Brahms Symphony No. 1
Overture to Genoveva, Op. 81

Pulp fiction in the Middle Ages

In French legend, Genevieve of Brabant was married to Count Siegfried. When he parted for the south to fight Saracen invaders, he entrusted his beautiful wife to his steward Golo, who was secretly in love with Genevieve. When she rebuffed Golo’s advances, he sought vengeance by entrapping her with another man and accusing her of adultery. Upon learning of her alleged infidelity, Count Siegfried condemned his wife to death.

An opera is born

For Robert Schumann, the virtuous Genevieve was the idealized woman. Throughout the 1840s he had sought a suitable subject for an opera. This topic fit the bill. The Genevieve legend was popular in Germany and had the added advantage of a medieval setting and some supernatural elements that appealed to romantic sensibilities.

He decided to conflate Ludwig Tieck’s historical drama Life and Death of the Holy Genevieve (1799) and Friedrich Hebbel’s 1841 play Genoveva to craft the libretto for an opera. The project occupied Schumann for much of 1847 and 1848, and the opera was produced in Leipzig in June 1850. Although Genoveva was subsequently produced in seven German cities and several other European countries, the weak libretto and a lame happy ending kept it from achieving a place in the repertoire.

A flawed opera yields a fine overture

Its overture deserves better. Schumann composed it in a white heat: over a scant five days in April 1847. A tightly knit sonata form, it consists of a slow introduction, a brisk allegro with clearly contrasted themes and a triumphant coda. Hans Gál calls the Overture to Genoveva “an inspired, beautifully eloquent piece of music.” It embodies the opera’s narrative of ominous foreboding, crisis, false accusations and ultimate deliverance.

From the anguished opening chord, we sense a powerful drama unfolding. A sighing, recitative-like figure in the violins is important to the substantial slow introduction and recurs in the allegro. Schumann’s vigorous first theme focuses on the strings, but he entrusts the bold second theme to a trio of hunting horns. Their motive provides grist for the mill of the development and entwines nicely with the principal allegro theme for the radiant coda that closes the work, signaling the triumph of faith, Genoveva’s redemption, and her reunion with her husband.

Schumann scored the overture for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.

Cello Concerto

Polish pioneer

When he died 25 years ago, Witold Lutosławski was the senior statesman among Poland's composers.  Along with his younger contemporary Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933), he led a 20th-century Renaissance in Polish music, drawing international attention to new music behind the Iron Curtain during the most stifling years of Communist rule.

Lutosławski earned his reputation as a formalist. He retained it as a master orchestrator and daring experimenter over the course of a long and fruitful life. His career took some surprising turns, not only because of political upheaval in Poland, but also because he was open-minded. He shifted directions several times, continually exploring.  Microrhythms and microtones, the coloristic potential of various instrumental combinations, and the very process of music-making are some of the areas he addressed in his music.

Some of his early works, such as the popular Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54) embraced Polish folk music and a neo-Bartókian synthesis of ethnic material into a personal musical language.  His middle-period works employed serialism, chance operations, and a re-thinking of tonality, but never at the expense of formal clarity. Late in life, he developed a new process he called ‘chain technique,” with overlapping strands of musical material.


Lutosławski’s career was strongly affected by Poland’s turbulent history in the mid-20th century. He graduated from Warsaw Conservatory in 1937, at which point he had been a performing pianist and violinist for five years.  When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Lutosławski joined the Polish army, working at a military radio station.  He spent much of the war pursuing ways to subvert Nazi cultural restrictions.  With his countryman Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), he organized underground performances of music banned by the Germans.

Post-war Poland was a Stalinist puppet state. Performing and visual artists carried on amid a different type of cultural repression.  Like most composers, Lutosławski survived by pursuing two simultaneous paths. One was music that satisfied the authorities, complying with the official policy of socialist realism.  These works earned him his living.  The second category he called "serious":  works that more truly reflected his soul.

