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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 The Return of the Symphony
Richard Taruskin

Still, he went on postponing it. He made his return to “absolute” orchestral music via a shorter work, a set of Variations for Orchestra on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, composed in the summer of 1873, just after turning forty. The theme may not in fact have been Haydn's. Its source is a very obscure composition indeed: the second movement in the last of a set of six wind octets or “Feldparthien”—suites to be played by Feldmusiker or military musicians (wind players)—that Haydn wrote, presumably for members of Prince Eszterházy's retinue, at some undetermined point during his employment at Eisenstadt. It cannot be dated because it exists only in late copies, one of which happened to belong to the library of Vienna's Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Friends of Music), one of Brahms's favorite haunts. (It would remain unpublished until 1932, the bicentennial of Haydn's birth.) In the manuscript the theme Brahms chose is headed “Chorale St. Antoni” (“St. Anthony's Hymn”). It was probably a religious folk song for which Haydn merely provided a harmonization. Brahms's “theme” is actually Haydn's whole movement, first presented in Haydn's original scoring for oboes, horns, and bassoons (Ex. 13-10a). What probably attracted Brahms's ear to the piece was the unusual five-bar phrase structure (the result, very likely, of the now-forgotten words), but its reconditeness was surely another factor, testifying to the antiquarian, “musicological” tastes that distinguished him from most of his composing contemporaries. The Haydn Variations, in fact, was the first purely instrumental work by Brahms in which resonances not only from the “classical” but also the “preclassical” repertoire are conspicuous. The way in which Brahms combined them, thus forging a link that is now assumed to be a “historical” fact, was his signal achievement.

And rarely was the scholarly side of the equation more obvious. As a fortieth birthday present, the pioneer music historian Philipp Spitta gave Brahms the first volume of his landmark biography of J. S. Bach, then hot off the press. It included a long preliminary study of German keyboard and choral music in the century leading up to Bach's birth, in which Brahms found the discussion of ground-bass forms (chaconne, passacaglia, etc.) particularly interesting—and inspiring. He corresponded with Spitta about them, asked for more examples, and finished off the Haydn Variations with a giant set of ostinato variations based on a five-bar ground bass derived from a combination of melody and bass notes from the St. Anthony tune's first phrase (Ex. 13-10b). From the way in which the ground bass is suddenly transposed to the highest voice after thirteen variations, it is clear that the model Brahms had chiefly in mind was Bach's famous organ Passacaglia in C minor.

By making Haydn shake hands with Bach, by treating Haydn's theme in a manner no longer practiced in Haydn's time but of even more ancient and honorable pedigree, by giving a “classic” theme a “preclassic” development, Brahms consciously sought an ecumenical synthesis that connected the German present to a generalized German past, a synthesis that identified him in the eyes of many as the preeminent German master of the present. Over the five-year period between the premieres of the German Requiem and the Haydn Variations, Brahms achieved real celebrity, not to mention a secure income from royalties that made him financially independent.

Both his fame and his finances were helped by a couple of frankly popular opuses that he issued during the same period for domestic consumption: two books of Hungarian Dances for piano duet (1869) and a set of sentimental waltzes, also published in 1869 under the title Liebeslieder (“Love songs”) for piano duet with optional vocal quartet singing words by a fashionable poet, Georg Friedrich Daumer, who wrote under the pen name “Eusebius Emmeran.” Like his eighteenth-century forebears, he was trying for an ecumenical social reach, writing both “classical works” for the concert hall (the “temple of art”) and “popular works” for the home.

Inventing TraditionInventing Tradition

ex. 13-10a Johannes Brahms, “Haydn Variations,” mm. 1–10

Inventing Tradition

ex. 13-10b Johannes Brahms, “Haydn Variations,” beginning of Finale (“St. Anthony's Hymn”)

By the time of his fortieth birthday, then, Brahms had become a big success, with a following that bridged all the strata of the music-loving and music-buying public from scholars to household pianists. It was a success that roundly contradicted the dogmas of the New Germans, refuting their claims much more effectively than that lame polemical fizzle, the open letter of 1860. They did not like it, or him. Remarkably, Wagner came to regard Brahms—young enough to be his son, and an admirer to boot—as a threat. The mudslinging began anew.

In an essay of 1869, Über das Dirigiren (“About conducting”), Wagner took note of what he called Brahms's “wooden, prim”26 performance style as an excuse to lash out at “Saint Johannes,” the “Musical Temperance Union” he represented and its various hypocrisies, the chief one being a secret yearning to write (what else?) an opera. The only thing that united the Brahms faction, Wagner hinted, was their constant failure to satisfy this wish, “and Opera, never happily wooed and won, can figure again and again as mere symbol of a lure to be resisted finally; so that the authors of operatic failures may rank as Saints par excellence.”

From the New Germans’ or at least the Wagnerian point of view, with opera (or “music drama”) the uncontested and incontestable peak of musical achievement, this persiflage made a sort of sense. But Brahms really turned the tables on it when he finally came forth with the First Symphony in 1876, at least fifteen and perhaps as many as twenty years after making his first sketches for it. The year may be significant; 1876 was also the year in which the completed Ring des Nibelungen finally had its Bayreuth premiere. Raymond Knapp, the author of a study of Brahms's symphonies, has suggested that the “final push to complete his First Symphony”27 in the year of the Ring, “which finally allowed him to overcome whatever dissatisfactions had beleaguered the project, was motivated in part by his desire to offer an alternative monument to the spirit of German nationalism recently revitalized by the Franco-Prussian War.” The way in which the Symphony's finale picked up the thread of the development—as much an ideological as a musical development—that we have been tracing, not only in the Symphony's first movement but also in the Schicksalslied and the Haydn Variations, lends credence to Knapp's conjecture.


(26) Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Vol. IV (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1895), pp. 348–50.

(27) Raymond Knapp, review of Johannes Brahms, Symphonie Nr. 1, C-moll, opus 68, ed. Robert Pascall, MLA Notes LIV (1997–98): 554.

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. 12 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013007.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 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013007.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 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013007.xml