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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 The Return of the Symphony
Richard Taruskin

Indeed it is. One of Dahlhaus's most fertile insights was the observation that by the late nineteenth century all “serious” composers (as he put it; perhaps we'd better say all German composers) had become “miniaturists.” That is, all did their thematic thinking-in-music in terms of motifs rather than full-blown melodies—whether their field was opera or chamber music—and the crucial composerly problem of the latter part of the century became the fundamental tension between “the brevity of the musical ideas and the monumentality of the formal designs.”40 To drive the point home, Dahlhaus proclaimed the two seminal practitioners of the new motivic “miniaturism” to have been the Wagner of the Ring and the Brahms of the chamber music. And while there was surely an element of calculated shock in the unexpected coupling, it is very liberating so to view them: it frees us from the polemics of contemporaneous musical politicking and allows us to view the supposed adversaries from a historical vantage point that subsumes (or as Hegel would have said, “sublates”) their differences.

In any case, the real functional distinction between Brahms's exposition and his development is what it had always been in the works of sonata composers: a harmonic (“tonal”) rather than a thematic distinction. The music in Ex. 13-17d is appropriately “far out” from the tonic. But melodically it is if anything more regular than the exposition. The process of motivic “breakdown” begins at the very beginning of Ex. 13-17a, and it is truly pulverizing. The opening idea, an old-fashioned “rocket” such as Mozart or even Stamitz, the Mannheim composer, might have started with, is stated only once at its full eight-note, five-beat length and is then progressively truncated. First the last five notes (three beats) are extracted and subjected to a chromatically rising sequence. Then the first three notes of the foreshortened motif are extracted and augmented by a fourth to extend the arpeggio—or are they notes 3–6 of the original phrase?—and put through a fourfold sequence to the peak of the phrase.

Phrases and motifs are primarily identifiable through contour—their rise and fall—and rhythm. In terms of contour, the downbeats of mm. 2, 3, and 4 of Ex. 13-17a are all motivically equivalent, even though the intervals are different: a diminished seventh, a perfect fifth, and a minor sixth respectively. And thus by contour and placement at the end of the longest upward sweep of all, the descending semitone in m. 7 can also be construed as “motivic,” even though it introduces an interval as yet practically unused. Needless to say, once marked in this way as thematically significant, the semitone will now perform its many important harmonic tasks with vastly enhanced significance.

And yet, however important the transformation of intervals may be to Brahms's technique of “developing variation” (as Arnold Schoenberg, its most zealous emulator in the Vienna of the future, would call it), intervallic constancy plays a role of equal if not greater importance. It, too, gives rise to characteristic devices. The second violin part in mm. 1 – 3, for example, is entirely confined to reinforcing at the octave the C – E♭ third in the first-violin arpeggios and linking it up with the filled-in third in the same register with which the first violin part begins. This, too, is a technique of motivic “extraction,” amply confirmed by the role that the interval of a third—both as a skip and as a “filled-in” scale segment—will play throughout the quartet. Call the first three notes in the first violin “a” and the first two notes in the second violin “a′” and we are prepared to trace an astounding number of connections, some obvious, others arcane (but where to draw the line between the two? and who shall draw it?).

Developing Variation

ex. 13-18 Johannes Brahms, Quartet no. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, no. 1, II, beginning

The introductory phrase in the second violin at the beginning of the second movement, to take one example, is clearly an “a” in a sort of stuttering variant (Ex. 13-18); and the main melody in the first violin, having been thus prefigured, is just as clearly built up out of an inverted “a” preceded by an upbeat, and followed by an “a′.” And if the first two beats of the melody in the second movement's second measure are described as an inverted “a,” then the first two beats of m. 3 can be similarly described. And if so, then the last beat of m. 3 consists of an extension of the inverted “a” to encompass a fourth rather than a third. And if the last beat of m. 3 is part of “a,” then so are the last beat of m. 4, the last beat of m. 5, and the second and third notes of m. 6, preceded by an overlapping inverted “a′.” Having taken note of this much, we are now prepared to find that almost every note in the accompanying parts up to the point that we have traced is similarly derived (or at least derivable) from “a” or “a′.”

