Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
It’s there in the opening, that wandering. Again at the end of the first movement. And in those chords at letter Q in the fourth movement, the spot our conductor in college had us start over and over. “Q, quasar,” again and again. I loved his choice of words. It was a transition moment, with chords that sounded as mysterious and distant as outer space, the lead-in to the final triumph of the piece. It was a spot to pay attention to, not only because it needed to be done right. When the music gets so that you’re not really sure where you are, it’s a good sign that you should pay careful attention. The composer is about to take you somewhere.
And now, listening to Brahms’ 1st Symphony this morning, I hear it shot-through with wandering. Not aimless, but full of searching. Heartfelt. Soulful. Shifting between sure-footedness and uncertainty. A working-through, a…what? A working-out of something?
Well of course. Did you forget? What is music like this if not a working-out of themes? You knew that. Did you think it was all just a mental exercise?
Maybe I did. It seems like I continually have to re-teach myself things I already knew.
It was a deliberate decision to listen to this music this morning. I wanted to remind myself of that other-worldliness at Q. That wandering. I had forgotten, somehow, that it wasn’t the only place, just the last and most nebulous. I love pointing this kind of moment out to my students. “Listen. What’s going to happen? What is the composer doing here?” And here, somewhere around 51:23, you’re sure that whatever’s coming will be big. Listen to how it builds. When you get to 52:15 it’s one of those moments you want so badly, have waited for since the start of the piece. When you finally arrive it almost hurts.
Maybe it’s so satisfying because in real life not only are these moments rare, they don’t always have the same kind of definition. And they seem to happen within the context of a three-ring circus (at least three rings), which means you don’t get to drown yourself in those glorious brass chords for very long. Then again, even Brahms moves on.
I chose this particular music this morning because I find myself in a wonderfully good place after spending several years in a very hard one. I don’t know how to write about it at this point—I expect that to take time. At the very least I can tell you that I have found myself the recipient of a miracle. And it’s so good. I’m enjoying the goodness, enjoying that I have some room to heal. But here’s the thing: I don’t know how to heal any more than I knew how to go through the stuff that necessitated healing. Or maybe I know in part, but not enough to make it go any faster. And it’s been a long time since I pretended I was patient.
So I find myself considering what I know about art:
How it’s in those wandering-est moments that you should pay attention. They usually mean you’re being taken someplace new.
How when you don’t understand it’s helpful to be quiet and listen. And watch. Absorb all you can.
How Brahms wanders, how beautiful it is, and how wandering isn’t quite wandering after all.
After all, the spot I’ve thought about most through the years is rehearsal letter Q.