After the Communist authorities denounced his First Symphony in 1949 as “formalist,”  Lutosławski largely withdrew from public concert life. For the next few years, he made a conscious effort to incorporate the rhythms and inflections of Polish folk music into his compositions.  When Stalin died in 1953, Poland gradually moved into an era known as the “thaw,” and Lutosławski completely rethought his musical philosophy and compositional technique. Abandoning the folkloric element, he developed a vocabulary that used twelve-tone chords in an essentially tonal style. In the 1960s, he experimented with limited aleatory (the use of chance elements or indeterminacy in music).

Yet another stage in his evolution took place in the 1980s. The composer’s description for this late style was “chain technique.” Charles Bodman Rae has described it thus:

‘Chain’ technique . . . [signifies] a form in which the beginnings and ends of sections or strands of material overlap and interlock like the links in a chain. . . . The title acknowledges Lutosławski’s fondness for music of the Baroque era, and aspects of the musical content, especially as regards rhythm, phrasing and rhythmic patterning – establish aural connections with music of that period.

He composed the Cello Concerto in 1969 and 1970 for Mstislav Rostropovich, in fulfillment of a commission from London’s Royal Philharmonic Society. It falls on the cusp of his experimentation with chance elements and the evolution of chain technique, calling for sliding pitches and quarter tones.

Comprising a single movement of 24 minutes, the concerto opens with an extended solo passage for cello starting with a repeated D (marked indifferente). Is it a heartbeat? An ominous warning? A walking pace? During this introduction, the cello wanders through a wide spectrum of moods, ranging from skittish and capricious to introspective. Those repeated D’s recur periodically, sort of as an underlying Leitmotif.

 More than four minutes in, the orchestra makes its first appearance: a series of bleats from the trumpets. As other instruments enter, the orchestral interruptions of the cello part become more insistent and confrontational. The music travels through wide-ranging episodes that gradually fuse together, culminating in an apocalyptic passage for full orchestra. We are not quite certain who has won the argument.

Structurally, the concerto divides into four sections: the opening cello cadenza; a series of episodes with brass interruptions; a cello cantilena in unison with the orchestral strings, and a finale with coda. What you will remember are the fierce exchanges between soloist and orchestra, and the dramatic ways in which their conflicted dialogue escalates to organized chaos. Toward the end, it sounds like a chase scene. Ultimately the cello has the last word.

The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), three oboes, three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, a large percussion battery (timpani, xylophone, whip, 5 tom toms, vibraphone without motor, suspended cymbal, tam tam, wood blocks, bass drum, side drum, tenor drum, tambourine, bells, finger cymbals), celesta, harp, piano, solo violoncello and strings.

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

The moniker "Beethoven's Tenth" has been attached to Brahms' First Symphony almost since before it was completed in 1876.  The eminent conductor, pianist and composer Hans von Bülow (1830-1894) is responsible for the nickname. He was recognizing Brahms' fulfillment of a prophecy articulated nearly a quarter century earlier, when Robert Schumann hailed then 20-year-old Johannes Brahms as the great Beethoven's successor.

Brahms took the legacy of Beethoven very seriously, and the spectre of Beethoven lay heavily on his shoulders.  He was a brutal critic of his own compositions, and destroyed a large number of sketches and completed works that did not satisfy him.  Nowhere was his self-criticism more merciless than in the realm of orchestral music, because he was keenly aware that his first symphony would be compared to Beethoven.  "You do not know what it is like hearing his footsteps constantly behind one,” Brahms wrote.

In that sense, everything orchestral that Brahms composed up until the First Symphony was a form of preparation for him to fulfill the daunting legacy Schumann had bequeathed to him.  He produced four large, symphonic works while he honed his orchestral skills:  the D-minor Piano Concerto, Op. 15 (1854-58), the two Serenades, Op.11 (1857-58) and 16 (1858-59, revised 1875), and the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op.56a (1873).  The orchestral fabric of the major choral works he worked on during the 1860s and early 1870s was also significant in strengthening Brahms' command of symphonic resources.  A German Requiem, Op.45 (1857-68), was followed by the dramatic cantata Rinaldo, Op.50 (1869), the Alto Rhapsody, Op.53 (1869), Schicksalslied, Op.54 (1868-71) and Triumphlied, Op.55 (1870-71).  Each of them became a repository for important instrumental as well as vocal ideas.

