Despite the encouragement from his friends, Robert and Clara Schumann, to write a symphony, Brahms’ first suffered a long gestation. The material for his first attempt derived from a two piano sonata, finally evolving as his first piano Concerto in D minor of 1858.
The tragic early death of Robert Schumann in 1856 had a profound effect on Brahms, and it was not until October 1876 that he was able to play a piano version of this new work to his life long friend and critic Clara, who immediately expressed disappointment as it “lacked melody”. It is significant that before the early rehearsals it is known that Brahms shortened the two middle movements: the first performance took place in Karlsruhe on the 4 November 1876.
Vienna, Brahms’ adopted city since 1868, heard it for the first time five weeks later, conducted by the Composer. Clara Schumann still reserved her judgement. The first English performance took place at Cambridge in March 1877 under the direction of Brahms’ friend and violin virtuoso, Joseph Joachim.
Within the next ten years Brahms completed and published his other three symphonies, after which he wrote no more for the orchestra.
1st Movement Un Poco Sostenuto – Allegro
The movement opens with a time signature of 6/8 and over a persistent note C intoned by the timpani and double basses, with the strings launching into a chromatically rising theme and the woodwind tending to pull in the opposite direction. This striving, heart searching motif which will be heard more concisely in the ensuing Allegro, becomes the germinal motif, not only of this movement, but also of the second and third.
A second subject (theme), full of pathos with its falling diminished fifth interval is introduced by the oboe, to which the upward striving harmony heard in the introductory bars forms a bass.
There is a change of ambience when the French horns gently pursue a new theme, replacing the diminished interval with a perfect fourth. This sense of well being is rudely disturbed by the violas’ jagged descent of three notes, and a feeling of impending struggle brings the exposition to a close.
The development section is stormy; troubled with moments of bleakness, but when the music breaks into the recapitulation of the early allegro it becomes imbued with a confident persistent drive until a mellowing Coda brings the movement to a close.
2nd Movement Andante Sostenuto
Although set in the brighter key of E major, and in 3/4 time, nevertheless this whole movement is imbued with an emotional pathos and rich colouring, especially where minor harmonies merge within the themes.
The opening string theme is one of repose, and the second theme, given to the oboe, is derived from the first movement’s opening sostenuto which leads to a lush melody from the violins to a quaver, semi-quaver accompaniment. Following the violins’ upward sweep, oboe and clarinet become prominent to a syncopated accompaniment. As the movement reaches its climax the reprise of the first theme is given to oboe and clarinet, underpinned by a triplet cello figure, out of which grows a gentle lyrical French horn solo which presages a solo horn and solo violin duet version of the movement’s second (oboe) theme.
Although the full orchestra becomes engaged until the very last pianissimo note of the movement the solo violin can be heard, weaving its way in and out of the gentle harmonies.
3rd Movement Poco Allegretto E Grazioso
There is a gracious conciseness about this movement which opens with the clarinet singing a melodic “folksy” theme of ten bars duration, the second five bars being an inversion of the first. A second theme occupies flutes, clarinets and bassoon in dotted quaver thirds accompanied by sustained French horn chords and arpeggio strings. Out of this rhythmically more vital passage the first violins emerge with a reprise of the first theme and then it is the turn of the woodwind to reprise the second theme now with an enhanced accompaniment.
The key has now modulated from A flat to B flat for the middle section in 6/8, which falls into two distinct parts. The opening section is the shorter of the two, and is a conversation between the woodwind in octaves and thirds and the strings. The second section involves the full orchestra (the timpani is silent throughout this movement and the trombones have yet to get involved). Interplay is developed throughout the orchestral forces until the movement’s climax, after which it is customary to repeat the second section.
For the movement’s third section, which has modulated back into A flat and is a synthesis of what has gone before, the clarinet takes on the movement’s gentle close.
4th Movement Allegro non troppo ma con brio
Brahms has laid this last movement out on a grand scale which is reflected in its length. It is as long as the previous movements combined, and it exudes its own peculiar dramatic grandeur.
Opening in C minor, the descending four notes heard in the bassoons and lower strings and the ominous timpani roll portends much; then from out of the twelfth bar the strings presage in the minor the great theme of the forthcoming Allegro.
The adagio continues with sweeping demi-semiquaver passages like rising zephyrs interspersed with chordal emphasis from the rest of the orchestra, until the trombones at long last make their presence felt, albeit with the gentlest of sustained chords against sombre woodwind and tremeloing strings. The high flutes interject with a little 2 bar + 2 bar figure which is taken up by the French horn and which it will use to greater effect later. This introduction finally settles, not on a tonic chord, but modulates directly into the C major allegro where the violins stride into the movement’s first principal theme. It is this theme that critics and commentators have claimed to have an affinity with Beethoven’s “Hymn of Joy” from his ninth symphony, an affinity which Brahms did not exactly deny.
At the animato, the violins introduce the second theme which is played over the lower strings intoning the movement’s opening descending four notes. Syncopation, rising and falling semiquaver passages encompass the rhythmic drive, and modulation brings this, the exposition, to its close in E major.
The movement’s development now proceeds with the strings and bassoons restatement of the first theme, which is now marked largemente. The pair of flutes make their contribution, and the development continues at great length wherein fleeting glimpses of the second theme can be discerned and also variance of the first, and all reach a full orchestral climax after a silent first beat of a bar. Out of the following sustained chord the French horn reiterates the motif first heard in the movement’s early andante.
So the movement’s music has come full circle. As it becomes more animated, the second theme is given pride of place in the strings, until the brass take hold of the proceedings with a great chorale, the trombones intone a diminished version of the movement’s great first theme. As the brass lose their hold, a brisk and yet noble Coda in C major brings this mighty symphony to its close.