Johannes Brahms: Symphony Number One in C Minor

I became fascinated by the symphonies of Brahms in my third year of college, in 1975. This was not seen as odd by my fellow dorm mates in the French house where I lived (more about them below.) In high school I had heard Brahms’ fourth symphony and liked it a lot, though the rock group, Yes, had stolen a theme from it and sort of ran it into the ground. I never got tired of the first symphony, however, which still thrills me with its lush and Romantic third movement.

Brahms started writing his First Symphony when he was a mere 22 years old, but was so intimidated by the work of his hero, Beethoven, that after writing the first movement, he hid the symphony in a drawer where he left it for 12 years. Eventually he found the courage to complete the work, and finally premiered it in 1876 in Vienna.

The first movement starts out with an incredibly complex harmonic seething of the orchestra accompanied by an ominous sounding pounding of the tympanis almost like a death knell. This sets the tone of a classic Romantic struggle of emotions, and critics have linked it in many ways with Beethoven’s Ninth. The second movement goes off in quite a different, typically Brahmsian direction full of quiet but passionate lyrical passages.

My favorite movement, however, is the third, which is an allegro labeled “gracious.” It start with a clarinet playing the main theme accompanied by the orchestra and Brahms gives that instrument prominence throughout the movement. That marked the first time I had ever paid attention to the clarinet and found it capable of conveying beautiful emotions. That was a kind of revelation for me as I had been forced to play clarinet in 6th grade band and could barely produce more than a squawk from it. The last movement begins with the orchestra producing a feeling of turmoil reminiscent of the first movement. After continuing in this vein for a while, he eventually introduces a sad but lovely melody played first on the horn and then by a flute. This gives way to a wonderfully upbeat final theme, which reminds me a bit of “Pomp and Circumstances.” But then Brahms takes this and works it into a grand finish which has nothing but a sense of triumph about it.

Odds and Ends at the French House

I have written a good deal about the people who comprised the artsy-campy clique at my college dorm, the French House. Though I spent a good deal of time in their company, I did not shun the other inhabitants of the dorm. How could I? Myers-Briggs shows puts me firmly in the extrovert camp. i.e., one who gets there energy being around other people. I generally try to remain on friendly terms with just about everybody. And there were some interesting characters in the French House.

One interesting guy who springs to mind, Chuck Pirtle, hailed from a suburb of Chicago. His father taught high school English and once had John Belushi in his class whom he described as a jerk. Chuck was majoring in comparative literature and was particularly taken with the work of the Beat poets, the Dadaists, and the music of Bob Dylan. Chuck was about a year or two my junior, but he was incredibly well-read and exposed me to a wonderful world of anarchic, avante garde, satiric and subversive artists. Since I’ve always had a problem with authority figures, Chuck found fertile ground in me. I ended up developing a love for the likes of Tristan Tzara, Marcel Duchamp, and other early 20th century artists.

Chuck also worshipped Lenny Bruce, one of the first comedians to expose the racism and hypocrisy rife in the US during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Unfortunately, he had a foul mouth and mainlined heroin, so he became an easy target for the power elite. But he kind of became a test case for freedom of speech and only because of him were comedians like George Carlin and Eddie Murphy able to get away with saying the seven words that you couldn’t say on T.V.

There was a second clique in the house made up of three journalism majors, Whit, Steve and George. Whit came from Canton, Ohio and he and I became fairly good friends. He used to wow me with me stories about his high school where he said over half the staff had PHds. He had a steady girl named Margy, who went to a college in Ohio and he talked fondly of her. A big, strapping kid, Whit used to astound me with his ability to tolerate extremely hot temperatures. We had a communal showers in which you could easily scald yourself. Several times I walked in to find him standing there with the hot water just blasting on him. I once timed him and found he stayed in the shower for over 40 minutes.

Across the hall in two side by side rooms lived two other journalism major friends of Whit: Steve and George. Steve was plump and loved to sit around gossiping. George was a small waif with a pallid complexion and auburn hair that he wore in a cross between a Page Boy and a Pudding Basin shape. A few days after moving into the dorm, he started redecorating. He put up red, gauzy curtains and stuck mirror tiles on the wall opposite his bed and on the ceiling. George also kept a bottle of perfume which he would spray to create the proper mood when he entertained. And he entertained often. He had a coterie of small mousy girls who used to come to his room, and I spent many an evening chewing my leg off imagining what kind of orgies they were engaging in and wondering how a little guy like that could get girls. Steve used to spend time there as well until he and George once had a falling out which kind of poisoned the air on the floor.

Nearly forty years later, Chuck, Whit, Steve and I have all reconnected via Facebook.

Download MP3s or buy CD of Brahms: Symphony No. 1

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

4 Responses to Johannes Brahms: Symphony Number One in C Minor

  1. kvennarad says:

    “I had the pleasure about a month ago,” said Shelley Berman to an audience,”well, I had the pleasure about a week ago too… it’s been slow, kids… I had the pleasure of hearing the LP of the Holy Year Services, delivered in the Vatican City by his late Holiness Pope Pius XII. It was amazing to notice his frank indifference to Lenny Bruce.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • kurtnemes says:

      Wow. Shelly Berman. A blast from the past. My older brother had a few of his albums. I didn’t know he made it across the pond. Was he big? That would be like Frankie Howerd being popular in the States, no?

      Like

      • kvennarad says:

        When I was little I used to love his ‘Franz Kafka on the telephone’, even though I had no idea what he was talking about. It was his delivery. Yes, Berman, Bob Newhart, Stan Freberg, Alan Sherman, were amongst the crowd of American humourists who had a following over here.

        We gave you Benny Hill.

        Like

      • kurtnemes says:

        But also Monty Python, Billy Connolly, and Rowan Atkinson.

        Like

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