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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 The Return of the Symphony
Richard Taruskin
Reconciliation and Backlash

ex. 13-16a Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, IV, mm. 391–395

That is the meaning of dialectics: mutual transformation through mutual accommodation. And that, for liberals, is the meaning of tradition: a past that enables the present, but that in the process is itself transformed. Yet whatever is transformed also maintains recognizable (and legitimating) ties with its former guise. Ultimately, going against the New German insistence on historical progress and directed evolution, Brahms believed in the “timelessness” of artistic problems and artistic greatness. That is what Bach symbolized (and has continued ever since to symbolize within the post-Brahms tradition of “classical music”). And beyond Bach, that is what nature (the Alphorn theme) and religion (the chorale theme) have always symbolized: everything that is “beyond history, unchanging, constant, essentially at rest,”35 in Brinkmann's apt summary, and yet ever adaptable to new conditions and needs. That, too, is classic liberalism (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”).

Reconciliation and Backlash

ex. 13-16b Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1, IV, mm. 407–416

The signal moment in the early history of Brahms's First was its ecstatic acceptance by the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, likened by some to a religious conversion. Bülow, we may remember from chapter 8, was a charter member of the New German School. The personal disciple of Liszt at Weimar and a close associate of Wagner, Bülow had married the former's daughter and lost her to the latter, in the meantime conducting the premieres of both Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger. He made a specialty of Beethoven's Ninth, which he conducted twice on one occasion to demonstrate his faith in its peerlessness, that is, the unworthiness of any other work to share billing with it.

But after hearing Brahms's First, played to him in advance of publication by the composer at a summer resort in 1877, Bülow rushed into print with an article hailing it as “the Tenth Symphony.” The article ended with an avowal—“Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms do not alliterate with one another by chance”36 —that has lived on ever since in the catchphrase “the Three B's,” proclaiming a new holy trinity and granting lasting victory to Brahms's (and the musicologists’) campaign to locate the true spiritual beginnings of the German “universal” tradition of “absolute” music not in the older Viennese trinity of Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven but in the resurrected Leipzig cantor.

This was too much for Wagner. After Brahms was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1879 by the University of Breslau with a diploma proclaiming him “the leader in the art of serious music in Germany today,” the dread mage of Bayreuth struck back. In “Über das Dichten und Komponieren” (“On Poetry and Composition”), an essay composed in fury amid the publicity surrounding Brahms's degree, Wagner let his pen run wild. “I know of some famous composers,” he wrote, “who in their concert masquerades don the disguise of a street singer one day, the hallelujah periwig of Handel the next, the dress of a Jewish Csardas-fiddler another time, and then again the guise of a highly respectable symphony dressed up as Number Ten.”37

What brought on this enraged response was Wagner's evident realization that the New German School could no longer assert exclusive rights to the interpretation of German musical history. Wagner's claim to Beethoven's mantle, implicit in his works and explicit in his writings, was now irrevocably in dispute. There would henceforth be two interpretations of the great tradition: the radical historicist one, which cast it as a kind of permanent revolution, and the liberal evolutionist one, which cast it as an incremental and consensual growth.

At the very least, Brahms had made the “classical”-style symphony a viable option once again, one that could be freely chosen without the stigma of epigonism. The chances of inclusion in the “permanent collection” were as slim as ever, but the effort to make room for oneself was newly respectable and attractive. Brahms himself, once he had broken the logjam, followed up his first symphony with three more in less than a decade. The Fourth and last, in E minor, first performed under Bülow in 1885, ends (symbolically, it could seem) with a monumental chaconne over a ground bass adapted directly from the concluding chorus (marked ciacona) in Bach's Cantata Nach dich, Herr, verlanget mich (“Lord, I long for thee”; BWV 150), one of Bach's earliest and most traditional works. To base the latest link in the tradition on the earliest of models was a token of the timelessness of values.


(35) Brinkmann, Late Idyll, p. 45.

(36) Quoted in Brodbeck, Brahms: Symphony No. 1, p. 85.

(37) Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Vol. VI (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1897), p. 148.

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. 5 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013009.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 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013009.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 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013009.xml