"Brahms has sprung, like Minerva, fully-armed from the head of the son of Cronus." - Robert Schumann
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, only 6 years after Beethoven’s death. Beethoven’s influence can still be felt today but in Germany following his death, Beethoven’s presence was still deafening.
Both Brahms and Beethoven started their musical careers early as young boys. Unlike Beethoven who was billed as child prodigy and forced to play for aristocrats and noblemen by age 7, 10-year-old Brahms found himself playing in taverns and houses of ill repute to earn money for his family.
Despite his young age and unsavory work environment, it’s said that young Brahms was composing new pieces by age 11. Sadly, few pieces remain as Brahms was notoriously hard on himself. It is believed that he destroyed destroyed much of what he wrote, deeming it unworthy.
This penchant for self-criticism was probably exacerbated by the fact that Brahms had the title of Beethoven’s successor bestowed upon him by one of the most famous composers and influential musical critics at the time.
At age 20, Brahms was introduced to Robert Schumann who was immediately amazed by Brahms talent. Schumann and his wife Clara were some of the most respected figures in the musical community and they took Brahms in. Schumann introduced Brahms to world and hailed him as the second coming of Beethoven. Brahms venerated Beethoven, like most of the composers of the time, and many of Brahms works could be called imitations of Beethoven’s pieces. But being called his successor was big pair of shoes to fill.
Soon after meeting the Schumann’s Brahms began working on his first symphony. He wouldn’t finish it for 21 years! Starts and stops. Changes in direction. Nothing was ever good enough. Brahms was 43 by the time he finished the piece.
Brahm’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor premiered on 4 November 1876. The similarities with Beethoven’s Ninth were so apparent that the piece was almost immediately dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth.” Whether this was a commentary on Brahm’s conscious homage or a claim of plagiarism is open for interpretation. To one such comment on how similar his first symphony was to Beethoven’s ninth, Brahms replied “any ass can see that.”
From growing up a musician in the musical world Beethoven created, to the pressure of deemed the next great composer, to the accusation of plagiarism, Beethoven and his Ninth were the constant elephants in the room for Brahm.
That’s why we’ve called September 23 & 24 program featuring Brahm’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor, “The Elephant in the Room.” It’s fitting that a season that ends with the “Ninth” begins with the “Tenth. ” Plagiarism? Homage? Decide for yourself.