For the next three weeks, my hometown orchestra will be celebrating the music of Johannes Brahms. My musical brother from another mother, Mike, would say the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is inflicting the music of Brahms on its audience. He is not a fan of Brahms, to say the least, and honestly has some valid criticisms to voice. Brahms has been a bit of an acquired taste for me, and I have grown to have an appreciation for old Johannes. Seriously, how bad could a guy be that hung out at a tavern named “The Red Hedgehog”?
Previous years have seen the Detroit Symphony Orchestra celebrate the symphonies of Beethoven in a winter festival, and the music of Tchaikovsky in another festival. Each winter celebration of these composers was followed up by a digital music release made from the live performances. I have very much enjoyed the Beethoven Symphony cycle and the set of Tchaikovsky Symphonies in which Maestro Leonard Slatkin led the orchestra. There has not been an official announcement that there will be a similar collection of downloadable music made available from the Brahms Festival this year, but I have high hopes that it would happen.
Johannes Brahms resisted writing a symphony for a long time, so even his First Symphony is a mature work. The truth is, Brahms very much felt the weight of the legacy that Beethoven had left, and was very self-conscious about the comparisons that any symphony he made would have to Beethoven’s. His buddy Robert Schuman published an article when Brahms was only 20 years old, proclaiming Brahms a sort of musical messiah who was “destined to give ideal expression to the times.” This made the already self-critical Brahms even more self-critical for the rest of his career. Johannes had a habit of burning musical manuscripts he didn’t want performed or published, to prevent posterity from seeing anything but what he thought were his best efforts. We don’t know how many symphonies Brahms wrote and then fed to the fire before he let one be performed and published.
I really like the idea of a concentrated immersion in one composer’s works over several concerts and several weekends. I wish I could attend all of the concerts in this year’s Brahms Festival with the DSO. Alas, everyday life will present too many obstacles to make that possible.