ANNIVERSARIES: Johannes Brahms's First Symphony Premiered 135 Years Ago


When Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was 20, and mostly known to audiences as a pianist, Robert Schumann basically proclaimed him the great hope of German music in an article entitled "New Paths." In those days, the general lament was that no symphonist had been able to measure up to the mighty example of Beethoven. He started composing what could have become his first symphony in 1854; he got cold feet and turned it into his Piano Concerto No. 1, which was premiered in 1859. In that same period, Brahms wrote two Serenades for orchestra -- seemingly to practice dealing with the challenges of those forces -- and his String Sextet No. 1, a fairly grand work for a chamber piece. In 1862 he sent to Clara Schumann (Robert's widow, whom he loved) an early version of the first movement of what he announced would be his First Symphony (it did not yet have its glorious introduction). A decade later, he had still not finished the symphony, the weight of expectations heavier than ever with increased fame (he had completed his popular German Requiem by the end of the 1860s). Brahms remained acutely aware of the Beethovenian standard he had to live up to. "I'll never write a symphony!" he proclaimed to conductor Hermann Levi. "You have no idea how the likes of us feel when we're always hearing a giant like that behind us."

Most vexing was the question of the finale, which thanks to Beethoven's example was now supposed to carry much more weight than previously. Finally he used an alpenhorn theme, which he had heard and sent to Clara on a postcard in 1868, to crown his finale with grandeur. At age 43 (looking like the above painting rather than the more elderly, more familiar bearded Brahms), Brahms finished his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 in the summer of 1876. The premiere performance was conducted on November 4, 1876 by Otto Dessoff at Karlsruhe, Baden. Brahms deliberately scheduled the premiere off the beaten path; if it were a disaster, the consequences wouldn't be as serious as if it were in a major city. It went well, and Brahms conducted it himself at the first performance in his adopted hometown of Vienna on December 17. Comparisons to Beethoven were immediate -- famed pianist/conductor Hans von Bülow, the man who made Brahms one of the "three B's" along with Bach and Beethoven, even referred (favorably) to the piece as Beethoven's Tenth -- and Brahms didn't deny the strong influence. He even included quotes from Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth in homage, though in his typical prickly way, when the latter was remarked on, he said, "Any ass can hear that."

In its final form (Brahms made revisions the following year; a few conductors, most notably Charles Mackerras,  have recorded the alternative second movement), the Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, truly is a masterpiece. The first movement opens with a so-called slow introduction, though given Brahms' marking of Un poco sostenuto, it could perhaps just be called a "slower introduction." (Some conductors have taken it quite slowly, though; debate still rages on the proper tempos for this and all of Brahms's symphonies, because he refused to use metronome markings.) The ominous timpani beats prepare us for the stern theme that opens the Allegro. The lovely second movement, Andante sostenuto, is positively tender, in some renditions even prayerful. The third movement is not a fast contrast -- not a Beethovenian Scherzo -- but rather a lilting Allegretto, or to be specific, Un poco Allegretto e grazioso. The fourth movement, beginning Adagio, contains a noble horn theme and a chorale-like brass answer, and is full of effectively contrasted themes.

Though Brahms drew on Classical, Baroque, and Renaissance forms and techniques, he did so in innovative ways; because of his reputation and how he'd been pigeonholed, those innovations were overlooked at the time. Retrospectively, however, it has been seen that in his use of rhythm, especially beat displacement, and in his imaginative tweaking of sonata form, he was actually quite adventurous, even harmonically. There are examples of all of these innovations in his First Symphony. For more on how this symphony is put together, I recommend Walter Frisch's invaluable book on the four symphonies (Schirmer, 1996) and Gunther Schuller's extensive (nearly a hundred pages) chapter on the First in his fascinating and controversial book The Compleat Conductor (Oxford, 1997).

Ten years ago I told the music editor at Oxford University Press that I wanted to write a book comparing all the recordings of Brahms's First; she replied that if the author was the only person actually interested in reading his book, then nobody would see any point to publishing it. I recalled that advice when I first thought of writing this article and considered making it, yes, an evaluation of the 113 recordings of Brahms's First that I currently have. What stopped me from doing that was not her advice, but the sheer impracticality of listening to all of them enough to comment in sufficient depth to make it worth reading. So instead, here's an examination of the work of Felix Weingartner (1863–1942), the only conductor we have a First recording from who Brahms heard conduct (albeit not the First; alas, we have no First from Max Fiedler, the only other conductor to record Brahms who Brahms heard [and approved of]). 

In 1895, Brahms heard his Second Symphony with Weingartner leading the Berlin Philharmonic, and praised the conductor's work. However, Weingartner was not especially fond of Brahms's music. Frisch writes that in Weingartner's book The Symphony after Beethoven, "he characterized the symphonies, especially the Third and Fourth, as often lifeless and unexpressive, as 'scientific music.'" Heather Anne Platt's Johannes Brahms: A Guide to Research offers more tidbits: He praised the first two symphonies, but denigrated Brahms's extensive use of syncopation as a "mannerism." But in a slightly later pamphlet, he defended Brahms's orchestration style, and later in life, in his memoirs, he reconsidered his opinions on Brahms and was more positive.

