Written by Ronald Comber

Symphony No.1 in C Minor, Op.68  
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

I have often written before of the difficulties attached to the production of extended Romantic works based on the Classical Symphony form.  Either the form, perfect in itself, proves to be too rigid to fit the vagaries of Romantic thematic development, or if the form is discarded, the work becomes amorphous or, at least, something other than a symphony in the original sense.

Brahms understood the problem all too well.  His most fervent desire was to compose a symphony worthy of Beethoven’s ideals – not to beat him at his own game but to endeavour to pick up where Beethoven had left off.  As Brahms said to a friend, “You don’t know what it means to the likes of us when we hear his footsteps behind us”.

It’s small wonder, then, that Brahms worked on the composition of his First Symphony for twenty-three years before he was able to bring it to its final, perfected state.  Brahms made the first attempts at writing a symphony in 1854, at Robert Schumann’s urging, but unlike Schumann, he felt that to approach the solution to his problems through a series of progressive attempts was far from satisfactory, and the early Symphony was suppressed to be absorbed into the First Piano Concerto and the German Requiem.  The First Serenade was another attempt, using Classical forms in their proper proportions, but Brahms soon decided that the work lacked thematic depth and allowed it to expand into its present charming self.

The first evidence of Brahms’ final struggle for mastery of an extended Classic model appears in 1862.  Clara Schumann, dearest of all his many friends, quoted the opening theme of Brahms’ new first movement in a letter to Joachim, though she didn’t tell how far he had progressed.  Other evidence suggests that the movement was tentatively completed in 1863, to be laid aside for a few years while the rest of the Symphony became clear, in structure at least.  It was only in 1874 that Brahms felt ready to attack the other three movements, to revise the first movement and to add an Introduction, a device he eschewed in the other three Symphonies.

The Symphony No.1 was given its first performance in November 1876 at Karlsruhe, under Dessof.  Appreciated at first rather than acclaimed, it gained popularity steadily as its merits became obvious, until the Brahms-Wagner controversy confused the issue.  It is worth mentioning that, with his formal problems solved, Brahms was able to write his Second Symphony without hitch the next summer.

The First Symphony is, naturally, in four movements.  Related spiritually to the great symphonies of Beethoven, it nonetheless is written in the musical language of Brahms.

The first movement opens with a sense of tragic conflict; strings soaring upwards, winds down, all over a brutally rhythmic timpani beat.  The mood continues into the Allegro, as with sudden impetus the conflict achieves full force, only to be transformed repeatedly through episodes in the Development and the Recapitulation.  Form and content are one here, creating a sense of purpose and direction throughout the extended movement.

The second movement, in the remote key of E Major, avoids the unresolved conflict of the previous movement, painting instead a large landscape of noble grandeur.  The folk-like melodies for oboe and horn are never allowed to become idyllic, and again the sense of direction is remarkable.  A painfully beautiful violin solo escorts the piece to its conclusion.

The third movement offers another gentle mood in place of the usual Scherzo at first, then builds a sort of urgency into its central section before subsiding again into its air of security.

The finale is a sudden return to the tensions of the first movement.  A lengthy Introduction builds a sustained mood of foreboding, only to find resolution in a horn call, which taken up by the flute, proclaims a noble resolution.  A new theme of reason and joy is heard, which becomes the basis for the main body of the movement.  Here is the same mystic enthusiasm that marked Beethoven’s Finales, but in Brahms’ own language.  The movement progresses to a glorious apotheosis in the spectacular coda and ends in triumph.

Concerto No.3 in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op.30
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)

Until fairly recently, the major works of Sergei Rachmaninoff have been treated somewhat equivocally by the musical establishment.  Perennial favourites in the concert-hall and on recordings, Rachmaninoff’s Concertos and Symphonies were viewed with a certain suspicion by critics and reviewers for years.  It was not that his music was anything but superb … it was beautifully crafted, inspired in its conception and emotionally fulfilling to auditors and executants alike.  There was just a general feeling amongst the pundits that in a world filled with revolutionary artistic sentiments as expressed in music by Stravinsky and Prokofiev, composers who followed their own evolutionary timetable somehow weren’t playing the game. Fortunately, we have finally arrived at a time when his music can be appreciated solely on its own merits.

Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, long regarded as the best of his four works in this form, can now be safely called the best of a very fine lot indeed.  Rachmaninoff, justly revered as one of the greatest pianists of his day, composed the Third Concerto for his own use in the first part of 1909, intending it to be premiered in New York under Damrosch after Rachmaninoff had completed an American tour with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  The work took somewhat longer to complete than Rachmaninoff had expected, and was also much more technically demanding than he had originally envisioned.

The premiere was quite successful, but the Third Concerto could be said to have received its proper initiation some months later, when Rachmaninoff performed the work again with Gustav Mahler as the conductor.  Mahler’s careful attention to detail, coupled with his uncanny gift of orchestral accompaniment left the audience and Rachmaninoff breathless.  The Third Concerto had arrived.

Rachmaninoff performed the work regularly for the rest of his illustrious career.  Soon all the leading pianists were playing it, and they have continued to do so to the present day.  The Third Concerto has proven to be the epitome of Post-Romantic concerto design.  The music provides an accurate depiction of Rachmaninoff’s inner mind, with its northern melancholia tempered by a specifically Russian emotional experience.  The piano writing is fiendishly difficult yet it is an organic part of the musical development rather than a vehicle for virtuosic display.  And the orchestration, again organically derived from the thematic material, achieves a sombre beauty quite unmatched even in Rachmaninoff’s wonderful symphonies.

The Concerto is in three movements.  The first, marked Allegro ma non tanto, opens with an innocent tenderness, which is later perfectly balanced by a martially rhythmic second subject.  After both themes have been developed fully, the cadenza occurs naturally within the structure of the movement, leading to a sober recapitulation.

The Adagio second movement, marked Intermezzo, explores contrasting moods.  The music is mournful and meditative … like a heron beside a pond … but sudden irruptions of exaltation sweep through the movement like fierce gusts of wind.  The odd progression of opposing forces is brusquely swept aside in the Recapitulation, however, when the piano introduces strong new material heralding the arrival of the Finale.

The last movement, marked Alla breve, demonstrates Rachmaninoff’s rare ability of combining an ever-increasing tension with a sense of the absolute inevitability of the music’s progression.  The movement progresses from strength to strength, leading to a shattering yet triumphant conclusion.