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Timeline: The Shadow of Beethoven

U.S. Public Domain
Johannes Brahms spent much of his early career under the shadow of his hero Beethoven. As a result, Brahms' 1st Symphony took over 20 years to complete.

Johannes Brahms was first introduced to the world through the writings of Robert Schumann who praised his gifts so highly that many expected Brahms to be Beethoven’s natural successor. Brahms spent the better part of his career under the shadow of his hero. This pressure wasn’t just external. Brahms was his own worst critic and often wrote his friends about his desire to live up to the music of Beethoven. As a result, Brahms’ “1st Symphony” took over 20 years to complete.

Brahms considered himself to be a part of a tradition that was handed down from the great German composers who preceded him. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven had left a legacy that Brahms was eager to continue. He rejected the new styles and genres of Wagner and Liszt with their emphasis on dramatic music, theater and tone poems. So the very word “symphony” had a deep personal, almost spiritual meaning for him.

Brahms was 21 the first time he heard Beethoven’s “9th Symphony”. He was inspired and began to sketch ideas for his own masterpiece. Robert Schumann was also encouraging him to create “something like” a Beethoven symphony. But Brahms stopped composing and repurposed his sketches into a sonata for two pianos. Why? Understand that in 9 symphonies Beethoven had expressed something so complete, so monumental, so human, that Brahms felt there was little he could add. “A symphony is no laughing matter,” Brahms wrote. “You have no idea what it’s like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you.”

It wasn’t until the success of his “German Requiem” that Brahms picked up the idea of a symphony again, completing a draft of the first movement in 1862. He shared the score with friends, who again encouraged him to complete the work and have it performed. But Brahms stopped writing it all together and didn’t pick it up again for 12 years. After his “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” became successful, he finally felt ready to finish his symphony.

Credit US-PD
The theme of the first movement of Brahms' 1st Symphony.

Brahms was 42 before his “1st Symphony” was performed. He was so nervous that he made sure the premiere didn’t take place in the city of Vienna, instead it was played in Karlsruhe. The work was a triumph. The music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote that Brahms’ “1st Symphony” Is “One of the most individual and magnificent works of the symphonic literature.” Many called it Beethoven’s 10th symphony. Whether this title bothered Brahms or not is unknown. What we do know is that Brahms went on to compose three more symphonies at a much more rapid pace. It seems that he had finally emerged from Beethoven’s shadow.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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