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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 The Return of the Symphony
Richard Taruskin

The first try came shortly after Schumann's call, in response to tragic events. On 27 February 1854, less than eight weeks after Schumann wrote to Joachim asking after the symphony Brahms owed him, the tormented older composer made his famous suicide attempt, jumping headlong into the Rhine, which resulted in his confinement for the rest of his life in a sanatorium. By July 27, Brahms had sketched three movements of a symphony in D minor for piano duet, and had orchestrated the first movement. He sent the score to Joachim, who later told one of Brahms's biographers, Max Kalbeck, that it began with a covert (that is, unannounced as a “program”) visualization of Schumann's anguished leap.

Three “Firsts”

ex. 13-1 Johannes Brahms, Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 15, beginning

Whether it was something Brahms had told Joachim or something the latter had imagined on the basis of the state of mind they shared, the story rings true. The stormy opening (Ex. 13-1), which indeed strikes the portentous drum-saturated note Schumann had called for, is surely meant to recall or evoke a state of extreme emotional duress, with its immediate contradiction of the putative tonic by the first chord sounded, by the grotesquely dissonant trills on A♭, a diabolical tritone away from that same insistently asserted tonic, and by the bizarrely disruptive change of direction that shatters the opening melodic arpeggio with a startling leap(!). (The fact that Brahms disguises his portrayal of Schumann's leap by reversing its direction does not lessen the probability of its reality; veiling the literal depiction so as to keep the originating imagery private and leave only the emotional effect on public display is very much in the spirit of romanticism as opposed to “realism.”)

What is perhaps most noteworthy about this nasty, intensely personal music, though, is the surprising fact that it is constructed almost entirely out of “classical” allusions. The most immediate one is to Schumann's own D-minor symphony, composed in 1841 as his Second, but revised in 1851 and published posthumously as his Fourth. It, too, begins by “allowing the timpani and the drums to resound” in a lengthy roll (Ex. 13-2a), and its first Allegro theme (alluded to thereafter in all the other movements) is also marked by a surprising leap that lands on the very same notes as does Brahms's intensified version (Ex. 13-2b).

But of course Schumann's D-minor symphony had itself been beholden to the D-minor Symphony, Beethoven's Ninth, and so is Brahms's. The surprising B♭ harmony at the outset of Ex. 13-1 is a sort of digest of the whole first section of Beethoven's exposition, in which the submediant (rather than the mediant) emerges unconventionally as the key of the second theme. And Brahms's much more insistent drum roll (on the tonic, instead of Schumann's dominant) is surely a recollection of Beethoven's first-movement recapitulation, one of the noisiest and stormiest (and most commented-on) moments in the literature.

Brahms never finished the D-minor symphony. Its first two movements later went into his first piano concerto (op. 15, published 1861), from which Ex. 13-1 is taken; and the third, even more radically transformed, later found a home in a choral work to which we will return. But the observations we have made about it remained characteristic of Brahms, and crucial to understanding both his eventual success and his historical role. The high level of allusiveness, for one thing, would be a permanent fixture, not merely (as might well have been thought at first) a sign of apprenticeship—which is to say that they were for the most part true allusions, rather than unconscious citations or imitations. Brahms's allusions, often extremely wide-ranging composites, would always be reforged, often with great virtuosity, into new configurations that in their combination made for a heightened intensity.

And for a second (related) thing, despite the eschewal of public programmatic content, Brahms's music was often anything but “abstract” in its conception. It was as laden with symbolism as Beethoven's Ninth itself, but like its famous antecedent (and unlike the work of the “New Germans”) it contained no built-in decoder key, no public aids to interpretation, and hence no single certifiable message. But that, too, was an original and precious attribute of romantic art, given explicit acknowledgement by Schiller when he wrote, as early as 1794, that “the real and express content that the poet puts in his work remains always finite; the possible content that he allows us to contribute is an infinite quality.”19 Artworks of which that can be said have a greater hold on the imagination (or so a romantic would contend) than artworks with a single, explicit, paraphrasable meaning.

