Hugh WolffHugh Wolff, New England Conservatory's Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras, has written these notes for his season-opening September 25 concert with the NEC Philharmonia. The program consists of two works: the North American premiere of Tan Dun's Concerto for Orchestra after Marco Polo, and Johannes Brahms's Symphony No. 1, which the composer first sketched out 150 years ago. As NEC begins a year of programming on the theme Music: Truth to Power, Hugh Wolff (and Arnold Schoenberg) ask whether or not Brahms's entry into the world of numbered symphonies was a revolutionary act.

Symphony No. 1 in C Minor

In a 1933 essay, Arnold Schoenberg wrote:

“Form in music serves to bring about comprehensibility through memorability. Evenness, regularity, symmetry, subdivision, repetition, unity, relationship in rhythm and harmony and even logic—none of these elements produces or even contributes to beauty. But all of them contribute to an organization which makes the presentation of the musical idea intelligible. The language in which musical ideas are expressed in tones parallels the language which expresses feelings or thoughts in words… The aforementioned elements of [music’s] organization function like the rhyme, the rhythm, the meter, and the subdivision into strophes, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters in poetry or prose … Progress in music consists in the development of method. Brahms, the classicist, the academician, was a great innovator in the realm of musical language—in fact, he was a great progressive.”

We hardly think of Johannes Brahms as a revolutionary. He was the 19th century’s throwback—a brilliant composer more interested in extending and perfecting the methods and structures of the classical era than in the innovations of composers such as Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner (all of whom were at least twenty years older than Brahms). But Schoenberg appreciated Brahms as a composer who created complex structures built from rigorously organized musical materials, not one seduced by atmosphere, color, or flights of imagination. In this way, Brahms reflects Schoenberg’s own rigor in inventing and organizing 12-tone music. And the First Symphony is an extraordinary example of Brahms’s rigor. He labored long over it—the first sketches date from 1862; he was forty-three years old when he finished it in 1876. And contemporary music had already moved far away from Brahms’s style: Wagner’s complete Ring cycle was first performed three months before Brahms’s symphony. But today it seems more than worth the wait.

It begins with one of most intense and anguished utterances in all symphonic music: a powerful chromatic line rises above a throbbing C pedal, followed by quiet falling sixths in the woodwinds. Virtually everything in the movement is derived from these ideas: chromatic lines, the melodic use of the sixth and its inversion, the third (Schoenberg surely approved), and the stubborn persistence of pedal tones denying music that yearns to break free. The serene slow movement opens with a gentle two-bar phrase. Moments later, in another invention Schoenberg admired, this becomes the bass line for a new melody in the oboe. The rising chromatic gestures from the first movement take on a more resigned quality in the second. The scherzo movement (an invention of Beethoven) is replaced by a gentle dance in two-four time, more in line with the Rhenish symphony of Brahms’s mentor, Robert Schumann. The Finale begins in darkness and gradually makes its way to light, reflecting the direction of the entire symphony. That light first appears minutes into the brooding introduction: the air clears and the horn sounds one of the most famous calls ever written. In 1868, Brahms sent Clara Schumann a birthday postcard with this melody set to the following words: “Hoch auf’m Berg, tief im Tal, grüß’ ich Dich, viel tausendmal!” (High in the mountains, deep in the valley, I greet you thousands of times!) Brahms uses the melody to punctuate the Allegro non troppo, ma con brio that follows—a movement of fervor and passion that carries us breathless to its whirlwind coda.

Brahms, so neurotic about writing a symphony after Beethoven’s nine, was gratified by the gradual public appreciation of his first symphony. His close friend Joseph Joachim, writing from England in 1877 after premiering the work there, said it “really gets to people.” Surely that is the aim of every composer.