Today's diary is as much about the conductor Jascha Horenstein as it is about Brahms.
Back in the 1920s, he was one of the most talented conductors in Germany. Then in 1933, his career ran into a big snag called the Nazis and he was forced to resign his conducting posts with the Berlin Philharmonic and with the Dusseldorf Opera. Forced to go into exile, his career never quite caught fire again in the same way, even after the war. And yet he was one of the truly great conductors, a cult figure today.
The recording we're going to hear today of the Brahms Symphony #1 was recorded by Readers Digest in 1961 for a box set of classical music favorites that was sold only by mail.
More below. And Brahms Symphony #1.
Brahms is one of the three B's: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, the pillars of German music. The Brahms Symphony #1 is one of the biggies, part of the standard repertoire, the works that any decent orchestra is expected to perform regularly.
I usually try to avoid the program notes style history lesson about the work to be played, but it may be unavoidable this time.
As we get into the nineteenth century and Romanticism, it's surprising how early the issue of German right-wing fanaticism and antisemitism becomes an issue, a twisted side effect of the Industrial Revolution and the development of a German middle class.
Brahms, though raised as a Protestant, was a self-described freethinker, meaning atheist, although he has often been described as a pantheist, like Beethoven. Funny then that he became known as Brahms the Jew:
“Also I decided to re-read his biography when I got the surprise of my life...it turns out that in his mature years, Brahms, a cantankerous and rather solitary, gruff type of person became almost obsessed with issues of anti-Semitism, which had been come to an overt boil during his long tenure in Vienna. The Wagnerian-Nietzsche camp, under the spell of their rabid anti-semitic rhetoric which took over middle Europe in the mid-19th century, upset Brahms to no end.From Swafford's biography of Brahms:
“He wrote a few letters to many of his Jewish friends, including to the famous celebrity violinist and close friend of Brahms' Joseph Joachim, decrying this trend. To this end one of the most bizarre turns of events took place in and around 1860 - Brahms began to be known as ‘Brahms, the Jew,’ chiefly by Wagnerian groupies. In an era of rumor-turned reality, even the public bought the canard that he was Jewish, even though he was raised in a strict Lutheran household. He actually took pride in such rumors and defended his many Jewish friends with ardent loyalty to the end of his days.”
Brahms appreciated the knowledge and skill and brains that had made these men eminent in their ﬁelds. He also required companions who, like him. could light up a cigar and down a few glasses and make a back room ring with gossip and good talk and manly laughter. Given the constitution of artists and the art-loving public in Vienna, many friends had a Jewish background—Epstein, Brull. Goldmark, Spitzer, Hanschel, Hanslick, and more in later years as the circle evolved. Toward the end of his life, responding to the antisemitism that had become endemic in Austrian politics, Brahms was heard to growl, “Next week l‘m going to have myself circumcised!” It was a statement not only of principle but of solidarity with an important faction of his audience—the educated, assimilated jews who formed the leading cadre of the liberal Austrian Grossburgertum. With the weakness of his class for strong men and the military. Brahms may have idolized Bismarck and the authoritarian Prussians, but he remained a liberal and a democrat at heart.Setting aside the class and racial enmities of Germany for a moment, there were other rivalries at play in this. German Romantic music had formed a schism with, on the one side, Wagner and Liszt and Bruckner and others who saw themselves as the heralds of the new German music, and, on the other, Brahms and Schumann and Mendelssohn and others who were more conservative of musical tradition. Many of the musical skirmishes of the two groups were fought out in diatribes published in their respective fanzines. However, Wagner, the most influential of those on the right, and the most prolific critic, was also deeply immersed in antisemitic right-wing politics. Wagner was less of a Ted Nugent, someone hanging around the periphery of the right, and more of an Ann Coulter, too outrageous to be mainstream but also redefining the words outrageous and mainstream.
It shouldn't surprise us that in this environment, Brahms Symphony #1 was doomed to be savagely criticized no matter how good it was. Brahms knew it and it may have been one of the factors that kept him from publishing it. It took him fourteen years to complete. Part of that was musical politics, and part of that was intimidation by... the fifty-years-dead Beethoven.
Thus this diary, which continues to explore a theme of the last five weeks' diaries: the aftershock of Beethoven's Ninth.
Brahms was acutely aware of the deeply rooted traditions of German music... He knew that, having been heralded by Schumann, his compositions, especially a symphony, would have to measure up to the standards set by his forebears. At first he doubted that he was even able to write a symphony, feeling that Beethoven had nearly expended all the potential of that form, leaving nothing for future generations. "You have no idea," Brahms lamented, "how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven."One result of Brahms' procrastination is that this symphony comes at the peak of his powers. It's not a student work, not a piece of crap nice-try but you're getting the hang of it work. Many of his greatest works were already composed.