London Symphony Orchestra, 11/28/23 & 3/21/24 ([British] Columbia)
I: 11:41, no exposition repeat
II: 7:07
III: 3:52, no repeat
IV: 14:32
= 37:12

This, the second-ever Brahms First recording, dates from the acoustic era, before microphones. The sound quality is quite primitive, and not only is the LSO clearly stripped down to a smaller group here, it sounds like some re-orchestration was done, most obviously that tuba reinforces the bass (as was common at that time, as the recording horn that went directly to the disc picked it up better). Nonetheless, it's an interesting sonic document.

The opening, usually a good indicator of a First's character, is fierce. In spite of the generally quick tempos, Weingartner's not picking a speed and plowing through; there are lots of tempo shifts. Weingartner did not play this work for Brahms as he had the Second, but Weingartner had worked under Hans von Bülow, who certainly had. Interestingly, we have an 1884 letter from Bülow giving his timings for performances leading the Meiningen Orchestra (which was also smaller, at that time a chamber-sized group of 48 players), and that for the First is 37 minutes (omission of the exposition repeat specified as per the composer's permission). That timing might just be coincidence (and Weingartner is on record as despising Bülow), but it's tempting to imagine at least a little influence there. Weingartner was considered a classicist who avoided Romantic excesses of interpretation, whereas Bülow was the poster boy for Romantic excesses, but it's easy to hear this performance as the happy medium of the two; certainly it's not the sort of straight-ahead traversal Weingartner's reputation suggests.

Another Romantic touch, less controversial, is that the phrasing has more portamento (deliberate sliding between notes) than orchestras have used in the decades since. Because of this recording's limitations, however (some lapses in instrumental execution -- it was a lot harder to fix mistakes back then -- in addition to the sonic quality and the reorchestration), this is not a performance I would recommend for pleasurable listening.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 5/22/28 (Koch Legacy, originally [British] Columbia)
I: 12:24, no exposition repeat
II: 8:31
III: 4:18, no repeat
IV: 15:19
 = 40:50

This is an electrical recording, and just four years removed from the above recording, the sonic improvement is considerable, if still far from hi-fi. Needless to say, the contrast in the characters of the different themes comes through better when the recording techniques have progressed enough to allow Brahms's original orchestration to be used, and when more subtle expression is captured in more refined acoustics.  Furthermore, both the relatively fine playing that Weingartner draws from the RPO (which in other recordings from this era could sound far woollier in intonation) and the less hectic clip at which he moves through the piece contribute to the greater clarity of this version. We have moved from an item of mere historical interest to something that's genuinely enjoyable to listen to. The more realistic instrumental timbres (not to mention the ditching of odd doublings) and the carefully articulated phrasing make this a more expressive reading, and the string portamento is still present to add old-world charm to phrasing where apt -- and something more thrilling at some emphatic moments.

The first movement ferocity of 1923-4 is replaced by something less feral yet still briskly paced and exciting. Weingartner again makes many tempo adjustments, nicely expressive. It's interesting, considering his reputation as a cool classicist and non-interventionist conductor, to follow the score and see that in fact he makes all kinds of drastic tempo adjustments. For instance, at measure 11 when, after two measures of pizzicato strings, they return to bowing, he cuts the tempo considerably, picks it up a bit at the next pizz. section, drops it again for the next return to bowing, then gradually cranks it up until at letter A, where he cuts the tempo for two measures, then during the following two-measure crescendo from pp to ff adds a boiling accelerando. Brahms marks the dynamics but none of those tempo shifts. When Weingartner reaches the Allegro, it feels like about the same tempo as the first seven measures of the opening Un poco sostenuto; in other words, what comes before the Allegro doesn't actually start as a slow introduction, and wouldn't be slow at all if he hadn't made unmarked changes. True, Brahms writes expressivo in the measures where the strings switch from pizz. to arco, but only in the string parts. I'm not complaining about what Weingartner does (it's wonderfully emotive), just noting that it's not what you'd expect given what's been written about him.

It's also worth pointing out that, perhaps in line with his stated aversion to Brahms's syncopations, he accents and phrases in the syncopated section of measures 9-14 in such a way that the first eighth note of m. 9 sounds like the end of the 9/8 m. 8, practically making it 10/8 (actually, with a slowing and unmarked fermata on the last beat of m. 8 to throw in the grace notes, close to 12/8) and effectively shifting the quarter note/eighth note pattern from 2 and 4 to 1 and 3 -- in other words, it doesn't sound syncopated the way he plays it. He's far from the only conductor to do that, though. One more thing about his first movement, which is unusual: the timpanist is fairly quiet. Now, I'm not saying he should pound away loudly and drown out the other instruments -- something many less sensitive conductors allow or even encourage -- but I prefer that ominous beat at the same level as the rest of the orchestra; here it's almost subliminal. It's kind of interesting that way, but certainly not what we expect in a Brahms First. That might, however, be a problem with the recording, which doesn't have much bottom.

