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Reviews of all the Brahms Symphonies by Eduard Hanslick

October 13, 2009

Reviews of all four Brahms symphonies by Eduard Hanslick.  Extracts from the translations by Henry Pleasants.  I have omitted Pleasants’ footnotes.  My own additions are in square brackets.


Symphony No 1


Seldom, if ever, has the entire musical world awaited a composer’s first symphony with such tense anticipation – testimony that the unusual was expected of Brahms in this supreme and difficult form.  But the greater the public expectation and the more importunate the demand for a new symphony, the more deliberate and scrupulous was Brahms.  Inexorable conscientiousness and stern self-criticism are among his most outstanding characteristics.  He always demands the best of himself and dedicates his whole strength to its achievement.  He cannot and will not take it easy.


He hesitated a long time over the composition of the string quartets, and more than one symphony was consigned, as a study, to the oblivion of a desk drawer.  To the urging of his friends he used to reply that he had too much respect for his forerunners, and that one cannot “fool around” these days with a symphony.  This severity with himself, this care for detail, is evident in the admirable workmanship of the new symphony.  The listener may, indeed, find it rather too evident.  He may miss, in all the astonishing contrapuntal art, the immediate communicative effect.   And he will not be wholly wrong.  The new symphony is so earnest and complex so utterly unconcerned with common effects, that it hardly lends itself to quick understanding.  This circumstance, although not necessarily a fault, is a misfortune, at least for the first impression.  Subsequent repetitions will make it good.  Grillparzers statement, “I strove for effect, not on the public but on myself”, could stand as motto for Brahms’s symphony.


Even the layman will immediately recognize it as one of the most individual and magnificent works of the symphonic literature.  In the first movement, the listener is held by fervent emotional expression, by Faustian conflicts, and by a contrapuntal art as rich as it is severe.  The Andante softens this mood with a long drawn out noble song, which experiences surprising interruptions in the course of the movement.  The Scherzo strikes me as inferior to the other movements.  The theme is wanting in melodic and rhythmic charm, the whole in animation.  The abrupt close is utterly inappropriate.  The fourth movement begins most significantly with an Adagio in C minor; from darkening clouds the song of the woodland horn rises clear and sweet above the tremolo of the violins.  All hearts tremble with the fiddles in anticipation.  The entrance of the Allegro with its simple, beautiful theme, reminiscent of the “Ode to Joy” in the Ninth Symphony, is overpowering as it rises onward and upward, right to the end.


If I say that no composer has come so close to the style of the late Beethoven as Brahms in this finale, I don’t mean it as a paradoxical pronouncement but rather as a simple statement of indisputable fact.  It is high praise, but it does not necessarily attribute to a composer every virtue, least of all every virtue in the highest degree……….Brahms’s quartets and the symphony, on the other hand, could not have been were it not for Beethoven’s last period……..


Brahms seems to favour, too one-sidedly the great and the serious, the difficult and the complex, and at the expense of sensuous beauty.  We would often give the finest contrapuntal device (and they lie bedded away in the symphony by the dozen) for a moment of warm, heart-quickening sunshine. There are three elements – they all play a great role in the most modern German music – for which Brahms has a conspicuous predilection: syncopation, retard, and simultaneous employment of counter-rhythms.  In these three points, and particularly with regard to syncopation, he can hardly go further than he has recently gone.


And so, having relieved myself of these minor reservations, I can continue in the jubilant manner in which I began.  The new symphony of Brahms is a possession of which the nation may be proud, an inexhaustible fountain of sincere pleasure and fruitful study.


[First published in 1876.]


Pleasants, Henry, trans. & ed., Music Criticisms 1846-99  Eduard Hanslick, Penquin Books, 1963, pp. 125-128.


Symphony No 2


The novelty was a great, unqualified success.  Seldom has there been such a cordial public expression of pleasure in a new composition.  Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, introduced a year ago, was a work for earnest connoisseurs capable of constant and microscopic pursuit of its minutely ramified excursions.  The Symphony No. 2 extends its warm sunshine to connoisseurs and laymen alike.  It belongs to all who long for good music, whether they are capable of grasping the most difficult or not.


Among Brahms’s compositions, the closest to it in style and mood is the Sextet in B flat, the most popular of his instrumental works; so popular, indeed, that subsequent complicated quartets have subsisted on its popularity.  The new symphony is radiant with healthy freshness and clarity.  It is readily intelligible, although it offers plenty to listen to and think about.  There is much that is new and yet nothing of the unfortunate contemporary tendency to emphasize novelty in the sense of the unprecedented.  Nor are there any furtive glances in the direction of foreign artistic fields, nor any begging from poetry or painting.  It is all purely musical in conception and structure, and purely musical in effect.  It provides irrefutable proof that one (not everyone, to be sure) can still write symphonies, and, moreover, in the old forms and on the old foundations.


