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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 The Return of the Symphony
Richard Taruskin

One of the most contentious points at issue between the New Germans and their opponents was the historical status of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Wagner had notoriously cast it, in suitably religious terms, as the “redemption of Music from out of her own peculiar element into the realm of universal art,” and “the human evangel of the art of the future.”28 In other words, the mixture of vocal and symphonic media in the last movement closed the door on the further development of abstract instrumental music, making Lisztian programmatics and Wagnerian “synthesis” (or Gesamtkunstwerk, as it was misnamed) not only necessary but inevitable. To “revoke” the Ninth Symphony and its supposed mandate would be to revoke the New German charter, or so their opponents imagined, and with it the whole historicist creed. It would be a victory for Germany as well, paradoxical as that may sound, for it would rescue German art from its Wagnerian preoccupation with German “thematics” and return Germany to its place at the forefront (to borrow Wagner's own arrogant term) of “universal art.” Brahms realized that the only way to accomplish the necessary reinterpretation would be to recompose the finale of the Ninth as a nonprogrammatic instrumental work. Encouraged by the response to the Haydn Variations, he finally returned to the First Symphony in the summer of 1874, resuming work not with the next movement in order of performance, but with the finale. It was only when the outer movements were in place—the dynamic C-minor “allegro” transfiguring Beethoven's Fifth and the monumental finale transfiguring the Ninth—that Brahms saw the work's trajectory whole, and was able quickly to fill in the middle movements.

Like the finale of the Ninth, Brahms's finale is in a hybrid form, the “true” identity of which has long been a subject of pointless debate. Rather than trying to decide whether it is a sonata, a rondo, a set of variations, a rondo-sonata, or what, it would be better (as in the case of Beethoven) to take stock at the outset of its highly diverse and even disparate ingredients and then trace their interaction.

Prominent among them, just as in Beethoven, are pastoral and religious emblems. The pastoral emblem is an “Alphorn theme” that first appears among Brahms's papers in the form of a birthday card he sent from Switzerland to Clara Schumann in 1868. It is replete with archaic rhythms (a “Lombard” snap in the second measure, a “double dot” in the fourth), a rustic “raised” fourth degree (the F♯ in m. 6), and words that parody old German folk songs: “High in the mountains, deep in the valley, I greet you a thousandfold!”29 (Ex. 13-11a). There is little doubt that this is no transcription from life but an “ersatz”—an imitation folk song, more folky than the folk. The religious emblem is another ersatz: a chorale-like passage intoned on its first appearance by a choir of trombones, horns, and bassoons (Ex. 13-11b).

Victory Through Critique

ex. 13-11a Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 1, IV, alphorn theme

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ex. 13-11b Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 1, IV, chorale theme

These two emblematic items serve to introduce what appears to be the movement's main theme. As in Beethoven's Ninth it takes the form of a great, though wordless, hymn. The resemblance to the choral theme from the Ninth is so pronounced and was so widely noted as to have become a standing joke, the best known version of which had Brahms answering someone who had pointed it out to him by saying, “Yes indeed, and what is really remarkable is that every jackass notices it at once.”30 Sometimes the squelch is interpreted to mean that Brahms found the suggestion that he lacked originality irritating. More likely, if he actually said it, he meant that the mere resemblance is uninteresting. The implications were what counted.

Victory Through Critique

ex. 13-12a Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 1, IV, main theme

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ex. 13-12b Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, IV, choral theme (transposed)

For there can hardly be a doubt that Brahms intended his theme as a paraphrase of Beethoven's. If the two are written out in the same key, they even have a measure in common, and Brahms, by developing the phrase in which that measure occurs, all but insists that we notice (Ex. 13-12). Far less immediately noticeable is the equally strong resemblance of the opening phrase of the melody (which, in the parallel minor, had already served as the portentous opening phrase of the Finale's slow introduction) to a C-minor ground bass by Bach (Ex. 13-13). As the Brahms scholar David Brodbeck has plausibly suggested, if one of the references is a deliberate allusion, then in all likelihood both of them are.31 And if so, then we have another attempt at forging a factitious link between Bach and the Viennese classics.