Admittedly, at some point arguments like this can begin to seem farfetched. But at what point, exactly? Nor have we even broached the question of “intentions,” or distinguished between varieties of intention: Did Brahms consciously calculate these things? Did he have to? Did he want us to hear them? Did he want us to trace them? What do we accomplish by tracing them? To what purpose? The head swims. And perhaps in saying this we have at last found a means of distinguishing “serious” music (the kind of which his Breslau diploma declared Brahms the preeminent master) from … what?

Leaving the answers to these questions to the “Brahmins” (to use the joshing term that quickly attached itself to the self-declared Brahms enthusiasts who regarded themselves as an elite “caste”), let us press on to the third movement (Ex. 13-19a). Like the second, it is a relatively lightweight, entertaining, divertimento-like affair (the way middle movements in Brahms usually tend to be), but still “serious” enough to set our heads spinning again if we like the way that feels. Identifying “a” in at the beginning of the viola part is child's play, and so is noticing the way the melody (or should we call it the countermelody?) in the first violin, and again in the viola at mm. 9 ff., is constructed out of a sequence based on “a′”

But having accounted for the falling seconds in the second movement as an extension of “a,” we are justified (or are we?) in similarly deriving the first violin's opening tune in its entirety. And if we can keep ourselves from becoming entranced by the harmony in Ex. 13-19b, where a sudden circle of fifths unexpectedly plunges us deep into the realm of flats, we will notice that the “charming” (lusingando) melody (as Brahms quietly boasts) played in playful canon by the same first violin and viola is entirely made up of repetitions of “a” and its inversion. When the two melodies are combined in counterpoint (Ex. 13-19c), we have what amounts to two variations of a single motif pitted one against the other.

Now that the matter of harmony has been broached, it is worth noting the elusiveness of the F-minor tonic in that seemingly lightweight third movement, so coyly marked comodo (cozy) and semplice (simple) by the composer. True enough, the very first harmony in Ex. 13-19a seems to be a tonic triad—that is, if we are willing to call the first violin's D♭ an (unprepared) appoggiatura. But the second harmony, with its B and D naturals, flatly contradicts the first. The only “tonal” way of hearing their relationship is to interpret the harmony on the upbeat not as a tonic triad at all, but as a D♭-major triad in first inversion, cast as a Neapolitan to the dominant of C. Sure enough, C arrives “on schedule” in m. 8, sounding very much like the result of an authentic cadence, even if according to the signature it is only a half-cadence.

Will m. 16 deliver the tonic at last? Don't bet on it. Measure 16 finds us on C once again, and as far as the phrase structure is concerned, quite in the midst of things. Looking for an F in the bass and finding one at the end of m. 22, we note with dismay that the harmony has not rid itself of that pesky D♭, nor has the continuation changed. We are still dealing, so far as aural effect is concerned, with functions of C, not F.

Developing Variation

ex. 13-19a Johannes Brahms, Quartet no. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, no. 1, III, beginning

Developing Variation

ex. 13-19b Johannes Brahms, Quartet no. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, no. 1, III, “charming” melody

Where does the cadence on F finally happen? Only at the very end, of course. (But wasn't that supposed to happen only in Wagner?) On the way to that cadence, there are some stunning feints. One, again, is that “charming” interlude (Ex. 13-19b)—and it reminds us that another possible translation of lusingando is “teasing.” The reason why it is such a tease is that the harmonic digression it embodies is a “composing-out” of the already teasingly reiterated Neapolitan progression with which the movement opened (further reinforced at mm. 22–23). Its jumping-off point is the D♭-major harmony of the opening, this time expressed as a dominant seventh and pushed further flatward.

