Brahms: Symphony No. 1

Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. Dear guests, dear choir singers, warmly welcome to everyone and thank you for being interested in this evening program in so great numbers.
Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 is the symbol of a change of era, the first significant manifestation of the romantic thinking, the great romantic form.
As a reminder, let’s listen to a well-known extract, which is the key to romantic musical approach in the 19th century.

      1. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


We’ve mentioned several times in connection with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 that it is the benchmark for everything. How did this Symphony No. 9 end? What is so breath-taking in this all? Are we happy, or not? I hope we’re all happy. What was the end? What musical character is this exactly? Well, of course. It’s a march. In general, it’s played extremely fast – for that matter, based on a tradition going back to Furtwängler. So the ending is a march. March is one of the strongest musical forms in this period. What happens to the theme, that certain Freude schöner Götterfunken theme? It rises to the sky. Beethoven raises this theme to ecstasy. He simply glorifies it. This is the moment when musical history changed.
In music, just as in all arts, form is very interesting and important. In musical history, you mainly meet small forms in a few beats for over centuries. If you have a look at e.g. the first eight beats in Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, what do you actually see? That a four-beat interrogative gesture is followed by a four-beat response. Twice eight beats may also face each other, but it’s all the same. Anyway, here we have the simplest musical form, the call and response, which is generally called a period. A movement in a seemingly complicated Bach or Händel suite would not, in most of the cases, take longer than one or two minutes. We easily orientate, ask something, for instance “how are you?”, and our response, with a slight modification of the musical thought, is “fine”. This call and response mechanism is essentially a basis for the simplest development of a stand-alone musical unit. The movements in a baroque suite fundamentally consist of two elements, where the first element shifts from the basic tonality to another tonality, so its end is believed to be open; and by the end of the other element we get back to the basic tonality which closes the form. Such a form used to function as a musical unit of full value, without anything lacking, for quite a long time. There is no musical coherence, simply some balance in moods and characters among the movements of works and cyclic pieces interlaced through such movements. This means that a cycle doesn’t consist of only fast or only slow, only even or only odd movements, but from their proportionate and harmonic combination. The interlaced parts can otherwise be freely replaced. For instance, you’ll never hear Händel’s Water Music twice in the very same form, as each conductor would pick different movements from it.
A line of movements and, finally, a cycle of four movements crystallizes out in the forms developing in the classical period (e.g. instrumental sonata, string-quartet or symphony). This cycle is made up of a fast movement, a slow movement, a triple-pulse dance movement and, finally, a fast movement again. When we listen to such works, we’re not really compelled to feel the work as a single process from the first to the last movement. Haydn composed 104 symphonies, and the movements of these 104 symphonies (or certainly of the first – let’s say – 90), if in identical tonalities, could be optionally interchanged. If the movements of the various Haydn symphonies are interchanged pertinently, not even we musicians who know all the pieces would surely recognize that something was not alright. This also means that when we listen to the second, third or fourth movement, none of the other movements would come to our mind, we don’t make any comparison; and whichever movement you’ve been listening to, you can stop listening to music as if that were an ending of relatively full value. Just as in a Sunday lunch, the clear soup and fried steak are followed by the cake cycle: some would not at all feel hungry after the clear soup, and you can have any meat after any soup, followed by any dessert. The same applies to music, up to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Both in this work and, evidently, in all his life work, Beethoven reaches this moment gradually. But we’ve already discovered in his earlier works that the ending of a movement doesn’t seem to be relaxing, as if it weren’t of full value, or at least Beethoven doesn’t seem to be satisfied. Perhaps that’s not how he wanted to close, he may have wanted to say something else, but he didn’t manage. Here’s what creates the cyclic mechanism of new romantic thinking where the composer esteems the movements of a cycle as the individual stations of his thoughts, and only the final outcome of the piece will offer a key to the full possession of the work.
And here’s another aspect. When you consider the ending of Bach’s works, you’ll recognize that, using a few tones and three harmonies, which are inevitable for the cadence, he closes the movement at full value. Occasionally, Mozart boosts this a bit, or so-to-say delightfully enhances the joy of closure and sometimes, just by way of a joke, he adds a short coda to the actual ending. But Beethoven is more lumberly in finishing something. This suggests that the phrasing of the thought, the materialization of thought and emotion is encumbered. As if Beethoven initiated us into his own strifes and didn’t want to conceal the bitter strike on the solution, the content and mode of ending. Whether this is his personal habit, a social coercion or a feature of the age, that we don’t know; but probably it’s all.