Three “Firsts”

ex. 13-2a Robert Schumann, Symphony no. 4, I, slow introduction, mm. 1–7

Three “Firsts”

ex. 13-2b Robert Schumann, Symphony no. 4, I, Lebhaft (Allegro) theme, mm. 1–11

The reasons for Brahms's failure to complete his D-minor symphony, and its eventual withdrawal or transformation into works in less exacting genres, are unknown. Yet one can surmise them in part, perhaps, from the composer's subsequent behavior. His “neoclassical” bent was powerfully reinforced by the first paying position he secured after receiving his impressive sendoff from Schumann. It amounted to a sort of neoclassical throwback in its own right, for it allowed Brahms to spend four months a year from 1857 to 1859 in virtually “eighteenth-century” conditions, as Kapellmeister to the minor princely court of Detmold, a small city in north-central Germany. Brahms was thus one of the very last composers to enjoy, even briefly and part-time, the security of aristocratic patronage. Occupying as he did a position similar to Haydn's a hundred years before, Brahms was stimulated to imagine himself a Haydn and experiment “serenely” (as he put it) and for his own edification with classical form, in a fashion no composer had lately done with comparable opportunity or seriousness.

With a forty-five-piece orchestra at his disposal, the young Kapellmeister turned out two Serenades in a frankly retrospective style. The very name was retrospective: a throwback to the outdoor party music with which his patrons’ eighteenth-century ancestors would have been supplied by their staff musicians for entertaining. As Brahms was more acutely aware than his less historically minded contemporaries, that lightweight environment had been the symphony's crucible. It was almost as if he wanted the ontogeny of his own works to recapitulate the phylogeny of the genre he wished to master. Equally, though, it was a retreat from the task to which his friends were urgently calling him, a temporary (and temporizing) refuge in the nineteenth century's eighteenth century—a fairyland of material comfort and artistic health.

Accordingly, the more frankly retrospective of the two serenades—the First, in D major, op. 11 (1858)—was a riot of “salubrious” and witty allusions, all of a bright and sunny nature as befits its key, the neutralizing reverse mode of Beethoven's Ninth, Schumann's Fourth, and Brahms's own first symphonic attempt. D major was the key of Beethoven's Second Symphony, at the opposite emotional extreme from the tortured opening movement of the Ninth. The fact, probably as well known to Brahms as to any historian, that the Second Symphony was composed at the most woeful juncture of Beethoven's life (the period of his irreversible deafness and the “Heiligenstadt Testament”) surely enhanced its attraction to Brahms at this particular juncture of his life; for it argued against the popular romantic (but in fact “realist”) assumption that artworks directly reflected the creator's biographical circumstances, that art was by nature confessional. Art was something one could, if one wished, actually hide behind (as Beethoven himself—who knows?—might have been doing).

That the D-major Serenade was palpably a retreat from writing a symphony is confirmed by its creative history. It began as a four-movement work with the fence-straddling title Sinfonie-Serenade. What turned it into a serenade and only a serenade was the addition to it of two frank pastiche movements between the slow movement and the finale: a pair of minuets such as no one had written in decades, and a second scherzo in which Brahms cleverly juxtaposed quotations from the two composers with whom he was temporarily identifying. Whereas in the D-minor Symphony he had looked to Schumann and through Schumann back to late Beethoven, in the D-major Serenade he looked to early Beethoven and through him back to Haydn. Many have noted (as they were surely meant to do) the delightful counterpoint of quotations, the trio from the scherzo of Beethoven's Second in the horn against the finale of Haydn's last (“London”) Symphony in the cellos (Ex. 13-3).

Some have tried to see a serious polemic in this gay piece. Brahms is known, after all, to have been spoiling for a fight with the Lisztians, and as Donald Francis Tovey has observed, a work like the D-major Serenade can be read as an implicit refutation of historicism, or at least as a protest against it. Indeed, Tovey saw it for that very reason as “an epoch-making work in a sense that is little realized,” for “it sins against the first and most ephemeral canon [rule] of modern criticism, the canon which inculcates the artist's duty to assert his originality in terms so exclusively related to this week's news as to become unintelligible by the week after next.”20

Three “Firsts”

ex. 13-3a Johannes Brahms, D-major Serenade, V (second scherzo)

Three “Firsts”

ex. 13-3b Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 2, Trio of Scherzo

Three “Firsts”

ex. 13-3c Joseph Haydn, “London” Symphony, Finale, mm. 1–8

That is well put, but it is a point that could only have been made in retrospect, at a time when the premises of historicism, while by no means vanquished, had long been under strong attack. In 1858, the Serenade would hardly have been thought an effective protest against the militancy of “New Germany,” let alone its refutation. Reliance on classical models could only have looked weak compared with Liszt's bold forays, and that is precisely why Brahms could not offer it as a symphony. As Brahms put it himself to a friend who inquired about the change of title, “if one wants to write symphonies after Beethoven, then they will have to look very different!” But one thing that would make Brahms's own symphonies look different is already conspicuous in Ex. 13-3, and that is Brahms's mastery of traditional counterpoint and his fondness for indulging it not only in specially designated fugues or fugatos, but as a way of habitually loading the texture of his music with significant, often motivic, detail.

