Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in c minor, Finale

I think it's high time we introduce Brahms.  He is after all the guiding spirit of this blog (as you can see to your right).  I first was introduced to Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) in elementary school.  I had a teacher who decided that each of her students needed to learn something about a composer of the classical genre.  We were thrust into the tiny media center and given the task of identifying and researching a composer of our choosing.  I was probably 8 or 9 and let's just say that my study skills left much to be desired.  I was among a group of youngsters who had been identified as "gifted" which is a relatively indiscreet way of calling someone a smart ass and having them moved into a separate class with other smart asses who are then informed that they are special and unique children.  Incidentally, this is how elitists are born. 

Anyways, back to Brahms.  I thumbed randomly through the bookshelves and pulled out a biography written about Herr Brahms.  I don't specifically recall, but it most likely was the first book I selected.  It had an illustrated image of the composer on the front, a younger rendition of him (pre-beard) and in large, kid-friendly letters it explained that it contained many important details describing his life and times and that he was generally pretty awesome.  I read the book, wrote a report, shared it with the class and moved on with life.  Not once, did I ever listen to his music.

Or see his magnificent beard!
Now, this is no fault to my teacher (and sadly I can't recall which teacher it was, but I did have some wonderful ones in those humble days).  But, looking back I can't help but see the huge inadequacy of my own work.  How could I possibly have understood Brahms at any level without hearing a lick of music?

So fast forward to 2001.  It's summer in Tallahassee, FL.  I had earned a scholarship to attend the Florida State University Summer Music Camp, which consisted of a two-week long block of rehearsals, electives and other fun activities for burgeoning young musicians.  I (again- the lazy, poor study that I am) chose relaxation time as an elective.  I was a bit surprised to find myself whisked away and placed into a large rehearsal hall during said relaxation time with a few people I knew from my band as well as a room full of instruments made of wood and strings.

I didn't fully understand why I had been selected.  I was placed in the top band, but apparently they needed some more wind players for the literature that they had selected for the orchestra.  So we settled in and began reading.  We were given three pieces: Danse Macabre, by Camille Saint-Saëns, Overture to Nabucco from the opera of the same name by Giuseppe Verdi, and Symphony No. 1 in c minor, Mvt. 4 by Johannes Brahms.

Quite the lofty programming for us kids!  We began to work.  One of the directors of the string portion of the camp was Dr. Michael Allen who was a FSU faculty member.  Dr. Allen tragically lost a battle with lung cancer in 2010 and the world lost a valiant defender of the arts.  That summer, he told us a story about a trip he had taken to a museum overseas, possibly the Louvre, but I can't remember for the life of me.  There was a painting that he specifically wished to observe in this particular museum and he made straight for it upon entering.  He recalled that the painting was a particularly valuable work and as such it was surrounded by waist-high velvet ropes and had armed security stationed nearby.  

An obvious masterwork.
As he approached the painting, he described how excited he was to be in the presence of this favorite piece.  He leaned in as close as the ropes (and the now slightly nervous guard) would allow, close enough to see the individual brush strokes on the canvas.  It was remarkable, but in the same moment he told of a feeling of some disappointment.  He had reached the zenith of experience.  He could not absorb any further meaning from the work, even if he had reached out and touched it.  He was limited solely to observation.  He then looked to the Brahms, the Verdi and the Saint-Saëns.  He waved his hand over them and began speaking directly to each of us.  

What he said was that essentially the visual arts are a limited art in scope.  There is no more to be taken away than the observation.  Which despite the fact that observation in itself can produce remarkable emotions and thoughts, it goes no further.  However, with music...you are the art.  The whole process of music is in the creating, the extracting, the interpreting of the art.  Coaxing it from the ink and pulp into a vibrant concert hall.  We not only experience the art, but in reproducing it we become the art.  There is no other medium that offers such an amazing ride.  

So we set into the Brahms, and he explained different passages and talked about the form and how Brahms destroyed several versions of his first symphony from an overactive sense of perfectionism.  How he paid homage to the works of Beethoven.  He paid special attention to the low brass chorale in the middle of the movement and how that theme is torn asunder and reassembled in a triumphant battle cry toward the closing.  How Brahms must have painfully waited until the right moment to reintroduce it and bring everything to a climax.  

Dr. Allen ignited within us all an awareness of the special gifts we possessed.  That the power to generate and regenerate art was contained within.  Dr. Allen also ignited in me a passion for the work of Johannes Brahms.  For some reason, it spoke to me on a level I have difficulty describing.  I learned who Brahms was in 1994, I started listening to Brahms that summer of 2001, and 12 years later I am still wholly consumed by the man's contributions to the world.  

A small warning: Our listening example today breaks a rule.  Teenagers have limited attention spans and as such one of the things I have learned while doing LF's is that you have to get to the point fairly quickly with the younger set or you'll lose them.  As a general rule, I try to keep the length of the excerpts around 5 minutes on average.  The fourth movement is around 17 minutes in length.   

Now, I do understand the few (very few) of you who do actually read this blog regularly don't have time like that to just kick around.  The recording is from a complete performance of the work (which requires around 40-50 minutes), but the embedded video starts at the beginning of the 4th movement.

If you're really in a hurry you can bump it forward to 39:20 or so and hear a fair bit of all the thematic material (including at 42:17 when the triumphant melody introduced by the low brass chorale earlier returns).  I apologize for the random anime girl staring you down on the video, but it's the Vienna Philharmonic performing and the best recording I found on YouTube of this work.  

If you do have the time, I highly recommend listening to the entire piece.  

It's worth it.

Homework: Write down a specific place that this piece reminds you of. Somewhere you've lived, visited, passed through, etc.

See you next Friday.


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