Beethoven’s Tenth

Don’t worry everyone. This post title is not the embarrassing major blunder it appears to be. I assure you that I, your trusted blogger, am fully aware that there is no such thing as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. The great composer famously wrote just nine symphonies, one of the most widely-known numerical stats in the annals of classical music. So what’s with all this “Beethoven’s Tenth” nonsense? Well, since this is “Music Monday”, allow me to explain.

Many creative figures in art, music, etc, had to live in the shadow of a master. A predecessor or peer of such enormous magnitude, such untouchable genius, that they set the bar so high it is virtually out of reach for mere mortals. Now some used that position as a motivating force for achievement and a reason to work even harder. Others saw it as a demoralizing source of frustration, discouragement, and jealousy, feeling forever dwarfed and hopelessly relegated to second-rate status. Imagine for a moment having to be the 19th century composer Johannes Brahms creating music under the looming shadow of  the invincible Ludwig von Beethoven. Even worse, imagine being hailed as the “next Beethoven”. Ugh. That’s an impossible burden to carry. Brahms of course idolized Beethoven immensely, yet still he said, “You can’t have any idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching behind you.”

Beethoven was already dead for six years when Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833. A fine pianist in his youth, Brahms developed into an outstanding composer. He was a perfectionist – diligent, careful, and tentative in his approach to composing, and so self-critical that he was known to frequently destroy his own work that he deemed unsatisfactory. Brahms’ personality was been recorded as rather gruff but friendly, outspoken, and often sarcastic. And beer – he liked his beer.

Photo of a young Johannes Brahms – handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyed, with rather delicate features:

Brahms was not, however, an open book with regard to his deepest feelings and hesitated to reveal his vulnerabilities (except maybe to Clara Schumann, wife of his good friend and fellow composer Robert Schumann, but that’s another blog post). Brahms the man seems to have lived with a protective shell around his emotional self, and some – namely his detractors- would accuse his music of sharing a similar quality. As a fanatical, almost obsessive, admirer of Beethoven, I confess that I have been one of those detractors. But I am terribly biased in that regard and can’t even have a rational discussion comparing Beethoven to anybody. But Brahms’ reserve is his trademark. Brahms is like the child with a coloring book who stays within the lines, and keeps his crayons sharpened and never gets marks on his fingers. In Brahms’ own words, he placed the highest priority on form and structure and expressed considerable disdain for emotional excesses. Brahms despised his contemporary Wagner for that very sin.

For years, Brahms enjoyed a successful career composing piano works, string quartets, chamber music and so on. Many truly fine pieces of music that were well-received by the listening public. But he composed no stage works (opera or ballet), and most significantly, no symphony. People started to wonder, and even Brahms’ friends confronted him about his lack of a major symphonic piece. Brahms said he was working on it, and he was – for fourteen years! But hey, can you blame the guy for taking so long? The pressure for the next great German symphony was intense, as there had been nothing noteworthy since Beethoven’s Ninth in 1824. That was a tough act to follow. Beethoven’s stirring, memorable, monumental Ninth cast a long, loooong shadow.

A Google Image search for Brahms produces many photos of him in his aged years when he was fat, bearded, and looked like a curmudgeon. I selectively chose his young hottie pics. Hope you guys don’t mind. I know the ladies don’t 😉

Finally, after a lengthy gestation period, Johannes Brahms’ long-awaited Symphony No. 1 in C minor, debuted in 1876. And the reviews were great! So great, in fact, that the critics dubbed it . . . “Beethoven’s Tenth”! Ooooh, man. That’s meant to be a compliment but it’s also a little . . . fucked. Right? Brahms didn’t exactly embrace it. Unsure how to digest the label, he thought he was being accused of unoriginality, even plagiarism. When someone mentioned to him that his First Symphony contained clear influences of Beethoven’s Ninth, Brahms replied, “Das kannt jeder Esel!”, which translates into something like “Any ass can see that!”. In other words, “No shit, Sherlock!”. In other words, “Duh!”. In other words, “What the fuck does everybody want from me? They’ve anointed me the heir to Beethoven my whole adult life and now they call my First Symphony ‘Beethoven’s Tenth”? Is that a joke or an insult or a compliment or what??” Ok I made up those last few, but you get the idea 😆

In writing this post, I decided to refrain from turning it into a Beethoven vs Brahms smackdown. I will devote many Music Monday posts in the future to Beethoven. All I will say is that I am not one of those meanie Brahms haters who dismiss his music as “boring” and have equated listening to Brahms with “watching paint dry”. That’s pretty cold, and not fair. George Bernard Shaw wrote scathing insults of Brahms’ music. Personally I don’t care for his orchestration, and it also bothers me that he never seems to open a vein and allow his blood and guts and soul to gush forth the way Beethoven does. However, my brother Chris educated me on Brahms’ significant strengths and shared some of his personal favorites. I’m glad he did, because I discovered that Brahms has some truly extraordinary musical moments that are downright brilliant.

You can play an audio recording of Brahms’ First Symphony at this link. It appears second on the list . . . right underneath Beethoven 😉