It was the combination of this motivically-saturated, highly allusive, polyphonic texture with the high strung, intensely personal expressive tension of the early D-minor attempt that is preserved in the First Piano Concerto, that finally produced the mature Brahmsian symphonic idiom in the aftermath of the failed polemic with the New Germans. In June of 1862 Brahms was able to show his friends the first full-fledged symphonic movement of his to survive into a finished work, eventually (after some further revision) becoming the first movement of his First Symphony. Clara Schumann wrote of it with delight to Joachim, quoting its “rather audacious” opening phrase (an echo of the old polemics?), and commenting, as an insider, on just those features of the work that will best repay our detailed examination:

The movement is full of wonderful beauties, with a mastery in the treatment of the motives that is indeed becoming more and more characteristic of him. Everything is so interestingly interwoven, yet as spirited as the first outburst; one is thrilled by it to the full, without being reminded of the craft. In the transition from the second part back to the first [i.e., in the “retransition” from development to recapitulation] he has once more succeeded splendidly.21

Three “Firsts”

ex. 13-4a Motivic interweaving in Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, I, beginning of Allegro

Three “Firsts”

ex. 13-4b Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, I, transition to second theme

Three “Firsts”

ex. 13-4c Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, I, slow introduction

Three “Firsts”

ex. 13-4d Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, I, closing theme of exposition

Ex. 13-4a shows the beginning of the movement as Clara Schumann knew and quoted it in her letter to Joachim, extended from her four-bar quotation to eight measures in order to emphasize the contrapuntal “interweaving” to which her letter refers. The “soprano” in mm. 1–4 becomes the bass in mm. 5–8 to support a new motif in the soprano (one that will be given an immediate sequential development and extension). The weaving and reweaving, according to time-honored principles of invertible counterpoint, will continue throughout the movement. The transition to the second theme, for example (Ex. 13-4b), begins by inverting the texture of mm. 5–8, and then reinverts it so that the chromatic descent (the “middle voice” at the beginning of Ex. 13-4a) gets its turn to be the bass. In the slow introduction (Ex. 13-4c), which (though heard first) was a derivation made years later from the Allegro rather than its source, the contrapuntal relationship between the rising and falling chromatic lines is skewed to produce even more portentously dissonant harmonies over a pedal bass. Finally, the closing theme from the exposition (Ex. 13-4d) pits an inversion of the leaping motif first heard as the “soprano” in mm. 5–8 against a complex derivation from the soprano of mm. 1–4, in which each of the three chromatically ascending tones alternates in turn with the diatonic descent that follows in m. 3. One could almost say that in place of the traditional thematic content of symphonic discourse Brahms has substituted a mosaic of motifs in an ever shifting contrapuntal design.

And what is more, virtually every “tessera,” every stone in the mosaic, can be plausibly interpreted as an allusion. Of those already shown, perhaps the most obvious is the one labeled “d” in Ex. 13-4a. It belongs to a whole complex of Brahmsian themes that go back to the Schumann phrase shown in Ex. 13-2b; it was, evidently, a repeated tribute to Brahms's mentor that was finally internalized as a “stylistic trait.” Other conspicuous allusions transcend the level of the individual motive. Most conspicuous of all is the one to which Brahms repeatedly made compulsive, nervously jocular references in his correspondence. “The symphony is long and difficult,”22 he wrote to one. “My symphony is long and not exactly charming,” he wrote to another. Finally, and most revealingly, he wrote to a third: “My symphony is long and in C minor.”


(19) Quoted in Rosen, The Romantic Generation, p. 93.

(20) Donald Francis Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis, Vol. I (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), p. 123.

(21) Clara Schumann to Joseph Joachim, 1 July 1862; quoted in Brodbeck, Brahms: Symphony No. 1, p. 10.

(22) Quoted in Brodbeck, Brahms: Symphony No. 1, pp. 16, 98n1.

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 Nov. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013004.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 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013004.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 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013004.xml