Richard Wagner and his disciples go so far as to deny not only the possibility of writing symphonies after Beethoven but also the justification for the existence of purely instrumental music altogether.  The symphony is alleged to have become superfluous since Wagner transplanted it into the opera.  The utmost concession is to admit the contemporary viability of Liszt’s “symphonic poems”, in one movement and with specific poetic programmes.  This nonsensical theory has been cooked up for the domestic requirements of the Wagner-Liszt household.  If any further contradiction is needed, there is none more brilliant than the long succession of Brahms’s instrumental works, and particularly this Second Symphony.  Its essential characteristics can best be defined as serene cheerfulness, at once manly and gentle, animated alternately by pleased good humour and reflective seriousness.  The first movement, begun by a darkly tender horn theme, has something serenade-like in its mood, which becomes more pronounced in the Scherzo and Finale.  This first movement, an Allegro moderato in three-four time, envelopes us like a clear melodic wave on which we toss joyously, undisturbed by two lightly intruding Mendelssohn reminiscences.  It is followed by a broad, song-like Adagio in B major, whose thoughtful preparation strikes me as more significant than the theme itself.  For this reason it is less effective than the other three movements.  Charming is the Scherzo, in minuet tempo, twice interrupted by a Presto in two-four time, which brightens up the surroundings like a fleeting spark.  The Finale is rather more lively, but still comfortable in its ruddy good cheer.  It is a far cry from the stormy finales of the modern school.  Mozartian blood flows in its veins……


I cannot adequately express my pleasure in the fact that Brahms, having given such forceful expression to the emotion of a Faustian struggle in his First Symphony, has turned again to the spring blossoms of earth in his Second.


[First published in 1878.]


Pleasants, Henry, trans. & ed., Music Criticisms 1846-99  Eduard Hanslick, Penquin Books, 1963, pp. 157-159.


Symphony No 3


The still unpublished Third Symphony of Brahms is a feast for the music lover and musician rather than for the critic, who must subsequently describe how it looks and what its beauties are.  It is neither one of the rarest nor one of the most inexplicable of misfortunes that the eloquence of the critic declines in inverse proportion to that of the composer. The language of prose is not only poorer than that of music; as far as music is concerned, it is no language at all, since music cannot be translated into it.  This may not have meant so much in former and less demanding times.  But if one reads today the best of the reviews which appeared immediately following the first performances of the Beethoven symphonies, and imagines himself in the place of the first reader, one must confess that, while he has sensed the proclamation of great and beautiful music, he has been vouchsafed hardly a hint of its individual physiognomy.  Only after the Beethoven symphonies had become generally known, and when the critics were able to refer to what the reader himself had already heard and experienced, did we gain the substantial instruction of the better Beethoven studies of our own time.  The new Brahms symphony has yet to build such a bridge between critic and reader.  The former is left with no other recourse than to compare it with earlier and better known works of the same master…….


The first movement belongs among the most significant and masterly compositions Brahms has given us.  Wonderful is the way in which, after two resounding chords in the winds, the belligerent theme of the violins plunges down from above and then soars proudly upward again.  The whole movement gives the impression of having been created in the flush of an inspired hour.  Its second theme, in A-flat, blends incomparably with the movement as a whole.  The climax in the development section is of impressive dimensions but, surprisingly, gives way towards the end to a gradually calmer mood, which, in turn, fades away swiftly and beautifully.  The two middle movements prepare the listener for no mighty convulsions; they are rather an invitation to peaceful repose.  The slow movement does not sing of deathly depression, nor the fast movement of heavenly exhilaration.  They are moderate in pace and expression, tender and gracious in sentiment.  The slow movement is a very simple song dialogue between the winds and the deeper strings.  It would not be out of place in a Brahms serenade.  Short, and without organic development or climax, it provides surprises and effects of tone colour suggesting the musical conversation of softly sounding, tuned bells.  The Scherzo is represented by an Allegretto in C minor, superficially reminiscent of Mendelssohn, which hovers easily in that hybrid, indeterminate mood which Brahms so favours in his middle movements.  The piece is simply scored (without trumpets, trombones, and kettle drums) and is rendered particularly effective by the spirited charm of a middle section in A-flat.