Most certainly, Beethoven was not the first and not the only one in this period to initiate his audience into his creative process, though all this becomes quite outstanding particularly in contrast with Mozart’s art. The weight of thoughts expressed in Mozart’s music would’ve justified the need to reveal the creative strife, however, given his geniality and composing ease, Mozart rather reduced his contemporaries and peers (comparable with his creative geniality) to despair, which simply increased the responsibility for creation among his peers.
So this is why we had to begin our discussion today with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. In this work, Beethoven doesn’t simply find it so difficult to finish the movement, we don’t simply lack something after the first three movements of the piece. Beethoven expresses and gets the audience on to recognizing that the first movement (though he put extreme energy in it) is not good enough; and if it’s not good for him, it shouldn’t be good for the audience, either. Similarly, the masterful second and the breath-takingly fine third movement are not what he really wanted to say. He wants something else, he needs something else, and this brings the Ode to Joy theme in the fourth movement into existence: and he doesn’t simply find this, but glorifies it as we’ve just heard in the coda. Rarely would you find any more forceful codas in musical history.
So here we have a cyclic form where the first movement, despite its apparent closed frames, leaves some insufficiency and tension behind. Following the second and third traditional-style movements, the four movement is expected to release tension and phrase a complete ending.
Starting from this symphony, a Haydn, Mozart or earlier Beethoven symphony cannot reach a sufficient level, so the composers in the succeeding period had to compare themselves with this work.
Let me make a small detour, and if you’re lucky enough, I’ll manage to illustrate something: you may have recognized that I wouldn’t really put a Haydn symphony in our Understanding Music program. If I were to present a Haydn symphony, I could explain how we get from the basic to the dominant tonality, where we are and where we are not, and how we get back to where we started from, still, this wouldn’t thrill the audience. The melodies are nice, the symphony follows its own path, no frightful dramatic tension is developing, and finally, everyone goes home happy. Sometimes it’s rather difficult to explain the simple, as the simple implies a centuries-long community language, and uniqueness can be comprehended if our relation to identity is just like to our mother tongue. So, essentially, until Haydn’s and Mozart’s age the composer and his listeners create a quasi-community, which also means that the creators and recipients of art are mutually versatile in the fundamental tools of the artistic language. To the contrary, Beethoven’s behaviour already reflects the creator’s increasingly changing position wherein the artist faces an audience who, following the civilian consumers’ logics, either understand and don’t understand the work and will therefore either like it or not.
Beethoven’s followers have an even stronger sense to the ambivalences of relation with the actual audience, they can even less rely on an audience who will easily understand their thoughts, so Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 becomes more and more a standard with its elementary impact mechanisms.
Brahms is born a few years after Beethoven’s death, so logically he belongs to another generation. For him, Beethoven is history, an idol, a seemingly unachievable example who cannot be copied, cannot be repeated, though this would be the aim. Beethoven is the standard, Beethoven must be achieved and Beethoven must be repeated or, if possible, exceeded. Brahms is rather reluctant to compose a symphony. This fact will be of utmost importance. We know that at the age of twenty he puts some notes of a symphony in score, but that turned out to become something else, a chamber piece. Then another eight years go by when, at the age of 28, he begins to compose the first movement, rather cumbersomely. The part of the movement he composed last is also worth mentioning[1]; but then another fourteen years go by until he finishes the symphony. Beethoven got as far as nine symphonies, whereas Brahms completed four only, and he finishes Symphony No. 1 at the age of 42. True, he had already composed orchestral pieces, including two serenades (both of which are considerably longer than Beethoven’s first eight symphonies), but no symphony. This definitely suggests Beethoven’s shadow.
After this all, let’s start and introduce the work. We actually had to invoke the preceding period and Beethoven to understand Brahms’s symphony, still, I hope that if you come to know Brahms’s symphony, it’ll help you have a better understanding of this specific preceding age.
The composition begins with a slow introduction, which is not really surprising as Mozart’s, Haydn’s and Beethoven’s countless works begin so. The slow introduction seemed to serve the function of waiting until everyone got into the room, given that the audience wouldn’t anyway get there in time; this was mainly highly typical of the opera. But later one of its other meanings was reinforced: i.e. we cannot or don’t want to get right in there in medias res. As a matter of fact, it’s not that silly to compel the “hungry” audience to be waiting a bit before the first course. In Beethoven’s pieces it’s even more than that: his introductions also depict dramatic strifes. Here, in Brahms’s work we face an extremely imposing slow introduction, it’s really rewarding to pay attention to the immense power that is continuously throbbing. This evinces ab ovo that it’s a frantic, extraordinarily expressive power and intention. The succession of harmonies won’t produce any melody. But melodies don’t give any excessive pleasure, either, because the first minor is immediately followed by a diminished chord which, as I’ve mentioned so many times, is something we don’t like because we don’t know where it would resolve, so we find it diabolic. (beginning)

