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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 The Return of the Symphony
Richard Taruskin

The one who did it, who broke the vicious circle or logjam and (among other things, but preeminently) revived the “classical” symphony as a living genre, was Johannes Brahms (1833–97), the first major composer who grew up within, and learned to cope with, our modern conception of “classical music.”

A Hamburger by birth but from 1862 a Viennese by adoption, Brahms was just old enough to have had a personal link to the as-yet-unproclaimed “classical” tradition as a living thing. It could not have been a more distinguished link, in fact, since from the age of twenty he had been identified as a protégé of Schumann, the last representative of what would be later defined as the classical (rather than the “modern”) symphonic line. By 1853, only three years before his catastrophically premature death, Schumann was already seeing himself as an embattled classicist in opposition to the emergent New German School. In view of his earlier distinction as the quintessential Romanticist of the keyboard and the lied (see chapter 6), and his former championship, as critic, of Berlioz and Liszt, this was an ironic outcome. But had he lived longer, Schumann would certainly have continued in his new role as spearhead of the reaction against the historicist party, whose official organ, in compounded irony, was the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, his own journal, now in the hands of Franz Brendel (see chapter 8).

New Paths

fig. 13-2 Johannes Brahms as a young man, by Josef Ludwig Novak.

New Paths

fig. 13-3 Brahms's birthplace in Hamburg.

As a courtesy to his predecessor, Brendel allowed Schumann space in the magazine for what would be his very last article: “Neue Bahnen” (“New paths”), an encomium to the young and as yet practically unknown Brahms, which appeared on the front page in the issue of 28 October 1853. Whether by accident or design, Schumann's valedictory closely paralleled his debut article, the famous welcome to Chopin (“Hats off, gentlemen, a genius”), which also trumpeted the arrival of a new genius on the scene. Readers of the Neue Zeitschrift could be forgiven for receiving Schumann's tribute with some skepticism: Brahms was being named as the preeminent worthy among what New Germans by then regarded as an academic crowd of merely local significance—Bargiel, Gade, and the rest (as Schumann listed them in a footnote). Even as he proclaimed his advent in Messianic terms, Schumann described Brahms's virtues in terms that could seem downright bathetic, as if well-schooled respectability were a mark of heroism.

“After such a preparation,” Schumann enthused, alluding once again to the Bargiels and the Gades,

it has seemed to me that there would and must suddenly appear some day one man who would be singled out to make articulate in an ideal way the highest expression of our time, one man who would bring us mastery, not as the result of a gradual development, but as Minerva, springing fully armed from the head of Cronus. And he is come, a young creature over whose cradle graces and heroes stood guard. His name is Johannes Brahms, and he comes from Hamburg where he has been working in silent obscurity, trained in the most difficult theses of his art by an excellent teacher who sends me enthusiastic reports of him, recommended to me recently by a well-known and respected master.12

There was a lot of subtext here. The “well-known and respected master” who had put Brahms in touch with Schumann was the violinist Joseph Joachim, formerly the concertmaster of Liszt's orchestra at Weimar, the very crucible of the “music of the future,” who (as we may remember from chapter 8) noisily defected from that position to lead the opposition to “New Germany.” His letter of resignation is a remarkably articulate (and astonishingly frank) statement of principles, indispensable to an understanding of Brahms. “Your music,” wrote Joachim to Liszt,

is entirely antagonistic to me; it contradicts everything with which the spirits of our greats have nourished my mind from my earliest youth. If it were thinkable that I could ever be deprived of, that I should ever have to renounce, all that I learned to love and honor in their creations, all that I feel music to be, your works would not fill one corner of the vast waste of nothingness that I would feel. How, then, can I feel myself to be united in aim with those who, under the banner of your name and in the belief that they must join forces against the artists for the justification of their contemporaries, make it their life task to propagate your works by every means in their power?13

This could be read as a manifesto of a different sort of historicism, or rather an “antihistoricism”: one that looked to the past for timeless (hence not—or not merely—historical) values rather than for justification of further progress. Brahms was nurtured in this faith—by his teachers, by Joachim, but above all by Schumann, whom he worshipped, virtually becoming a surrogate son to him. In the last miserable years of Schumann's life, when the composer was confined to a sanatorium for the mentally ill, Brahms actually took his place at the head of the Schumann household, and remained on intimate terms with Clara Schumann to the end of her long life, only a year before the end of his own. (Yes, of course tongues wagged about the relationship between the bachelor composer and the widowed pianist, fourteen years his senior.) His intense personal experiences of and with the Schumanns, and the loyalty it bred, bound Brahms ever more tightly to their position in German musical politics.

Only once did he take direct political action on their behalf, again at Joachim's urging. The violinist had drafted a response to Brendel's remarks at the 1859 conference (described in chapter 8) commemorating the founding of the Neue Zeitschrift, in which he lauded the achievements of the “post-Beethoven development” and proposed that it be christened the “New German School,” despite its having been inspired by Berlioz and led by Liszt (both non-Germans), since its achievements had been universally recognized as the sole legitimate bearers of Beethoven's legacy.