And when the whole teasing passage is repeated, at m. 46 ff, the jumping-off point is the G-major harmony to which the original Neapolitan was applied, again treated as the dominant of C, but this time pushed beyond C to the long-awaited F, which arrives in m. 48, only dressed up (and this is the biggest tease of all) as another dominant-seventh chord on the way to B♭. That B♭ triad, while it frustrates our immediate expectation of a tonic cadence, nevertheless has its own strategic purpose. It manages at last, by providing a subdominant, to identify the C-major harmony at m. 51 as a dominant rather than a tonic, thus pointing in the long range to the long-deferred goal. (It is in fact the first such unambiguous pointer in the movement.) This little glimpse at the third movement already conveys something of the manner in which the quartet's motivic and harmonic contents interact. A final glance at the first movement's exposition will give us a close-up view of the process. Ex. 13-20 picks up right where Ex. 13-17a broke off.

Developing Variation

ex. 13-19c Johannes Brahms, Quartet no. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, no. 1, III, contrapuntal montage

Developing Variation

ex. 13-20 Johannes Brahms, Quartet no. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, no. 1, I, mm. 11–27

A new motif appears at the outset (m. 11) in the first violin—or rather appears to appear, because we know by now that nothing past the first measure of a movement like this is going to be totally “new.” Accordingly, the first interval, the descending third, takes its place among the many inversions of “a′” that we have already noted. The further descent by a second also has precedent, indeed a very conspicuous one: namely, the climax of the first phrase in m. 7 (which also links up conspicuously, both melodically and harmonically, with the opening of the third movement). If precedent is sought for a direct progression of descending third and descending second, it can be found (inverted) in the second violin, as the original version of motif “a′” progresses across the third bar line to F. And if a direct link with the motif in m. 11 is sought, it can be found in mm. 15 and 17, when the one motif (in the second violin) is accompanied by the other (in the viola, echoed by the cello).

Having established its legitimacy, so to speak, let us now trace the new motif's progress, from first violin in m. 11 (descending from F) to second violin in m. 15 (descending from C, a fourth lower), to viola and cello in m. 22, descending from G, another fourth lower, to link up with the tonic in m. 23. Of course we have omitted from this neat sequential account the altogether anomalous transposition of the motif in mm. 19–20 (second violin followed by viola at the octave), which pitches the motif on B natural, the leading tone, so that it ends on F♯.

The note is not unprecedented. Preceded by E♭ in the second measure of Ex. 13-17a, F♯ had played the role of dramatic appoggiatura, “dissonating” against a tonic pedal and crying out for resolution. This time, however, the note is harmonized consonantly on both of its occurrences, against a rising scale in the cello, whose rhythm identifies it as a sequential expansion of the original “a” motif. These consonant intervals in support of the F♯—perfect fifth against B in m. 19 and an altogether disorienting unison in m. 20—are tonally disruptive, to say the least. They neutralize the need to resolve, and as such imply an impasse. Has the music in effect modulated through a process of motivic transposition to the key of B minor? Is that any proper place to go, or have we in effect lost our way?

Brahms implies that we have done exactly that by breaking off the two lines in m. 20 after their improbable unison closure, and in the next measure rubs it in by repeating the wayward note (arrived at with perfect thematic logic and total harmonic lunacy) with rests on either side. The music has come to an eerie standstill. Walter Frisch, in a detailed study of Brahms's “developing variation” technique, captures well the uncanny feeling it inspires: “In bars 19–21,” he writes, “Brahms leads us to the edge of an abyss, and, indeed, makes us lean far over.”41 It is a moment to make one shudder; and the more attentive and “Billrothian” our listening has been, the keener our sense of vertigo will be.

