“I realized that my job is to awaken possibility in others.”


Brahms: Symphony no. 1

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Brian Bell (interviewer)

“It’s so beautifully written. And every detail is in there, what he wanted.”

— Benjamin Zander


Ben Zander:

These works, they’re such towering masterpieces, and you’ll know that you’ll never solve them. I mean, that’s the wonderful thing. I’ve now done the Brahms First several times.

Each time I buy a new score. I learned that from Schulte, he bought a new score every time. I don’t do it, maybe every time, but I have a brand-new score. And it was amazing to me to go through this score again from the beginning, and I’ve done it a lot in the past and found thousands of little things that I hadn’t noticed, little changes.

It’s so beautifully written. And every detail is in there, what he wanted. And so I think it comes from awe, a sense of awe in the front of these works.

And also the sense of Brahms’s own position vis-a-vis his First Symphony. He waited a very, very long time. He began composing this work, the first movement, when he was 29 years old, which is a normal age. I mean, it’s the same age that Mahler wrote his first symphony, Berlioz wrote his first symphony, and Beethoven actually wrote his first symphony.

But what we have to then take account of is that it took him 20 years to finish it. And the reason he couldn’t finish it was because of the towering figure of Beethoven. And he actually said at one point you can’t imagine what it’s like being under the shadow of Beethoven. It’s impossible. And it caused him to go into terrible indecision around this symphony and around It took half a lifetime to get the confidence in his abilities to finish the piece. He wrote, “I shall never write a symphony. You don’t know what it feels like to be dogged by that giant, Beethoven.”

And when he finally finished it, he was 43 years old. It was a turning point in his life. I’m very, very moved by the Brahms First Symphony because the triumph at the end is bigger than just a wonderful end of a symphony. It’s really a turning point.

From then on, he lived in comparative confidence for the rest of his life, although he always maintained this ambivalence. And I think the ambivalence is partly the secret of his music. So there’s a tension in the rhythm. You never know whether it’s or.

Brian Bell:

Or Or going the other going way.

Ben Zander:

Or going the other direction. Everything is there. The struggle, the despair, the loneliness, the grief. He had a terribly difficult childhood. I mean, we don’t often think about Brahms’ childhood. But he lives a very poor family and his father was a poor musician, and the wife was an elder, 13 years old, I think, or even 19 years older than his husband. And there was no money. And he had to go out and work.

And where did he work? He worked in a brothel.

Brian Bell:

As a pianist, right.

Ben Zander:

He played as a pianist. And it had a devastating effect on his life, on his relationships, on his sexuality. He hit puberty at 24. He was still had a young voice. And no, he didn’t shave until he was 24 years old.

I mean, everything was off balance and it took a great struggle for him to come to terms with all of that. And he did it really finally in the First Symphony. And that’s the turning point.

So the struggle of the first movement, the despair, the anguish, the tension, and the difficulty of it Right at the beginning you hear the line coming down, the line going up, and the timpani in the middle, like fate. And he’s trying to escape from the fetters of that unyielding base-

Brian Bell:

Of the sea.

Ben Zander:

of the sea.

Brian Bell:

Pounding sea, yes.

Ben Zander:

Pounding. And so Brahms dramatized all of this, the heartbreak and everything that he was going through. And when he finally

Of course, the middle movements are chamber music because by the time he wrote the symphony, he was an extremely experienced and masterful composer of chamber music. And that’s essentially what the middle movements are, the beautiful adagio movement.

And then the intermezzo, delicate and charming and light in feel.

And then he comes across to the finale, grand finale, one of the greatest movements of symphonic music.

Incidentally, it’s good to notice that in the first movement, the figure which of course is a quotation from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, is there. It’s almost as he says, “If you can’t beat him, join him.” So he includes that defiance and all the grief and power, including Beethoven is in that movement.

And then when he finally comes to the last movement, having gone through two beautiful chamber music movements, he comes to the final movement, the big tune. And the big tune, which everybody, of course, knows sounds so much like the Ode to Joy of Beethoven. And when that was pointed out to him, he said, “Of course, every fool can see that.”

Brian Bell:

Right. “Any idiot knows that.”

Ben Zander:

He couldn’t get out from under Beethoven. But he makes a tremendous virtue of it.

And when the final The horn, the great horn theme, which I must say Kevin Owen plays as beautifully as it can be played.

It’s like a sunrise scene in Switzerland. And I was in Switzerland recently this year and there was a gentleman playing the alphorn, that long horn there. And the sound went across the valleys and the villages because we were up on the mountain where The Magic Mountain was written. Thomas Mann. And what was he playing? He was playing that theme from the First Symphony Such nobility, such rapture.

And then the trombone corral, like a poignant prayer of thanksgiving before the great tune comes. And it’s a long movement, and it’s of course a sonata movement, but how it unfolds and the trombones, when they come back in the end, a blaze of glory, “Hosanna!” they shout. All is well. It ends, utter triumph, as triumphant is any symphony like the First Symphony of Mahler.

But we realize that it’s a big struggle that he’s gone through and he has succeeded in overcoming his demons and reaching the end. And I think he helps us to do that with our own demons. When we get to the end, we feel as though we’ve reached a point beyond our suffering. And I think all great music does that and that’s why we love this music so much because it always brings us healing. It has the power to heal ourselves-

Brian Bell:

Through struggle and then triumph.

Ben Zander:

Yes, through struggle, triumph. And that’s what the power of music is, to do that. I mean, it’s why we love it and it’s why we come back to it.

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