This article has been marked as in need of a revisit. That’s where I feel like I didn’t do the piece justice or have more to say (usually because I didn’t know it nearly well enough or didn’t have the right perspective). I’ll keep the original article for posterity, but publish a new version that will eventually be linked here for my new take on it.
I didn’t know where to put this, so I’ll start with it. The recording I have is Karajan’s late 70s (I think) recording with the Berlin Philharmonic from the box set of all four symphonies
, and I enjoyed the piece thoroughly from it. I checked it out on Allmusic
, though, and James Leonard rips this recording to shreds. Granted, he praises Karajan’s recording with the same ensemble from the 60s (this one, I think
). So I decided to do some research on others, and while I feel Mr. Leonard is extreme in the degree of his criticism, Klemperer’s recording is indeed brighter, crisper, and livelier. I still like Karajan’s version, (as I just generally favor Karajan…) but the recording I chose is undoubtedly clearer and more inspired, I feel. That’s out of the way.
This is quite a first symphony. In fact, it’s probably my favorite first symphony. I quite love the scherzo of Bruckner’s first symphony (although his actual ‘first’ symphony isn’t as easy as that), although the scherzo of the third is just as wonderful, Prokofiev’s first symphony is a joy, but it is a dainty and farcical matter compared to Brahms’ first. At opus number 68, it’s a bit higher than many others, and he spent more than two decades (he claims) writing it. Sketches date from 1854, and the premiere was conducted by the composer’s friend Felix Otto Dessoff on November 4, 1876. It’s a four-movement symphony that lasts around 45 minutes, my Karajan/BPO recording comes in at around 44.
There were two things that caused Brahms to spend such time in preparation of this symphony, one of which I can sort of identify with or appreciate, and that is that he was highly critical of his own work, and this led to many of his early sketches and works being destroyed. Wikipedia describes it as his “self-critical fastidiousness”, but I find the description of fastidious almost to have a positive connotation, as if to say “in his good judgment, he threw out what was junk,” but I cannot imagine that was the case. If we are speaking only of the writing of the first symphony here, it would mean he started writing sketches for this piece at around the time he wrote op. 9 or 10, in 1854, but op. 3, 6, and 7 have multiple works attached to them. Op. 11, Serenade no. 1, was his first orchestral piece, published in 1857. I digress. I find it interesting that he didn’t have any of the same apprehensions (maybe he did) with these other pieces around that time. Fast forward twenty years, and by the time he finished this composition, he had an immense amount of work under his belt, and the experience to go with it. Many of his opus numbers comprise multiple works, some numbering as high as 15 or 18. That is to say, the Brahms that published and premiered this work is very different from the one who’d started it twenty years earlier. His piano concerto no. 1 is opus 15, and I find that to be a fantastic work. The reason for his ‘fastidiousness’ is perhaps the result of the second reason for his delay: pressure from the music scene.
His success or talent or potential was recognized by many, and his friends and family
expected him to be the next Beethoven. Beethoven died six years before Brahms was born, but had obviously established himself solidly as one of the gods, perhaps even the reigning king of, music at the time. One of his last compositions before his death was the monumental Symphony no. 9 (which even those allergic to classical music will recognize some portion of), and apparently all eyes were on Brahms. Brahms also wrote lots of more traditional (not quite ‘Classical’ style) music, vocal pieces, piano solo, sonatas for various instruments, as did Beethoven, and so the spotlight was on him. I suppose with that kind of pressure anyone would make sure they’d gotten things right. This symphony was sort of a (very late) make-or-break effort for him. And then he went on to write three more, along with some of the most famous pieces for various instruments and ensembles that have maintained their place in almost every repertoire for the past 150 years, so I suppose he did something right.
As a note here, it’s worth mentioning Hans von Bülow, who died 120 years ago today, was the one who coined the “Three Bs”, sticking Brahms alongside his fellow great composers Bach and Beethoven. “Bach, Beethoven, und Brahms” has a nice ring to it, unless you’re Brahms, probably. In which case it would keep me up at night making sure I got my junk together. Then I’d feel good about it. This symphony probably solidified Bülow’s statement, and he continued even after it by calling Brahms’ no. 1 “Beethoven’s tenth.” That is in some ways a compliment, in others not. We’ll get to some of the specific similarities later, but this piece certainly has the grandiosity and delicate touch and emotion of something Beethovenesque. Brahms somewhat resented this statement, feeling it amounted to accusations of plagiarism on his part, when he clearly was making specific reference to Beethoven. In response when questioned about it, he said “any ass can see that.” I’d probably have liked this guy. I need not get into the politico-musical scene of the time, but there was this guy named Wagner (who died 131 years ago tomorrow), who some sided with as the bringer of a new musical era, and another guy named Eduard Hanslick, who was a “staunch” music critic, and extremely conservative, and Brahms won his praise as the next big thing in music. (To get back to Bülow for a moment, you may remember that he was also the man who suggested Liszt take on the young Julius Reubke as his pupil. I probably would have liked this guy too.)