The style is very Romantic nineteenth-century, one of the defining works of the style. There's no way to confuse this with a symphony by Beethoven. Brahms makes concrete his acknowledgment of tradition through many musical allusions to works by Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and others, not all of them ones that I can identify, and I didn't want to get too crazy hunting them down. They're not even really necessary for understanding the work -- more of a DVD extras feature. But I'll be sure to point out the big one -- the main theme of the triumphant final movement which is based on the Ode to Joy theme from Beethoven's Ninth.
But Dumbo, didn't we hear Schubert do the same thing in his symphony just last week?
Yup. That Ode to Joy really gets around. Promiscuous little thing, isn't it? We'll hear that in the finale of the next symphony we do, as well, so you may commence guessing which one that will be.
When somebody pointed out to Brahms that the main theme of his finale sounded a lot like Beethoven's Ode to Joy, Brahms replied (and I can't find the German quote, but I'll directly requote-quote Jim Sveda on this) "Yes indeed! And obviously any asshole can notice it!"
More about Jascha Horenstein
When I was trying to pick a clip for today, I went first hunting for Herbert von Karajan clips. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is famous for being conservatively over-focused on the German standard repertoire works like Beethoven and Brahms. I found it. It was nice. And then I found Horenstein's recording for, of all people, Readers Digest mailorder. God bless Youtube, eh?
One of the first classical albums I ever bought was Beethoven's Symphony #3 "The Eroica" conducted by Jascha Horenstein on Vox Records label, which sold cheap two-dollar stereo remasterings of mono recordings of various off-brand conductors and orchestras. I can credit Horenstein's recording for making me first fall in love with Beethoven's Eroica. I loved it so much I couldn't wait to go out and spend real money on a REAL recording that wasn't some fake bullshit by a nobody. I think I bought Karajan's recording with Deutsche-Grammophon. German import -- gotta be good stuff, you know. It did sound great, though. I threw away the Horenstein recording. That's how much I knew. Now I surf Youtube looking for things like what I threw away when I was a teenager. Such is life.
RECORDINGS VIEW; A Minor Legend In His Time, Now A Major Cult HeroWe learn that Horenstein was born Jewish in the the Ukraine and emigrated to Germany as a child, where his larger extended family lived. He received music lessons from some of the great musicians of the day like the Jewish Franz Schreker -- another big name who would fall into obscurity after 1933. Horenstein became in the 1920s one of the principle conductors of the orchestra that would later become, through merger, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and there he trained with the ubermensch of all conductors, Furtwangler, whom we have talked about in other diaries. Furtwangler whom would become, probably through no intention of his own, the Nazi poster boy for Aryan cultural supremacy and then find himself a pariah after the war. He would also work with the young Herbert von Karajan (funny how that name pops up again, how many recurring themes we encounter), who, unlike the Jewish Horenstein, was quick to become a card-carrying Nazi when he thought it might improve his career. And, oh, did it ever. When Herbert von Karajan died, he was a billionaire. And that was back when a billion dollars was still a lot of money!
By ALEX ROSS
Published: October 16, 1994
MOST OF THE GREAT CONductors who have been deified on "historic" recordings acquired Olympian status during their lifetimes, then amplified their fame beyond the grave. Jascha Horenstein is another case entirely, a conductor of marginal renown who has generated tremendous cult interest in the 21 years since his death. He lacked the long-term association with a big-name orchestra and record label that has elevated lesser musicians. But in the last few years his studio and live performances, with orchestras superior and inferior, in sound good and terrible, have proliferated on CD in astonishing numbers. We finally have an adequate record of one of the most vital, idiosyncratic interpreters of the 20th century. [....]
If the only rotten thing Hitler ever did was ruin Horenstein's career, we'd all be much happier, I guess. When put in context that way, I suppose Horenstein's problems seems trivial. But again -- recurring themes here -- it amazes me, and amazes me again, and again what happened in March of 1933. I've commented in this other diaries, so I'm recapitulating, yes, I know. But the Nazis, as their first order of business after assuming dictatorial control of Germany, ahead of other things, like, oh, for instance, rounding up people and shooting them, made it their priority to cleanse German music and art. It's not just that they did it that surprises me, because, aw shit, they were Nazis, you expect them to do bad things. It's that with so much on their plate, they made that their first priority. Whatever figment of the imagination they had created in their minds that they saw as German culture was so different from the reality that in order to preserve it (as they imagined it had been) they had to destroy one of the great cultures of human history. If they had done it just because they were barbarians too ignorant to appreciate, it would be bad enough. The fact that they did this because they were thought they were improving things...