      2. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


These few beats are constantly heading somewhere. Its best recognizable gesture is the chromatic scale which always mediates some sensation of pain. But what comes next? (beat 9[2])

      3. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


Despite the painful chromatic scale, we got high. And where did we get afterwards? To the deep.
It was no use fighting so much for this, wasn’t it? If I may say so, we did everything but, unfortunately, we fell back to the depths, the absolute depth. But Brahms doesn’t give up quickly; he says we’ll have a try, we’ll try to crawl back to where we’ve just fell from. Let’s go on! (beat 21)

      4. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


So there’re three gestures we meet in the introduction. The first is the symbol of eternal strife. But “Man, strive on, and have faith”[3], says Madách – life is struggle itself. This is also an aesthetic notion. Strife in art never means strife in the everyday meaning of the word but it symbolizes creation itself. Strife is in many cases misunderstood in romanticism: we frequently construe it as strife with external forces, whereas in the majority of cases it means strife with ourselves.
The second gesture is the symbol of unavoidable doom. The third is the symbol of resuscitation, repeated struggle or, in simple terms, the will to live, the “I’ll show you”. And this “I’ll show you” will be the real call. Strife and doom are the natural frame of our lives. But the question ‘what is the real target of strife?’ is purely unavoidable. The somewhat simplified response in romantic art is glorification. Goethe’s specific notion, the fundamental question in Faust: can the creative spirit (creator spiritus) be glorified, can it get to heaven, can it be admitted in the unearthly realm? The creator is, on the one hand, an outstandingly valuable member of society who, given his knowledge and talent, wants to enrich his community, leaving responses behind that create a value and standard for eternal human questions. But the creator is, in the sacral meaning, guilty, because there’s no creation without scepticism. There’s no life without sin, and religion builds its mechanism on this, to set a worldly frame for ordinary man. But can the creator use these frames? So this is at stake in “I’ll show you”. Do our thoughts live up to glorification?

I don’t think Brahms accidentally composed this slow introduction last. Here in these few beats he almost summarizes the entire movement. You actually hear the strife of these three elements, the strife of creation, doom and recommencement in the whole movement.
Now I’d like to show you the leading theme. I doubt you’ll whistle the theme, probably not a single melody from the entire first movement. The leading theme is similarly a chromatic harmony; essentially the same as the beginning of the introduction. (beat 38)

      5. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


Not very complicated. The composer tried something, but failed. The work has hardly begun and our composer has suffered the hardships of war in four beats. This beginning itself justifies the slow introduction; it was indeed impossible, or at least in those times still impossible to start the work this way.
But as we’ve seen in the slow introduction, the failure doesn’t unnerve our composer, and he continues with that very gesture of “strive, re-start, and I’ll show you, perhaps, even so”. (beat 42)

      6. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


And you see, there’s no shortage of strength and endurance, which seems to end rather promisingly. (beat 51)