Let’s talk about the music.
It’s big. For all it’s majesty in the beginning, it is made up of three big simple ideas, stuff going up, stuff going down, and (the one I like most) the timpani pounding out the heartbeat at the beginning. This creates a rich fabric of swells that take over from the beginning. The first movement is made up of this kind of emotion.
In fact, so is the fourth. This piece is basically two quiet movements bookended by two bigger dramatic ones.
The first movement ends up being a resounding, commanding German statement. It is suspenseful at turns, dramatic almost always, and there are breaths of lyric delicacy at the bottoms of the swells. In contrast to someone like Tchaikovsky with a theme or a line you can really sink your teeth into, there’s not something you can point out and say “there it is! That’s the theme (or the main focus or the catchy tune) of the first movement!” No, that comes later. What we have is a lot of intricate, beautifully string together bits that engage and excite the listener. Bits isn’t meant to sound condescending. One of those bits is similar enough to the ‘fate’ theme in Beethoven’s fifth to be one of the reasons it was called Beethoven’s tenth. I’ll talk a bit later about some novel things Brahms does in what has been criticized in the past as a too-traditional symphony (mostly by those people who were in the Wagner camp). One important thing here obviously, in this symphony that the composer spent twenty years preparing for, is to make a good first impression, and the first movement does that. Also, those hammering, pulsing timpani beats are in C, the important note of the key of this movement. This is established very well this way, and will be important later. After all that about excitement and intensity, this movement ends quietly and unassumingly, leading into the second movement.
As I mentioned earlier, the middle two movements are quiet, peaceful and docile compared to the outer two. This one has lots of strings and oboe, with a solo here or there. There’s a violin solo too, kind of a no typical lagniappe of sorts for a symphony of the time, but Brahms went there. This movement, honestly, is pretty, but it’s a bit boring. That may be because of context. There’s a lot going on in the three movements around it, and maybe it just comes in at a strong fourth. Perhaps this would be a standout movement in many other settings.
The third, in contrast, while still being a slow movement, takes the place of the scherzo and trio that many other symphonies would have. The allegretto in four sections is in 2/4, apparently, beginning with a clarinet line that I just love. There are a few variations on this, and then we have the trio, in 6/8, which is also glisteningly beautiful and cleanly written. Relative to the bigness of the outside movements, these two feel quaint and almost chamber-y. This movement especially feels very classical. The separate themes that make up the allegretto come and go, then transition to the trio. These little bits and their repeats and permutations feel like something Beethoven would do, to squeeze every ounce of life out of every little motif while still being new. Then fascinatingly, when we get back to the allegretto, the reappearance of the A theme, the triple meter figured hang around in the background under the 2/4 meter, creating polyrhythms (two beats against three) and then the movement is suddenly over… Like almost abruptly so…
And then we are back to lots of drama and emotion. Timpani comes back, along with the swelling, the famous French horn (Alpenhorn) call as the second theme of the exposition, and this feels like the beginning of the end. It feels finale-ish. The Beethoven-esque theme here does sound an awful lot like the end of Beethoven’s ninth, but not in a way that you feel cheated. It is, to Brahms’ defense, his very own work, but it does bring Beethoven’s ninth to mind. This isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s exciting. The timpani come back as an obvious part of the coda, creating an almost galloping sound as the piece reaches it’s end.
There’s so much to talk about with this piece that is beyond the scope of my ability to perceive at first (or many) listen(s), and I probably wouldn’t even be able to identify these things even with the score in hand, at least not without some serious study. For that, check out this analysis here
for some seriously detailed information about what’s going on in this piece.
What I do love about the piece is that it is satisfyingly, wonderfully traditional in many of its structures and basic ideas, (the sonata form, slow movement with a trio, variation on themes) so it sounds familiar and approachable, but is still new. Brahms does things in this piece that are exciting and different and not same-old. As in Beethoven’s fifth, he starts the symphony in Cm (one of Beethoven’s favorite keys), but ends it in C major.
Anyway, this is a monumental first symphony… If I were making a list (which I am in the process of doing) of 10 favorite symphonies (favorite first, favorite second, third, etc), with no composer repeated for ten symphonies, this one solidly takes the place for favorite first symphony, with respect to Mahler, whose first comes in at a close second, but he shows up elsewhere on the list anyway.
Also, who else would you include in Bülow’s string of The Three Bs? Bach, Beethoven, Brahms…. Berg? Bartok? Babbitt? Some combination of them?
I also think that this is beautiful in a different way than maybe… Sibelius perhaps, who hides his complexity and depth in a veil of feigned simplicity. This piece is unabashedly complex and deep (to me) and still beautiful. It even feels aged, like a big bold wine
that spent years in a perfectly cooled cellar, one with lots of depth and body and an amazing finish.