Taking umbrage at Brendel's smug tone and his brazen snubbing of Schumann, Joachim's open letter decried the assumption that “seriously striving musicians”14 were all in accord about the value of Liszt's music, or about the worthiness of the New Germans’ historicist program. On the contrary, he wrote, serious musicians “can only deplore or condemn the productions of the leaders and disciples of the so-called ‘New German School’ as contrary to the most fundamental essence of music.” He sent it to Brahms, among others, for further circulation and signatures, particularly among those who would be attending the Lower-Rhine Music Festival, still a bastion of “classical” conservatism, in the summer.

Unfortunately for Brahms and Joachim, somebody (as we now say) “leaked” the document to an unfriendly journalist who printed it prematurely (on 6 May 1860) in a Berlin newspaper, with only four signatures—Brahms's and Joachim's plus those of the assistant conductor at the court of Hanover and an equally obscure conductor from the university town of Göttingen. This feeble gang of four was widely satirized for fancying themselves a new Schumannesque “Davidsbund,” but now a Davidsbund of the right. A parody of the letter appeared in the Neue Zeitschrift itself, signed “J. Geiger” (J. Fiddler [Joachim]) and “Hans Neubahn” (Johnny Newpath [Brahms]). Brendel, in a sanctimonious rebuttal, branded it a “pathological” phenomenon. Wounded, Brahms retreated thenceforth from public debate, preferring to follow the advice he received from the venerable Ferdinand Hiller, that “the best means of struggle would be to create good music.”15 Still and all, his abhorrence of Liszt's works and horror at his influence continued to seethe, and left many lively traces, unprintable in family newspapers, in Brahms's correspondence.

This story would be too trivial to relate, were it not for the fact that Brahms finally managed to draft the first movement of his First Symphony in its aftermath. Clara Schumann herself gave him a nudge in this direction, in a letter of consolation and encouragement she sent him in June. “A fine stormy sky can pass into a symphony,” she wrote, underlining the words suggestively; “who knows,” she added, “perhaps this has already happened.”16

As early as the 1853 “Neue Bahnen” piece, Robert Schumann had been after Brahms to write a big symphony—that is, a loud public proclamation of his status as Schumann's (and, it goes without saying, Beethoven's) legatee. Within the article itself he had referred to the young composer's three early piano sonatas as “veiled symphonies” (a phrase that well suits at least the grandiose Third Sonata, opus 5 in F minor—the “Appassionata” key). An actual Brahms symphony, Schumann predicted, would mark the rebirth of Romanticism at its highest and best and least contaminated by the stain of “realism” (by which he meant explicit programmaticism). “If he will wave with his magic wand to where massed forces, in the chorus and orchestra, lend their strength,” Schumann promised, “there lie before us still more wondrous glimpses into the secrets of the spirit world.” They would be a long time in coming. To Joachim, Schumann wrote early the next year, “Now where is Johannes? Is he not yet allowing timpani and drums to resound?”17 He was not, and it was the very sense of heritage and obligation that Schumann had thrust upon him that seemed to hold him back, as it did increasing numbers of modern musicians—musicians obsessed (to recall Burkholder's formulation) with the past and with their place in history, and with a consequent sense of their own cursed belatedness. After many abortive attempts, exasperated by a sense of failure, Brahms came close to giving up. He declared to one of his friends that he would never compose a symphony, adding, “You have no idea how it feels to one of us when he continually hears behind him such a giant.”18

The giant, of course, was Beethoven, the (by definition) unsurpassable model by which Brahms felt he had to be measured. But all the past was stalking him, and the problem was compounded by the situation sketched earlier in this chapter, namely the ineradicable monopolizing presence not only of Beethoven but of all the “classical masters” in the newly standardized and canonized contemporary repertoire. In such a daunting atmosphere, composing an “ordinary” symphony, rather than a Lisztian programmatic work that asked to be measured by another (and, as far as Brahms was concerned, a meretricious) standard, became a well-nigh impossible task. Brahms approached it with extreme circumspection over a period that lasted, all told, more than twenty years.


(12) Schumann, “Neue Bahnen,” in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950), p. 844.

(13) Joseph Joachim to Franz Liszt, 27 August 1857; quoted in Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years 1848–1861 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 347.

(14) Quoted in Walter Niemann, Brahms, trans. C. A. Phillips (New York: Tudor, 1929), p. 77.

(15) Bernhard Scholz, Verklungene Weisen (Mainz, 1911), p. 142; quoted in David Brodbeck, Brahms: Symphony No. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 96n28.

(16) Clara Schumann to Brahms, 21 June 1860; quoted in Brodbeck, Brahms: Symphony No. 1, p. 9.

(17) Robert Schumann to Joseph Joachim, 6 January 1854; quoted in Brodbeck, Brahms: Symphony No. 1, p. 2.

(18) Remark to Hermann Levi, October 1871, reported in Max Kalbeck, Brahms, Vol. I (Berlin, 1915), p. 165; quoted in Brodbeck, Brahms: Symphony No. 1, p. 15.

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. 23 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013003.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 23 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013003.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 23 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013003.xml