Nowadays, it is quite puzzling that Beethoven’s ‘Violin Concerto’ and Brahms’ ‘First Symphony’ were not perceived as master pieces right away. Both composers were already known and admired by their respective audiences, eager to listen to each new work. Listen they did but their common reaction (or might it have been the strong influence of music critics?) rendered the verdicts of disappointments.
I have to remind myself that most great artists, composers included,
do not pander to public approval. The artistic needs for expression
might or might not match the public mood.
One way I can check the dissonance in these two cases is to try and
understand the state of mind prevalent in the "German world" at the
start of the 19th Century and seventy years later.
Beethoven composed his ‘Violin Concerto’ in
1806. Artistically he was in full bloom, so it isn’t surprising that he
was stretching the boundries of form & style. The public, on the
other hand, was extremely anxious: war was all around them & they
were not winning… The battle of Austerlitz (1805) ended with
Napoleon’s victory and in 1806 Napoleon entered Berlin!… Is it
possible that the Viennese public was yearning for "the good old days’?
From that perspective, it was probably not the "right time" for
participating in "novel experiments"…
Brahms composed his ‘First Symphony’ between
1874 and 1876. The German public never felt so good following the 1870
war with France finally defeated! Confidence and novelty were in
the air. When the ‘First Symphony’ premiered, Wagner staged two new grandiose operas: ‘Ring des Nibelungen’ & ‘Siegfried’.
The public was ecstatic and flocked to Bayreuth! Is it possible that
the same public was impatient with a composer dedicated to the
classical forms? Beethoven was still "the great master" but any true predecessor might have been expected to some "bolts of fire’!
Last Saturday, the PSO under the baton of Marek Janowski and the young soloist Julia Fisher,superbly
performed these two master pieces. We are 200 years older… The music
sounded gloriously. So why would I care that it wasn’t "a hit" from the
start? Well, I was puzzled… so it had given me an occasion to
search a little into past times.