Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Happy Birthday, Johannes Brahms!

"I shall never write a symphony! You can't have an idea what it's like to hear such a giant marching behind you."

Johannes Brahms was born on May 7th, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany. In celebration of the 180th anniversary of the birth of one of my favorite composers, I thought I'd share a review I'd written last year about a performance of his First Symphony by the San Francisco Symphony, originally posted on the Symphony's now defunct social site. Brahms' first symphony was long in coming. It took more than a decade to complete (1862 - 1876), and the composer was haunted by the inevitable comparison to the late behemoth of the symphony, Beethoven. He was at once expected to carry on Beethoven's legacy and yet to forge new paths. In this remarkable work, he accomplished both. As New York Philharmonic Program Annotator James M. Keller wrote, "...Brahms has digested and, to a certain extent, purified Beethoven's visionary achievement in the realm of the symphony. In so doing, he earned his own stripes as a symphonist, and with them the right to move forward as Beethoven's truest heir."
The haunting, inexorable dirge of the timpani opens the First Symphony.

Symphony Night Thoughts: Soaring with Brahms
On Friday, September 16th I could hardly contain my excitement. I admire Yo-Yo Ma, who was on the program that night to play Hindemith's Cello Concerto, but what I was truly looking forward to was Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C major, Opus 68. While I eagerly anticipated hearing how MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony's respected leader) would guide the music, I felt no little anxiety: What if I didn't like what I would hear? I grew up absolutely in awe of Herbert von Karajan's recordings of Brahms' Symphonies, and you know how it goes; the first version you hear is usually the one you like best.  

Although the Symphony in its entirety is wonderful, my favorite movements are the first and the second. The plaintive, slow scream of the strings in the first movement ascends ever higher as the timpani almost goads them on in an inexorable march towards the inevitable. It's enthralling. When listening at home, I would wait until I was alone and turn up the volume until the whole house was filled with Brahms. For me, hearing the first movement is at once a guilty indulgence and an atonement. I don't know of what other music has this effect on me. (Wagner may come close, but the effect is wholly different and I hesitate to use the term 'atonement' in his case.)

Speaking of Wagner, this brings me to the second movement. I am usually reminded of Wagner in certain sections, but where Wagner would have continued the surge of emotion and brought it to the forefront quite overtly, Brahms pulls back just when you think your heart will burst its dam and flow over. This, to me, embodies so much of what I've learned about Brahms as a human being - tender and passionate, yet fastidious and careful. (I fully admit to not being a Brahms scholar; I've only read Jan Swafford's biography of the composer, and Avins and Eisinger's anthology of his letters.) The second movement is replete with the banked fire that I so love about Brahms' music; the way he reins himself back to a self-conscious gravity just when the lush melody swells so ardently seems perfectly fitting. The sensation is overwhelmingly bittersweet, noble, and beautiful.

I admit I found the opening of the Symphony a bit rushed; I revel in the slow, tortuous ascent of the beseeching violins underscored by the dirge-like beat of the timpani. But for this, I was in raptures. This was the first time I'd experienced Brahms' Symphony live; the effect was electrifying. I felt my spirit soar and my heart pound with the beautiful phrasings MTT drew from the musicians. By the Symphony's triumphant end, I was on my feet and just a little disappointed that the evening of music had drawn to a close. But in my head and in my heart, the music played on.