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 😉

15 thoughts on “Beethoven’s Tenth

  1. What a beautiful post! I share your love for Beethoven, as he is, and always has been my favorite composer. The amazing thing, for me, about Beethoven, is how forward looking his music was. Especially by his last decade it seemed he had far eclipsed any of his contemporaries and presaging the revolutionary Romantic period.

    The tortured Brahms is fascinating — and what an achievement that he was actually able to use his love of Beethoven as a launching pad and eventually find his own voice. I think I like him more than you do, however. His subsequent symphonies and concerti are wonderfully fiery and dramatic, almost to the point of being angry..

    And yes, even I have to admit the young Brahms was hot.

    • artmodel says:

      keith,

      I was hoping you’d comment on this post 🙂 I love what you said about Beethoven. People should know that he didn’t just compose beautiful, immortal music but was incredibly ahead of his time. He took risks and spilled over the edges, and that’s why so much of his music simply takes your breath away. You listen and you think, “Wow! Did he just go there??” Yes, he did.

      I’m awakening to Brahms, thanks to my brother and now you. One of the pieces my brother sent me was not Brahms’ First Symphony but actually the Second. It’s BEAUTIFUL Keith. Really marvelous. And I’d like to follow up on your suggestions about his subsequent work. Brahms was a “late-bloomer” as they say. So I will check out his composition from that period.

      You are a secure man able to admit that young Brahms was “hot” 😉

      Thanks so much for your comments!

      Claudia

  2. Dave says:

    I share your love of Beethoven. Although it was Bartok who first made me realize there was something worth paying attention to in classical music.

    “fat, bearded, and looked like a curmudgeon” I’ll try to not take that personally. 😉

    • artmodel says:

      Dave,

      I like Bartok too! My father was a big fan of his.

      You may be bearded, but you are not fat and definitely not a curmudgeon! Thanks for the laugh and for your comment 🙂

      Claudia

  3. The dynamic you describe reminds me of poor Van Dyke, always getting trashed as a kind of retarded Rubens. I quite like Van Dyke! And I don’t necessarily need paintings to have a zillion literary references. I like Rubens too; but Rubens is hyperactive – this gives him tremendous variety and excitement, but denies him certain psychological facets in his work. The comparatively sedate Van Dyke is able to explore those facets more deeply because he doesn’t feel the need to put in three more naked ladies, a dragon, two cherubs, five eagles, and a herd of horses crossing a river.

    • artmodel says:

      Daniel,

      Your comments are always funny and informative at the same time. I love it! You know, so many people revere Rubens, I hear it a lot from my artist friends. I’ve never been one of those Rubens worshippers. So now, just out of spite, I’m going to plant myself in the Van Dyck camp! Actually I have no problem with Van Dyck. Your analysis is very interesting, and I agree that often too many ostentatious flourishes and ornamentation makes a work cluttered, thus obscuring any intimacy that might have been revealed without all those distractions.

      Thanks Daniel!

      Claudia

      • Wow – I should probably look up the spellings of things before I go writing about them, huh? Anyhow, I feel just the same about your writing: I always learn something new when I read your work – it’s very exciting to see a new post up.

        My best friend started out as a rock fan and critic, and became a classical music fan and critic in his late thirties. He’s convinced that had Beethoven been born in, oh, 1958, he’d have been a punk. I kind of think he has a point; although if there had been no Beethoven, would there have been punk?

        Well, I guess probably yeah, actually.

  4. “You are a secure man able to admit that young Brahms was “hot”

    (just don’t spread it around the NYC jazz community)

  5. Robert E. Harris says:

    I’m rather inclined to think well of symphonies (post Beethoven) By Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann.

    I remember that Beethoven’s tenth stuff from my childhood. More recently (by 60 years) I’ve been listening to late Haydn symphonies. I now think Brahm’s first is more nearly Haydn’s 150th or so, if Haydn had lived and worked so long.

    Am I alone in loving Beethoven’s piano sonatas beyond anything else he wrote?

    • artmodel says:

      Robert,

      Thank you for your wonderful comments!

      “I now think Brahm’s first is more nearly Haydn’s 150th or so, if Haydn had lived and worked so long.” – that’s a very interesting spin, and makes a lot of sense the more I think about it.

      No, you are not alone in loving Beethoven’s piano sonatas beyond everything else he wrote. I am mad for those works. “Appassionata” is my favorite 🙂

      You mentioned symphonies by Schubert and Schumann. Our classical music station here in NY, WQXR, has been playing both of them like crazy. Schumann does it for me a little more.

      Again, thanks for posting Robert!

      Claudia

  6. I love the Beethoven Sonatas and am partial to the Waldheim.

  7. Paul Darst says:

    I have liked Brahms’s music from about the beginning of my love for classical music, about the age of 16 or so. When I was in college I had an LP of Toscanini conducting the Brahms 1st Symphony, which was my favorite piece; and yes, there is a part in it that sounds like a part in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It sounds good in both pieces.
    I also am partial to his 1st piano concerto, which by the way I think is used in the movie, “The L-Shaped Room” — an art movie to us in the 1960s.
    I like a lot of composers, including all the big guys, but Brahms has remained sort of “my” composer.
    And I agree with the one commenter that Beethoven’s piano sonatas are really good.

  8. Weich says:

    Just to leave a note to say I appreciate your thoughtful post on Brahms. Brahms’s music is underrated. He was quite a genius himself. He showed exuberant imagination and mastery of form in his composition. Btw, reading a couple of your posts, I think you’re quite an artistic, musical and literary person. Dropping by from Singapore.

    • artmodel says:

      Welch,

      Thank you so much, and welcome! I appreciate your kind words. I’m so glad you enjoyed this post, an oldie but a goodie. Keep on listening to Brahms!

      Claudia

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