performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti, or below with the Vienna Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado
(cover image by Nick Scheerbart)
I’ve been needing to do this for some time.
Back when I wrote about Brahms’ first symphony the first time, back in the spring of 2014, I knew it was one of those pieces I should know and appreciate, but I just didn’t know enough about music in general, more about musical history, to appreciate this work’s importance. There’s lots of important context here, and in the subsequent years of my listening and studying, I’ve come to appreciate this as one of the greatest things ever written.
I just did a quick Google search for the piece, and without even opening the article, the little snippet of content Google gives for Tom Service’s ‘Symphony Guide’ to Brahms 1 says:
It’s a piece that took on history – and won.
I haven’t read the article, but I have the exact same point to make, and I love telling this story, even though I might exaggerate it a little bit. To understand this work, we have to go back a few decades, to Beethoven’s final symphony, the famous ninth.
I can’t imagine I’m the first/only person to say it, so I must have read it somewhere, but I’ve told lots of people in conversation about either of these works that Beethoven’s ninth, as famous and wonderful and glorious as it is, was bad for musical history. Now, we haven’t discussed that work yet, but we’ll get there eventually.
It was the first symphony ever to include a chorus and soloists, and was also the longest symphony ever composed at the time. It’s a big work, and it shook the musical world, an uproarious success at the premiere. He’d done something that had never been done in a symphony. Cantatas, church music, sure, but not a symphony.
So now what?
Well, think of who wrote (notable, famous) symphonies after Beethoven 9, premiered in 1824. Mendelssohn was still quite young, but would go on to write his first symphony, the one in Cm, the same year (not to mention the dozen string symphonies he wrote before that, but they’re far from notable). He also went on to write the Italian, Scottish, and Reformation symphonies in Beethoven’s shadow, and did quite well.
Him aside, there was Schubert, who was already not in a good way toward the end of his life but wrote most of his eighth and thankfully all of his ninth shortly before his own death in 1828, only a year and a half after Beethoven’s passing.
Thirdly, among the real notable symphonists, was Schumann, whose four symphonies came later in his career, but are also notable works for the form in the early-mid 19th century. And of the names you can think of, the recordings you likely have in your library, that’s likely it.
(Granted, there were others. Wagner, one of the most famous composers in history, composed a symphony in C that was premiered in 1832, but remained underwhelming throughout history, to say the least. Georges Onslow wrote three symphonies in the 1830s and a fourth in 1846, but you likely don’t know of them; I don’t.)
A symphony I can speak for is Adolf Lindblad’s first, in C, completed in 1831. It’s a beautiful work, and a bit later on his fellow countryman Franz Berwald wrote a few. Niels Gade started writing symphonies in the 1840s. There were also a few Russians, like Rubinstein or Balakirev, but by and large what survives today from that time is scant.
In response to this sudden aversion to or fear of or perplexity caused by Beethoven’s ninth, people like Liszt began writing programmatic works, symphonic poems, outside the form and tradition of the symphony, and that went on for some time. Later in the century, a few others came along, names you might readily recognize, like Dvorak and Bruckner (although his no. 1 wasn’t really his first), who started writing symphonies in the ’60s, as did Tchaikovsky, but at the time of their premieres, none of these (first symphonies from Dvorak, Bruckner, or Tchaikovsky) were really considered successful in any sense of the word.
Essentially then, Brahms’ first symphony addressed the elephant in the room, looked it square in the eye and turned around and did something amazing while also nodding its cap to one of the greatest symphonic works in history.
About the Work
Brahms had been under some serious pressure from the musical world to be something of a savior in this regard. It stems from a statement Schumann made when Brahms was still young. I’m too lazy to look it up (and enjoy my slightly fictionalized version more), but Schumann expressed to some people, perhaps his wife, associates, Brahms himself maybe, that this young boy would be ‘the next Beethoven’ or ‘something equal to Beethoven’ or something, a statement which the young composer would have greatly appreciated had it not put him under extreme (perceived) pressure to excel.
The first symphony was a long time in coming, then. With an opus number as high as 68, he’d written a lot of other music before the first was completed, but not started. His first piano concert, op. 15, originated as a symphony, but lost its way and became a concerto. I’m okay with that. His German Requiem, the work that cemented him as a true composer of outstanding genius, was composed rather quickly after his mother’s death, first performed in full in 1869.
Sketches for the first symphony date from as far back as 1854, when the composer was only 21 years old. The Wiki article for the piece thus states that the work took “at least fourteen years” to complete, while Brahms himself claimed that “that the symphony, from sketches to finishing touches, took 21 years, from 1855 to 1876.”
The ‘History’ section of the Wiki article discusses the long time it took to write, the “expectation from Brahms’ friends and the public that he would continue “Beethoven’s inheritance” and produce a symphony of commensurate dignity and intellectual scope.” Brahms himself, as you may know, was also very critical of himself and surely tossed any number of manuscripts or drafts of what the work may have been. Finally, though, in 1868, he had an epiphany of some kind and sent an optimistic card (?) to Clara Schumann, apparently expressing he’d had his artistic breakthrough with the work. Still, though, it would be almost another decade before he completed it.
