We are excited for the many orchestra concerts we have coming up this summer! One of the masterpieces we will be performing this summer is Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. As a “sneak-peek,” Jonathan Keener writes a program note for this great work including a little history of the genre of symphony. Enjoy reading about this unforgettable piece, and we hope to see you at this concert and many others this summer!
The Symphony is probably the most important genre in all of classical music. So central to the repertoire of an orchestra is the symphony that the orchestra is often called a “Symphony Orchestra” (for example, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra), and they often perform in a “Symphony Hall.” Many, if not most, orchestra concerts conclude with a large symphony. After the genre’s early years as primarily a short instrumental opening to an opera, Haydn took the Symphony to new heights, writing over 100 of these works. For this reason Haydn is often called the “Father of the Symphony.” Composers in the early years of the symphony, such as Haydn and Mozart, would seemingly flippantly write symphonies in no time at all. To be sure, these were well crafted pieces, but not the monumental works we come to think of today when we hear the word “Symphony.”
This all changed in the generation after Haydn with Beethoven. Beethoven only wrote nine symphonies, but each one seemed to hold immense emotional weight, bringing the genre to an even greater importance. Beethoven’s symphonies are still audience favorites today (think how deeply ingrained the opening “Fate” motive of his Fifth Symphony is in our cultural psyche), but they presented an almost insurmountable challenge to the composers living in the century after Beethoven’s death: how could anyone write a symphony that could compete with Beethoven in scope and meaning? Such was influence of Beethoven’s nine symphonies that there was a widely-held superstition that a composer would flirt with death if he dared write a ninth symphony.
This brings us to Brahms, one of the nineteenth century’s greatest composers. Brahms was the leading composer of the camp that sought to continue the traditions of the past (i.e., continue in Beethoven’s footsteps), in reaction to the extreme progressive music of many of his contemporaries, such as Wagner. For this reason, Brahms wrote in the genres of the previous era: Sonatas, Variations, Concertos, etc. But the last major genre he had to conquer was the Symphony. Brahms took around twenty years of notes, studies, and discarded attempts until he finally wrote his first symphony at the age of 43. The result is a work that was a worthy successor to Beethoven. One music critic even called this symphony “Beethoven’s Tenth,” a moniker Brahms was surely proud of. The outer movements have all the weight we could expect from a Beethoven’s symphony, with two contrasting lighter movements in the middle. The finale is memorable for a hymnlike melody that was compared to the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth with its famous “Ode to Joy” melody. When someone mentioned this resemblance to Brahms, he retorted: “Any fool can see that!” Europe finally found a worthy successor to Beethoven, and Brahms went on to write three more symphonies. All four are now a standard part of the symphonic repertoire.