To open his final season as Music Director of the Wiener Symphoniker, Philippe Jordan has programmed the symphonies of Johannes Brahms. A perfectly logical step – after all, since taking up the post with the Symphoniker in 2014, he has continually sharpened his focus on and trained his ear for the cornerstones of the orchestra’s repertoire: Schubert, Beethoven, Bruckner and Schumann. And now Brahms – the four symphonies, which are being recorded for CD at the same time, as well as the Violin Concerto, the two Piano Concertos and the “German Requiem” as the season progresses.
Brahms - The chosen one
As early as 1853, Robert Schumann had described Brahms’s early piano sonatas as “veiled symphonies” in his article “New Pathways”, foreseeing for the music world a great future symphonist in the twenty-year-old youth from Hamburg. Yet more than two decades were to pass before Brahms would present the public with a symphony – years in which he undoubtedly wrestled with the genre. The two Serenades ops. 11 and 16 with their clear symphonic structure, the monumental First Piano Concerto op. 15 – developed from an early draft for a symphony – and the “Haydn Variations” op. 56a all bear witness to this. But “if you dare to write symphonies after Beethoven, they must look quite different”, Brahms told his friend in Detmold, Carl Bargheer. And to the conductor Hermann Levi he exclaimed: “I shall never write a symphony! You have no idea how the likes of us feel always to hear such a giant marching behind us!”
The musical legacy of the “giant” Beethoven exerted an overpowering hold on Brahms. The direction of the New German School taken by Wagner, for example, or Liszt towards music drama and symphonic poems was not to be his. His rootedness in and his respect for the historical more or less compelled him to draw on tradition. The “never” did finally become a “first”: the First Symphony op. 68 in the key of c minor, the tragic key of Beethoven’s Fifth, his “Destiny Symphony”. From drafting the first movement in 1862 to completing the composition in 1876, Brahms forged his own path derived directly from tradition with a classically structured, four-movement work: two fast outer movements and two contrasting inner movements, and a Finale that drew on the “Freude” theme from Beethoven’s Ninth. “No composer”, wrote Eduard Hanslick in his review of the first performance in Vienna at the Great Hall of the Musikverein, has “come so close in style to late Beethoven as Brahms in this Finale.”
Brahms picks up precisely where Beethoven left off as a symphonist. With the c minor symphony, the spell was broken and the way clear for his own work. Within a year he had added the Second Symphony op. 73, a work that now flowed so easily from his pen during the summer months in Pörtschach: “… so many melodies fly about that one must be careful not to step on them …” Six years later he finished the Third op. 90 and, in 1885, the Fourth Symphony op. 98. In all four works, Brahms follows tradition in the overall structure but redefines the musical forms passed down to him – modifying them, combining them. Fascinated by the variation form throughout his life, Brahms refined it with each new work. In some respects, the Finale of the Fourth Symphony might be considered the pinnacle of this art: a Chaconne with 31 variations.
From the beginning, the symphonies of Johannes Brahms, erstwhile Concert Director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, have found an important home at the Musikverein. It was here that Brahms himself conducted the first Viennese performance of his First Symphony; here that he witnessed the premieres of his Second and Third. It is a performance tradition in which the Wiener Symphoniker have played a major role since being founded. At the start of a new season 2019/20, this tradition continues under Philippe Jordan.
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