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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 The Return of the Symphony
Richard Taruskin

But the symphony was only the most public arena in which Brahms forged a revitalizing link with the tradition of “absolute” instrumental music. It was an arena that could not be evaded if one wished to refute the premises of “New Germany,” which by virtue of the genres it promoted and its highly active press, had claimed the public sphere as its exclusive preserve. And yet the very publicness of symphonic music, increasing exponentially with the growth of urban (“mass”) culture and the proliferation of orchestras, inspired a backlash among connoisseurs, who (out of disinterested artistic commitment, nostalgia for preindustrial ways, or social snobbery, depending on one's vantage point) placed a new premium on chamber music, the “aristocratic” genre par excellence.

By the late nineteenth century, of course, the nature of aristocracy and its relationship to music had changed. Rather than a noble aristocracy of birth and breeding, we are dealing now with a middle-class aristocracy of Bildung or education, of taste and “culture”—breeding of another sort. Like the older aristocracy, the newer one sought from music patronage a way of experiencing and expressing their elite status, and valued music whose performance would create elite occasions. They preferred music of a subtlety and reconditeness that would exclude listeners beneath their cultural station.

One of Brahms's best friends, the famous surgeon (and amateur violist) Theodor Billroth, gave a superb illustration of this attitude in a letter congratulating the composer after a performance of the First Symphony. Its music, he implied, was possibly too good for its genre:

I wished I could hear it all by myself, in the dark, and began to understand [the Bavarian] King Ludwig's private concerts. All the silly, everyday people who surround you in the concert hall and of whom in the best case maybe fifty have enough intellect and artistic feeling to grasp the essence of such a work at the first hearing—not to speak of understanding; all that upsets me in advance. I hope, however, that the musical masses here have enough musical instinct to understand that something great is happening there in the orchestra.38


fig. 13-8 Brahms in his graybearded maturity, seated with friends at Der Rote Igel (“The Red Hedgehog”) in Vienna.

Chamber music, still often performed before invited audiences in well-to-do homes like Billroth's rather than in concert halls (but, in the case of difficult contemporary works and especially those of Brahms, usually by hired professionals rather than convivial amateurs) fit the bill. This was the audience, an audience of professed idealists who worshipped the same “timeless” values as did Brahms, that made up his most enthusiastic constituency, and so it will not surprise us to learn that Brahms wrote far more chamber music than symphonic: three string quartets, five piano trios (including one with horn in place of cello and one with clarinet in place of violin), three piano quartets, one piano quintet, two string quintets, two string sextets, a quintet for clarinet and strings, three sonatas for violin and piano, two sonatas for cello and piano, and two sonatas for clarinet (or viola) and piano—twenty-four works in all, more than any other major composer since Beethoven. And he produced them over the entire length of his career, from op. 8 (the first piano trio) in 1854 to op. 120 (the clarinet sonatas), forty years later.

Here too, though, there had been a hiatus. Just as in the case of the symphony, the last important composer of “classical” chamber music had been Schumann, with about twenty works composed over an eleven-year span. The “New German” attitude toward chamber music, frankly disdainful, was tactlessly enunciated by Liszt one evening when, as Schumann's house guest, he heard a performance of his host's Piano Quintet and mortified the composer by calling it “Leipziger Musik”—Leipzig music—that is, provincial and academic.

The only really prolific composer of chamber music whose birth date fell between those of Schumann and Brahms was Joachim Raff, described earlier in this chapter as a “renegade Lisztian.” Raff was still Lisztian enough to try his hand at programmatic chamber works, however, including Volker (1876), a big “cyclic tone poem” for violin and piano. Another “Lisztian” chamber work was the First Quartet (1876) by Smetana, subtitled “From My Life,” one of only four chamber works in the output of this prolific composer of operas, symphonic poems, and piano music. It concludes with an emotionally wrenching portrayal (via a long-sustained natural harmonic stridently attacked by the first violin) of the onset of the composer's deafness. It has survived in the repertoire, but its autobiographical program identifies it as an anomalous work in a genre widely perceived to be out of joint with the times.

Brahms made no effort to adapt chamber genres to the taste—that is, the “mass” taste—of the times. Instead, he deliberately cultivated an esoteric style founded on Viennese domestic traditions, particularly that of the “Schubertiade,” the legendary gatherings of Schubert's friends who alone during the composer's lifetime were privileged to hear his most advanced chamber works and songs. Another powerful precedent, of course, was Beethoven—the deaf Beethoven of the late quartets, long a symbol of consummate genius, of artistic idealism and social alienation, and of cultural exclusivity.