      7. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


Practically, there’s no other musical material in the movement.
To live through the musical events in the work, we cannot go by talking about the sonata form, especially considering that, as you’ll see, the ending of the piece is extraordinary, but only in this light.
So, what is the sonata form? Where it starts is the basic tonality. Let’s say the floor I’m standing on. Here we phrase some musical thought, which is called the leading theme. Then we take a turn to another tonality; let’s say the tonality is this chair I’ve just stood on. Here we phrase another musical thought, which is the secondary theme, but we might say the same as before, i.e. the leading theme. Anyway, we’ll sooner or later close our thoughts in this tonality. We may even have a third theme, which is generally called the closing theme, so it’s still here on the chair. The section up to this point is called exposition. Do you feel fine here? Relatively stable, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want to stay here forever. Where do you long to get from here? Logically, back to the floor. But of course, we wouldn’t be humans and there wouldn’t be art if we didn’t start for other chairs, even higher. In such circumstances, our thoughts (whether they be musical thoughts on the floor or the chair) are swirling, and we might even come up with brand new thoughts. This section is called development. But of course, our soaring must come to an end at a time, and we return to the floor. What actually happens there…? Whatever was phrased on the chair, i.e. the secondary theme and the closing theme, if any, will necessarily have to be played again here, on the floor. This part is called the recapitulation. So this is the sonata form. This is how we’ve composed for centuries. Otherwise, the same has applied until now, though nowadays we don’t observe the tonality, rather just the structure of the form. You, of course, mainly hear the difference among the themes. Partly because in the great majority of the compositions the secondary theme in that specific new tonality has a different character than the leading theme in the basic tonality. This is what I tried to symbolize with the chair, so their contradiction itself is a fairly exciting musical event. Well then, let’s see what happens in Brahms. We get to another tonality. What new musical thought do we hear? (beat 121)

      8. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


We hear not one but two musical themes; what’s more, at the same time. One is harmonic strife in chromatic melody, the other one is a rearing melody symbolizing recommencement: the first and third gestures explained in the introduction appear here simultaneously. So the secondary theme is not a new musical material but definitely a new musical attitude which may symbolize the uniformity of either strife or recommencement.
So, the question here is where Brahms leads us in closing the first formal part. We hear a nearly caring gesture, and then the composer exerts tremendous power as he leads us to a seemingly more and more victorious closure. (beat 131)

      9. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


I see, you’ve straightened your back and seem to be respiring. Well, unfortunately, I must tell you this ending is not friendly, from two aspects. The two repetitive tones in the end appear to be outrageously pulling back the soaring musical process as it opened into a victorious fanfare. Even more unfriendly is that this part also ends in a minor. If you have a piece in minor tonality, you’ll never start from a minor tonality and stay in minor, once you’ve got onto that chair. So, from a minor floor you’d better get onto a major chair, and not a minor one. But of course, we can be relatively happy with this minor because before that we heard so many diminished harmonies. This clearly overshadows the promising, opening musical process. In the development section, a new musical thought is played, which is even more important than soaring in musical space. An immeasurably simple melody, like Süss fel nap[4], and this strain of music is sensibly heading toward a sort of pompous glorification. (beat 225)

      10. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


But as you can hear, the glorification fails. Although the piece seems to head for a boisterous finish at the end of the exposition, still, the strength of the cruelly repeated two tones almost explodes, and the thriving chromatic sequence of the introduction and the leading theme sinks with less and less energy, almost to full doom. As a last gesture, we nevertheless hear the rising melody and, lo and behold, the movement finally ends is a cleared major harmony. No solution, but there’s still hope. (beat 458)

      11. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


Extreme movements have always been determinative in the dramaturgy of cyclic pieces, if only for their fast tempo. The slow second movement was rather considered a relaxation: regardless of emotional content, it was definitely simpler than the two extreme movements. The dance movement (which was always a minuet until Beethoven, and then a fast pulse dance called the scherzo since Beethoven) is certainly a dramaturgical relaxation, carrying rather playful than weighty thoughts. Brahms follows this scheme, though Clara Schumann[5] didn’t think that the second and third movements in the symphony were equal the two extreme ones. She is probably not right in this regard, and we can anyway be happy for having quasi relaxing two median movements after these weighty and surging thoughts.
The lyric second movements are rather playful in Haydn’s works. Mozart phrases the delicacy, sensitivity and exquisiteness of his female idols (from his operas) in his lyric movements, whereas Beethoven mainly emphasizes his private love-bitten emotions. In case of Brahms, we also feel the sound of love, but somewhat more shyly than with Beethoven. Here in this lyric second movement, especially after the first movement, we share a fantastic experience. We hear an easy-to-sing, easy-to-remember, lovable melody at the beginning of the movement.

