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  • Writer's pictureHeather Wade

Johannes and the Big Shadow

In January of 1859, when Johannes Brahms was 20 years old, he completed his first Piano Trio.  This piece is what people who are serious about music theory call homotonal, meaning that all the movements have the same tonic (or Do) - in this case, 2 of the movements are in B Major, and 2 are in B Minor.  (And while we're talking about nerdy things, I will mention that another reason that this piece is unusual is that it starts in a major key and ends in a minor key.) 

Anyway, this piece was written about 5 years after Brahms had met the Schumanns.  To say that Robert Schumann was impressed by the young Brahms is an understatement, and after their meeting, Schumann published an article in which he called Brahms the heir to Beethoven's legacy.  


For Brahms, this was obviously quite flattering, but the comparison also freaked him out a bit.  Beethoven, the GOAT of the musical world, had left behind some rather enormous shoes to fill.  There were many composers, Brahms chief among them, but also composers like Mahler and Mendelssohn, whose work honored Beethoven's legacy. This meant that they also lived in his shadow.  (There were contemporaries of Brahms who didn't do this - people like Liszt and Wagner, for example, who carved their own path a bit more.  In the next post we will consider a rather extreme example of this type of writing from our friend Astor Piazzolla. But for now...)   

Brahms felt the weight of Beethoven's achievements very heavily.  He once remarked, "You have no idea what it is like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you."  Perhaps because of this feeling that Beethoven was always looming, Brahms struggled immensely with his 1st symphony.  Of course, we know Beethoven (in all his GOAT-ness) was a master of most things musical, but his most masterful was his symphonic writing -  a fact which Brahms was very aware of.  So when Brahms attempted to write his first symphony (commenting, "A symphony is no laughing matter"), it took him 12 years to finish it.  This first symphony wasn't performed until Brahms was 42 years old.  After the success of his first, though, he found his symphonic mojo a bit more, and completed his other 3 symphonies in less than a year each.  

 There are notable similarities between Brahms' writing (especially his symphonies) and Beethoven's.  This is not anything that Brahms denied or was ashamed of.  When a critic pointed out this very thing, Brahms' response was, "Any ass can hear that." 


 We can see similar painstakingly slow and careful work in the first piano trio.  There are 2 versions of this work.  The first version was completed in 1859, but Brahms revised it significantly 36 years later in 1889.  The main reason for this revision was to make it "not as dreary as before", and if by "dreary"  Brahms means "long", then his revision was a success.  The revised version, (which is what we will be playing in April), is about 10 minutes shorter than the original.  However, to someone with perhaps not as much investment in perfection (like me, for example), it seems that there is nothing wrong with the original, either.  Both versions are regularly performed and recorded today. 


Brahms' constant striving for improvement was in great part influenced by the GOAT who influenced him so strongly.  Brahms never strayed far from Beethoven's legacy.  In this way, he was a champion of the traditions of Beethoven, and I can say with confidence that musicians are grateful for it.


Stay tuned for the next post, in which our hero astor Piazzolla abandons the long standing traditions of tango writing right in his home country of Argentina, and lands himself in a lot of hot water.



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