I often sing under my breath while working at The Store, and other times, if I'm not outright singing some showtune or Celtic ballad, I'm humming film music or classical themes to myself. Over the last week, for some reason, I've been humming one of the big motifs from the last movement of Brahms's Symphony No. 1, which I finally broke down and listened to this evening. (Well, I didn't exactly "break down" so much as finally had a perfect opportunity for a bit of Brahms.) It's probably been over a year since I last heard the Brahms First, maybe shorter, maybe longer -- but that's not important. What's important is that it has been sufficiently long that I had forgotten just how good it is, and what I love about it.
(For those interested in such things, I listened to Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, on the Deutsche Grammophon label. These are live performances that, if memory serves, were also telecast on PBS years ago.)
I'm always struck by the symphony's opening. For all of Brahms's reputation as the holder of the classical flame while musical Romanticism raged all around him, Brahms could more than hold his own with the others in creating musical tension. Those opening bars, with the orchestra's soprano voices playing a line that rises chromatically while the lower voices counter with one that sinks chromatically, and at a different rhythm, with the tympani pounding away on each beat as those two lines pull at each other, just grab me from the very first beat. And it seems that the tension of that movement is never going to let up.
The two middle movements are finely crafted by Brahms, but it's the epic final movement that always leaves me breathless. It starts off with more tension, but quieter tension: there's something foreboding in the air, and we don't know what it is. But soon enough Brahms dispenses with the tension, in a remarkable passage that has the French horns pealing out this wonderful motif from the heavens. (This is the motif I've been humming at work.) And then there's this incredibly nifty brass chorale theme that won't be heard again until near the very end of the movement. And then there's another quiet passage before we reach the real meat of the movement, a long theme that is the likely source of von Bulow's comment that Brahms's First is really Beethoven's Tenth. (The theme is said to sound remarkably like the "Ode to Joy" theme from the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth, but I like to hear different things in music, so in the Brahms theme I actually hear more Elgar than Beethoven, which is good because Brahms lived before Elgar.)
There's a lengthy, and masterful, development of that theme, culminating in another sounding of that wonderful horn motif, and then Brahms switches to a doubling of the tempo late in the game before getting back to that brass chorale theme, and then he wraps things up with a thrilling coda.
Man, reading that description makes the damn thing sound so clinical, but I don't like to try to talk about what music means when I write about it; I expect music to make me feel something, and if I can convey just a bit of that, then I'm good. Musical metaphors are always dangerous, too often sounding completely out-of-left-field at worst, or just plain treacly at best, but the Brahms First is one of those pieces that creates in me the same kind of feeling I get when watching a good planetarium show, or reading some Carl Sagan. Is saying that the Brahms First makes me think of the Cosmos a little too broad? Do you get what I'm talking about?