The fact that Brahms chose to make so obvious a reference to Beethoven's choral theme, and also the fact that his own theme actually makes a double allusion (first to Bach and only then to Beethoven), both take on increasing significance as the movement progresses. The most obviously significant aspect of the Beethoven reference was the simple fact that it was entirely—and pointedly—instrumental. By alluding to the choral theme but withholding (or suppressing) the chorus, Brahms seemed to be correcting the wrong turn Beethoven had—with laudable intentions but dire results—taken half a century before.

His friend, the musicologist Chrysander, got the point and publicized it. Far from the “weak and impotent imitation”32 the New Germans were calling it, Brahms had created “a counterpart to the last sections of the Ninth Symphony that achieve the same effect in nature and intensity without calling on the assistance of song.” This alone was enough to show that Brahms's attitude toward tradition was not merely reverential or epigonal, but active, participatory, and anything but uncritical. By not merely attaching himself to the Beethoven tradition but critiquing it, Brahms had brought about (or hoped to bring about) a change of course. In Chrysander's words, he had “led the way back from the symphony that mixes playing and singing to the purely instrumental symphony,” ending the eclipse of the latter genre and restoring its historical validity. As we shall see (and go on seeing, far into the twentieth century), the subsequent history of the genre confirmed his success.

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ex. 13-13a J. S. Bach, ground bass from Cantata no. 106, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit”

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ex. 13-13b Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, IV, beginning of main finale theme

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ex. 13-13c Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, slow introduction of finale, mm. 1–15

But there was even more than that to Brahms's critique of “Wagner's Beethoven.” The difficulty critics and analysts have had in identifying the form of Brahms's finale arises from the unexpected behavior—or, perhaps, the unexpected fate—of the main theme. The manner in which it is introduced, establishing a new and faster tempo after a slow introduction that had ended on the dominant, identifies it as a symphonic “first theme”—that is, a theme that will be contrasted with another (in the dominant), will experience tonal vagaries and motivic development, and finally achieve a decisive or even triumphant restatement in the tonic to signal the movement's impending closure.

Up to a point that is just what happens. After its initial statement by the strings, the theme is repeated by the winds, as if replaying the strategy whereby Beethoven's choral theme had spread its brotherly contagion. A third repetition gives way to a preliminary motivic development of the opening Bach-derived phrase, opening onto a modulatory bridge that leads to the expected “second theme” (Ex. 13-14). It arrives at m. 118, and turns out to be another “typically Brahmsian” backward glance—a set of tiny variations over a four-note “descending tetrachord” ground that had a particularly distinguished historical pedigree.

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ex. 13-14 Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, IV, mm. 118–124 (strings only)

But the dialectics of “sonata form” (unknown, of course, in the actual era of the ground bass) lends a delicious ambiguity to Brahms's revival of the ancient ground. Such grounds normally descended from the tonic to the dominant—and so does this one, except that at this point in the movement's tonal progress, the dominant has been “tonicized” (that is, made to function locally as tonic). The actual impression conveyed, therefore, is of a descent from subdominant to tonic. Thus Brahms again manages to have it both ways: a deliberate allusion to an outmoded style becomes the vehicle for an ingenious novelty.

To use one's knowledge of the past to create something fresh and original is more than an evasion of “epigonism.” It is in its way a political statement about the nature of tradition. Tradition, in this view, is not a brake on innovation. On the contrary, tradition is the sole enabler of innovation that is meaningful rather than destructive, because it is mediated by social agreement (in this case, the recognition of a convention, permitting its intelligible transformation). That is classic “liberalism,” anathema to radicals and reactionaries alike.

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ex. 13-15 Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, IV, mm. 156–159

Brahms's sonata “exposition” continues to satisfy expectations with a rousing “closing theme” (Ex. 13-15), its move into exuberant triplets multiplying the Beethovenian resonances by alluding to the analogous moment in the finale of Beethoven's Fifth. The development, too, arrives right on time, although it begins with a feint that would long remain a Brahmsian trademark (compare, for example the first movement of his Fourth Symphony): an apparent “premature recapitulation” of the main theme in the tonic key, which unexpectedly modulates to a distant one before it is through. The modulation takes place at the last moment, as an extension of the final cadence, landing the music in E♭ major, from which (as anyone listening must surely expect) a circuitous path back to the tonic will be traced for the recapitulation.

