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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 The Return of the Symphony
Richard Taruskin

In C minor. To anyone conversant with the tradition into which Brahms was trying, against the odds, to break, the words were enough to make the blood run cold. It meant that Brahms was taking on the model of models: Beethoven's Fifth. Vying with this symphony meant incurring a host of obligations that ranged far beyond the one with which we have already seen Brahms coping, namely the obligation to achieve a tight motivic construction. There was also the obligation to reenact (yet without merely repeating) Beethoven's archetypal “plot” or moral trajectory, embodied in the rhetoric of Kampf und Sieg, “Struggle and Victory”—a rhetoric that Beethoven himself had relinquished in the pessimistic post-Napoleon years, but that Brahms would now have to revive in a new historical and cultural context. Finally, though Brahms would put off reckoning with it for a while, there was the obligation to match Beethoven's signal achievement in the Fifth: the binding of the whole symphony together in a single thematic package through strategic recalls and returns.

The motif that eventually served this binding function is the first and shortest to appear: the three-note chromatic ascent, labeled “a” in Ex. 13-4, that is often presented in tandem with its descending complement (“b”). Its similarity to the unforgettably idiosyncratic opening (or answering) phrase in the Prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, while easily noticed, is often dismissed; Wagner, hero that he was to the New Germans, is an unlikely ally for a Brahms, let alone a mentor. He was a commanding, unignorable presence on the scene by 1862, though, and (although this is often forgotten) a contemporary of Schumann, hence old enough to be Brahms's father. And while Tristan would not be performed on stage until 1865, its vocal score had been published in 1860. So Brahms certainly had “access,” as one says when adjudicating charges of plagiarism. But did he have “motive”?

Yes indeed, say musicologists aware of recent trends in literary criticism, particularly the theory of “anxiety of influence” put forth in the 1970s by the literary critic Harold Bloom. The very fact that Brahms was allegedly Wagner's antagonist has led some to suppose that the apparent (and pervasive!) allusions to Tristan in Brahms's First was an instance of unwitting mimicry and transformation—what Bloom calls “misreading”—caused by Brahms's fear of failure and his unconscious desire to overmaster it, an outcome that could only be achieved in contest with his strongest living elder and rival. In the early 1990s, a psychoanalytically oriented musicologist named Robert Fink even offered a reading of the symphony23 (likewise predicated on the assumption that Brahms was unconscious of his debt to Wagner) that invested the proverbially erotic Tristan quote with the bachelor composer's repressed libido—that is, with sexual energies (and anxieties) that could find an acceptable outlet only in the semantically veiled medium of “absolute music.”

One argument in favor of this reading is the fate of the Tristan motif in the second movement of the Symphony, the Andante sostenuto. It was not composed until 1876, when not only the first movement but also the finale was complete. Despite the long hiatus, or even because of it, Brahms took care to feature the Tristan motif prominently near the beginning of the movement, where it might promote the impression of a spontaneous “organic” continuity that united the whole symphony in a single spiritual journey. That journey was also “microscopically” inscribed within the slow movement itself, thanks to the Tristan motif's recapitulation at the end. The two references, encircling the movement, contrast radically in affect: the first is chromatic and leads to an “open-ended” harmony (that is, a harmony in need of resolution), while the second is twofold: a repetition of the chromatic version followed by a diatonic one that leads to harmonic closure, thus replaying the transformation the original Tristan motif underwent at the tail end of Wagner's opera and wordlessly reevoking its symbolism (Ex. 13-5).

But there is really no reason to assume that Brahms could not have been conscious of his appropriations from Wagner. While he made no bones about despising Liszt's symphonic poems and program symphonies and deplored their influence (although he was as much in awe of the Hungarian's piano playing as anyone else), Brahms esteemed Wagner's music highly, and studied it (Fig. 13-4). To his friends he sometimes (half jestingly) called himself a “Wagnerianer,” and treasured the autograph score of a scene from Tannhäuser among other manuscripts in a personal collection that included works of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and of course Schumann. (Wagner asked for it back on learning that Brahms was its owner; their letters make amusing reading.)

Struggle (with Whom?)

ex. 13-5a Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, II, mm. 1–7

Struggle (with Whom?)

ex. 13-5b Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, II, mm. 114–24

At any rate, if Brahms's was among the many imaginations stirred profoundly by the Prelude to Tristan, he could fairly claim his appropriation as “fair use,” considering the striking reharmonization he gave the phrase in question, and the pointed way he directed it to a cadence on its first appearance, as if forestalling its Wagnerian (not to mention its erotic) consequences. Besides, the fact that Brahms's harmonic language had kept abreast of the latest in Wagner exempted him, to “New German” consternation, from the easy charge of epigonism. Indeed, the impressively “advanced” harmonic progression in which the supposed Wagner quote participates is the very one that gives rise to the movement's most impressive structural feature: the intermeshing of the most distinctive local harmonic progressions with the overall tonal design, as most dramatically illustrated in the retransition passage to which Clara Schumann called attention. This was the pro-foundest lesson Brahms had learned from Beethoven.

