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


Brahms: Symphony no. 1

Concert Talk
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Benjamin Zander

“This is worthy of Beethoven himself. The buildup is electrifying.”

— Benjamin Zander


Ben Zander:

So now Brahms, I’ve Whew, Brahms. Oh my gosh, Brahms.

Well, of course, one of the most loved composers in the entire world, and everybody knows him as this heavily bearded, strong, gorgeous, powerful man with this gorgeous, powerful music.

And the First Symphony is one of the most dramatic and beautiful examples of, it is one of the most popular pieces. I myself have it on what I call my desert island disc list. You know, those pieces you take on the desert island? Brahms One is on there, no question about it. And it’s a piece that’s often played at concerts to end the season because it ends so triumphantly. It’s almost a rival for the Beethoven Ninth when it comes to an end. It’s so brilliant.

But behind that triumph lies a little-known tragedy and I want to share that tragedy with you because they think it’s relevant. He had a very strange childhood. His father was a very, very poor musician, poor in resources. And his mother who was 17 years older than his father, was a cripple. And there was a very harsh atmosphere.

And the three children all had to go out to work even when they were very young. And Brahms arranged pop songs, that’s what he did in order to earn money. He composed 150 pop songs under a pseudonym. And he played piano in a brothel, that’s what he did, that was his job. And so, he was surrounded in his youth by women of poor repute. And it had a deep effect on his capacity for relations with women. And this is now well-known. He couldn’t have physical relationships with respectable women.

And this was a very disturbing environment for a young man to grow up in. Probably caused the fact that puberty was delayed to an amazing age, started shaving when he was 24, and his high voice remained the whole of his life.

So, this is a very different figure than we are used to thinking of when we think of Brahms and it was a perfect recipe for a massive case of insecurity.

And now comes the whole relationship with Clara Schumann. Of course, he adored Schumann, was his hero and he idolized him and gradually as he watched him go into deterioration, into insanity, he became extremely distressed and at the same time, very close to Clara. But not as a companion, not as a partner, that would’ve horrified him and filled him with guilt. No, it was almost like a surrogate mother that he had. So this is a complex thing. They had a 40-year relationship.

Now his first compositions were all big piano works. He was obviously trying to assert his virility, but he was always hankering after the orchestra. The orchestra was the thing. But he couldn’t make up his mind. He would write something for two pianos and then arrange it for piano quintet. He was the most indecisive composer that probably has ever lived. Took him half a lifetime to get the confidence in his abilities.

In 1862, age of 29, he decided to write a symphony and he wrote a movement. He sent it to Clara and Clara approved. But it took another 20 years before he finished it. I mean, that was what his indecisiveness led him to. And he wrote these words, “I shall never write a symphony. You don’t know what it feels like to be dogged by that giant, Beethoven.” He couldn’t get over it. He simply couldn’t get over it.

Finally, he finished the work at age 43, that was his first symphony. It was a turning point in his life, and he lived thereafter in comparative confidence. But he maintained that ambivalence always in his music and it is indeed a secret of his music. And I gave you good a very dramatic example.

The opening of the First Symphony: most people when they think of the First Symphony, think of boom, boom, boom, boom. You know, the timpani pounding away as loud as possible, nothing else is audible. Now what’s really going on here is that the winds and the violas are coming down and the violence and the cellos are going up.

That’s creating a tremendous tension and the lines are pulling away from each other, against the timpani pounding. And the timpani is also the contrabassoon and the double basses. So our timpani player, who’s a very sophisticated musician, knows not to pound on those timpani, but just to make it equal. And if you hear all three voices, what you’ll hear is two lines trying to escape in either direction from the fetters which are created by the unyielding baseline which represents fate. That’s the unavoidable fate from which also haunted Beethoven, but it’s a very different experience.

If you listen to all three, you will be torn apart, as Brahms was torn apart. And the differences between the two composers is that Beethoven shook his fist at fate and Brahms dramatized ambiguity. It’s a totally different aesthetic world. And when you hear that right at the beginning, it’s one of the most striking openings of any symphony that has ever been created, it’s one of those amazing things.