The second movement is much more tender at the slower (as compared to 1923-24) tempo here, almost an Adagio, and again with many tempo shifts (every dolce and espr. taken as an invitation to relax the speed), and the portamento sounds sweeter. Weingartner's third movement is much more straightforward, but has one notable characteristic I'm not as fond of: the cellos are marked pizzicato under the beginning of the first theme (and its recurrences), but for parts of that, including the opening, they sound like they are actually bowing, detaché I will grant, but not thoroughly pizzicato, which produces a stilted feeling every time it recurs. Also, though this is just a matter of sloppy execution rather than interpretive decision, the uncoordinated pizzicato in the penultimate measure is unfortunate.

I also feel that he takes the beginning of the finale's slow introduction too slowly this time out; he's contrasting it with the jaunty section that follows, but he overdoes it; it's almost more Lento than Adagio. Similarly, the Piu Andante becomes more of an Adagio at times. Both are full of drastic tempo adjustments. When the fast section kicks in, at times the strings can be a bit scrappy in their efforts to keep up, though that's practically the norm for this period of recording. Nonetheless, once past the introduction, the movement is quite effective in Weingartner's hands, paced and proportioned well -- themes are delivered in taut, limber fashion -- and nicely characterful, without exaggerations.

London Symphony Orchestra, 2/18/39 (EMI)
I: 11:38, no exposition repeat
II: 9:00
III: 4:19, with repeat
IV: 14:33
= 39:30

In some ways this is Weingartner's best First; it's with the best orchestra of the three, and a decade's worth of technological improvement doesn't hurt either. There are differences beyond those. In the first movement, he starts at practically the same tempo as in '28, but when he slows down, it's not as drastic, so the overall time is faster. The timpanist is still relatively low in the mix (well, they didn't actually mix or edit records yet -- everything was still basically a live recording). Measure 8 is played without metric distortion, and although the accents/phrasing of the following measures still downplay the syncopation a little, it's there to be heard. The tempo at letter A is again cut back, but also less drastically, which means the following speed-up doesn't need to be as pronounced either. Once past the introduction, things zip along, though still with some expressive micro-adjustments of tempo. In the wake of the '28 performance, the overall effect is more homogenized, and more like a modern performance in the sense that it has fewer disruptive changes.

One of the most noticeable differences in the second movement is that there is much less portamento, and where it is used, it's less pronounced. This means that the solo violin really grabs the spotlight this time out because he's so much more expressive than the section as a whole. It's also at a slower basic tempo, even more like an Adagio than in '28, but still with some big slow-ups to tug the heartstrings. With I faster and II slower, their contrast is much greater, but it also ends up giving II almost as much weight as I. Since some people had from the beginning criticized this symphony for its middle movements being slight compared to its outer movements, some will find this version preferable for that reason.

The third movement doesn't have that annoying detaché phrasing; the LSO cellos produce nice, full pizzicati. That helps immensely and is another reason for giving '39 the thumbs up over '28. This is practically a textbook example of how to characterize Un poco Allegretto e grazioso, graceful and fast and light and nimble enough to be a "little endearing Allegro." The strings phrase more elegantly than their counterparts in '28, making it more expressive as well, and are more rhythmically precise and in better ensemble (no sloppy pizz. on the chord in the measure before the end this time). The orchestra's better technique means that Weingartner's much faster tempo (he gets through the movement with the repeat in practically the same time it took in '28 to get through it without the repeat) poses no execution problems.The only flaw is in EMI's editing: there's a little blip in measure 136 where a beat gets repeated (I've got the 1992 remastering in the References series two-CD set CHS 7 64256 2 [pictured]; does anybody out there know if this has been corrected subsequently?).

The tempo proportions in the finale work better, and it's more of a true Adagio. The nobility of the horn call at the Piu Andante is transcendent, and if the brass choral could still be considered a little too slow, while basking in the aura of its mellifluous beauty, it's hard to complain. The buildup to the more energetic section is perfectly judged, and the various recollections of the horn call fit well into this tempo. There are still tempo adjustments, but they are usually more smoothly achieved and always feel natural; the great forcefulness of this rendition comes from emphatic phrasing, the greater power of a tight ensemble, and the swifter underlying pulse. The whole movement glows with supernal beauty.

Overall, this interpretation is sleeker and more focused on the overall structure. This recording became quite well known, and stayed in print for decades, which its predecessors did not; that it is much less interventionist than contemporary performances by Furtwängler, plus the fact that Weingartner always insisted he was utterly devoted to the pure score and, although all conductors claim that, people actually took it seriously with him (despite the fact that his book on how to conduct the Beethoven symphonies included advice on how to rescore them for a modern orchestra), may have had a lot to do with fixing the idea of Weingartner the classicist in the minds of collectors. If you prefer the more old-fashioned and more sensuously Romantic approach, you'll mostly like '28 better, especially its first two movements; if you want clean and sleek and powerful, '39 is the one for you. I'm very happy to have both, and fascinated by their interpretive contrasts. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who is halfway through recording his five songs composed on texts from James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach with singer Kate Leahy and cellist Suzanne Mueller.


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