6 Oct 2012

Curtain Raiser: Brahms, Beethoven & Monumentalising Music

From the collecton Curtain Raiser

Brahms’s first symphony reflects the traditions of monumentalisation that formed around Beethoven.


Brahms Photo: Public Domain

During Brahms’s lifetime, society was attracted to music whose greatness was effectively guaranteed and stood the test of time, so following in the giant footsteps of Beethoven was not an easy task.

Robert Schumann criticised poor imitations of Beethoven’s symphonies by saying composers were adopting the superficial forms of the symphony – the conventional pattern and style of movements – without infusing these with new content and ideas. Schumann suggested composers should give their four movements a deeper “spiritual union” that fuses together music that is contrasting and varied on the surface, while creating a finale that responds to the preceding movements. “…It was a necessary hurdle for the composition student, but one in which it was seemingly impossible to do anything other than reinforce the foundations of existing monuments”.

Schumann finally found hope for an heir to Beethoven’s legacy when he heard Brahms’s piano sonatas.  He was eager to hear his first symphony, and gave many demands and suggestions about ideas and what he wanted to hear. Twenty years later, the symphony was released.

Many considered it “Beethoven’s 10th Symphony” because of similarities to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Ode to Joy. Though Brahms used some of Beethoven’s ideas as a guide, he created his own path out of Beethoven’s legacy. “Whereas the success of his prank on Nottebohm depended on imitating Beethoven, the success of Brahms’s symphony depended on transcending this influence and finding his own voice, while nevertheless evoking all the monumentality of Beethoven’s works.”

Brahms clearly alluded to Beethoven’s narrative and idiom by infusing it with his own ethos. He evoked traditions while finding his own ‘new paths’ forward.  Brahms had already succeeded in achieving monumental status during his lifetime after his first symphony, positioning himself as the “second Beethoven”.

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