      12. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


Unfortunately, this melody soon remains open with a diminished harmony and an interrogative gesture. What are we waiting for now? A response. But the response is a bit delayed. (beat 4, 3rd quarter)

      13. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


You know what’s so shocking here? Not that there’s no response but that, without waiting for the response, the composer extends his question with a more complicated, more incomprehensible one. As if he asked how you were, and immediately continued saying “But you didn’t even ask me how I am, though I feel really bad”. A special dialogue starts here. But then, after all, there comes a response; even if not at one push, but at two, and this response implies beauty and affectionateness. (beat 17 – oboe)

      14. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


Even if not strife, but a kind of uncertainty, the question of “possible – impossible” or “likes – doesn’t like” hangs over all we’ve heard. The movement has a beautiful ending where the recently heard response almost expands to infinity; we hear a violin solo which always depicts the beloved lady’s portrait. Ethereal height, relieving heartbeat.
„Das ewig weibliche zieht uns hinan”[6] – eternal womanhood, woman actually takes us up to heaven… this is how Part II in Faust ends. If we don’t otherwise get admission to heaven, You, ladies might take us, creators, who could then be only men, to heaven. (beat 90)

      15. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


The third movement in every cyclic composition is, in general, perfect relaxation, possibly inappropriate airiness. This is minuet in Haydn’s and Mozart’s symphonies and becomes the scherzo from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. Sometimes the second and third movements might even change place, like in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 which praises Beethoven’s unbelievable sense of proportion, as this equilibrated the entire piece. With Brahms, the third is likewise an airy movement. Strangely, this is not in triple pulse but a double metre serenade. For that matter, it’s definitely worth studying Brahms’s serenade movements, as the serenades are at least so much easier to consume than the master’s symphonies as a Mozart symphony compared to Beethoven’s symphonies. It’s simpler, lacks any weighty thoughts, has no diminished harmonies, doesn’t strive in heaven, doesn’t collapse; character and playful movements alternate; practically, similar to former cyclic compositions, each movement can stand its own ground. Well, this third movement is such a serenade movement: an extremely simple, airy, melodic, lovable and easy-to-sing movement.

      16. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


Interestingly, these third movements or minuets or scherzos have a very original and characteristic similarity, which is the trio. The trio takes its name from once being played by three, and later it was mainly played by less than the main part. In general, the trio was always simpler than the main part. Haydn usually composed nice Austrian farmers’ music and even Beethoven’s wild scherzos soften in the trio. To the contrary, Brahms makes the trio of the movement even more thrilling, as if he believed in glorification through the trio. He hit upon a melody which is a bit more complicated than Süss fel nap but simpler than the Ode to Joy. He falls in love with the three-tone steps, as if he tried to make this theme (related to the Ode to Joy) triumphant. (beat 71)

      17. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


And this is how we get to the fourth movement which, logically, means the ending in each cyclic work. Mozart could also compose crafty last movements with attitudes similar to the last act of an opera. This is a coercion for Beethoven, as he himself is not satisfied with the first three movements, not even always in his earlier symphonies; this is why he composes something taken as the climax of the work. In romanticism, this becomes a final mechanism. To put it into simple words: what couldn’t be delivered as a solution in the first movement will have to be developed in the fourth. You don’t necessarily succeed but you should have a try. So the question in romanticism is if this can succeed in the fourth movement.
The fourth movement of Symphony No. 1 begins rather menacingly. Dreadful, monumental is the slow introduction – something no more ordinary. For a fourth movement to start uncertainly, fumbling about hasn’t yet been proper; any kind of preparation for a fourth movement after the three preceding movements has seemed senseless. Well, all this suggests a ponderous message in Brahms’s symphony. A struggling and a moaning gesture face each other at the outset; afterwards, as if we were groping in the dark; then out of a sudden we feel desperate pursuit and the section, this time again, ends with a diminished chord. All in all, the movement starts with the multitude of unclosed whirling thoughts.

