George Szell’s little Brahms revelation.

No matter how well you know a piece, there is always the chance that one day, you will discover something that makes you re-think the entire work.

Such a thing happened a few years back when I stumbled across this little bit of old radio with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Make sure to listen to the whole thing, it is very short.

I remember listening the first time and trying to guess what those four bars before the piece we know would have sounded like- I found myself imagining Brahms using some of the material that comes before later statements of the opening, like the music at the end of the exposition, for example. It never occurred to me that he would make a very clear link with the Finale because I’d never thought of this symphony as having any sort of a cyclical structure before.

The mere fact that Brahms once considered beginning the entire symphony with material from the Finale not only means that on some level he did consider it a cyclical work. It also implies that perhaps if the entire symphony does form one dramatic narrative, that perhaps the narrative doesn’t begin with the first notes of the symphony as we know it.

This makes sense- what makes that opening so difficult is the fact that it shouldn’t sound like a beginning but like a continuation. Szell makes this very same point in his brief talk. But a continuation of what? And if the first note of the symphony is not the beginning of the story, where in the piece does the story begin?

Those deleted opening chords can be interpreted a number of ways, and whatever meaning you ascribe to them will have a fairly significant impact on how you see the whole piece. On one level, you can read them simply as an ominous foreboding of catastrophes to come- a bit of information planted in the ear whose meaning only becomes clear at the end of the symphony.

On the other hand, these bars could have been like a Greek chorus saying at the beginning of a play “let us tell you about a great tragedy that has already happened.” If you read them this way, the piece is probably going to look quite different- the tragedy of the Finale has already happened when the piece begins, the die of Fate has already been cast.

In this reading, the first movement no longer is the beginning of the story, but the end- the point at which we are told that there has been a tragedy, and in which all the memories of the events gradually come together and the telling of the story begins. In other words, the first movement is about telling the story of this great tragedy, and the Finale is the tragedy itself. Perhaps, to take this further, one could see the 2nd movement as the beginning of the drama- a study in longing that is perfectly counterbalanced by the triumphalism of the Scherzo. As in the 6th Symphony of Tchaikovsky, Brahms also makes the movement before the Finale the high point of the symphony, a moment of fleeting triumph after which our fortunes can only change for the worse.

So, if Brahms had left those chords in, the  linear timeline of the symphony might have begun in the 2nd movement and ended in the first, when the narrator begins the ritual of telling us about the tragedy that is depicted in the Finale. It makes the piece more like Shakespeare or Greek tragedy, and makes much more explicit the connections between the two great outer movements.

However, Brahms cut those opening bars!

Why did he cut them, and does the cut tell us as much or more than the fact that he once considered them? Perhaps he felt that such an obvious link between the outer movements made the whole piece look too obviously programmatic. Perhaps he felt that by declaring the tragic finality of the work in the first chord, he was risking making the entire piece too grim, or even robbing some of the drama from the work. Without that little intro, the whole symphony is undoubtedly more classical and abstract, with it, more Romantic and dramatic. Brahms always seemed to be caught between the Classical and Romantic sides of his muse- perhaps this deletion tells us which side of his creative nature he thought was more important?

On the other hand, may he just thought the opening sounds cooler as it is.


You can hear me conduct Brahms Symphony no. 4 with the Surrey Mozart Players at the Electric Theatre in Guildford this Saturday, the 19th of June at 7:30 PM. Also on the program is Schumann’s orchestral masterpiece, the Overture to Manfred and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with soloist Alexander Sitkovetsky. There are only about 15 tickets left, so call the box office asap if you are interested.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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1 comment on “George Szell’s little Brahms revelation.”

  1. Elaine Fine

    Very interesting! The effect of listening to the two “version” side by side is kind of like watching someone paint while using something to mask the edges of the painting, and then seeing the masking removed to reveal a clean frame. Sometimes composers need crutches too.

    Perhaps two chords (which are really only an implication) were not enough of an implication to work properly, or perhaps Brahms thought that they were too Beethoven-like. Perhaps he had so many problems with how to handle them, that he simply removed them, and found the beginning of the movement to be so much better without them.

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