Of all the hundreds, if not thousands, of composers over the centuries who wrote symphonies, all have one thing in common: They began with a first. Some would write two or three, others more than a hundred, but all started out of the gate with an initial No. 1.
Which made me think, as The Florida Orchestra this week tees up the Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms, what are the finest of all the firsts, the best of the rest of those embryonic attempts?
For me, personally, Brahms is a no brainer. He spent more than a decade crafting it, and the result – a titanic struggle between darkness and light − is a tour de force of the orchestral repertoire. But others think differently, especially with Gustav Mahler’s Titan Symphony breathing down our necks.
So, I picked up the phone and called TFO Music Director Michael Francis, who without hesitation was happy to share his opinion.
“I would say, as a rival to the Brahms, it has to be Edward Elgar’s First Symphony,’’ he said. “It’s an absolutely perfect piece of music for the time it was written (it premiered in 1908) and fully expresses his hope for the future.’’
I also called Thomas Wilkins, former resident conductor for TFO, who places his money not on Brahms or Elgar, but Mahler. “It is my all-time favorite piece of music,’’ he said. “There’s something about every single moment that sticks to the core of my being. It knows me.’’
I frequently listen to the Brahms and Mahler, but it’s been a while since I heard the Elgar, so I put on a recording of David Zinman conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and played it over and over. I messaged Francis at the end of the day and told him he might be right – but not quite. I’m sticking with Brahms. So, with Florida Orchestra performances coming up, it seems fitting to discuss it further.
Brahms was a ripe 43 when he delivered his C Minor Symphony, and the wait was worth it. By then confident in his command of orchestral forms, the work was a hit at its premiere in 1876, as every detail is vital to the whole, noted the English composer and conductor Julius Harrison: “Nothing is left to chance; each movement has its course determined from the very first note.’’
Soon after it came into the world, the symphony was dubbed the “Tenth” to announce a successor to Beethoven’s nine masterpieces in the form. “You can’t have any idea what it’s like,’’ Brahms declared, “always to hear such a giant marching behind you.’’
Certainly, the composer’s admiration for Beethoven rings clear in this music, and not just by sharing the same key as the famed Fifth Symphony or its comparable shift from C-minor darkness to C-major light. He goes so far as to indirectly quote Beethoven midway through the finale, specifically the Ode to Joy theme from the Ninth Symphony.
The work opens ominously through an anguished series of timpani strokes against rising strings and woodwinds – one of the most memorable intros in the repertoire. Brahms introduces new themes and invigorates them in an imaginative display of contrapuntal skill worthy of Bach. A sustained, eloquent second movement offers relief from the earlier battle, the music falling over listeners like a warm blanket of sound. A tranquil theme by the woodwinds opens the third movement, and the orchestra builds its lush textures in softly rolling climaxes.
This leads without a break into the finale, an epic battle in which moments of quiet give way to displays of drama, done with an ingenious suspension of meter. Brahms begins the movement as an adagio, and increases the tension as more and more members of the orchestra take up their weapons and join in.
“It’s exceptionally mature, because he had written a lot of music before then,’’ Francis added. “It stands out as an immediate symphonic masterpiece, and it begins with a bang. There is nothing about it to criticize.’’