Here’s the last part of the November Lark Notes, the third part of an essay called The Schumanns, Symphonies, and Brahms. Part I here; Part II here. Buy tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians’ show here.
It took many years, and many pieces, for Brahms to come to term with the Schumann prophecy.
His first piano concerto, dating from 1859, was his first large-scale work featuring an orchestra. Portions of it had come from the sonata for two pianos in d-minor. Many historians have noted that the initial theme of the first movement bears a resemblance to a fall: Schumann’s leap into the Rhine, perhaps? He admitted openly to Clara that the glowing second movement was a portrait of her. As for the last movement, he was so conflicted about what to do, he unabashedly copied the form of Beethoven’s third piano concerto.
When he finally got around to writing his first published work for orchestra alone, he tried calling the piece a symphony, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. So he hedged his bets: he labeled the D-major serenade a “Symphony-Serenade.” But he soon realized he was kidding himself, and he so he scratched out the word Symphony entirely. He wrote to Joachim: “I had such a beautiful, big conception of my first symphony, and now! – ” The dash said it all.
He was getting nowhere with the highly anticipated Big Work. During this frustrating time he circled back to Clara for intellectual and emotional companionship. In January 1861 he wrote to her, “I sometimes wish to see [you] for the first time again, so that I might be able to fall in love with you all over again. But all the same things are well as they are. Don’t you feel the same?” Practical as ever, she returned, “I by no means wish you to see me again for the first time in order that you may be able to ‘fall in love with me’ (if indeed that can ever have happened); rather love me dearly, truly, and for ever and ever – that is the best of all.”
In 1862, she received a packet of music from Brahms: “imagine the surprise!” she wrote Joachim, “the first movement of a symphony.” It was indeed. Unfortunately, she’d have to wait over a decade for the music to be finished and performed. Once again, Brahms had gotten stuck. He began to look like a horse in quicksand.