performed by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under Riccardo Chailly, or below with the London Symphony Orchestra under István Kertész
(cover image by Liam Pozz)
Brahms may have only written four symphonies, but the symphonic works that come before it, of which this is his first, are magnificent in and of themselves, and show an enormous, exciting potential for what was to come.
As you may know, Brahms spent something more than a decade (some would say close to two) on his first symphony, and his earliest attempts at sketching one ultimately resulted in the first piano concerto, which he was working on at the same time as this piece. You may also recall that the composer’s friend and mentor Joseph Joachim helped him quite a bit with the orchestration of that work, and that is the case to a lesser degree here.
It was completed in 1858, but originally written for an octet of strings and winds, and then expanded for a chamber nonet, and then later again for a (small) orchestra. The final version, for large orchestra, in which form we most often hear the work today, was completed at the end of 1859, and was first performed a few months later, in March of 1860.
Wikipedia tells us that Brahms thought the premiere “did not go very well,” but also admits that applause “persisted until I came out and down in front,” and that “the audience was shouting,” so I’d say it was pretty successful.
This piece, which sweeps you off your feet in a way that only the Young Brahms could (before becoming The Bearded Wonder, I guess), is in six movements, as follows, with a duration of about 45 minutes:
- Allegro molto (D major)
- Scherzo. Allegro non troppo (D minor) — Trio. Poco più moto (B♭ major)
- Adagio non troppo (B♭ major)
- Menuetto I (G major) — Menuetto II (G minor)
- Scherzo. Allegro (D major) — Trio
- Rondo. Allegro (D major)
Again, there’s really no need to discuss it at length. It is a stunning, magical, beautiful piece that speaks for itself in a magnificent way. There are glimpses, inklings, inclinations of a symphony here, like the first movement being in sonata form, as is the third, but come down to it, with dual minuet, two scherzi, and the breathtaking melodiousness of it all, it is, as Roger Dettmer puts it, “basically a dance work.” What better balance could be struck between serious symphonic music and blissful carefree melody?
The first movement is the longest, and immediately establishes the bucolic, carefree nature of the entire work. Horn sings out the playful, almost childlike theme, clarinet follows, and the orchestra rushes in to accompany. Do you hear glimpses of his first symphony? With the thunderous timpani, sumptuous richness of strings and his orchestral writing, I must say this piece should absolutely be for full orchestra. Brahms has plenty of chamber work as it is. The second theme is a bit lighter, but the whole thing, this movement, and the work as a whole, is time-stoppingly beautiful, and the work ends quietly, a cliffhanger for the rest of the piece.
The second movement is our first scherzo, and it leaves me scratching my head a bit as to why the composer waited until his final symphony to include a proper scherzo, as this one shows he was clearly capable of writing a very satisfactory one. It’s in D minor, but sounds at times like a waltz, but the B flat major trio is the climax of its elegance and charm.
The third movement is the most serious, perhaps, of the whole work. It’s also in B flat, and sort of the slow movement of the work. Dettmer calls it “the work’s emotional fulcrum,” and while it is also in sonata form, “A full-blown development section does not cramp or curb the movement’s soaring melodism.” This movement leaves me in awe not only of the writing, but of how the composer had the restraint, after writing something like this, to wait another 17-ish years before giving us his first symphony. This movement may be quite suitable to a chamber setting, but it glimmers in warmth and a Brahmsian radiance.
We’re then back to short dance movements. The two minuets that make up the fourth movement are playful and light. The first is in G major, the second in minor, and the chamber roots of the work are visible here, at least in the first, with woodwinds and plucked strings. The Gm section is still magnificently suited for a meatier string section.
If it weren’t clear that this is indeed a piece of dances and sheer joy, after two minuets we have our second scherzo, the shortest movement of the piece, which opens with a bright, confident horn. The jubilance of this movement makes it sound like it could be a perfect finale, but that is yet to come.
Like we may have from a typical symphony, the finale is a rondo, but it’s smaller in scale, and while in 2/4 time, is still intoxicatingly dance-like. A longer-scale, heavier rondo, like we see so often in the Romantic era, would dampen the light, jovial spirit of this work as a whole, but we still get the feeling that Brahms is dipping his toes in the waters of the full-blown symphony.
While concert-hall decorum forbids our dancing in the aisles, there’s really no way to keep one’s feet from tapping in time with the music.
I couldn’t agree more.
Thankfully, wonderfully, there is a second of these gems from Brahms, and we’ll be discussing that next. Stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.