Symphony No. r, in C minor, Opus 68
I. Un poco sostenuto; Allegro
II. Andante sostenuto
III. Un poco allegretto e grazioso
IV. Adagio; Pia andante; Allegro non troppo, ma con brio
Brahms waited ten years longer than Beethoven did to issue a first symphony, and was undoubtedly hesitant because of his awe of the composer of the Nine. In the interval of the seventy-six years that elapsed between the two works, Brahms had opportunity to benefit by the colossal strides of Beethoven himself and by immense. technical advances in composition and orchestration. Another thing: to write a symphony in 1876 was considerably more of a responsibility than to undertake one in 1800. In 1800 the symphony was a comparatively modest affair.
Composers turned them out in batches, as we have had opportunity to observe. But with the appearance of the “Eroica” symphony of Beethoven in 1804 all that was changed. The symphonic form was now the repository of the grandest musical and emotional conceptions. When Schumann, as a critic, discovered Brahms, and revealed him to the world in a famous article, he spoke of him as a creative artist who sprang forth fully armed, like Minerva from the head of Jove; and that, thanks to Brahms’s patience, structural power and depth of meaning, holds true of the C minor symphony. It is monumental in proportions and epical in spirit, complex in structure, essentially dramatic as Beethoven’s Fifth symphony is dramatic, and, incidentally, concerned with the same theme.
The first movement is storm and stress; everything in it is tremendous, concentrated, richly developed and packed together with great strength and a bardic power of utterance. The opening is one of the greatest pages of modern orchestral music, born of mist and storm and towering heights. The striving phrase heard over the pounding drums is the basic motive of the symphony, reappearing in many different guises in the following movements. It recurs like a question in measures of the slow movement. It ponders, dark-visaged and Faust-like, in the opening measures of the introduction of the finale, before the orchestral sky clears and Brahms’s horn brings promise of salvation. There are pages in the first movement when it is as if the earth were in travail. There are hammer-blows of fate, and at the end of the movement a calmer mood, a suggestion, at least, of a band of light at the edge of a tempestuous sky.
From all this turmoil the slow movement is remote, although its exaltations are haunted by questionings and agitations of the spirit. The third movement is not a minuet or a scherzo, but an allegrettonot a dance but a walk through nature; not laughter but a smile tinged with melancholy, and a departure, original with Brahms, from the customary symphonic form. In this symphony the last movement as well as the first has an introduction, and the second introduction is perhaps Brahms’s boldest imaginative flight. It begins in a vein of somber reverie. Curious pizzicato passages of the strings and savage outbursts of the full orchestra prelude the passage where the trilling strings shimmer out like the opening of the heavens, and the horn calls as from above. There have been various explanations of this dramatic passage, of the origin of the horn motive,’ and its meaning. The
It is quoted in notation in a letter from Brahms to Clara Schumann, dated September 12, 1868 (“Letters of Brahms and Clara Schumann,” edited by Dr. Berthold Litzmann. English edition by Longmans, Green & Company, 1927). Brahms, then in the mountains, sends Clara, with whom he apparently has had a tiff, a birthday greeting. Clara’s birthday being the 13th, his letter accompanies a gift and contains in notation the theme incorporated eight years later in the symphony. Under the theme Brahms has written six words: “Thus blew the Alpine horn to-day.” The melody, with one slight rhythmical variation, is identic in note, measure and key with the horn theme of the finale of the C minor symphony. In the letter a fragment of sentimental peasant verse is fitted to it.
“Hoch auf’m Berg, tief im Tal, Gruss ich Dich, viel tausendmal.”
Did the verse and the melody originally belong together? Probably not. Variants of the verse are to be found in collections of German folk-poetry, such as
“Hoch auf’m Berg and del im Thal
Soli ich denn um Dich trauren wohl uberalli”
Association with mountain scenery is inescapable, and would immediately occur (to us, even if we knew nothing of the theme’s beginnings. But there is a far deeper significance, though one that a modern generation might pooh-pooh. It is that of faith. The prophetic motto, following after dark mystery and brooding,
In Wyss’s “Collection of Swiss Cowherd Melodies and Folk-songs” (1826) a variant of these lines is fitted to another air not in the least resembling the one under discussion, and far more conventional. But in no collection of folk-music have I been able to discover the original of Brahms’s melody.
It is a striking coincidence that the first four measures of the horn theme are identic with those of one of the quarters of what are now popularly known as the Westminster chimes. These chimes were copied by the Houses of Parliament in London from the chimes of Sc. Mary’s Church at Cambridge University. They are believed to have been arranged by Dr. William Crotch, and they were placed in the tower of St. Mary’s in 1793-94. Brahms had completed three movements of his First symphony when Cambridge invited him to visit the university and accept the honorary degree of Doctor of Music. This was in May, 1876. The finale of the symphony, in which the horn theme makes its first appearance, was not finished till the September following. Brahms did not accept the Doctor’s degree, for he was reluctant to go to England, and the degree could not be conferred in absentia. But in the following year, March 8, 1877, Brahms sent the score of the First symphony to be conducted by Joachim at Cambridge, in token of appreciation of the honor which had been proffered him. The performance was accompanied by a dramatic incident when “the audience in the Guild-hall heard the horn phrase answered, as it seemed, by the chimes of St. Mary’s Church, close at handfor the notes of the horn phrase are virtually identical with those of the last part of the ‘Cambridge quarters.’ ” * The audience believed that the apparent quotation was intentional on’ Brahms’s part, and so did I until refuted by his correspondence! For years the First symphony was known in England as the “Cambridge” symphony.