Whereas the composition of his second symphony took only a summer, Johannes Brahms developed the ideas of his first symphony for many years. It was the culmination, the end of a long journey with extremely diverse musical impulses.
Memories of playing popular dance music in Hamburg, performing Hungarian and Gypsy tunes with Ede Reményi, visiting the mountains of the alphorn with Clara Schumann, finding refuge in Vienna and coming to feel like the true successor to Haydn and Mozart all merged in this immense masterwork. The Hungarian Dances, the German Requiem and the classical variations on a theme of Haydn (or not Haydn, it doesn't matter, for him it was an homage to Haydn) led the way to his first German-Hungarian-Gypsy-Swiss-Austrian symphony.
Fear of Beethoven
Johannes Brahms never made a secret of the inspiration he drew from Beethoven's symphonies. He was only twenty when he first heard Beethoven's Ninth, and this was a truly overwhelming confrontation. Brahms was overcome by the irresistible urge to follow in Beethoven's footsteps, a thought that also filled him with great fear. What to do if he bit off more than he could chew and a symphony fell short? Who could measure himself with Bach, Mozart or Beethoven? Did such giants still see the light of day? Throughout Brahms's life, the Ninth remained his favourite and his ideal. But it was for his First Symphony in C minor (1876) that Brahms received one of the greatest compliments of his life. The conductor Hans von Bülow called it Beethoven's Tenth, even though Brahms was the very last to compare himself even remotely with Beethoven. It was clear that Beethoven's Fifth (likewise in C minor) and Ninth had served as Brahms's model. But at a public rehearsal, when a music lover pointed out the "remarkable similarity between the C-major theme of his Finale and the Joy-theme in the Finale of Beethoven's Ninth", Brahms reacted in his usual taunted and hateful manner: "To be sure, and what's even more remarkable is that any old ass can hear it straightaway!" He had struggled with the burden of this symphony for no less than fourteen years. When he played a first version to his close friend Clara Schumann on the piano in 1862, she expressed fundamental criticism of the beginning of the opening Allegro. Thanks to this, we now have the wonderful slow introduction Un poco sostenuto, which Brahms managed to add without any awkward transition. Moulding, trimming, crossing out, tearing up and burning - such is the recurring drama of a composer's life. Berlioz had predicted it to Brahms, who, at the age of twenty, had played the piano in the presence of both Liszt and Berlioz. In an enthusiastic letter to Joseph Joachim, Berlioz wrote in a prophetic postscript: "He will have to suffer much!" The premiere of the First Symphony took place in 1876, twenty years after the death of Brahms's good friend and inspirator Robert Schumann. The work is the well-wrought result of what he bore in silence for twenty years - an agonising process and a struggle against the giant Beethoven. Clara Schumann was completely overwhelmed by the recalcitrant and poignant final movement.
Brahms and Haydn?
One of Brahms's Viennese friends, the musicologist Carl Phol, showed him an interesting composition in 1870, the Divertimento (Feld-Parthie) in B flat major (ca. 1785) by - as it was assumed - Joseph Haydn, with the well-known St Anthony chorale as second movement. Inspired by this dignified and solemn melody, in the summer of 1873, when Brahms was staying in the Bavarian forest near Munich, he wrote his Variations on a theme by Haydn. At the same time, he composed a version for two pianos and one for orchestra. The work comprises the theme, eight variations and a concluding passacaglia. It is considered to be a preliminary exercise, needed by Brahms before venturing on to the First Symphony.
The elegant Brahms
The Hungarian Dances reveal Brahms from a less familiar angle, as he dances elegantly and exuberantly. He first heard Hungarian gipsy music when, as a young café pianist, he and his father earned a bit on the side in bars in the red-light district of Hamburg. He acquired a lifelong passion for gipsy music (and a fear of women). This fascination received an extra impulse through the composer's contact with the flamboyant violinist Eduard Reményi, with whom he became befriended in the summer of 1853. Brahms was then twenty. Reményi, a Hungarian granted political asylum in Germany, not only deepened Brahms's acquaintance with Hungarian gipsy music but also introduced him to Schumann, Liszt and the violinist Joseph Joachim. Reményi and Brahms together performed programmes with a gipsy-like flavour, and indeed it became a task in the composer's life to assimilate this so-called 'Hungarian gipsy music' in his own style. First, in 1869, he issued a collection of Hungarian Dances for piano duet in which he incorporated existing gipsy tunes, then he published a second book of entirely original music in 1880. The present recording features one of these dances in an orchestration by Iván Fischer.