Brahms: Symphony no 1 in C minor

I. Un poco sostenuto – Allegro
II. Andante sostenuto
III. Un poco allegretto e grazioso
IV. Adagio – Più andante – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio

Brahms’ 1st symphony occupies an enigmatic place in the symphonic canon. When premiered in November 1876, it was hailed as “Beethoven’s 10th” by conductor Hans von Bulow. But that was 52 years after his predecessor’s ninth symphony was first played.

What does that imply? Did von Bulow consider Brahms’ work superior to all the other symphonies composed in that half-century? Or did he think it more backward-looking than these other compositions?

Brahms himself hated the compliment. He felt it suggested he had plagiarised the great master. And there are certainly hints of the ‘Ode to Joy’ melody emerging through parts of the last movement.

Perhaps Brahms was simply conscious he had spent so long on the work. It was more than 20 years since he first started sketching out ideas, in 1854, as a promising 21-year-old. By the time he completed it, music had already moved on substantially. In 1865, Wagner had astounded the musical world with the innovative tones and modern motifs in his opera Tristan and Isolde. Fans of this style, including Liszt, considered such dramatic works far more interesting than the symphony, with its more constrictive four-movement sonata form.

But Brahms’ manifold genius was to take this classical structure, bring it out from under the shadow of Beethoven’s legacy and usher in a new era of high-romantic symphonic writing.

Before Brahms, the celebrated symphonies after Beethoven’s were Mendelssohn’s, Schuman’s and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, as well as some early works by Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. All are wonderful pieces but they basically follow the classical conventions.

After Brahms, the glories of Bruckner, late Dvorak including his New World symphony, Tchaikovsky, Saint Saens’ Organ symphony, Mahler and then Sibelius could flourish over the next half century. These are symphonies on an altogether different scale, weaving in all-encompassing themes.

The other striking factor is that the piece is highly sophisticated for a first symphony. Most initial stabs at this form naturally tend to be rather immature works.  Who for instance now remembers the first symphonies of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn or indeed Wagner (played at BHSO’s last concert)?

Brahms’ symphony made an immediate impact, partly because it took him so long to complete. The 22-year genesis of the piece allowed him to rework many parts of the symphony and its scoring. However, Brahms’ proven success as a composer for the piano can clearly be seen throughout the work too.

The piece consists of two long outer movements, with introductions in C minor framing two shorter interior movements with a lighter feel altogether. These combine to provide almost an intermezzo between the serious work attempted in what precedes and follows.

The somewhat primeval introduction to the first movement, with its thudding timpani and slowly rising string theme, alongside descending winds, was apparently composed after the rest of the symphony, possibly to give a grand start to the whole.

After that mysterious opening, an allegro follows which is far more conventional in tone, with a theme set out which is then developed and returned to. Next is a beautiful andante in similar traditional vein. A violin solo tops off this delightful movement.

The third movement should traditionally be a dance-like minuet and trio. Brahms gives us this, albeit in a rather half-hearted fashion, with a slower than normal introduction and then a series of curtailed dances. But this is all preparation for the unforgettable climax of the piece.

Again the final movement starts with mystery, like the first, with rising strings heightening expectations, which then seem dashed as the music cascades and descends into a roll of the timpani. Suddenly, a glorious transitional passage into the major key emerges above the shimmering strings. It is announced by a horn, meant to evoke an Alpenhorn calling down from the heights across the valleys.

This heralds a more conventional sonata-style rendition of a core theme, which goes through various modifications before an extended coda takes shape. Just before the end, a chorale is played throughout the orchestra. It is almost as if Brahms is giving thanks for the completion of his long-anticipated symphony, before allowing the musicians to then carry on in a brisk march to the end.