic tone behind; what the solo violin plays in the upper register, accompanied by solo winds, is like a meditation. The third movement in A flat major is set a major third below the central key of C; its leisurely, rambling clarinet theme introduces a momentary delay – a gentle intermezzo – before the imposing finale.
After Clara Schumann heard the symphony for the first time with an orchestra (and not in the piano version) in Leipzig in January 1877 she wrote: “The symphony was grand, quite overwhelming; especially the last movement, with its inspired introduction, made an extraordinary impression on me; the introduction so gloomy, and then it gradually brightens in the most marvellous manner until it breaks into the sunny motif of the last movement, which makes one’s heart expand like a breath of spring air after the long, dreary days of winter.” She lived to see what her husband, who had died two decades earlier, was not able to experience: that Brahms had actually waved “his magic wand where the massed powers of the chorus and orchestra lend him their force” and had offered “wonderful glimpses into the mysteries of the spirit world”.