Brahms: Symphony No. 1

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68

BORN: May 7, 1833. Free City of Hamburg
DIED: April 3, 1897. Vienna

COMPOSED: Brahms began sketching his First Symphony in 1862, started concentrated work on the score in 1874, and finished it in the summer of 1876

WORLD PREMIERE: November 4, 1876. Otto Dessoff conducted the premiere at Karlsruhe

NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE: December 15, 1877. Leopold Damrosch conducted at Steinway Hall, NY

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1912. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—June 2016. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 45 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann—compared to Johannes Brahms, they had barely left school when they launched their symphonic careers. Brahms saw those forebears as examples, inspiring and intimidating. For years he remained determined to join their league, to harness the orchestra as they had and add his name to the historic line they represented. By the time he pulled it off with the premiere of his First Symphony, he was already forty-two.

Brahms had been an early bloomer. He was barely out of his teens when Robert Schumann, unable to curb his enthusiasm, introduced him in the pages of Europe’s most influential music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, as “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.” Overnight, Brahms encountered the delight of fame and the dread of high expectations. The pressure all but stopped him before he could move on to larger-scale compositions than the piano works that had excited Schumann.

Part of the problem was that Brahms was such a harsh self-critic. He honed his material until he was satisfied and held himself to tough standards. Consider: He composed more than twenty—possibly as many as thirty—string quartets besides the three he published. (He burned the others.) Ultimately, through the fusion of hard work, reflection, and inspiration that makes for genius, Brahms recovered from Schumann’s prophecy and fulfilled his promise in songs and piano music and chamber works and choruses. He approached the orchestra more deliberately, producing two serenades, a piano concerto, and his A German Requiem before retreating exclusively into more intimate forms.

Meanwhile, the music world expected him to write a symphony. Come on, he said: “You have no idea what it’s like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you”—the giant being Beethoven, whose echoing footsteps forced Brahms to 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.

But while Brahms was keeping the press at bay with his talk about the giant, he was busy trying to hear his own symphonic voice. When he was forty, he introduced the Variations on a Theme of Haydn. For all its generosity of spirit, this is an exercise in how to create and arrange sonic shapes. The Haydn Variations marked the first time in a decade Brahms had used the orchestra, and the first time in fifteen years—since his Serenade No. 1—that he had written a purely orchestral work for a sizable ensemble. The forty-five works between the serenade and the variations had established Brahms as one of Europe’s leading composers—and the leading composer among those who embraced the traditional ideals of abstract music as opposed to music drama and tone poems. Brahms’s First Symphony, fourteen years in the writing, was instantly recognized as the greatest symphony of the past half-century, since Beethoven’s Ninth had first been heard in 1824.

Brahms knew now that he could get it right. In less than a year he turned out a second symphony. A third symphony would follow in 1883, a fourth in 1885. If his first two symphonies reveal Brahms exploring what he could do with an orchestra, his last two show him at ease as he knits his personal world view into the fabric of sound. By the time of those last symphonies, he had consolidated his art. He had become Johannes Brahms. 

THE MUSIC  Which is to take nothing away from the greatness of his Opus 68. Here, 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 attention. Brahms has us, 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, all but inaudible, creating an atmosphere ever 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, already looking ahead to the symphony’s last moments.

The Andante opens in the calm with which the first movement concluded. The oboe sings the sweet melody at the heart of this movement, a melody reprised at the end by the solo violin, which joins the first horn 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. A passage for plucked strings grows threatening, accelerating into a frenzy halted by a timpani roll. Then, in the major mode, a horn call rises above trembling strings. The sonic vista has suddenly grown as broad as the view from an alpine summit, trombones entering 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 preliminary, introducing 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 battles 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 approaches through shadows as Brahms’s coda begins, first hesitating, then growing assured as the pace increases and increases again, on the verge of spinning off center but holding steady until the moment of revelation, when the orchestra with one ecstatic voice repeats the chorale the trombones had enunciated earlier. With a last flourish, Brahms closes this symphony so long in the making and so inexhaustible in its power to thrill and transport.

—Larry Rothe

Larry Rothe, former editor of the SFS program book, is author of Music for a City, Music for the World, a history of the San Francisco Symphony, and co-author of the essay collection For the Love of Music. Both books are available at the Symphony Store.

 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)

ReadingBrahms, 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)  |   “Encountering Brahms,” by Larry Rothe, in For the Love of Music, by Michael Steinberg and Rothe (Oxford University Press)

(February 2018)