Before tracing it, however, we need to trace the equally distinctive debt his harmonic idiom owed to Schubert, whose late symphonies, as we may recall, were posthumously retrieved from oblivion beginning in the 1840s, thus only since that decade available as an “influence” on younger composers. The “Unfinished,” perhaps the greatest find of all, only saw the light of day in 1867, which is to say right in the midst of Brahms's lengthy symphonic gestation. He absorbed many lessons from it, as he did from the “Great” C-major symphony, which Schumann had rediscovered in 1840. Of all the composers of the nineteenth century, in fact, the only one whose mature idiom was even more heavily (if differently) indebted to Schubert's harmonic artifices was Liszt, who thus—and what could have been more ironic?—shared with Brahms, his most outspoken antagonist, a crucial common birthright.

Struggle (with Whom?)

fig. 13-4 Brahms perusing the score of Wagner's Siegfried.

These Schubertian “artifices,” first described and illustrated in chapter 2, included, in the first place, the introduction of local progressions and modulations around circles of major and minor thirds alongside the “classical” circle of fifths. Another Schubertian innovation, strongly related to the first, was Schubert's reliance for purposes of harmonic multivalence (or “ambiguity”) on what might be called “sonic homomorphism”: the similarity in sound that can link chords with radically different structures and functions and allow their functions to be interchanged. The most potent of these homomorphisms—one could call them “puns,” except that puns are jokes and these are not (necessarily)—was the one that obtained between the dominant seventh, the primary propeller of root motion along the circle of fifths, and the “German” augmented-sixth chord, which traditionally resolved by semitones in contrary motion to a dominant. (See the discussion of Schubert's Moment musical no. 6, Ex. 2-6.) These Schubertian devices play a decisive role in both the structure and the expressive rhetoric of Brahms's First.

In chapter 5 we already had occasion to cite Schubert's “Wanderer” Fantasy as a formative model for Liszt, providing a precedent for the “one-movement form” of Liszt's First Piano Concerto. Its status as a model for Brahms is even more specific: when the First Symphony was finally completed in 1876, its four movements exactly followed Schubert's path-breaking tonal trajectory along the circle of major thirds: C–E–A♭–C. But even within the first movement, complete (except for the slow introduction) in 1862, Schubertian harmonies and tonal progressions rule.

The harmonization of the “Tristanesque” chromatic ascent, for example, first announced in Ex. 13-4a (and as of 1862 the movement's beginning), almost invariably involved an augmented sixth that functions locally as a “flat submediant,” thus potentially subverting the dominance of fifth relations. The tension between fifths and thirds (in terms of root progressions), or between fifths and semitones (in terms of voice leading), pervades the movement, lending it a sense of taut tonal drama not encountered since … well, since Beethoven.

The drama is announced right along with the motifs and themes in Ex. 13-4a: the augmented sixth leads away from C minor to a D major that is marked as V of G. But the harmony is immediately forced back to the original tonic by adding a seventh to the G-major chord thus approached, turning D major retrospectively into V/V. The sense of constraint—of an impulse thwarted—is palpable. Clara Schumann's immediate reaction to its violence was keen. Having quoted it to Joachim, she added, “That is rather audacious, perhaps, but I have quickly become used to it.”

At the very least, it is not the sort of comfortable music one associates with epigones. It is not just a pleasing play of tones but a gesture. We may interpret the thwarted chromatic impulse however we wish: as repressed libido, as counterthrust against “New Germany,” as anything that may strike us as relevant or illuminating either with respect to Brahms or to ourselves as listeners. All such readings, however, can only be partial. They place limits on a meaning that, in its powerful inchoateness, precedes and subsumes all semantic paraphrases. And that, we may recall, was precisely the essence and purpose of “absolute music,” lately rejected by the New Germans in the name of “union with poetry.” Brahms rejected the union, and by the force of his example restored the viability of presemantic or “absolute” musical meaning, the sort of meaning that is indistinguishable from “structure” (that is, from the particularities of syntax that, by eliciting affect, produce a meaningful effect).

Tension between thirds and fifths, between fifths and semitones, continues. The whole movement's progress, at the “global” level, can be mapped according to its fluctuations. We can try to sum things up by describing the two main transitions. The first, from the exposition into the development, takes off from a “Schubertian” modal mixture—E♭ minor following on its parallel major, the normal (“relative”) key of the second theme in a C-minor symphonic movement. A more portentous model for the tonic-relative-parallel relationship, however, is the scherzo of Beethoven's Fifth, the specter evoked by Brahms's very choice of key. (For explicit confirmation that this was the model foremost in Brahms's mind one need only inspect the brass parts in Ex. 13-6.)

