Brahms: The Four Symphonies

By Pacun, David | Notes, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Brahms: The Four Symphonies


Pacun, David, Notes


Brahms: The Four Symphonies. By Walter Frisch. (Yale Music Masterworks Series.) New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003. [xi, 226 p. ISBN 0-300-09965-7. $20.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

When Brahms: the Four Symphonies was originally published in 1996, it was the first English language account of the complete Brahms cycle since Julius Harrison's 1939 survey. At present, there exist at least four studies covering this same ground, as well as monographs on three of the four individual symphonies. (Only the Third Symphony lacks its own account.) Despite the proliferation of available material, we may be thankful that Yale University Press has reprinted Walter Frisch's study. While these other accounts explore particular issues in great detail or specificity, Four Symphonies provides an excellent comprehensive introduction to both the symphonies and the burgeoning scholarly apparatus that now surrounds them.

Divided into eight chapters, Four Symphonies has the weight and feel of a Brahms symphony itself. Structured in a gentle arch, it moves fluidly from cultural and stylistic issues (chaps. 1 and 2), to individual analyses of each symphony (chaps. 3 though 6), to questions of interpretation and performance (chaps. 7 and 8). Frisch's treatment is flexible and engaging, written in a prose style that, while involving technical language, does not bury the reader in needless jargon. The reprint offers slight corrections and emendations to the 1996 edition-Heather Platt''s Johannes Brahms: A Guide to Research (New York: Routledge, 2003) offers a more up to date bibliography-but Frisch covers a gamut wide enough to prepare students toward placing and understanding the more recent literature.

Chapter 1 undertakes a broad survey 01 the symphonic crisis in post-Beethoven Germany, and focuses in particular on the conflicting demands that a symphony faced: communal values versus romantic individualism, monumental presentation appropriate to the orchestral medium versus true thematic and harmonic substance. Frisch summarizes:

The 'crisis' of the symphony at mid-century is thus a complex phenomenon that requires a complex diagnosis taking into account technical, aesthetic, psychological and sociological dimensions. Many new symphonies were epigonic and of inferior quality; orchestras became gradually less inclined to play new works; and many composers seemed to avoid the genre altogether, (p. 21)

Following Carl Dahlhaus and Arnold Schoenberg, Frisch ties Brahms's success in the genre explicitly to his ability to create expanded structures from small ideas. Chapter 2 thus traces Brahms's thematic treatment as it matures in works such as the Piano Quintet opus 34 and the German Requiem, then intensifies in the String Quartet in C Minor, opus 51 no. 1, and the Haydn Variations opus 56a, a work so suffused with contrapuntal manipulations that the orchestral version differs little from the two-piano score (opus 56b).

Frisch skillfully interweaves biographical and aesthetic issues concerning Brahms's protracted struggle to follow Beethoven's symphonic footsteps. Frisch does not shy away from asking to what extent Brahms ultimately succeeded in conquering the communal demands placed on the post-Beethoven symphony, noting that only with the German Requiem did Brahms "[achieve] precisely the kind of society-forming work that had eluded him-and, indeed, that he realized was perhaps unattainable-in the realm of the symphony" (p. 36). While it might be argued that the central focus on thematic development excludes other composers who, likewise sparked by Beethoven's genius, attempted to explore new orchestral realms, Frisch's account is balanced. Motivic development provides a way into Brahms's achievement, revealing both his commitment to the classical tradition and the means he would use to extend it.

In the book's introduction, Frisch expresses the hope that his volume will be neither too simple for scholars nor too complex for general readers. …

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