For all their fundamental differences, Brahms first and third symphonies are similar in one important respect:  their respective middle movements are rather too small scaled, in content as well as in extent, for the imposing movements which adjoin them.  The Finale of the Symphony No. 3 is again an accomplishment of the first order, the equal of the first movement, if not its superior.  It rolls upon us with a fast, sultry figure in the deep strings.  The theme as such is not impressive, but it immediately experiences the most astonishing development.  The eerie sultriness of the opening is discharged in a magnificent storm, exalting and refreshing.  The second theme, in C major, brilliantly and emphatically intoned by the horn, soon makes way for a third, in C minor, even more forcefully introduced.  At the peak pf all this imposing development, one naturally expects a brilliant, triumphal conclusion.  But with Brahms, and with Brahms alone, it is well to be prepared for the unexpected.  This Finale moves imperceptibly from the key of F minor to that of D major, the raging winds subside to a mysterious whisper – long sustained chords in the winds are interrupted by the light rustlings of the muted violins and violas in thirds and sixths.  The movement draws to a close, strangely, inconclusively, but most beautifully.


Many music lovers may prefer the titanic force of the First, others the untroubled charm of the Second.  But the Third strikes me as artistically the most perfect.


[First published in 1883.]


Pleasants, Henry, trans. & ed., Music Criticisms 1846-99  Eduard Hanslick, Penquin Books, 1963, pp. 210-213.


Symphony No 4


Since its first performance in Meiningen, this symphony has enjoyed a series of triumphs.  Everyone who had read the enthusiastic reports from Frankfurt, Cologne, and Elberfeld, and even those who had not, expected something great and unique.  What symphony of the last thirty or forty years is even remotely comparable with those of Brahms?………


All these virtues are abundantly present in his Fourth Symphony; they even seem to have gained in stature – not in melodic invention, perhaps, but certainly in executive craftsmanship.  Individual preference may favour one or other of Brahms’s symphonies; my particular favourite is the Third.  But I do not want to exclude the possibility that my opinion may change when I have become equally familiar with this latest work.  Neither its treasure of ideas nor its chaste beauty is apparent at a first glance; its charms are not democratic.  Manly strength, unbending consistency, am earnestness bordering on acerbity – basic characteristics of all Brahms larger works – constitute the decisive factors.  In the new symphony they create their own form and their own language.  Independent of any direct model, they nowhere deny their ideal relation to Beethoven, a factor incomparably more obvious with Brahms than with Mendelssohn and Schumann.


The E minor Symphony begins with a simple, somewhat thoughtful idyllic theme, which, after some exposition, finds a vigorous, defiant counterpart.  The movement ends strong and stormy.  Despite an abundance of ingenious counterpoint, the piece is clear and transparent.  The listener does not – and need not – perceive that the theme, with its soft lamentation, is repeated canon-like in the bass.


Deeper and more direct is the effect of the Adagio, the most exquisite movement of the whole work and one of the most beautiful elegies Brahms ever wrote.  There is a peculiar sweet and warm atmosphere in it, an enraptured charm which miraculously blossoms into ever-new tone colours, until, at last, it fades away into soft twilight.


 The theme of the Scherzo announces itself boldly – Schumann would have called it “forward” – until its brusque humour is tamed by a second, rather commonplace melody.  A lively sixteenth-note figure in the violins meanders charmingly through the dialogue of these two themes.  Piccolo and triangle are added to the instruments already employed, achieving an effect of lights subtly withheld.


The Finale, although it begins very “energetically” and is ingeniously complex in its nature, seems, on the whole, rather reflective than passionate.  Trombones appear, for the first time in the whole symphony, with a series of abrupt chords.  They lead directly to the theme which, in eight measure periods, is continually varied in the form of the old chaconne or passacaglia.  This is done with an inexhaustible wealth of structural variation and with an astonishing harmonic and contrapuntal art never conspicuous as such and never an exercise of mere musical erudition.  This form is completely novel for a great symphonic finale, and every detail in it is novel too.  It is the most ingenious of all, but it is also the least popular, possibly because its size is out of proportion to the melodic material.  For the musician, there is not another modern piece so productive as a subject for study.  It is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.


[First published in 1886.]


Pleasants, Henry, trans. & ed., Music Criticisms 1846-99  Eduard Hanslick, Penquin Books, 1963, pp. 243-245.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2014 6:31 am

    Excellent reviews, I really enjoyed reading them. I am new to Classical/Romantic music, I first discovered Mozart, then Beethoven who was, is and will always be my favorite. I can’t describe how his music speaks to me… I’m now branching out after having exhausted Beethoven’s nine symphonies and a few selected favorites of Mozart, I’m branching out to Schubert and Brahms. I love Schubert’s ninth, it never gets old. I heard Brahms’ first symphony just yesterday and fell in love with it, immediately bought the other three symphonies and will give them a listen as soon as I can! Thanks again for the reviews, very well written and thought out.


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