Johannes Brahms was born in the Free City of Hamburg on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. The first signs of the Symphony No. 1 come from 1862 in the form of a sketch for the main theme of the first movement copied by Clara Schumann in a letter to Joseph Joachim. Another sketch survives from 1868. Brahms does not seem to have begun to put the entire work together in earnest until about 1874; he finished it in the summer of 1876. Otto Dessoff conducted the premiere at Karlsruhe on November 4, 1876. Numerous performances that season led to further revisions before the score finally appeared in print in 1877. The first North American performance was given under the direction of Leopold Damrosch in Steinway Hall, New York, on December 15, 1877. Henry Hadley conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performance on February 16, 1912. The most recent performances, in September 2011, were given under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. The symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about forty-five minutes.
Brahms was already forty-two when his First Symphony was introduced. No longer young, he was anything but old, not even by the standards of 1876. Yet composers before him had tackled symphony-writing much earlier—composers such as Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven and Mendelssohn and Schumann, who had already contributed so much to the repertory and whose music would continue to live, evolving into a Great Tradition in which Brahms saw a role for himself.
Brahms had been an early bloomer, too. He was barely out of his teens when Robert Schumann introduced him to the music world in an essay titled “New Paths,” published in Europe’s most influential music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Brahms, Schumann announced, was “the one . . . chosen to express the most exalted spirit of the times in an ideal manner, one who [sprang] fully armed from the head of Jove . . . [a] youth at whose cradle the graces and heroes of old stood guard.” The young composer was famous as soon as the papers hit the newsstands. Suddenly, expectations across the German-speaking world were high. The pressure was on, and it all but stopped Brahms before he could move on to larger-scale compositions than the piano works that had so excited Schumann.
Part of the problem was that Brahms was such a harsh critic of his own work. He honed his material until he was satisfied, and he held himself to tough standards. We are told that his desire to be worthy is what kept him from introducing a symphony before he was already into middle age. He was intimidated by Beethoven. “You have no idea what it’s like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you,” he said, those footsteps resonating through his psyche, making him question if he could ever do anything on a par with the author of nine symphonies that seemed to define the limits of what music could express. Maybe. But while Brahms was keeping the world at bay with his talk about The Giant, he was busy trying to hear his own symphonic voice, and trying to learn how to let it be heard. When he was forty, he introduced the Variations on a Theme by Haydn. For all its generosity of spirit, this is clearly an exercise in how to create and arrange sonic shapes. The Haydn Variations marked the first time in a decade that Brahms had used the orchestra; nevertheless, during that time he had established himself as one of Europe’s leading composers—and the leading composer among those who, unlike Wagner and Liszt, embraced the traditional ideals of abstract music as opposed to music drama and tone poems.
Yet for all the supposed “abstractness” of his art, Brahms’s music clearly intends to establish mood, communicate expression, elicit response. A symphony is a work of fiction in music. Like a novel, it has characters: themes and gestures; plot: the recurrence and changes to which those themes and gestures are subjected over the course of a movement; and chapters: the individual movements that, as a whole, contain the story. The Brahms symphonies are dramas that tell their own stories of love, loss, redemption, and reconciliation: big themes, the things that great art deals with.
“Beethoven’s Tenth,” the conductor Hans von Bülow called Brahms’s First Symphony as a way of saying that this long-awaited work, fourteen years in the writing and introduced at last in 1876, was the greatest symphony of the past half-century, since Beethoven’s Ninth had first been heard in 1824.
Brahms announces his arrival as a symphonist with an outburst of dissonance by full orchestra over pounding timpani. We know we are in the presence of something serious, something that demands our attention. Brahms has us here, and now he can let the turbulence subside, plucked strings imitating the timpani before yearning phrases lead back into the fierce opening music. Again the fury recedes, and the oboe offers a supplication, imitated by other winds and low strings, the dynamics dropping into inaudibility, creating an atmosphere even more ominous until, for a moment, forward movement stops. This is like a rifle cocked. Brahms squeezes the trigger, and the allegro explodes into some of the most violent sounds he would ever create. In their midst and surrounded by blazing fanfares comes the contrast of a chorale-like passage in the major mode, giving relief and looking ahead to the triumph in which the symphony will end.
The Andante opens in the calm with which the first movement concluded. The oboe sings the sweet melody that will develop into the heart of the movement. A passage in which the strings gather heat and rise into their highest registers in a soaring crescendo is followed by strife. Then the solo violin introduces the melody we had heard initially in the oboe, and the first horn joins in a magical duet.
Next comes an intermezzo, first an innocent dance-like tune, then two contrasting sections, one a manic variant of the innocent dance, the other broader and nobler. With hardly a pause, the finale begins, a great gathering crush of sound that thrusts us back into the world of the first movement. The pizzicato strings return, now threatening and leading to music of increasing frenzy. The frenzy halts on a timpani roll, then a horn call in miraculously contrasting major over trembling strings. The sonic vista has suddenly grown as broad as the view from an alpine summit, and now trombones enter in a chorale that hovers over the tableau, recalling Milton’s invocation to the Spirit, present from the first and sitting dovelike “with mighty arms outspread, . . . brooding on the vast abyss” and impregnating the womb in which the world will form. All this is introductory to the tune that some of the first listeners compared to the “Ode to Joy” theme in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth.
As in the first movement, the ensuing struggles are huge. But those took place in a locked room, the interior space of a mind obsessed with a single idea. Here the action unfolds on an open field. The destination isn’t clear until the last moments. Brahms’s coda grows ever more wild until the orchestra with one ecstatic voice repeats the chorale that the trombones had enunciated earlier. With a last flourish, Brahms ends this symphony so long in the making and so inexhaustible in its power to thrill and transport listeners.
More About the Music
Recordings: Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Sony) | Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) | Wilhelm Furtwängler with the North German Radio Symphony (Music & Arts) | Jascha Horenstein and the London Symphony Orchestra (Chesky) | Sir Charles Mackerras with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, “historically informed” but never short on fire (Telarc)
Reading: Brahms, by Malcolm Macdonald (Oxford University Press) | Johannes Brahms: A Biography, by Jan Swafford (Vintage) | Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, a collection of correspondence translated and edited by Styra Avins and Josef Eisinger (Oxford University Press) | A Brahms Reader, by Michael Musgrave (Yale University Press) | Brahms, His Life and Work, by Karl Geiringer (Da Capo) | “Encountering Brahms,” by Larry Rothe, in For the Love of Music, by Michael Steinberg and Rothe (Oxford University Press)