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Sunday, November 1, 2015

As you know, bars are divided into beats, and each beat has its weight and significance in the piece - and in the history of music as a whole. Naturally, the first beat, 'the One', is a very important one as it is the heaviest of all beats, at the beginning of the bar; it is the connection between this bar and the one before; the breath of the musical organism.

In his First Symphony Brahms is debating with great and complicated issues both musically and philosophically. Let's examine first the musical aspects then to be interpreted in my own personal way.

The symphony is written in C minor which is a wonderful tonality for a great composer’s first symphony: it is the basis of the tonal system – the note C – and naturally it is the key of Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony. As you know, after Beethoven the symphonic world was not the same; all composers looked at him as a certain “biblical prophet” and naturally suffered a significant crisis of confidence. Let's leave that alone for a moment and go back to our young Johannes...

The Symphony opens with a huge wall of sound; chromatic harmonies on stubborn timpani beats create a sound illusion of very thick fog. It is almost impossible to describe in words the effect of those notes; our ears are filled with sound which increasingly permeates our minds and, I find, creates an almost claustrophobic effect acoustically. This opening travels around the main tonality of C minor with ascending and descending scales in the woodwind and strings. This is almost a parody, as one might think this is rather a stable and confident beginning, but I can promise you that this self confidence ends after a few seconds and brings us into the dark and strange atmosphere of this symphony - an atmosphere that practically does not change for almost the whole piece.

After this great opening, Brahms confronts us with the missing 'One' subject. For some of you who read music, it is easy to explain that the music does not sound as it is written or, the other way round, it is not written as it sounds. Brahms chose to write the entire first movement on a syncopated rhythm which creates the illusion of a normal melody, but is actually a very uncomfortable way of writing. It puts us as the musicians in a very uncomfortable position; it is hard to explain, but we are doomed to walk with one leg shorter than the other, while the people around us don’t notice it. This phenomenon could be interpreted in two ways: it is either Brahms in an infinite search of 'the One' (as the bar is divided into beats - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6) or maybe it is Brahms trying to avoid or run away from 'the One'. Both ideas have the same origin: this symphony is about the first beat – 'the One'.

Let's try to think about this idea as if Brahms were looking or searching for 'the One'. What does this mean? First, it means that as a young composer, overwhelmed by Beethoven's symphonies, he just did not know where 'the One' was. Even Beethoven himself wrote a symphony all based on a missing beat (the famous Fifth Symphony motif) and now Brahms is taking on this idea and developing it into a great symphony. Let us think about Beethoven's Fifth motif for a minute: (break) Ta ta ta tammmmm. It is a classic syncopated rhythm creating huge tension on the second beat of the bar, all thanks to the missing first beat. Beethoven as we know composed the whole symphony based on this idea. Brahms takes it to the next level. In his First Symphony, Brahms is creating an illusion. While with Beethoven the written music and the actual sound do match, in Brahms it does not. If someone is not playing or reading the score, the music can sound balanced and without any internal weight issues. This is an amazing and new idea of music making. The composer’s written music has a value of its own outside the audible values. This is so beautiful. If we think about Western philosophy and history of art we can see the direct connection between Brahms's First Symphony and Nietzsche, Picasso, Freud and even to our iPhones. We all think that written music is only a technical mode to put sound onto paper, but here we actually see that it is like poetry or a painting that has a value even when we are not looking. This is certainly not the case in any kind of music before that; all the pieces written in history achieve their actual artistic value only when the cycle – composer-musician-public – happens, but here we see for the first time that the written score has its own artistic value.

Now let us try the other idea, where Brahms is actually running away from 'the One'. As we all know, we cannot avoid the elephant in the room. Brahms is playing around 'the One' only to avoid dealing with it, but in this way he actually creates an opposite effect: by avoiding it, it becomes the main issue (did I mention Freud?). So did he or did he not want to talk about 'the One'? Is it or is it not the main issue? I love this illusion. It is like this famous visual illusion where we see a frontal face but suddenly the face is in profile.

Whether Brahms intended to look for 'the One' or run away from it, it is certainly a very curious theme to be chosen by a young musician in his first symphony. 'The One' is the basic most important rhythmic component of a bar (and of all Western music) and putting it in debate in such a creative way is something I find extremely courageous. 'The One' is a very big philosophical and theological argument: it is me and you and it is God. In the Bible God is very often being described as 'The One', and this has gone through all the cultures, from Greek philosophy into Jewish thinkers and from Confucius into Muslim medieval philosophy. 'The One' represent many things we are living in or with, and will always remain the basic idea that is both completely mysterious and unknown. Just think about it - we use the word 'One' to describe God. 'One' is a part of each aspect of our lives: mother, father, mathematics, computers, telephone etc. It is connected to the most concrete part of our daily lives, and yet it is also the word to describe the most enigmatic part of our lives - God. This is naturally only a hint, an idea of what we could learn and think about when talking about this missing 'One' in Brahms’s symphony.

Finally I would like to share with you a unique Jewish concept, which goes along with all the ideas we have just explored. The Messiah, in Jewish culture, is a name for an idea, for a man, for a prophet that will be sent to us by God himself and will bring joy to all human kind – all true, together with a very unique quality of the Messiah: he will never come. The Jews believe in the coming of the Messiah but no that the Messiah will come. I know that the Messiah will not come, that it is a philosophical idea that represents the good in the world, but I live my life believing in the coming of the Messiah. I know that this is very confusing, but think how much it has to do with Brahms: I know 'the One' is there, yet I feel its sense of void. Searching for 'the One' is the purpose; finding it is not the point. We already know that this symphony will never find its 'One' but it does not stop us from playing it, enjoying it and trying.

Let me tell you another wonderful idea: in bar 335 there is a fantastic moment where Brahms gives us a 'One', and even in fortissimo (very loud) all the orchestra is playing the same note: F sharp. This might not seem so unusual, but put in the context of our discussion one must admit that it is very unusual. It is the F sharp that creates an interval of three tones from the basic tonality of the piece, C (tritone); this interval is also known as the Diabolic interval; in old days it was even forbidden to use it in choral religious music and was regarded as an immoral interval. What does Brahms tells us? Maybe that if we look too much for 'the One' we might find the Devil? I will let you think about that.

Music is the best way to connect ideas and worlds. Brahms was never as close to Jewish thinking as I've documented in this article, and each one of us should always look for the completely illogical and unreasonable connection with music; this is why we as musicians perform. So please go and look for your 'One' and do your best to try not to find it!