It’s followed, incidentally, by a moment of indecision

The indecision is it or?And the answer is, it’s the second because of where he’s put the bar line. In Brahms, the tension between the bar line and the shape of the music is always in conflict, always in ambiguity. And that’s one of the characteristics of this performance that we have brought out, not only all the dissonances and all the dynamics and every other element, but also that ambiguity in timing that most performances flatten out and just give in because this is a high note and that’s a low one always to make the high note loud.

But that’s not Brahms. Brahms is always creating that edge. So if you feel an ambiguity in your heart, then you know are in Brahms’s world.

So I could go on and on and on. But I will tell you one amazing thing, which is that introduction, which is so superlative, was written after the symphony was finished. He wrote the first movement and then he added it on. And it’s impossible to imagine the symphony without it now. And a would be a very odd beginning. It starts with a shot out of a gun like that. And then that rising scale, which I played earlier.

So Brahms is a very different music from Dvorák and from so many other romantics. It’s not the emotional rollercoaster, it is what happens to the notes is what matters to Brahms, what happens to the note.

I think he was probably the greatest musical intellectual in Europe. The only rivals would’ve been Bach and Bruckner. But I think Brahms was a titan and his musical intellect is without equal. The harder you listen, the more you will get out of it. It rewards the fiercely attentive.

And we’ve created a performance, and I’m really proud of this, we have gone back and eliminated all the traditions and all the nonsensical things that conductors have added, extra rubati and at one point Stokowski added a tuba player because he wanted more noise. We’ve gone back and really given you the Brahms that he wrote down on that paper. And for those of you who know the piece well, it’s going to be a revelation. It’s very, very exciting.

So the opening, as I said, starts off with that rising scale with a starting pistol and then the rising scale, which you will hear everywhere, and also this arpeggio that permeates. And then one other element If you can’t beat them, join them.

The movement is full of struggle, defiance, grief, power. Feel it, it is deeply moving.

The second theme, you remember the second theme? That memorable theme? Or in the case of the Dvorák, that beautiful tune. In Brahms, it’s something quite different. He needs something to use That’s the second theme. That’s almost as useful as because he can use that and he does and he works it and works it and works it.

And then comes the development section. Well, the development section is extremely exciting. There is a repeat, it’s almost never done. We will do it. And so you’ll hear that exposition twice.

And then we go into the development in B major. An incredible, ecstatic moment. And the dynamics you’ll hear, the softest playing. It’s a brain popping experience. The development of the Brahms Symphony. The buildup to the recapitulation. Remember, I told you about the buildup with the horn, the long note in the

And everybody knows where you are. In this case, it’s quite a different experience indeed. It’s a long drawn out This is worthy of Beethoven himself. The buildup is electrifying. And you’ll hear the beginning of it when you hear the contrabassoon play this very low A sharp That’s that rising scale

And then again And then And then

And it builds and it builds and it builds and it builds and, finally, explodes into a passage which is not the destination yet. It’s a climax. And here you hear in the timpani With a cannon. I mean, it’s just absolutely overwhelming. And you listen to the horns, the trumpets, the timpani always 22 bars of that dominant pedal.

And the return when it comes, it’s just electrifying. I mean, it’s not that obvious but you’ll say, “Ah, that was it. That was it. That was it.” And we’re back.

The movement ends with the slow section, very beautiful. Oh my goodness, I have very little time. I have to move. A very beautiful slow section in C major. And the second movement begins. Oh, that’s the most amazing thing. But you never hear it because people have to cough. It’s such a pity, isn’t it?

The other night I had the whole audience here because they do the talk in the concert and so I managed to get everybody to be absolutely quiet when we got to the end of that C major. And then, oh, such a beautiful Nobody had ever heard that before because of all the coughing.

Anyway, second movement. Second movement. He had written a lot of chamber music. He was by now the most experienced chamber music writer alive and is exquisitely beautiful. The first melody could come straight out of a string quartet or a song. It’s like a Schubert song

And that lady’s got that smile on her face again, she’s so happy. It’s great. Well, it is. That takes us into another world. Beautiful, beautiful and they’re gorgeous oboes. We have incredible wind players and the oboists and then the clarinetists. And you will understand if you don’t already know, why Brahms is so loved and why you should listen to his chamber music.

It ends with a beautiful solo violin and solo horn and oboe and it ends in heart’s ease in E major.