Horenstein is also most well known for another thing, and that is keeping Mahler alive. Not the composer, the music. Mahler was one of the Jewish musicians (who converted to Roman Catholicism, but look at what a fat lot of good that did him) whose music almost disappeared from the concert hall map. The Nazis banned him, and even if they hadn't, the world was already moving on by then from late romanticism. Horenstein's reputation was as an expert on this composer nobody had heard of, this Gustav Mahler, and he made many of the first commercial recordings of this composer that, like Horenstein, was for quite a while, even after the war, an inside secret.
About the actual music of Brahms First, which we're going to listen to today
The first movement is often called tragic, but I don't think that captures it. I find that sometimes, if you want to understand music, it's useful to imagine just what kind of film scene you would hear it used in. For instance, I could imagine hearing the intro of Brahms First being used in a film about Robert Scott's failed Antarctic expedition, the polar wind blowing the icicles off their mustaches and brows as lurid slanted fonts announce on the title screen, "The March into Eternal Winter." Something like that. Or maybe a Hammer Dracula film title screen. Whatever, it's grim, unsmiling business.
It's Beethoven's "triumph symphony" model that you hear being set up here: the grim and feisty first movement building up to a triumphant final movement as it was done in Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth. In fact, you'll even hear Beethoven's four-note DAH DAH DAH DAH! used at some points. It's not used as an inside joke, but with respect and serious intent, as if to say, "I give tribute to Beethoven. This is his turf." (The Brahms Symphony #1 is often humorously called "The Beethoven Tenth Symphony.")
The acknowledgment and the overall form may be the same, but you may not recognize much else, because Brahms' orchestration is enormously different. Before writing this diary, I thought the difference was that Brahms used a larger orchestra. I was very shocked to find that, no, the orchestra for the Brahms First is about the same size as that for any of the earlier Beethoven symphonies. So how does it sound so much bigger?
And that's pure 100% Brahms.
A brief digression...
I'm not a musicologist and sometimes make up my own terms. I've been using the terms vertically dense and linear complexity in some of my diaries, and I'll be more shocked than anybody if I find out that's what they use in music schools. Those are terms that actually come from just-in-time manufacturing processes and something called lead time management, areas of work I used to do some programming for.
To understand what lead time management is, imagine if you were a king and you had servants dress you. You can't put on your shoes first. You have to put on your shorts THEN your pants THEN your socks THEN your shoes and there's no way around that. However, you could have somebody else putting on your jacket. Of course, that has to be done in the order undershirt, jacket. After that, you can split it up even further and have many separate people putting on your hat, adjusting your cufflinks, and putting on your tie.
Putting on your shoes is linearly complex. Like a long-winding melody, one note after another headed towards a goal. Putting on shoes, tie, hat, cufflinks and belt at the same time, that's vertical density. Lots of people doing stuff at the same time without getting in each other's way. Like harmony and counterpoint. Like three notes up and three notes down overlapping each other. And like the whole second movement of this symphony.
What Brahms does, and it's especially, magnificently obvious in the second movement, is he dovetails many different parts together so that it becomes difficult to tell where one part stops and another part ends. For instance, he'll have an oboe trail off just as a clarinet is coming in. They don't stop at the crossroads and shake hands and go their own ways. They overlap so that as the clarinet begins, it sounds like it's just supporting the oboe. And then you realize, no, it was saying something of its own.
It can make listening to it the first time a beautiful but frustrating experience. I can remember my own first experience with Brahms First, when I was seventeen or eighteen in junior college. It "washed over me." I remember how beautiful it all seemed, but the second movement, in particular, was just too much. It was too slippery. I felt like, jeez, there's a beautiful melody there and I know I would hear it if he would just quit fussing around with it. I mean, hell, I thought I was supposed to listen to the oboe, and suddenly it stops and the clarinet is doing something and it's all very beautiful but...
So if you start to feel that way, try to grasp that this is a feature, not a bug. It's that beautiful intertwining and whispy dovetailing of the parts that Brahms is all about. You need to listen to the music more than once before it fully reveals itself to you. Just as you didn't understand what the hell was going on in Pulp Fiction or Catch-22 the first time.