The one chamber genre, then, that gave Brahms as much pause as the symphony was—inevitably—the string quartet. Again he felt the presence of the giant dogging his footsteps. Again there were many false starts—Brahms claimed as many as twenty—and there was another endlessly protracted gestation, that of the First Quartet, in the key of (what else?) C minor. Brahms is known to have worked on it off and on for at least eight years; and when it was finally published, in 1873, as the first of a pair given the opus number 51, it bore a dedication to Billroth. It was in every way an emblematic work.

Especially in the outer movements, it wears its difficulty on its sleeve, self-consciously cultivating what the unimpressed French called “le style chef-d'oeuvre” (masterpiece style). The aristocracy of Bildung differed from the aristocracy of birth in its appreciation of (to quote Nietzsche) “music that sweats.” The taste on the part of “lay” listeners for complexity and elaboration of texture may have been a reflection of the bourgeois work ethic, or it may have been another way of confirming their status as educated connoisseurs. Musicians themselves, of course, are drawn to such music by their intensive “ear training.” The intense fascination Brahms's chamber music exercised on other composers would be a powerful stimulus to stylistic innovation in the twentieth century. The novelty was the “lay” liking, however much a minority taste (and however short-lived in the case of new works), for the sort of “musicians’ music” the superbly equipped and resourceful Brahms could best purvey.

What is often questioned is how many of the details we are about to examine—especially the extraordinarily fine-grained motivic structure—were “heard” (that is, noticed and actively followed as relationships, the way a musician might) by the audience that patronized this music. At what point, to quote Carl Dahlhaus's version of the question, is such attention to detail perceived as a distraction, to be “repressed so as not to endanger the ‘esthetic mood’”?39 The question may be unnecessarily condescending, and it may posit a needless or groundless opposition. It must have been just this quality of attention, though, that Billroth had in mind when he wrote of having “enough intellect and artistic feeling to grasp the essence of such a work” as a Brahms symphony or, a fortiori, a Brahms quartet. While one cannot listen today with the ears of a nineteenth-century connoisseur, one can certainly detect efforts on the part of the composer to make the details of his thematische Arbeit or “thematic process” salient.

For a foretaste, compare the first ten measures of the quartet's first movement (Ex. 13-17a) with the last five measures of the last movement (Ex. 13-17b). The melodic and harmonic near-identity is hardly arcane; but what is most remarkable is the way the finale's concluding chords provide a closure to the first phrase that is very conspicuously withheld at the beginning. The whole quartet (like the whole of Tristan und Isolde, one can scarcely resist pointing out) is somehow subsumed within that contrasting parallelism, a phrase presented first open then shut. If one looks now at the beginning of the fourth movement (Ex. 13-17c), with its unharmonized, truncated, transposed, and therefore slightly ambiguous reference to the quartet's beginning, one will view the movement's end in a new light, as the explicit realization of an implication. Such implicit references and parallels are prevalent throughout the quartet: the end of the last movement discharges an account that had been accumulating over the course of all four movements.

For the rest, we had better limit the present account of the quartet's motivic structure to just the first movement's exposition and a few of its repercussions later on. (A full accounting would require a book, and a tedious one at that: better to compile one's own book through repeated, attentive, “Billrothian” listening.) For a last preliminary, however, compare the first movement's opening “period” as given in Ex. 13-17a with the beginning of the development—or starting, for an even fuller effect, with the “second ending” (Ex. 13-17d). Never have we seen a development as melodically indistinct from the exposition as this one.


ex. 13-17a Johannes Brahms, Quartet no. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, no. 1, I, mm. 1–10


ex. 13-17b Johannes Brahms, Quartet no. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, no. 1, IV, end


ex. 13-17c Johannes Brahms, Quartet no. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, no. 1, IV beginning


ex. 13-17d Johannes Brahms, Quartet no. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, no. 1, I, beginning of development section

Not that it will come as news to us at this stage of the game that the hard-and-fast textbook opposition of an exposition that “presents” material and a development that “breaks it down” had long been contrary to actual practice. By the late nineteenth century, sophisticated motivic elaborations and transformations no longer await the “official” development section but are present from the outset. Larger and larger musical entities are constructed out of smaller and smaller particles. But wait—isn't that just what, three chapters back, we identified as the great “revolution” of Wagner's Ring with its kaleidoscopic texture of leitmotifs?


(38) Theodor Billroth to Brahms, 10 December 1876; Johannes Brahms and Theodor Billroth: Letters from a Musical Friendship, trans. Hans Barkan (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957), p. 41.

(39) Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, trans. J. Bradford Robinson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), p. 260.

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. 28 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013010.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 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013010.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 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013010.xml