      18. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


Who could tell me which our worst experience was here? That we don’t know where we are. We don’t feel the tonality. Naturally, you can say that the C closing the section is the tonality of the work. If you’re happy with this C, you merely persuaded yourself into this happiness, as you shouldn’t be that after the preliminaries.
Additionally, the most remarkable musical gesture in this start is the minor second, the half-tone distance that has for centuries been the symbol of cry or at least moan from above (fa-mi). But here it’s also sensed from below (si-la) which, understanding the tonality, is intended to relieve tension between the leading tone and the root. But in this form, without feeling the tonality, it inspires the same sense of pain as the crying gesture tangling from above. So, in summary, we flounder between two painful gestures, groundless. It’s dark, we don’t know where we are, we’re uncertain, we feel haunted but we don’t give up. We get started once again. Then we stampede ourselves, let’s go and race into nothing, we’ll anyway get somewhere. But we don’t get anywhere.
And then we suddenly catch the moment of the era change that I mentioned in my introductory sentence. Evidently, the “guilty” is again Beethoven and the “sin” itself is Symphony No. 9. What is the irremediable “sin” that musical history cannot manage after Symphony No. 9? (The choir – an answer from the audience.) In fact, it’s not the choir, as the choir is “merely” the response to the soloist’s singing. And what is the sin in there, what is irremediable? At the beginning of the fourth movement, in a fantastic instrumental recitativo, Beethoven unmistakably announces his affection, his thoughts, the coercion of and path to the birth of the Ode to Joy. You don’t actually need any special musical knowledge to understand that while our composer collects the fragmented themes of the first three movements, he immediately disapproves them with the repulsive gestures of the bass. Finally, he strikes on a strain of melody which delivers the Ode to Joy. First it sounds from a distance, softly in the bass part (which is not a melodic instrument in this era yet), then gradually it glorifies in a few variations. Afterwards, instead of going home full of joy, Beethoven unexpectedly leaves the continuation to a soloist singer who phrases everything we’ve heard so far: that my dear friends, IF YOU DIDN’T UNDERSTAND the situation, it’s extremely difficult to find the solution; come and join me as my companions so that we together could find the sense of love and joy[7]. And this presentation by the soloist means the ending autonomy, regardless of verbality, of musical language.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Do confess that you prefer to go to concerts where you understand what you hear. But you don’t firstly want to understand that we’re in the basic tonality or that we moved to another tonality, if the specific harmony stretches or resolves, but that ‘hey, it’s the lark’, ‘wow, the creek is purling here’ and ‘what a storm we have here’. So Beethoven’s biggest “sin” is the word that he pampers us with, that he uses to give us a handhold which is actually more than music should or can give. Beethoven’s sin simply lies in having taken the step that the social changes of the era, the dramatic changes in the relation of the artist and his listening audience required. All this continues in a kind of romantic approach which, when he cannot or doesn’t any more want to phrase something with musical elements, will invoke symbols and contents whose character and message is easily distinguishable and induces identical (for all) associations. Now here, in the full nadir where we’ve finished, what do you think will sound? (beat 30)

      19. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


Listen to the accompaniment, too, if you can hear it. And we’ll give more help to those who’re not yet certain in themselves.
What was that? A horn solo. Back in those times, this instrument could only play the natural overtones. Not the full chromatic scale, just the overtones of the root. What does the horn symbolize? Nature. What did we hear in the back? Humming forest. What came afterwards? Flute. What does the flute symbolize? The bird, evidently. So, nature. As if Brahms said that nature is the solution. But then our composer suddenly has something else in his mind. (beat 47)

      20. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


What was that? (Fanfare! – an answer from the audience) That’s not a fanfare. Beware of what you assess from. Don’t assess from the instrument only. Yes indeed, these were brass instruments, trombones, still, our first experience is a four-part instrumented melody, a protestant chorale. What does this bit of a choral melody symbolize? Coherence. The protestant chorale was the last major community song in European culture. Its role is similar to that of the folk song, rather than to a catholic church song. Catholic church song, Gregorian is not European music, due to its origin; Gregorian has never become an organic part of European musical culture. In multi-part works you can hear it as a separate theme song, a cantus firmus; and even if left behind, the rest of multi-part works can still pull through on their own. So, Gregorian has never become a public song, contrary to protestant public songs which actually became such because Luther reworded the contemporary songs then sung in public and made them the musical treasure of the new faith. This means that catholic church music has never become the symbol of community coherence, as opposed to the protestant chorale which represents the brightest era, sealed with inter alia Bach’s name, of European musical culture.
Let me now refer back to one of my childhood memories, related to chorales. It slightly reflects my confession about life as a whole. Once I went to a concert in St. Thomas Church, Leipzig. The program included a Bach cantata, and the audience also began to sing the chorale of the cantata. No profaneness, why not to sing? Well indeed, chorale is there to sing it together. Chorale symbolizes coherence. The desire and need to belong somewhere.
The chorale in the romantic approach clearly functions as a deus ex machina. When it’s on, especially as a coda, you can be sure it wouldn’t be an integral part of the whole. It’s a divine intervention, an immortal solution which we, humans cannot create; it cannot develop from our strife, only from our faith, from our love for the Lord and one another. We’ve talked about strife, about uncertainty and cry; and Brahms invokes nature where we believe in community song, in the strength of the chorale. Lo and behold, what’s happening? (beat 62)

      21. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


We hear a simple, four-line folksong-type melody. Let’s have a closer look at the melody. As if it began with a chromatic gesture again; but what’s much more important is that it steps up to the root from the magic fifth note of the scale. Just recall Marseillaise – this gesture is used in a lot of compositions, this interval reflects strength and buoyancy.
The whole melody is wonderful for singing, and its phrases are getting increasingly similar to the Ode to Joy – not by mere chance. Brahms found his own ode to joy. Was it worth striving so much? Yes! This is the best response an artist can give. Those who’ve ever felt the theme of an ode to joy in themselves have made their lives complete. Just listen. The theme is not simply here, but Brahms tries to glorify it. (beat 164)

      22. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


In the end, we still didn’t feel good. Because we didn’t feel where the stress was. The most fundamental element in a musical process is the metre, which means the alternation of stressed and unstressed beats; and stress there means stability and the reference point. Should we try if we could applaud the actual stress, the one? Well, we couldn’t. Brahms disjoints our most important support, the pulsation. The one was always in the rest. But our composer seems to get going once again. (beat 186, with upbeat)

      23. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


Where have we got? Brahms’s heart-stirring joy-to-ode melody cannot rise to completeness this time either, it falls into hysteric syncopes. Then, at this disquiet climax, we hear the diminished harmony again, and the melody is nothing else but the distorted version of the nature melody played on the horn in the beginning. It’s useful to know that you anyway feel bad in a diminished chord and harmony, because you don’t know where it would resolve. Still, the most grievous is that you cannot derive the interrelationship of the tones from the natural scale. In fact, the tone we call diminished, or in other words tritone, doesn’t exist in nature. We created it by balancing the toning, when we say that F sharp or G flat are identical, compared to C. So that’s where we’ve got: even nature turned into diminished harmony in this moment.
I must now return to the logics of the sonata form for a moment. The leading theme is the theme first played in the musical process of each movement. Here in this fourth movement again, the musical process started after the slow introduction. What was the leading theme? A miraculous melody reminding us of the Joy to Ode. Were we happy? Just like a little bird. There was also a secondary theme: it was not in the basic tonality but another one (remember the chair?!). Then there came the part we’ve recently heard, the development of the piece, and there, on the climax, we got to full emotional nadir. Here comes the return in the scheme of the sonata form, and here (if you can still remember) we should minimally hear the musical material that was not there in the basic tonality. This, in the current case, is the secondary theme. This originally symmetric form is extended to three parts in classicism (because we love triformity in European culture, even if it’s not natural). For a proportionate triad to materialize, the leading theme is generally also played in the return. If the leading theme were played again, after this dramatic nadir, everything would be restored. But the leading theme is not there. It’s not played any more.
Mozart also uses such a technique but in this situation, for the sake of security, he plays the leading theme once again in the coda, to remember and remind us of his related fondness, even if it didn’t return. The secondary theme section returns, and there comes the coda. Yes, the coda can still offer one more chance. Beethoven seizes this opportunity in countless cases: he will tell everything he couldn’t express so far, in the coda. But what about Brahms? (beat 367)