Brahms' music is vertically dense. In contrast, Tchaikovsky was linearly complex, and I could probably say the same of Berlioz. I find it interesting that Tchaikovsky absolutely hated Brahms and called him a big fraud.
The recurring motif of the Brahms First
As in a Beethoven symphony, the recurring motif is given to us in the introduction, and in the very first bar. We begin with three notes rising, chromatically, by half-steps. C, D flat, D natural. That's three notes in a row that creep upwards. Because of all the drums pounding and the way things overlap, it might be hard to distinguish this the first time you hear it. That's because simultaneously overlapping this, there are three downward creeping chromatic notes by half steps, going from G to F sharp to F natural. There's something ominous and a bit unnatural sounding about it, so the word "creeping" may doubly apply. This creeping chromatic note business won't show up in the melodies that make up the symphony, will appear more in the background, in the accompaniment and harmony, usually in the basses, as brief "growl" effects. In the good obsessive-compulsive Beethoven tradition, Brahms will give it back to us in not-always obvious ways in all four movements.
Onwards! To the music!
I can honestly say I was not a "Horenstein cultist" before hearing this Brahms recording, which is
probably the most impressive performance I've ever heard. The stereo quality is very good, but there's a little distortion during the loudest moments. Ironically, I think that may actually contribute to the dramatic effect.
Brahms' Symphony #1 in C minor, First movement, Un poco sostenuto – Allegro. Jascha Horenstein conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
A drum pounds away relentlessly. The introductory motif appears, first as three notes creeping upwards, and as three notes creeping downwards. Notice how much bigger and richer this orchestra sounds. And remember that it's no bigger than the orchestra of a Beethoven symphony. The mood is grim and hopeless.
Horenstein adds an extra dose of dread to it. Notice at 1:48 as he builds up to a mini-climax and the recording breaks up into distortion. I've never heard it like that before. It's uncivilized!
Exposition First Theme (3:01)
The exposition begins by briefly repeating in shortened form the chromatic wail of the intro. And now comes the first theme, which is all sharp edges and full of belligerence. Notice how the three creeping notes appear in small hidden ways in the harmony.
The first theme itself consists of four notes, making (although it's not really obvious yet) a Beethoven's Fifth style dadada DAH. Not obvious yet but it will be later.
Also, notice how as the dadada DAHs repeat, we get:
"dadada DAH... dadada DAH... dadada DAH..."
And each successive DAH of those three DAHs in isolation is a chromatic half-step higher. So he's fashioned that whole theme out of the three chromatic rising half step notes.
At 4:04, we begin the transition to the new key (B Flat major heading towards E flat) which means we are approaching...
Exposition Second Theme (4:35)
A horn gives us a sound of hope. Quickly we are in the more relaxed key of E flat major, and now we have a real melody, something you can hum. It's based on the first theme. The mood is different, more positive and hopeful.
BUT THEN! .... At 5:45. This is another thing I liked about the Horenstein performance. Notice the terrible dread he creates here. The E flat major chord darkens into E flat minor. There's a pregnant pause and a soft dadada... with a big hollow space behind it.
Oh, what's going to happen to us now? It can't be good!
The dadada DAH theme returns, now fashioned into a codetta, to round off and complete this part of the exposition, to put a period on the sentence, to put it in a package and put a ribbon around it. And to set us up for...
Development section (6:15)
With a sudden key change, the mood changes again, and we know we are in new territory. The chromatic notes are still there as a reminder, deep in the bass, and they keep us from feeling safe. But we are moving, drifting somewhere new. We're finally going to start fighting back against that awful dadada DAH thing!
(7:07) dadada DAH is back, but there's something new here, a new theme comes in atop it, something with courage and hope. I remember the first time I heard this how blown away I was here.
The conflict created by the new theme doesn't resolve in a dramatic sense, but things settle down. At 8:03, we are back to three rising notes and three falling notes in the violins, this time not simultaneously atop each other, but in series, like waves on the water. The mood chills substantially, and we reach a bottom point at 8:27. With a deep chromatic growl from the bass, Brahms begins to crouch, preparing to spring towards his blistering climax.
The volume rises. The strings are creeping, creeping, three notes at a time, higher and higher. The brass begin to come in.
9:03 CLIMAX! And we can tell that because the Horenstein recording distorts again from the volume. The drums enter with brutal force, pounding out that DA DA DA DAH! over and over again, and any suspicions we might have had that this is about Beethoven are laid to rest, because it's undeniable. The trombones come in atop this laying down three chromatic half steps. And with a sudden whoosh... We find ourselves back in....