But then, Frisch continues, Brahms “pulls us suddenly back onto the terra firma of C minor,” and restarts the main theme (in the bass) as if nothing had happened. We are relieved, if somewhat bewildered. But something has happened, and it will have consequences. Compare m. 9 in Ex. 13-17a with the analogous spot in the recapitulation (Ex. 13-21). In the former, the F♯ (disguised as a G♭) appears as a chromatic passing tone (with an associated “Neapolitan-style” harmonization), inflecting G toward F. In Ex. 13-21, the F♯ is the goal of the progression, approached directly from the uninflected G, and finally resolved as the dominant it had always seemed to be. The chickens have come home to roost, or, as Frisch puts it, “in the recapitulation Brahms actually does plunge us briefly into the chasm” from which he had previously pulled us back. But having faced up to the threat of B minor, Brahms (and we) are empowered at last to defeat it.

Developing Variation

ex. 13-21 Johannes Brahms, Quartet no. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, no. 1, I, mm. 143–50

As Frisch explains, the B-minor triad in Ex. 13-21 “leads logically back to the tonic through D major and G7; thus the ‘sore’ F♯ and the B minor that once seemed so frighteningly remote are reintegrated into the familiar context of C minor.” Brahms did not invent this ploy. It has a famous precedent in Beethoven, in the way the notorious C♯ in m. 7 of the Symphony in E♭ (the “Eroica”) returned at the other end of the movement (disguised as D♭) as unfinished business that required an extra development section to work through. And there is an earlier one in Mozart, in the slow movement of another Symphony in E♭ (no. 39, K. 543), where a troublingly persistent chromatic note (B natural, come to think of it!) finally forced a radically disruptive modulation to its home key as if in an act of exorcism.

Brahms knew these precedents, of course. The difference between them and his own tonal psychodrama lay in the difference of media. Beethoven's and Mozart's, being symphonic, were dramatic manifestations, bordering indeed on the melodramatic. And so was Brahms's own public skirmish with B minor in the opening movement of his First Symphony, described earlier in this very chapter. In the quartet movement the effect turns on tinycraft, on minute motivic relations. Its far greater concentration requires far more in the way of active engagement and response from the listener. Active engagement, the ability to respond to subtle signals, requires the possession of actual skills—aural discrimination, aural memory, mental agility. The rewards and satisfactions are commensurate with the exertion: the exhilaration that follows exercise; the gratification that comes with understanding; the fellow-feeling that successful receipt of an urgent communication inspires.

But there is also the self-satisfaction of belonging to a self-defined elite—an emotion that is gratified through exclusion. And that is where esoteric, “difficult” art inevitably becomes controversial in a postaristocratic, “democratic” age. The question is generally posed in terms of means and ends. Is the difficulty inherent in the message and essential to it—the price, so to speak, of full communication? Or is it, rather, a difficulty that is mandated for the sake of the exclusions that it affords, or what might be termed “elite solidarity”? If the latter, does it foster social division? Is that social division a threat to social harmony? Is the protection of social harmony something societies, and their institutions of enforcement and control (from critics all the way, in extreme cases, to censors and police), have an obligation to promote?

These questions became explosive in the twentieth century. Their origin goes back to the great fissure that opened up between the “mass” culture made possible by the demographics and technologies of the late nineteenth century and the traditional notion of “high” culture. The division bred conflicts and backlashes. And while Brahms himself was not much implicated in the social debates, we may be tempted to judge his attitudes by those of his “Brahmin” friends, like Billroth. As we shall see, those who led the debates to their explosive stage in the early twentieth century often sought their legitimacy, and their authority, in Brahms's example, just as some of the worst politics of the twentieth century sought its legitimacy in Wagner's.

So there is a “Brahms problem” as well as a “Wagner problem.” From this perspective, too, these perceived antipodes were equally—and similarly—representative of their time and its social problematics. And that is yet another reason why “Brahms and Wagner” have remained a dynamic duo. The problems, however we choose to define their relationship to the figures whose names they bear, are stubborn historical facts.


(40) Carl Dahlhaus, Between Romanticism and Modernism, trans. Mary Whittall (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), p. 41.

(41) Walter Frisch, Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), p. 114.

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. 4 Jun. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013011.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 4 Jun. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013011.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 4 Jun. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013011.xml