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Marin Alsop: Orbiting the Symphonies of Brahms

Brahms said he felt the presence of Beethoven, like a "giant," hovering as he composed his first symphony.
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Brahms said he felt the presence of Beethoven, like a "giant," hovering as he composed his first symphony.

The Four Symphonies of Johannes Brahms provide the perfect universe for any conductor. Each symphony is a small planet, with its own unique ecosystem. Yet each of the symphonies is transformed and informed by the others, thereby creating a mini symphonic solar system.

It's a universe that I happily inhabit whenever possible, highlighted and enhanced by Brahms' other stellar orchestral works, his stunning chamber music, and his innovative choral pieces.

A Brahms First

I remember the first time I heard—I mean really heard—the music of Johannes Brahms. I was 12 years old and a violin student at a summer chamber music program. Now, granted, I was at that age when hormones are swirling and everything takes on mammoth significance. But hearing Brahms' String Sextet in B-flat completely transformed the way I experienced music.

For the first time in my life I understood that music has this extraordinary power to move us, to change us, to free us in ways that almost no other experience can match.

And as I've grown as a person and conductor, my appreciation and admiration for Brahms has also grown. It continues to hold that magical spell over me, with its poetry and insight.

Getting Personal with Brahms

Over the last several years I've immersed myself in Brahms, in preparation for recording the four symphonies with the London Philharmonic. It has offered me the opportunity to get to know Brahms, the composer and person, on a profound level.

Brahms is someone I can personally relate to. Outwardly, he was rarely gregarious. Instead, he stored a great range of emotions inside. He might have been considered reserved by acquaintances, except in his music.

All of these perceived reservations disappear once you enter the Brahms universe. There you can feel his immense capacity for tenderness, his subtle sense of humor, his enormous admiration for those great composers who preceded him, and his complete grasp of the world and the history of music itself.

Struggling Through the Music

The mystery surrounding Brahms' personal life—which appears to have been pretty much a disaster—only adds to his appeal and allure. My heart goes out to the young 20-something Johannes, who showed up at the veteran composer Robert Schumann's door only to be proclaimed by Schumann as the "next Beethoven."

Paralyzed by this prediction, and struggling to come to terms with his unrequited love for his mentor's younger wife, Clara Schumann (a formidable musician in her own right), Brahms embarks on a decades-long struggle to compose his first symphony. Meanwhile, the mentally frail Robert Schumann is institutionalized and dies.

Brahms' personal hardships, I feel, play out in his symphonies. Just listen to the opening, pounding, declarative timpani at the start of this symphony (audio). To me this is Brahms asserting his conviction that he must write this symphony, even though everyone had virtually given up on him.

Then listen to the extraordinary chromatic lines in the strings and winds, sounding like someone trying to work his way through quicksand (audio). If this isn't the epitome of struggle and triumph, I don't know what is!

Brahms' complete lack of hysteria, even when expressing this Herculean struggle, is extremely appealing to me. He is never overwhelmed; his enormous appreciation for life joyously prevails. Brahms takes us with him on that journey from the depths to the heights in his first symphony. Just listen to the transformation from that ominous beginning to the exultant conclusion. (audio)

Perhaps the fact that Brahms was in his mid-40s by the time he was able to write his first symphony gives him the advantage of maturity, perspective and wisdom. Now that I'm 50, I like to think so. But whenever I experience his music, whether in front of an orchestra, or listening to the radio or a CD, I'm always transported back to that time when a little 12-year-old violinist was transformed by the power of Brahms.

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