Recapitulation First Theme Again (9:30)
We are back to the first theme, in C minor again. And it's almost a relief. As grim as it was the first time, it's almost relaxing after everything we just went through in the development!
Almost the same as before. At 10:11 we begin to transition to a major key, setting us up for...
Recapitulation Second Theme Again (10:41)
The second theme again, but now it's in C major instead of E flat. And notice, too, that this C minor beginning to C major ending is exactly what Beethoven did in his fifth symphony first movement.
At 11:30, we have the same transition back to minor, and pregnant pause that sets us up for the codetta. But now, as we know, because Brahms plays by the rules, we're due for the coda.
We begin just as we did in the codetta, much of it repeated. But at 12:10, where the codetta gave way to the exposition, something different happens. I love the way Horenstein rushes the drums and gives it a frantic edge here. It gives way to a sudden change of tempo, a greater relaxation, but not exactly peace. We end in C major, a more uplifting key, with a glimmer of hope, but just a glimmer. There is no sound of victory here.
-------------------- END OF FIRST MOVEMENT -----------------------------------
And now for the second movement. If freethinkers get into heaven, Brahms is there because of this movement. Its complexity derives specifically because of the "dovetailing" as I put it, the way the parts are joined together so seamlessly. There are extremely beautiful melodies here, but they might lose their charm over time if it weren't for the incredible way they are presented.
Brahms' Symphony #1 in C minor, Second movement, Andante sostenuto. Jascha Horenstein conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
The A section doesn't really consist of one melody. It's too tightly woven, made of too many pieces to be one melody. But it seems like one melody.
Deconstructing it seems almost sacrilege because such terrible care was taken to put it together in the first place. But when we do, we can see many discrete parts that combine together well. As we get further into the movement, the more it all seems to come together to make a coherent statement.
The strings enter with a kind of soft introduction. If you're obsessed with this, you might want to notice the similarity between the opening of this movement and the opening of Beethoven's Pastorale symphony. Hell, I'll draw it for you! I'm going to be late, anyway. Sometimes it's easier to see things things than hear them, the first time.
That's my own fuddy-duddy, dumbed-down transcription of the beginning of the two themes. Made with the free program Musette and with my own clicky-pointy fingers.
After those six notes, there's an ominous chromatic half-step in the bass, which, to me, harkens back to the unifying of the symphony. This little half-step thing is peculiar in how it contradicts the otherwise optimistic mood of the piece. It will return throughout the movement.
Next, after some fast pizzicato (plucked strings), we get a lush rising motif (characterized -- again -- by a half step up in the harmony, going from B major to C major).
At 1:17, we get the most memorable part of the movement, the oboe melody. With two little chromatic half-steps down in its harmony (but not in the melody). Then it LEAPS upwards and lands, wistfully. Again with that chromatic growl in the bass that keeps it from being too optimistic.
This melody ends with a nice clear cadence and a sense of completion, so we are done with the A section, ready for the B section. Or as we learned last week, we call it The Trio.
B section (or Trio, if you prefer) (2:01)
The strings enter, very softly, very gently at first. A rhythmic pulse in the violas or second violins accompanies them, it too gentle at first. But it soon becomes pained and comes crashing back down.
At 2:36, with the pulse from the violas continuing, the strings fade out, and the oboe takes over, spinning out a long melody. Again notice the way this dovetails beautifully so that you don't notice that the oboe has taken the lead role from the strings until it's already half way into it. At 3:10, it passes control to the clarinet in the same seamless way, so that it's hard to hear the changeover.
At 3:32, with some ominous chromatic half step growls from the basses, we begin to enter a more tense section. The oboe theme is repeated by the strings, but it has become tragic now. As it settles back again, we reach another seam in the music, setting us up for the return of...
A Section Again (4:33)
The return of the A section is another bit of beautiful dovetailing. We repeat the previous parts, but with slight changes this time.
At 6:31, the oboe theme returns, but now played by a solo violin. And in a live performance, the first violinist will suddenly stand up just for this part and play it as if it was suddenly his violin concerto.
We linger very long here, as the solo violin draws this melody out into a long and tender coda.
------------ END OF SECOND MOVEMENT ----------------
Next week: Sorry if I'm late, but I'd rather do it well than on time. Read it tomorrow if you have to. Next week we'll do the third and the triumphant final fourth movement and I might make a spoilers clip. The week after that, we'll do some unnamed symphony which I previously alluded to which also manhandles Beethoven's Ode to Joy.
Now for me to go get a cup of coffee... OH SHIT! I don't have a coffee cup yet! I still need a coffee cup! ONE LIKE THIS: