Brahms: Breaking the Mold Beethoven Built Johannes Brahms was stymied by the shadow of Beethoven. It took him over 20 years to write his first symphony, but conductor Marin Alsop says it was worth the wait. Her personal connection to Brahms led her to record all four of his symphonies with the London Philharmonic.

Hear Alsop discuss Brahms on 'Weekend Edition Saturday'

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For a composer of classical music, coming after Beethoven was a little bit like following Picasso or Michael Jordan. Critics and audiences would say he's good, but no Michael Jordan.

Johannes Brahms once said of Beethoven, you don't know what it means to the likes of us when we hear his footsteps behind us.

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor")

SIMON: His footsteps may have sounded like thunder when Robert Schumann proclaimed his friend Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven.

To hearing Brahms' piano music, Schumann urged him to write his symphony - Brahms eventually did. "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor," which debuted in 1876, took 14 years to write.

(Soundbite of classical music "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor")

SIMON: That's Beethoven's footsteps right now. Brahms' first symphony received rapturous reviews that when a prominent critic nicknamed it "Beethoven's Tenth," Brahms was not amused.

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor")

SIMON: Maestro Marin Alsop's recording of Brahms' first symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra was nominated for a Grammy Award last year. And she's recorded all of Brahms' symphonies and joins us in our studios.

Thanks very much for being back with us, Maestro.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Conductor, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra): Thanks. Great to be here.

SIMON: So Schumann meant well when he offered that compliment, didn't he?

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, sure. I think it was the ultimate compliment that a composer could have, you know, you're the next Beethoven. But, you know, as soon as Schumann said that, I think it created some kind of enormous compositional block for Brahms.

And, of course, he adored Beethoven and felt he was really the pinnacle of all that had come before, and everyone was hoping maybe this is the first symphony; maybe this one is - and so by time he finally wrote his first symphony, nobody expected it. But as you hear from the opening of this symphony it's not like he snuck into it. This is an arrival of mammoth proportion.

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor")

SIMON: He'd written mostly piano compositions up until that point?

Ms. ALSOP: You know what was interesting was the first piano concerto started out as his first symphony and then evolved into a piano concerto then he wrote another piano concerto. So he was very, very busy. But somehow the symphonic form just eluded him.

SIMON: His own description of the piece was, quote, "long and not especially amiable."

Ms. ALSOP: Well, you know, he was extremely modest about his work and really tried to avoid appearing overly confident at any point because he was very aware of how history judged and misjudges people.

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor")

SIMON: When you hear the symphony, when you conduct the symphony, are you aware that Brahms is, in any way, evoking, (unintelligible), paying homage to the throne?

Ms. ALSOP: Most definitely, I mean, that's the genius of this symphony. He not only creates a new sound world something for the future but he's also, consistently, paying tribute to Beethoven in all kinds of ways. Even in this first movement, there are these little hidden motifs, you recognize pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa(ph).

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor")

Ms. ALSOP: And they're not that obvious but, of course, even his choice of key, which is C Minor, is from Beethoven "Fifth Symphony." So there's this constant alluding and almost inside jokes in a way, you know, that people at that time probably would have recognized these.

SIMON: And what would Brahms contemporary sense?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, Brahms is a composer with one foot buried definitely in the past. I mean, he's quoting Beethoven and also Bach who was one of his idols, and Bach's music comes into play. But at the same time he's also reacting to the music of Liszt, you know, Wagner is coming into his own.

I mean, there's a lot going on that's stretching the envelope of romanticism almost to an excess. And it's fascinating how Brahms reacts to that because, for example, in his "Third Symphony," he really is writing not a symphony anymore but more of a - through a composed-toned poem where all the themes come back at the end. So Brahms was able to incorporate the new kinds of compositional techniques and still keep this traditional symphonic form.

SIMON: What do you find to be the signature sounds in a Brahms symphony?

Ms. ALSOP: I think it's all about these gorgeous melodies. There's a lushness to Brahms' music that you feel you can almost lean in to the music.

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor")

SIMON: I want to ask you about the third movement. It's less than five minutes long. Was that unusual?

Ms. ALSOP: That was quite unusual. Also, the second movement is quite short. But in these middle movements, he's really exploring the idea of chamber music. And this was quite unusual, of course, in the symphony to intersperse these smaller movements with the larger ideas, but I think the balance is absolutely perfect.

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor")

SIMON: It becomes irresistible to ask you about the horn theme from the fourth movement because history records this is a kind of a birthday card to Clara Schumann.

Ms. ALSOP: Right. Well, I mean, I'm not sure all the listeners know what this incredible relationship that was really a triangle. Robert Schumann was his musical mentor, of course, a composer in his own right, and he was married to Clara Schumann who was the leading pianist of her day. I mean, and for a woman of that time - and she also, on the side, had seven children, P.S. - but Brahms really fell in love with Clara.

Although, history does not really record whether this was ever a consummated relationship, and it probably wasn't. But they were much closer in age because Clara was 14 years younger than Robert and then Robert suffered mental breakdown.

Anyway, Brahms wouldn't feel comfortable unless he ran his musical ideas past Clara and she was such a consummate artist that many, many composers felt this way about her. And the story is that when he was hiking in the Alps, he heard this melody and he wrote it on a postcard and sent it to her. And that's the melody that becomes this gorgeous horn solo in the last movement.

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor")

SIMON: It strikes him while he's hiking in the Alps and he's thinking of her and sends her the postcard.

Ms. ALSOP: Isn't that absolutely gorgeous, though?

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. ALSOP: I mean, you just have the sense that it's almost like having a massage listening to that. It's so expansive and beautiful.

SIMON: What earned the nickname "Beethoven's Tenth"?

Ms. ALSOP: At the time, people were alluding to the fact that he used this theme at the opening of the allegro of the last movement of the piece that sounds very, very reminiscing of Beethoven Ninth Symphony, "The Ode to Joy."

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor")

Ms. ALSOP: That opening, I do somewhat slower than a lot of people because I think it needs room to breathe.

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor")

SIMON: What was Brahms career as a writer of symphonies following his first one?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, he seemed to get over the hump with this one and he wrote three more symphonies so his entire symphonic output is only four symphonies, but they really came quickly after the first symphony.

SIMON: And today, the names of Beethoven and Brahms are often partnered when anyone talks about classical music.

Ms. ALSOP: They are. I'm sure Brahms would be very, very proud of that fact.

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor")

SIMON: Maestro, always a pleasure. Thanks so much.

Ms. ALSOP: It's great to be here. Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Maestro Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and we've been listening to her recording with the London Philharmonic of Brahms' first.

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 1 in C Minor")

SIMON: And you can read an essay on Brahms by Maestro Alsop and discover more on classical music on our Web site,

My gosh, she conducts, she writes. Is she going to give car repair tips on our Web site too? All right, come to

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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