In four movements, the work is a hefty 50-ish minutes in performance and is just basically… one of the greatest things ever written. It’s bold, handsome, dramatic, powerful, but deep, not flashy. It’s quintessentially Romantic, and German, a work of seriousness but also feeling.
Due to its conscious homage to Beethoven, Hans von Bülow referred to it, likely complimentarily, as “Beethoven’s tenth,” which Brahms didn’t appreciate, but that’s the ‘staring down the elephant in the room’ that I (and Tom Service) mentioned earlier. He addresses it, breaks the spell, in a way, and really, when you listen, the entire symphony, at least to me, builds to that grand reveal in the finale, of Beethoven’s spirit hovering over the work, nodding in approval and giving composers for the rest of history the nod to proceed with writing great, historical symphonies.
The first movement begins with a meaty introduction, unique among the Brahms symphonies. It’s one of those openings that, to someone who knows this work, is such an exciting statement, a promise of such an amazing journey, like the famous first line of a celebrated novel, Anna Karenina, or A Tale of Two Cities, or Catcher in the Rye, Moby Dick, whatever.
The introductory phrase is made up of just three things, and they generate intensity, power, and conflict, a very masculine sound. Most standout among them is the timpani, ringing out a C as if war is beginning, and maybe it is. Brahms has pitted the winds and strings against each other, so that when winds move down a note, strings move up, and they counter each other in this tug of war for a brief period over the heartbeat of the timpani, and eventually from this develops more melodic material, a syncopated downward gesture, and even another sort of repeat of the opening timpani, rolled instead of beaten, and on G. But after all of this fantastic foreshadowing, we are officially at the exposition, whence the repeat will begin.
I’m not going to give a play-by-play of this work. For really serious, extremely detailed stuff, I’ll defer to Kelly Dean Hansen again, but this first movement is just so handsome, masculine, well-crafted, and sublimely musical. It exemplifies one of the great joys of Brahms’ music, this fascinating, almost magical, quality of an entire movement, an entire symphony, unfolding from such an economy of material as a foundation.
The first movement is heady, strong, but beautiful and fragrant, just an outstanding beginning to this historical symphony, but it gets better. There’s a restatement of the exposition and a coda to round out the first movement. You just have to listen.
The second movement is marked andante sostenuto, and gives us a much more delicate contrast to the first movement. It’s in ternary form, and a good reminder after that first movement that Brahms doesn’t need to rely on heavy-handed Romantic heft and intensity to be successful. The soft curves of this movement are warm and comforting, highlighted with beautiful solos from oboe and violin, just superb. It’s here that, only upon becoming much more familiar with the symphony, I hear the first inklings of what is eventually revealed, later in this symphony, as one of the greatest, most shining moments in all of music, but there’s just a twinkle of it here.
Next is by far the shortest movement of the symphony, at less than five minutes. We’d expect a scherzo, but instead what we have is kind of a dainty little intermezzo of sorts. It’s marked un poco allegretto e grazioso, and Hanson says it’s in ternary form “resembling a scherzo and trio.” As we’ve seen with all the other Brahms symphonies, the only one with a true scherzo is the fourth, but because of its brevity and melodic content, it feels almost like a prelude to the great finale. This small movement is warm and round and tranquil. Wikipedia gives a description with A, B, C and D parts as subsections of the ternary form, but it’s all rather quick, and acts as a beautiful prelude to the outstanding finale.
And this folks, is where it happens. We have what Hansen calls a “Varied Sonata-Allegro form with development and recapitulation combined, and with large two-part introduction.” We should not be surprised that the musical material here is engaging and exciting and moving, but for me, everything in this movement, really the entire symphony, centers around the glorious appearance of that reference to Beethoven’s ninth symphony. For me, it’s the jewel in the crown of this symphony, a monument, a statement, looking forward to continued great things in music as the Romantic era flourishes while also giving a bow to the masters who came before. It’s glorious, and that moment when it appears, magically, is one of the greatest in music. And as a side note, that horn solo, the glorious, famous, beautiful horn solo, was something Brahms originally heard on an alphorn, and would you believe it if I told you Sarah Willis…
Brahms gave us a spectacular first symphony, one he held out on giving the world for a long time, after a piano concerto, the requiem, etc., and it was a worthwhile wait. It also took me a ton of time to get back around to writing about it, even though the vast majority of this article is about its history.
It is a more Romantic idea than an accurate one to say that this symphony broke the spell of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, because there were obviously plenty of symphonies written in the half century between the premieres of the two works, but at the time when Brahms began sketching what would become the first symphony, there weren’t that many people writing symphonies. It would probably be more accurate to say that Brahms’ work happened to come along at a time when symphonies were finally being written again, from Russians and Czechs and on and on, but it’s certainly a standout as one of the greatest achievements of the Romantic era, or any era for that matter, hence my need to represent it better on the website. Please don’t read that old article.
Anyway, we have one more symphony this week to look forward to, a new one, from someone else we haven’t seen in quite some time, and then we’re off to do new and very exciting things, so please do stay tuned. Thank you for reading.