All along, Brahms had the goal of a symphony in mind.  As early as 1854, probably with Robert Schumann's encouragement, Brahms was at work on symphonic sketches.  Two decades elapsed before that music found its way into any permanent form.  Clara Schumann and Albert Dietrich both saw a draft of the first movement in 1862, in a version not yet preceded by slow introduction.  Some five years later, Brahms wrote a letter to Clara including the famous horn theme that became the transition to the hymn of the finale.  Not until 1873, however, did he concentrate seriously on the completion of his First Symphony.  He waited until the age of 43 to contribute to the symphonic canon.

Brahms completed his Opus 68 at Lichtenthal during the autumn of 1876. The premiere took place at Karlsruhe in November.  Brahms chose the smaller town because it was a less politically stressful musical community than Vienna or Leipzig.  He wrote to Otto Dessoff, conductor of the Karlsruhe orchestra:

It was always my cherished and secret wish to hear the thing first in a small town which possessed a good friend, a good conductor, and a good orchestra.

Dessoff was delighted by the honor accorded his orchestra.  Brahms foresaw that the symphony might not have direct popular appeal, writing to Carl Reinecke of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra:

And now I have to make the probably very surprising announcement that my symphony is long and not exactly amiable.

He need not have worried.  Dessoff's first rendition was successful enough to warrant repeat performances under the composer's direction in Mannheim and Munich shortly thereafter.  The First Symphony cured Brahms' orchestral writer's block.  For the next 11 years, his orchestral harvest was bountiful:  three additional symphonies, three more concerti and two overtures.

Von Bülow had good reason to hail the symphony as "the Beethoven Tenth."  Because of its heroic stance and C-minor tonality, the work is most often compared with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Both pieces have a general progression from tragic struggle to triumph and victory.  Brahms' First bears equal comparison to the Beethoven Ninth (Beethoven's other minor mode symphony), primarily because of the obvious parallel in hymn-like finales.

Brahms' good friend Theodor Billroth likened the C-minor symphony's first movement to "a kind of Faustian overture" that might be thought of as a grand introduction to the whole work.  Indeed, its complicated chromatic themes and inexorable timpani at the opening are hardly the stuff of which popular "singable" tunes are made.  Hans Gál offers an insightful commentary as to why Wagner and his followers would have experienced impatience listening to the opening movement.

The nobility of this first movement rests on qualities that were alien to the dramatic composer:  a thematic interplay worked out to the smallest detail and based on polyphonic structure; a delicate balancing, from beginning to end, of tonal relationships; --and a formal design whose grandiose dimensions only become apparent when one experiences the whole movement as a single, great continuum.

The perspective is significant because Wagner's followers comprised a major portion of the listening public in the 1870s.

One unusual feature of this very large symphony is the presence of two slow introductions, one for each of the outer movements.  Slow introductions are rare in Brahms' music in any case, and this double occurrence is unique among his compositions.  Both introductions signal something portentous and monumental.  It is a measure of Brahms' genius that the effect is entirely different in the two:  ushering in heroic conflict in the opening movement; introducing serene exaltation in the conclusion.  By contrast, the inner movements are both shorter and lighter in emotional weight.  In the slow movement, Brahms indulges in some orchestral decoration, embroidering his already rich music with a rare, breathtakingly lovely violin solo.  Here and in the graceful Un poco allegretto we have a welcome emotional breather between the mighty pillars of the outer movements.

If there were any shortage of melodies early on, Brahms compensates with abundance in the expansive finale.  From the magical horn call to the majestic closing chords, unforgettable tunes vie with one another, providing this noble movement with some of his most beloved original themes.

Brahms scored his First Symphony for woodwinds in pairs, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.

© Laurie Shulman, 2019