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Simon Rattle conducts Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony and Brahms’s First

01 Nov 2008

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Joseph Haydn
    Symphony No. 92 in G major “Oxford” (27 min.)

  • Johannes Brahms
    Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 68 (47 min.)

The fact that writing symphonies became increasingly difficult for composers after Beethoven can be established in purely quantitative terms. None of them came even close to Haydn’s 104 works in the genre, and even Beethoven’s nine, regarded with superstition by Gustav Mahler, for example, were surpassed by only a few composers, among them Dmitri Shostakovich.

As we know, Johannes Brahms was particularly plagued by doubts; he worked on his First Symphony for fourteen years before presenting it to the public. The First Piano Concerto, which was for a time planned as a symphony, and the two serenades for orchestra are also considered steps along the way to the king of instrumental genres. The fact that the composer obviously takes up a theme from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the finale of his C minor Symphony, which was finally premiered in 1876, can be interpreted as a sign of self-confidence. Brahms had assumed the legacy of his great predecessor and no longer had to worry about being an inferior imitator.

In November 2008, the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle preceded Brahms’s symphonic debut with Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 92, which owes its nickname Oxford to a presumed performance in the English university town. Sir Simon once declared that he was “crazy about Haydn” and added that this music could only be performed successfully with love and respect for the composer. Sir Simon mentions other requirements of Haydn interpreters: “A wealth of ideas, curiosity, willingness to improvise. And one must be friendly! The music must have its starting point in humanity.”

Note: Another work heard at this concert was a piano concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which may not be shown in the Digital Concert Hall for contractual reasons.

Symphonies by Haydn and Brahms

To regard Joseph Haydn as the father of the symphony is not just a cliché, it is also historically untenable. What is beyond question, however, is that Haydn left his mark on the medium and significantly influenced its development in the second half of the 18th century. This was a period at which the spirit of the divertimento and the conviction that the symphony should be a mere source of entertainment were increasingly giving way to the belief that it should express a serious musical purpose, thus giving the genre a new and more central position in the musical life of the nation. Haydn could be seen as one of the spokesmen of this modernization process, which is why his symphonic thinking had such a great influence on other composers. Haydn himself, by contrast, not infrequently based his aesthetic views on the reactions of his audience, which is by no means the same as saying that he wrote to order. In this context he was interested in critical opinion because such opinion encapsulated the public’s predilections, predilections that he took very seriously. In adopting this attitude, the composer was not only able to come much closer to his audience’s level of expectations, he was also able to shape those expectations and to help them to evolve.

During the final decade of the Ancien Régime, when the word “revolution” was still spoken, if at all, in hushed and guarded tones, the cultural and musical life of Paris was particularly rich and varied. In the field of music two rival concert organizations were in overall charge. The older of them had been formed in 1725 and was known as the Concert Spirituel. Its younger rival, established in 1769, was originally called the Concert des Amateurs but changed its name in 1781 and became the Concert de la Loge Olympique. Its principal patron, Claude-François-Marie Rigoley, Comte d’Ogny, wrote to Haydn in around 1784 in order to commission no fewer than six new symphonies from him. Haydn, who was by now a widely respected figure, accepted the commission and in 1785–86 wrote his Symphonies Nos. 82–87, pocketing in return the princely fee of 1600 francs.

All six symphonies were presumably performed in the Salle des Gardes at the Palais des Tuileries. The orchestra at the promoters’ disposal was particularly lavish, including, as it did, forty violins, ten double basses and a large wind section. Prince Nicolaus Esterházy I, who was Haydn’s patron for much of his working life, kept the composer informed about the bravura technique of the Parisian musicians. Haydn himself was delighted that his works could be performed under such favourable conditions, not least because both societies in the French capital had made a point of ensuring that their ticket prices were affordable by all. In short, the outward conditions for the triumphant performance of these six commissioned works were more than propitious: their success was assured in advance.

Everything worked out just as planned. The cheering had barely died down before the Loge Olympique commissioned three more works from Haydn, his Symphonies Nos. 90–92. The final work in this group, the Symphony No. 92 in G major, was written in 1789 and performed under Haydn’s own direction at a concert in Oxford that coincided with his award of an honorary doctorate from the town’s University in 1791, hence its still current nickname of his “Oxford” Symphony. (The French Revolution and its aftermath precluded a performance in Paris.) Its introductory Adagio is lively and almost jovial in tone, and even the Frenchified main movement that follows (“Allegro spiritoso”) has little sense of melancholy about it: initially it scurries along, positively radiating joy. But even in the exposition Haydn already introduces brusquely contrastive elements, presenting a second subject that at first sounds very simple but which is soon transmuted into a threateningly sombre variant that Haydn then uses to launch the development section. Not until shortly before the start of the recapitulation does the sun emerge once again from behind the clouds, allowing the symphony to strike a rather more affable note, a note also adopted by the discursive final coda that is dominated by the first subject.

