A Master, a Protégé, and an Epigone

By David Brodbeck

Written for the concert What Makes a Masterpiece, performed on Jan 25, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

Tonight’s program brings together a familiar symphony by a canonic composer, an unfamiliar symphony by another canonic composer, and a forgotten symphony by a forgotten composer. This may at first seem an unlikely combination, but in fact the works on tonight’s bill provide a good overview of the symphonic landscape in Central Europe during the last quarter of the 19th century. The grouping is fitting, too, in that the senior member of tonight’s trio of composers, Johannes Brahms, acted as a supporter of or inspiration for the two junior members.

Antonín Dvořák came to Brahms’s attention in the mid-1870s, when the latter served on the Austrian state committee that awarded him several stipends in support of his work. Brahms subsequently persuaded his Berlin publisher, Simrock, to take on Dvořák’s music as well, thereby playing a key role in disseminating the composer’s reputation beyond his native Bohemia. The two men soon developed an enduring friendship based in mutual respect of each other’s rather different artistic strengths.

Composed in 1874, toward the end of Dvořák’s early flirtation with the New German School, the Symphony No. 4 was thoroughly revised in 1887–8 for a performance in London that didn’t pan out. This isn’t the work of a master, however, despite these revisions, although it does point the way toward Dvořák’s mature style. The inner movements are the finest. The lyrical Andante e molto cantabile, a theme with variations that often sound like something from Tannhäuser, reveals a passion for Wagner that Dvořák never really got over. By contrast, the ensuing scherzo gives an early sign of the “Czech style” that would soon endear Dvořák to his non-Czech audiences. The vigorous scherzo theme, sounded at first in the unison woodwinds, is based on the same 16th-century Hussite hymn that Smetana used in Má vlast to evoke a strong and glorious Czech nation.

Brahms’s acquaintance with Heinrich von Herzogenberg , an Austrian-born composer of French aristocratic descent, dates to the early 1860s. Herzogenberg eventually married Elisabeth von Stockhausen, a former piano student of Brahms and later an astute critic on whom the latter came to rely for insightful and frank readings of his new works. Although Brahms fell out of contact with the newly married couple when they left Vienna to set up home in Graz, the friendship was renewed after they moved on to Leipzig and began to drum up support for his music in a city that had long resisted it.

Herzogenberg’s admiration for the older composer is evident in the Variations on a Theme by Johannes Brahms for four-hand piano that he published in 1876. When Herzogenberg later composed his Symphony No. 1, he took Brahms’s own First Symphony as his point of departure: both are in the key of C minor, show a similar serious demeanor, and share certain rhythmic and harmonic features. Moreover, with opening movements in which a slow introduction gives way to an allegro in 6/8 time, and finales in C major, each realizes the same narrative “from darkness into light” that characterizes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Brahms was evasive when Elisabeth prodded him to comment on her husband’s newly published score. Begging off from responding in detail, he merely expressed regret that “Heinz … put such a strain on his audiences with his first symphony.” There is irony a plenty in these remarks, given all the challenges that Brahms had just tossed out in his own newly completed Fourth Symphony, a work of rigorous tonal and motivic logic. Indeed, in response to Brahms’s request for her thoughts about his new piece, Elisabeth feared that it was “designed too much for the eye of the microscope, as though all the beauties were not laid bare for every simple admirer, and as though it were a tiny world for the wise and learned, only a small part of which might be had by the common people who walk in darkness.”

Herzogenberg’s First Symphony soon fell into obscurity. It sounds like Brahms but isn’t Brahms, and we don’t need a microscope to determine why. Even in a favorable early review of the work, what comes through is the primacy of the model: “The symphony seems to us to be one whole gigantic reminiscence, though in the best sense of the word, of Johannes Brahms.” At the same time, however, this reviewer reminds us that originality was not essential to gaining a favorable hearing, and that workmanlike, cleanly executed music such as this had its place in the concert culture of the later 19th century. It is well worth hearing again from time to time in our own concert culture.

Dr. Brodbeck is professor of musicology and the Robert and Marjorie Rawlins Chair of Music at the University of California, Irvine.