Program Notes | Brahms’ First Symphony

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 | 7:30 PM

Wagner: Tannhäuser Overture
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1
Brahms: Symphony No. 1

Richard Wagner
Overture to Tannhäuser
Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1813 and died in Venice in 1883. He completed his first version of his opera Tannhäuser in 1845 and led the first performance in Dresden the same year. He began revising the opera almost immediately, and went on tinkering with the work even after it was published in 1860. The score of the Overture calls for 3 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.
Wagner’s Tannhäuser may be a curious mixture of paganism and Christianity but, as is usual for Wagner, the story is really about love. The knight Tannhäuser has left his home—and Elisabeth, the woman who loves him—to be the consort of Venus. He grows weary of his life of incessant Bacchanalia and returns home, to the delight of his friends and Elisabeth. At a song contest, however, he seems possessed, and instead of singing about earthly love, he sings about the supernatural love of his recent experience. Scandalized, the town’s leaders banish him and suggest he join a band of pilgrims on their way to Rome, where he might ask forgiveness of the Pope. The Pope refuses, and on his return trip Tannhäuser intends to return to Venusberg. But another knight tells him that he will have salvation, because an angel—Elisabeth—has been praying for him. At that moment, a funeral procession arrives, carrying the body of Elisabeth. Tannhäuser approaches the bier, then collapses and dies, finally redeemed.
Wagner’s Overture is a microcosm of the opera’s plot. It begins with the Pilgrims’ Chorus, intoned in the winds, followed by a figure in the strings that represents redemption. With the Allegro we hear Tannhäuser’s song in praise of Venus, the revelry of Venusberg, and eventually the music representing Venus herself. The Pilgrims’ song returns, first softly, then in triumph. At the end we hear, in Wagner’s words, “a rapturous torrent of sublime ecstasy. The two divided elements, spirit and mind, God and nature, embrace each other in the holy uniting Kiss of Love.”


Franz Liszt
Concerto for Piano & Orchestra No. 1 in E-flat major
Franz Liszt was born in Raiding, Hungary, in 1811 and died in Beyreuth, Bavaria in 1886. He composed this work in 1848-49, although he had sketched some of the themes in 1830. He revised the work in 1853 and again after the first performance in 1855 in Weimar, with Liszt the soloist and Hector Berlioz conducting. The score calls for solo piano, 3 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, and strings.
Franz Liszt was the pianistic rock star of his age; he left his audiences spellbound with astonishing piano pyrotechnics, previously unheard and scarcely imagined. To this he added a stage presence and flair for showmanship that brought the violin virtuoso Paganini to mind. To hear a Liszt performance—perhaps event would be a better word—was to be swept away by the power of his personality and dazzled by his nearly incomprehensible technique.
Like most virtuosi of his day, Liszt wrote his own music to properly display his abilities. Until the 1850s he mostly composed etudes, sonatas, and other solo piano works; later, when he ceased what he called the “circus” of touring and settled down at Weimar, he decided it was time to tackle the big forms and the symphony orchestra.
The First Concerto uses a technique Liszt first observed in Schubert and later brought to fulfillment: thematic metamorphosis. In a blend of traditional variation and development, a single theme—or sometimes two, as in the case of this concerto—will undergo continuous transformation throughout the work; because each new variant is derived from the previous one and all share common ancestry with the original theme, a powerful sense of unity obtains. Liszt’s form follows from this procedure: although there are technically three movements, they are played without pause and we actually hear four distinct sections.
The first movement introduces the main theme straight away in the strings. It doesn’t go far before the piano launches a cadenza, and this gives us the plot of the movement. The main theme returns often but is always followed by something new. At the end of the movement, the music simply vanishes into thin air.
The second movement presents the poetic second theme of the concerto in the low strings, soon to be elaborated upon by the piano. Under an extended piano trill, the woodwinds seem to be starting on a summation until a sudden silence intervenes. After the silence, we hear a tinkling triangle, joined by the strings in a charming but unscheduled scherzo. This triangle truly annoyed the critics, which is a large part of why it’s so much fun.
The scherzo never really ends, either. The piano launches another cadenza, this time built upon the opening theme of the concerto, and this usher in the Finale. This is a grand summation of what has gone before, an almost goofy march that combines the themes we’ve heard before. The final presto is electrifying.
We’ve had movements that won’t end properly, themes that return in the wrong movements, movements that pop up out of nowhere, and astonishing pianism all the way through—now, that’s Liszt for you.


Johannes Brahms
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833 and died in Vienna in 1897. Sketches for this work date back as far as 1862, but Brahms did most of the composing between 1874 and 1876. The first performance took place at Karlsruhe, Baden in 1876 under the direction of Otto Dessoff. The symphony calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
“I shall never compose a symphony! You have no conception of how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us.” So said Brahms to his friend, conductor Hermann Levi; the “giant,” of course, was Beethoven.
Everyone wondered how Brahms could have reached his early forties without writing a symphony. After all, at the same age Beethoven had completed eight of his nine, Haydn half a hundred. When Brahms was only 21 his friend Robert Schumann wrote, “But where is Johannes? Is he flying high or only under the flowers? Is he not yet ready to let drums and trumpets sound? The beginning is the main thing; if only one makes the beginning, then the end comes of itself.”
Brahms did, in fact, make beginnings, but the ends didn’t quite come of themselves. After hearing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony Brahms was inspired to compose a symphony in the same key of D-minor. He completed three movements before he abandoned the project. The music he produced was good—two of the movements were used later in the D-minor Piano Concerto and one found its way into Ein Deutsches Requiem—but apparently not good enough. “Composing a symphony is no laughing matter,” said Brahms, no doubt hearing the giant’s footsteps behind him.
Brahms knew that his First Symphony would be seen as an artistic manifesto in an age when such things were taken very seriously. Many romantic composers looked upon Beethoven as the Great Liberator, the one who opened the doors to unbridled romanticism. Brahms, on the other hand, was predisposed to believe that much of the strength of Beethoven’s romanticism came largely from his classicism, that the dramatic outbursts were all the more powerful because of the surrounding context of discipline. For Brahms, the heart and mind had to counterbalance each other.
Critical reaction to the First Symphony was mixed. The champions of unfettered romanticism took the symphony as a rebuke to their aesthetic and treated it as such; the fans of Brahms’ style, on the other hand, called it “Beethoven’s Tenth.” Those with greater insight delighted in how Brahms’ passion—as refined by his intellect—led to a work whose impact was greater than either.
Today the First Symphony is a monument familiar to all. There is the pulsing introduction to the turbulent first movement; the melancholy second; the graceful, tune-laden third; and the transcendent Finale, with its startling transformation of a reverent trombone chorale into a bold consummation—all are remembered, yet each encounter with the symphony is a renewal.
The comparisons to Beethoven were inevitable, then as now. In a way, both men approached the same destination from opposite directions: Beethoven had pushed outward on the boundaries of classicism, while Brahms applied discipline to the unrestrained romanticism of his age. Brahms waited to issue his First Symphony until he was a master of his craft, not only able to withstand the comparison but one whose own footsteps would ring in the ears of those who followed.

—Mark Rohr
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