Johannes Brahms did not come to orchestral music easily or happily. In his mid-20s he spent a frustrating five years working on the massive First Piano Concerto, written for himself as soloist and finished in 1858. After that he vowed never to produce another ambitious orchestral work, least of all a symphony, until he truly knew what he was doing. Other than the light and delightful two Serenades for orchestra, the musical world had to wait until 1876 to hear the First Symphony, begun more than 15 years earlier. In the mid-1880s, when he was working on the Double Concerto, Brahms complained to his longtime friend Clara Schumann about how difficult he found he found it to write for orchestra.
The musical world did not come easily to Brahms's orchestral work either. During his lifetime the symphonies and concertos were widely played and generally received respectfully, but the symphonies in particular were often viewed as difficult and intellectual, lacking the popular touch. His best-known works during his life were his light pieces, especially the Hungarian Dances, A German Requiem, and the chamber music. The exquisite violin Concerto did not find much response, and as late as 1900 a Boston music critic said the egresses of the new Symphony Hall should be marked "Exit in Case of Brahms."
As Brahms set to work on his First Symphony, producing a draft of the first movement around 1862, the genre was in decline across Europe. Beethoven's symphonies seemed unsurpassable, and composers handled the form with increasing uncertainty. The main thrust of new music was in the direction of Wagner and Liszt, who declared the old forms dead and developed new pat- terns based on stories (Wagner's music dramas) and literary ideas (like the tone poem, invented by Liszt). Brahms, unwillingly, became the leading figure of the upholders of traditional forms : or, as Liszt put it, the head of "the posthumous party" in music.
In other words, Brahms's time saw him as a conservative whose creative destiny was to unify the emotionalism of 19th-century Romanticism with the forms and genres of the 18th. Although he seems to have tacitly accepted that role, he was no simple conservative. Among other things, he understood that his time's narrow conception of 18th- century form was not at all how the old masters had handled the patterns. He treated his received forms with great freedom, just as his models had. In the end, his music was just as forward-looking as it was retrospective. In the 20th century, the great modernist Arnold Schoenberg wrote a celebrated article declaring his predecessor "Brahms the Progressive."
So Brahms was neither a mainstream Romantic nor some kind of neoclassical com- poser. He had too much ambition and imagination to spend his life rehashing the past. If his main loyalty was to the old masters, he still took it as part of his job to bring new ideas to his art: fresh harmonic explorations, rhythmic conceptions that verge on polyrhythm and polymeter, and an approach to form in which the underlying traditional pat- terns are sometimes hard to discern. It may be that no composer has a more distinctive stylistic signature. In short, Brahms was a loner, a kind of one-man tradition : which suited his personality as an ironic, sardonic, intensely private bachelor.
At the same time, he considered it his business to master the traditional craft of putting notes together and then to master the available musical forms and genres. In his youth he swapped counterpoint studies with friends. After the long and painful gestation of the First Piano Concerto, he set himself to master chamber forms, starting with the Op. 5 Piano Trio and slowly work- ing up, via string quintets and sextets, piano quintet, and the like, to the three string quartets of 1873: 76. He remarked that he wrote 20 string quartets before he released the first one; in fact, he destroyed a good deal of what he wrote in all genres.
So Brahms's slow approach to the symphony was not unusual for him, and he did not embark on the genre until he had mastered large-scale form in his chamber works. He was determined not to compose a symphony until his voice with the orchestra was as confident and distinctive as every other aspect of his craft. It took him until the Haydn Variations of 1873 to find an orchestral sound distinctively his own.
He had to find a way to lay out the movements of a symphony that satisfied him : for all his foundation on Beethoven, he was no slavish imitator. After having wrestled with what should follow the First Symphony's brilliant start in terms of middle movements and finale, he finally wrote his four symphonies, which helped revive the genre, preparing the way for Mahler, Sibelius, and beyond.
With the First under his belt, in the next decade the rest of the great orchestral works heard on this season's Philharmonic programs flowed from there : in order, the Second Symphony, violin Concerto, Second Piano Concerto, Third and Fourth Symphonies, and finally the Double Concerto of 1887. If the public only truly caught up to Brahms's orchestral music after he died in 1897, by the turn of the 20th century the audience for these works was becoming enthusiastic. Their warmth and beauty, their mingling of the grand and the intimate, has established them as steady favorites ever since.
Jan Swafford is a composer, writer, and teacher of com- position, theory, and music history at the Boston Conservatory. His books include Charles Ives: A Life with Music, Johannes Brahms, and a forthcoming biography of Beethoven.