      24. Brahms: Symphony No. 1


Interesting enough, there are so many bad (for me) analyses of the Symphony. Most analysts would interpret the end of the Symphony as a happy ending. Wish everyone this much happiness. After such a big strife, after such a painfully identified theme where, over and above, Brahms is elevated to Beethoven’s height for a moment, there you hear a genial melody. The genial melody is to no effect – our composer cannot glorify it; what’s more, the lashing-type unrestful rhythm and diminished harmonies tend to turn this miraculous theme to a diabolic one at the end. The only glorious and elevating moment at the end is the highly monumental presentation of the protestant chorale, but in the very last beats of the piece we’re still uncomprehending and we repeatedly don’t feel where the stress is; and although the last few beats closing the whole piece offer a monumental closure, the question that remained open after the first movement, the uncertainty expressed in the introduction of the fourth movement doesn’t get a final solution in the coda of the movement. The finality in Brahms’s first symphony doesn’t give us the experience of solution but the strength of the creator’s faith which will face the strife again and again. He seems to know off-hand that he wouldn’t be as successful as Beethoven; his solution is no more achievable. This is where you can detect the aesthetics and philosophy of the entire romantic era. In romantic pieces, you should always raise the question: shall we get to where we want to, is there a response to the question raised, is there a solution, are our strifes followed by solution or catharsis? Anyway, we still live in the romantic era, so I encourage you to go and listen to 20th and 21st century music, too, because these questions are still valid, can still be answered and still remain unanswerable. So, let’s listen to music and find out if we can indeed get to where we like, if the actual issue can be worked out and resolved. Strangely enough, this is less and less the case in the 20th century; it seems to be more and more difficult, more and more toilsome, we seem to be more and more desperate, more and more using not inherent but external gestures to finish something indeed. What this exactly means is something you should all think about yourselves. Anyway, we still live in the romantic era, and here we can see the essence of the indescribable devotion, of the strife that Brahms depicts. Brahms was undoubtedly a cumbersome character; a real congenial spirit with Beethoven.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I frankly thank you for coming here, for owing many of my thoughts to you. Welcome on any other occasion.



[1] Brahms composed the beginning of the symphony, the slow introduction last.
[2] Beat numbers follow the Breitkof & Härtel Urtext publication.
[3] Quotation from the best-known work by MADÁCH, Imre (1823-1864), a Hungarian poet and dramatist, from his drama The Tragedy of Man where he perambulates the issues studied in Part II of Goethe’s Faust. In this work steered by the Hegelian dialectic, Lucifer, the personifier of negation leads Adam through the key stations of human history, showing him that the great figures of history (though they fight for a better future) do nevertheless fail one after the other. When, seeing this, Adam finds existence senseless, Lord sets the following target for man, in the last sentence of the drama: “I have told you, Man, strive on and have faith”. And Adam utters in one of the scenes: “But life, then, is the fight. Man’s purpose in life, therefore, is the struggle.”
[4] Hungarian children’s song. Starting tones: so-la-so.
[5] Robert Schumann’s wife. Brahms was hopelessly in love with Clara, but later this love softened to friendship.
[6] Goethe’s Faust, last line in Part II, word for word translation: „Woman, eternal, beckons us on”.
[7] „O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen und freudenvollere.” The text for the baritone soloist’s first song is Beethoven’s composition which he inserted in his work before the quotations from Hermann Hesse’s poem To Joy (An die Freude).