more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

Aimez-vous Brahms? (part x of y)


Last night, my fella and I went to Symphony Hall to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra (conducted by some newcomer named Bernard Haitink).  They played Schumann’s Manfred overture, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488 (featuring Maria João Pires on piano – again, some nobody), and Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor.  You may have heard, but I love Brahms.  I especially love his first symphony.  And I love the BSO, and I love Symphony Hall, and I love my fella, and it was just a great big lovefest last night.

In case you’re somehow not yet familiar with Brahms’s First (or Beethoven’s Tenth, if you’re feeling catty), here it is – conducted by that terribly unimportant Leonard Bernstein:

Go on, listen.  Oh, wait – you want me to try to sell you on it?  Well, you know what, I’m just going to quote from last night’s program notes (written by Jan Swafford, who also wrote the Brahms biography I read last year), and you’re going to have to take his word for it along with my hearty endorsement of all of the below:

Given that the First Symphony of Johannes Brahms is one of the most familiar in the repertoire, one of those iconic works that seems to define what a symphony essentially is, it is good to remember that it was written by a man terrified of writing symphonies, perennially uncertain in dealing with the orchestra, and unsure of the path he wanted to take.  All these elements define Brahms as a man and  as a composer.  So does the splendid result, a testament not only to his genius but to his courage and his tireless patience.  This work of remarkable power, passion, and unity was forged in anxiety and sometimes despair through a period of over fifteen years.

[…] In summer 1876 it was time.  Brahms headed for the Isle of Rügen to finish the symphony.  As a creator always inspired by the landscape around him, he probably hoped its rugged cliffs would get into the piece.  Surely they did.

The piece begins on a note of searing drama: keening, searching melodies spreading outward, and the pounding timpani Brahms always associated with fate. […] The introduction lays out two essential ideas that will mark the symphony, a three-note chromatic motif and a soaring line spanning an octave.  Meanwhile the first movement will turn out to be opening act of an implied four-movement narrative: from darkness in the first movement to light in the finale – that being the same narrative as Beethoven’s Fifth.

[…] All along, the finale has been the goal, when the tensions of the first movement and the fraught lyricism of the middle ones find their apotheosis.  The finale’s opening pages recall the shadows and searching of the first movement, and the fateful question it left unanswered.  The music reaches a breathless climax, then as if with a burst of sunlight through clouds, by way of a French horn we hear the call of an alphorn.  Here in a moment of uncanny C major beauty the First Symphony turns toward solace, fulfillment, and finally triumph.

As in Beethoven’s Ninth, what follows is the certification of that fulfillment in the form of a chorale theme that the whole symphony has been striving toward.  That theme, unforgettable from the first time you hear it, is the soul of the finale, which still has tumultuous stretches to work through.  The coda is unbounded exaltation.  Surely part of that exaltation is Brahms’s own, after so many years and so much anguish having accomplished something worthy to place at the feet of the giants of the past, whose tramp he would never stop hearing.

Are you listening yet?  Good.  High time.

Anyway, all of this is to say that I was busy yesterday, and didn’t get to watch a movie, so I’ll double up next week.  Don’t worry: it was time well spent.  We went to two museums, a French restaurant near Symphony Hall (where we were, with the exception of unwilling grandchildren, the youngest people in the joint by several decades), and enjoyed the hell out of the gorgeous spring weather (finally!) Quite cultured for a couple of bums like us.  However, I will be back to watching and writing about unrepentant trash soon enough, so please don’t mind this brief interruption of cultural capital.


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This entry was posted on May 3, 2015 by and tagged , , , , , , .
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