The second movement is an Adagio in D major and is launched by a bright-toned, pleasing song-like theme, four variations on which are linked together by brief bridge passages, after which the middle section shifts to the minor and in doing so threatens to add a note of gloom to the largely carefree mood that has hitherto prevailed. As a result, the basically cheerful mood of the G major Menuetto does not appear to be wholly unclouded. The Trio perpetuates this sense of ambiguity with its horn sonorities and sforzato accents on the third beat of each bar. Only in the presto finale, which opens with an entertaining theme based on the rising interval of a fourth from D to G and bristling with sharps, does the mood return to one of joviality, a mood reinforced by the fact that the second subject, too, assumes an air of carefree abandon and a genuine love of life. The middle section recalls a development section, and here the musical argument begins to vacillate, engendering a musical debate that ends with the symphony regaining its initial élan. A brilliantly dazzling conclusion brings the work to an end.

Johannes Brahms’s publisher, Fritz Simrock, spent years trying to persuade the composer to write his first symphony (“Stop prevaricating – I shan’t leave you a moment’s peace!”), and it took considerable persistence on his part before Brahms finally submitted his First Symphony in C minor op. 68 for publication. The difficulties that confronted a composer tackling the genre for the first time seemed altogether insuperable, so powerful was the Beethovenian legacy. His apprehension was in no way mitigated by the famous article, “New Paths”, that his new-found friend Robert Schumann had published in October 1853, predicting great things for the young man: “When once he lowers his magic wand over the massed resources of chorus and orchestra, we may expect the most wonderful insights into the secrets of the spirit world. May the highest genius lend him strength; and well it may, for in him resides a second genius – namely, that of modesty.” There is some evidence that this modesty, coupled with the afore-mentioned scruples that Brahms felt at the thought of being “stalked” by the “giant” Beethoven, contributed to the fact that it was not until 1876 that he completed his First Symphony. Even so, it is clear from a letter that he wrote to his friend and publisher Fritz Simrock on 5 October 1876 that he was convinced that what he had written was not without merit: “A beautiful symphony has been left dangling from the Wissower Klinken.” (The Wissower Klinken were chalk cliffs on the island of Rügen, where Brahms spent the summer of 1876, working on his score.)

The first person to hear the long-awaited symphony, at least unofficially, was Clara Schumann: “Johannes played me two movements of a symphony, which I found enormously interesting – I’m waiting for the other two movements before passing judgement”, she wrote in her diary on 25 September 1876. “These two (the 1st and the last) are magnificent, full of verve and ideas from start to finish, only the melodies strike me as rather thin, but I really must hear the whole work!” When Clara finally heard the two missing movements, her comments in her diary were distinctly unenthusiastic: “I cannot deny that I felt saddened and disheartened for it doesn’t seem to me to compare with some of his other works such as the F minor Quintet, the sextets and the piano quartets. I miss the sweeping melodies, however ingenious the writing may otherwise be.” But Brahms would not be deterred, and with “the speed of a little brown bug”, as he expressed himself in a letter to the conductor Otto Dessoff, he set about organizing the symphony’s first performance, which took place under Dessoff in Karlsruhe on 4 November 1876.

The Symphony in C minor begins with a series of powerfully expansive timpani strokes, providing a pedal point to chromatic writing that leads inexorably from this ominous opening section, marked “Un poco sostenuto”, to the ensuing Allegro. It is the violins whose musical line appears to swell by semitone steps, and it is the winds, with their descending thirds, that create the mood of melancholy that permeates the whole of the movement, their ponderous tread suggestive of laboured breathing. The Allegro is correspondingly discursive in structure, Brahms allowing himself time to formulate his thoughts and develop his themes. Nor does he shy away from exploring remote tonalities. And yet everything is clearly thought through, nothing is merely arbitrary. The overriding impression is that of a cortège. The two middle movements eschew this monumentality. Not only are they much shorter, they also seem somehow alien: “However beautiful they are in themselves,” commented the conductor Hermann Levi on the occasion of the symphony’s second performance, again in Karlsruhe, but this time under Brahms himself, “they seem to me to be better suited to a serenade or a suite than to a symphony that is otherwise laid out along such elaborate lines.” Whereas the Andante sostenuto in E major captivates its listeners above all through its woodwind writing and its final beguiling violin solo, the third movement, headed “Un poco allegretto e grazioso”, seems like an intermezzo, its structure and tone colour recalling the composer’s later piano intermezzos. The ternary-structure finale (Adagio – Più Andante – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio) reveals Beethoven’s parentage in no uncertain terms. Not only does the symphony move from C minor to C major in a process reminiscent of the older composer’s Fifth Symphony, but the melody of the Allegro inevitably recalls Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s ode “To Joy”. Brahms must often have been reminded of this similarity, provoking him into commenting wryly on one occasion: “Yes, and even more remarkable is the fact that every fool can hear it straightaway.” But the alphorn melody that Brahms described as “Clara’s” and the embryonic chorale at the start of the final movement are also reminiscences of the final movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the main theme of which is likewise intended to recall the sound of an alphorn. The fourth movement, finally, is the only movement in the symphony in which Brahms uses trombones, achieving a very particular effect, notably in the Allegro section’s radiant C major theme and in the skilfully constructed coda. The final bars are so brilliant and effervescent that at this point we can actually hear Brahms escaping from the “giant” and striking out along “new paths”.

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