But that recapitulation never comes. Instead, the theme is “liquidated,” to use a term coined many years later by a later Viennese, Arnold Schoenberg, who claimed to have learned the technique it denotes from Brahms. That is, it never recurs as a whole, but only in its various motifs, which gradually recede into the music's general motivic play and eventually lose their identity. So thorough is its receding that the dramatic moment of “retransition” comes and goes without any reference to the main theme. Instead the “Alphorn theme” from the Introduction, also in C major, is recalled to stand in for it. That this is in fact the “official” tonal return but without a thematic recapitulation (or, at any rate, without the expected one) is clear from the way in which the “second theme” follows the Alphorn theme in the tonic, with closing theme in tow. So there is recapitulation after all; it is just that the main theme has been deliberately, if enigmatically excluded from it.

It returns to initiate a Beethovenesque “development-coda,” in a passage that alludes to the ascending chromatic sequence that begins the development section in the first movement of Beethoven's Third (Eroica) as clearly as previous allusions had invoked the Fifth and the Ninth. But once again, it is only the Bach-derived head-motif that gets to make an appearance. The part of Brahms's theme that so strikingly recalled Beethoven's choral Ode to Joy remains in eclipse—along with the whole idea of a choral symphony. It is as if Brahms had anticipated the argument made by the New Germans, and revived more recently by German critics and musicologists, that any reference to Beethoven's choral theme, even without a chorus, is in effect a submission to its authority. The act of “alluding to the vocal collectivity,”33 as the musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann has put it, honors its necessity all the more strongly (as Hamlet might have said) in the breach than in the observance. But Brahms's methodical liquidation of the choral theme suggests otherwise. Beethoven's vocal collectivity had been conjured up only to be dispelled.

Yet not every vocal collectivity is dispelled. The fanfare-like last coda or stretta (Più allegro) begins (Ex. 13-16a) with one last motivic allusion to the head-motif (pared down by now to three notes) and makes what is obviously a headlong dash to peroration or rhetorical climax. When the climax comes, however, the main theme is once again preempted, this time (most unexpectedly) by the “chorale” unheard since the slow Introduction (Ex. 13-16b). That, too, evokes a vocal collectivity, but an older one than Beethoven's. Beethoven is not dethroned, merely subsumed along with the other Viennese classics into a larger view of German musical tradition that begins with Bach—or not even with Bach, perhaps, but with Luther.

And so the newness of the renewed symphony, as proclaimed and practiced by Brahms, was confirmed by reference to what was unexpectedly old. It was not a return to the past, which is always impossible, but a synthesis. Brahms's view of the symphony was classically “dialectical” and his achievement, in Chrysander's words, “signaled an expansion of those effects that can be created through instrumental means alone.”34 Brahms had encompassed within his symphonic purview much that had formerly been foreign to the symphonic tradition. Besides the evocation of “vocal collectivities,” the new elements included the contrapuntal practices of ancient organists and the overarching thematic reminiscences and mutations of the most modern opera composers. All of it, however, was as thoroughly transformed by its inclusion in the symphony as the symphony, by including it, had been transformed.


(28) Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Vol. I, p. 126.

(29) The postcard is reproduced in facsimile in Brodbeck, Brahms: Symphony No. 1, p. 15.

(30) Quoted in Kalbeck, Brahms, Vol. III (rpt. Tutzing, 1976), p. 109n.

(31) David Brodbeck, Brahms: Symphony No. 1, pp. 67–68.

(32) Friedrich Chrysander, performance review, Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, Vol. XIII (1878), col. 94; quoted in Brodbeck, Brahms: Symphony No. 1, p. 86.

(33) Reinhold Brinkmann, Late Idyll: The Second Symphony of Johannes Brahms, trans. Peter Palmer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 41.

(34) Chrysander, quoted in Brodbeck, Brahms: Symphony No. 1, p. 86.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 The Return of the Symphony." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Sep. 2014. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 The Return of the Symphony. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 30 Sep. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 The Return of the Symphony." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 30 Sep. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013008.xml