A Tale of Two Finales: "Correcting" the Ninth in the Finale of Brahms's First Symphony

Ayah Rifai

Abstract


Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony earns its place as a seminal work in historical narratives because Beethoven had brought into question the aesthetic superiority of instrumental music over vocal music at a crucial historical juncture, when the former had recently established itself as a category of greater rank over the latter. In opening the Ninth to voices in the finale, Wagnerians assert that Beethoven declared that the symphony had “run its course” and had to be improved by the addition of voices, thus undermining the transcendental qualities of instrumental music. In the finale of his First Symphony, Brahms follows a similar trajectory to that of Beethoven’s choral finale but then “misreads” it by choosing to remain purely instrumental with the main theme. Some scholars have viewed this gesture as a divergence from the progressive idea of the symphony that Beethoven had initiated. Drawing on previous scholarship, I examine the contextual significance of Brahms’s finale and delineate how he deviates from the Ninth finale in additional ways. This study also addresses a minor gap in critical writing by exploring the topic of religion and pinning down the function of the instrumental chorale, which has hitherto received limited scholarly attention. Building upon the work of Matthew Gelbart, I discuss how the chorale operates on several symbolic levels, allowing Brahms to pay homage to Beethoven and other composers in music history while simultaneously reinvigorating the post-Beethovenian symphonic genre and inscribing himself into its lineage. 


Keywords


Beethoven, Brahms, First Symphony, instrumental chorale, Ninth Symphony.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18533/journal.v7i10.1489

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