At the very moment where exposition gives way to development, however, Brahms takes an explicitly Schubertian plunge (Ex. 13-7a), reinterpreting the reiterated third and root of E♭ minor, the local tonic, as the third and fifth of C♭ major, the submediant, enharmonically respelled as B, with a consequent (and initially puzzling) metamorphosis in the key signature at the moment when the development arrives (that is, the downbeat of the exposition's “second ending”). Thus B, the leading tone—or, to use some archaic but suggestive terminology, the “subsemitonium”—is set in opposition to the tonic in place of the dominant: a semitone, in other words, assuming the traditional position (and doing the traditional work) of a fifth.

We may pick up the consequences of this pervading strain at the other end of the development, where the retransition is prepared in the traditional way, with “dominant tension” generated by a pedal point. The pedal on G is itself achieved through a reiteration of the motivically charged three-note chromatic ascent (“a”). Against the dominant pedal, this motive is given its lengthiest sequential development. The same chromatic motif that generated the pedal now threatens it, in a remarkable passage that combines the chromatic ascent in the bass with the equally motivic (Schumann-derived) octave leap, all pitted contrapuntally against the Beethoven-derived horn call in Ex. 13-6 and the motif labeled “c” in Ex. 13-4. The chromatic ascent is extended as far as D, enabling a reapproach, this time through the “classical” fifth relation, to the dominant pedal (now accompanying another sequence derived from “c”).

The full dominant seventh on G is reached in m. 331 (Ex. 13-7b), and reiterated as a four-bar fanfare. There would seem to be nothing left to do but resolve it, with suitable panache, to the tonic. But at this point Brahms pulls off a superb Schubertian feint, resolving the chord not as a dominant seventh but as a German sixth, to the dominant of B, the opposing key. The lines of tonal conflict had not been so clearly or dramatically drawn in decades. And the conflict is played out to the inevitable dénouement through a Schubertian—or even a Lisztian!—circle of minor thirds, with German sixths cropping out of a chromatic sequence in contrary motion (an extension of the “a + b” complex first announced in Ex. 13-4a at the movement's very outset) on B♭ (m. 337) and D♭ (m. 339) before linking up with the original a + b complex and at last resolving, as the complex itself had first resolved, through two fifths (D natural and G) to the tonic and the “double return.”

Liszt, of course, would have done it differently. The sequence of augmented sixths on G, B♭, and D♭ would have mandated, in one of his symphonic poems (say, the “Mountain Symphony” as discussed and illustrated in chapter 8) the completion of the sequence with a similar chord on F♭(E). A “New German” would no doubt call Brahms's modus operandi a pusillanimous retreat to the security of traditional “tonality.” Brahms might well counter that the more radical Lisztian progression sacrifices all sense of conflict and drama to an inert (because functionally undifferentiated) sequence, colorful and superficially “progressive” but devoid of emotional significance. Brahms remained faithful to the German tradition—a tradition (as we have already observed, and as can scarcely be overemphasized) that included the Wagner of Tristan and the Ring—in staunch opposition to the new harmonic tradition that Liszt had been trying to establish.

Struggle (with Whom?)Struggle (with Whom?)

ex. 13-6 Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, I, mm. 243–52

So the lines were drawn at the end of the century. Each would find ample continuation in the music of the next generation, and beyond. But, to peek briefly at that future, there would be a significant difference in the work of the neo-Lisztians (mainly French and Russian composers) and the Germans who followed Wagner and Brahms. The former would use circles of major and minor thirds or their scalar derivatives (whole-tone and “tone-semitone” or octatonic scales) primarily for the depiction or exploration of nonhuman, subhuman, or superhuman imaginative terrains—natural, primitivistic, fantastic, occult—in which there would be a huge upsurge of interest at century's end. Pitch relations that preempted the forces of functional harmony were suited best to conjure up odd or alien worlds. German composers, meanwhile, would extend and intensify the exploration of the human inner world, that of emotions and desires, for which the dynamism of established tonal relations—the push of fifths, the pull of leading tones—would remain indispensable, as they had been for Wagner and Brahms alike.

The first movement of Brahms's First was a landmark in this extension; and yet the composer shelved it for more than a dozen years before providing it with its companion movements. Surely the demons of heritage and obligation were still plaguing the composer; but an equally important reason for this renewed delay was that in the mid-to-late 1860s Brahms embarked in earnest on his successful public career, a path that at first deflected him from his symphonic tasks.

Struggle (with Whom?)

ex. 13-7a Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, I, mm. 185–91

Struggle (with Whom?)

ex. 13-7b Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, I, mm. 331–43


(23) See Robert W. Fink, “Desire, Repression, and Brahms's First Symphony,” Repercussions 2 (1993), pp. 75–103.

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. 10 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013005.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 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013005.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 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013005.xml