The Reconciliation of Opposites
The Wiener Symphoniker's early reception of Brahms
By Michael Krebs, Translation: Dean Kustra
The co-founder and first Music Director of the Wiener Symphoniker Ferdinand Löwe was not only a tireless pioneer of the music of his teacher Anton Bruckner - he was also the decisive initiator for the permanent anchoring of Johannes Brahms' symphonies in the Vienna concert repertoire. A look at the early history of the Wiener Symphoniker.
Hardly any other artistic personality made such a lasting impression on the Wiener Symphoniker in their first quarter-century as the conductor Ferdinand Löwe. As co-founder and long-serving Music Director of the orchestra - founded in 1900 as the Wiener Concertverein - for 25 years he advanced like no other the 'cultivation and popularisation of symphonic music', to which the Verein had committed itself in its founding statutes. Ferdinand Löwe learned his craft from none other than Anton Bruckner, for whom he is still remembered as an early champion and artistic advocate. At the same time he had the artistic foresight to refuse to become entangled in the dispute then raging passionately between the parties of the so-called 'Brahmsians' and 'Brucknerians', who stylised the “innovator” Bruckner and the “traditionalist” Johannes Brahms as irreconcilable aesthetic antipodes.
Löwe was clever enough in this situation to place compositional quality above ideological squabbling, and so the works of Johannes Brahms occupied a central place on the Bruckner pupil's concert programmes - right from the start. As early as the 'Third Society Concert' on 14 February 1900, the orchestra - only recently founded and in its first months known simply as the 'New Philharmonic Orchestra' - performed the Symphony No. 1 in C minor. Only three years had passed since the composer's death, and his First Symphony, less than a quarter-century old, was still met with incomprehension in many places. The performance in February 1900 contributed significantly to changing this. In his memoirs, the influential Viennese music critic Theodor Helm writes that the symphony 'had for more than 20 years been notorious in Vienna as "dry and lacking in invention", until Ferdinand Löwe, as conductor of the then newly-founded New Philharmonic Orchestra, finally succeeded' in opening people's eyes to 'the correct assessment of this masterpiece.'
The 'musical events of the very first order' were discussed in detail in the Neues Wiener Tagblatt on 16 February 1900 by no less a figure than future Brahms biographer Max Kalbeck. At first he, too, worried that 'those listeners alien to Brahms's art' would react to the work with incomprehension. But this fear proved completely unfounded: the masterful performance caught the critical Viennese public's attention as never before. 'At the end of the symphony, the enthusiasm of the public broke into tremendous orgiastic jubilation, and the thunder of applause rolled through the hall for several minutes. (...) . The single tear of bitterness is that Brahms did not live to experience this memorable evening!' The enthusiasm was so great that a 'general desire' was expressed to hear Brahms's First Symphony 'performed again as soon as possible, especially by this orchestra and under this conductor.'
There would now, finally, be ample opportunity for this. The memorable concert evening of February 1900 not only laid the foundation for the acceptance of Brahms the symphonist in his adopted home; it also signalled a brilliant start to the newly founded orchestra's continual maintenance of his music in the Viennese repertoire that had been lacking for so long. A glance at the Wiener Symphoniker archives makes clear that Löwe was serious about this. Until 1923, he would conduct nearly 140 performances of Johannes Brahms's works. Central place in the Wiener Concertverein's ongoing commitment to Brahms was given to the four symphonies, which Löwe worked with untiring commitment to anchor permanently in the Viennese concert repertoire. He was especially fond of the First, which he would go on to conduct a further 16 times following the ground-breaking performance of February 1900. The Fourth would resound 14 times during Löwe’s tenure, and the Second and, to a lesser degree, the Third Symphony, also came into their own, receiving 11 and 6 performances respectively.
This intense devotion to the symphonic works of both Brahms and Bruckner speaks to the fundamental unifying attitude and artistic vision of the future Wiener Symphoniker's first Music Director. By the orchestra's eighth year, the time was finally ripe to send out a clear signal. On 11 December 1908, Löwe did what no other in Vienna before him had dared: he conducted two works by the two apparent antipodes on a single evening - Brahms's Haydn Variations and Bruckner's Third Symphony - and thus, once again, wrote Viennese musical history. 'Brahms and Bruckner - that was once a contradiction!' rejoiced Julius Korngold in the Neue Freie Presse on 21 December. Richard Batka summed things up seven years later in the Fremdenblatt of 19 February 1915: 'It is in Löwe that the reconciliation of the two great, long-divided musical camps of Vienna first became a living reality. The history of the Wiener Concertverein, which Löwe has now led for half a lifetime, is thus also the history of reconciliation between the conservative and progressive music of Vienna.'