Part 1: "Brahms the Progressive"
The first performance of the unfinished German Requiem in 1868 and the subsequent premiere of the completed work in Leipzig the following year are widely considered to mark Brahms' international breakthrough as a composer of true eminence. The euphoric reviews received by the premiere in Leipzig printed in the influential music journals of the day (the majority of which were published in Leipzig) ensured attention far beyond the bounds of Saxony. Brahms rapidly advanced to become the most revered German composer alongside Wagner, after the death of whom Brahms remained unchallenged as the nation's most successful representative of the craft, worthy of mention in the same vein as Bach and Beethoven.
Brahms appeared in Leipzig on a total of 16 occasions as conductor and pianist, entrusting the Gewandhaus Orchestra with the first performance of four of his most important works - more than the orchestra of any other city, apart from Vienna. Brahms himself conducted the Leipzig premieres of the first, second and third symphonies, the Academic Festival Overture and the Tragic Overture, shortly after their respective world premieres, as well as performing the solo part at the first Leipzig performances of his two piano concertos.
Following his first appearance in the city in 1853, Brahms would endure over forty years of considerable highs and lows until his oeuvre had irrevocably achieved its place in the core repertoire of the Gewandhaus concerts. Brahms' experiences in Leipzig mirror his struggle to earn esteem in the music world in general, his lack of favour with both the conservative and "New German" poles of the music world, the dilemma of either succumbing to popular taste or flying the flag for innovation. By the end of the 1870s, however, the performance of his music in the Leipzig Gewandhaus was a guarantee for triumphant success.
The period of Brahms' recurring presence in Leipzig (his final visit was in 1896, the year before his death) ran concurrently with developments in the musical life in the city which were, in no small measure, influenced by the chequered reception his music was granted over the years. The assumption of the post of Gewandhauskapellmeister by Arthur Nikisch in 1895, two years before Brahms' death, was certainly a result of this process of musical evolution that catapulted the Gewandhaus and its orchestra into the 20th century. Nikisch heralded the advent of a new era in Leipzig's concert life, establishing the music of Brahms as a central pillar of the repertoire of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, a position it retains to this day.
Beyond this significance for Leipzig, the city of music, "Brahms the progressive" (Arnold Schönberg) was of pivotal importance for subsequent generations of composers. His creative output contains and develops highly significant avant-garde elements that paved the way for the music world to liberate itself from the immense shadow cast by Beethoven.
The Leipzig Brahms Cycle under the baton of Gewandhauskapellmeister Riccardo Chailly in 2013 will emphasise both the sensuous and the progressive in Brahms' symphonic music in equal measure. The Gewandhaus Orchestra will be joined by the celebrated soloists, Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Enrico Dindo (violoncello), Arcadi Volodos and Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano).
Part 2: Explosive Brahms
Leipzig 1853. Within fifty years, Leipzig's population increased dramatically, numbering approximately half a million by the turn of the 20th century. Privately founded orchestras and music societies provide increasing competition for the Gewandhaus and its orchestra: competitive prices, varied programmes and performances of high quality fulfil the demands of the middle-classes often better than the Gewandhaus, despite its superior financial standing and international renown.
Johannes Brahms made his first appearance in Leipzig in 1853, during the tenure of Gewandhauskapellmeister Julius Rietz. Rietz was succeeded in 1860 by Carl Reinecke, who found himself caught permanently in the crossfire of the bitter, publicly fought out conflict between the two aesthetic camps "Conservative" and "New German" (Liszt, Berlioz, Wagner). Reinecke and the Gewandhaus management confronted the new, avant-garde musical tendencies (to which they counted the music of Brahms) with not inconsiderable scepticism - a position which was not to further the Gewandhaus's reputation. Albeit in many respects unjustified, Reinicke's tenure as Gewandhauskapellmeister is, to this day, often considered to have been a period of artistic mediocrity.
Brahms was to return to Leipzig on a further twelve occasions as composer, pianist and conductor.
In his appearances as pianist and composer, Brahms provided the great and the good of Leipzig's musical life with no shortage of material for heated discussion, which led to something of a psychological trauma on Brahms' part. The debacle of the Leipzig premiere of his first piano concerto in 1859 was Brahms' heaviest artistic defeat up to that point, damaging his relationship with Leipzig considerably - a situation that would take many years to amend. Even decades later, jibes aimed at the Gewandhaus and its public can be found in his correspondence.
The Leipzig premieres of the first and second symphonies in the Gewandhaus in the mid-1870s were at last to convince the Leipzig public that Brahms was a musical force to be reckoned with. The Gewandhaus directorate redoubled its efforts to win his favour and the City Council even offered him the post of Thomaskantor (Choirmaster of St. Thomas's Choir - the position held by J.S. Bach for 27 years). Although highly flattered, after lengthy consideration Brahms declined the offer.
While his progressive art initially unsettled the Leipzig public and found little favour with Gewandhauskapellmeister Carl Reinecke, Brahms found himself constantly under attack from contributors to the gazettes of the "New German School" for his perceived conservatism.
As time went by, the wind turned steadily in Brahms' favour: reviews and articles published in music journals and the daily press gradually concerned themselves less with the character and idiosyncrasies of Brahms' music and increasingly with the performances of his works, the technical and interpretative qualities of the soloists and musicians in question. Of primary interest to the critics became performances they might consider to be exemplary, most notably many concerts under the direction of Arthur Nikisch, then Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Opera.
Brahms was, sadly, not inclined to grant the first performance of any of his symphonies to the Gewandhaus Orchestra - a fact that fills the Orchestra with regret to this day. Four works were, however, to receive their premiere in the Gewandhaus: the Piano Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 1, on 17th December 1853, the orchestral version of the three Hungarian Dances, WoO 1, on 5th February 1874, the Violin Concert in D major, Op. 79, on New Year's Day 1879, as well as the complete German Requiem on 18th February 1869.
Brahms' public journey in Leipzig, from the scathing "three hands attempting to bump into one another" after the performance of the 1st Piano Concerto in 1859, to the "public Brahms cult" attested to after the first Leipzig performance of the 3rd Symphony, was to span several decades. Towards the end of his life, Brahms was at last hailed in Leipzig as "the most significant composer of the present day."
As Arthur Nikisch assumed the position of Gewandhauskapellmeister in 1895, leading the Gewandhaus Orchestra into a new age, two years before the composer's death, the time was rife for the establishment of Johannes Brahms' oeuvre as one of the central pillars of the Orchestra's repertoire.