The third movement is an intermezzo. It’s not named that, but that’s what it is. And it’s like his piano intermezzos. It’s a small piece, short, very carefree and charming and in a far away key. And the only thing I’ll tell you about it is the first phrase is not four bars long, but five bars long. And that extra bar gives you little extra and then it’s repeated five bars, again. Instead of coming down, it goes up, the same thing. I mean, it’s so beautifully constructed.

And the other thing I want to draw your attention to in the third movement is that sometimes it’s in duplets in duplets. And sometimes threes. Brahms is always about two against three. And if you don’t believe me, read the New York Times because yesterday it was a long article about Brahms and threes and twos and it was amazing. I mean, they didn’t even know about this concert, they just wrote it. Anyway, it’s great fun when it goes together.

So let’s just quickly do this. You do

It’s always pulling, three against two, two against three. It’s gorgeous. It’s gorgeous. And you’ll enjoy that because it’s very beautiful.

And then comes the finale and I can’t deal I’m going to take a few moments for the finale. It’s one of the greatest things. It has, of course, that famous big tune. Everybody knows the big tune, you’ve heard it. The other day, I had the whole audience singing it with the orchestra. We played it. It was so beautiful. And they sang. And then I told them afterwards they could write in their curriculum vitae that they’d sung with the Boston Philharmonic

Incredibly beautiful, great, great theme, which everybody knows. Before it, there’s a two-part overture, tragic at first, distorting the theme and then pizzicato. And then comes a storm and roar in the timpani, flutes, and oboes making

And then suddenly the clouds clear and something absolutely gorgeous happens. One of the greatest moments in all of the music. A beautiful cloudless sunrise in Switzerland. You can imagine he was there in 1868 and he heard somebody play an alphorn and he wrote to Clara, “I just heard this tune on the alphorn.” And he wrote this tune

And the trombones enter there for the first time with the horn, and it’s like a sunrise. I mean, it’s one of the most beautiful things you can imagine, the sound of the valleys and hills of the Alps and the villages, pure nobility, and rapture. And our horn player avoids the tendency that horn players love to show their muscles. It’s not about muscle, it’s about some young herdsman on the side of a mountain playing on an alphorn, and he gets that absolutely beautiful. And then there’s a great trombone corral, a most beautiful, poignant prayer of thanksgiving. And listen again for the contrabassoon, always in the lowest register, like the 16-foot pipe on the organ. And the horn call comes again and then the flute, radiant like sunlight.

And it’s a tribute to the master. He knew it. Somebody pointed out to him, “That sounds awfully like the Ode to Joy.” He said, “Any stupid fool can see that.” Right?

Anyway, you are attuned to Brahms. I’m sure you are. It’s a long movement. You lose yourself in the beauty and the excitement. It’s very, very clearly performed. Somebody told me they’d never heard such a clear performance of the Brahms that they heard in the last two performances. We’ve worked hard to make everything audible.

It’s in Sonata form, the last one, but don’t worry about it. You won’t need to be concerned with that. The coda is extremely exciting and that beautiful corral in the brass now is heard in a blaze of glory, Hosanna glory. And the end is utterly triumphant. It’s one of the most triumphant moments in all of music.

So Brahms has actually succeeded in overcoming his demons and he helps us to do that too, because that’s what music will give us. We turn to great music because it has the power to heal our souls.

And I know of no peace that does it more effectively, more touchingly, and more perfectly than Brahms First. So you are going to have a wonderful afternoon. And you know what? So are we. And one of the reasons we’re going to have such a wonderful afternoon is because you are here. Because when we play music often, we are playing to blank spirits, just sitting there and letting the sound go over them. And you are a totally engaged and informed audience and you’re going to be waiting for all these moments. And that makes it very exciting for us.

Because when that chord There’s a chord in the trombones. You remember I told you about the B major chord in the Dvorák, before the cello comes in? You remember that? Well, there’s a chord in the Brahms, in the last moment, in the trombones. That’s it And we wait and what comes next? And it’s that expectation, that sense that you are engaged in the whole piece, not in just a little bit of it, but in the whole piece. And I’m thrilled that you’re going to join us on this journey.

Thank you.

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