Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 21, 1921, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Because of his relentlessly self-questioning nature, Brahms waited longer than most composers to write his first symphony. When, at the age of 20, he met Robert Schumann, the older composer saw in the piano sonatas Brahms played for him “veiled symphonies.” Although Brahms tended to destroy the evidence of his unfinished works, he sometimes recast scores in new ways; thus, we can hear in the stormy opening movement of his First Piano Concerto music that had been intended as a symphony (as early as 1854). The disappointing reception given the Concerto in January 1859 at its premiere performances put an end for some time to thoughts of orchestral music, and Brahms turned to more intimate forms. Over the next decade he produced such ambitious and major works as his two String Sextets, the Piano Quintet, the Horn Trio, and the first two Piano Quartets.
By 1862, Brahms had presumably composed at least the first movement of his First Symphony; he sent the music (missing the famous thundering introduction, which was still to be composed) to Clara Schumann. In 1868, he sent her a birthday postcard from Switzerland, quoting a tune the composer claimed to have heard played on an Alpine horn by a shepherd. This music would reappear to introduce the famous striding theme of the Symphony’s finale. Despite these indications of his occasional attention to the Symphony, it would have to wait until 1876 for completion, and even then the composer would make significant revisions to the second movement before publishing the work in 1877.
As he had in the Piano Concerto No. 1, Brahms opens his Symphony No. 1 with music of extraordinary intensity. Throbbing basses and relentless timpani strokes create an immediate atmosphere of darkness and conflict. The struggle proceeds in two directions at once, rising from below and falling from above, but overlapping musical phrases are also dueling with one another. This is music of incredible contrapuntal richness, but without the carefully considered serenity that such a description might imply. After the tension subsides, a sudden single drumstroke announces the beginning of the Allegro section (the tempo marking for the introduction, incidentally, is not really a tempo at all, just Un poco sostenuto – Somewhat sustained). There is hardly what could be identified as a theme, since Brahms continues his motivic expansion, sculpting the air before our very ears with bold sweeping gestures. Indeed, we read in The New Grove Dictionary that “The main ‘theme’ … is actually a complex of three different motifs presented simultaneously, then immediately developed.” The orchestral sound is also something entirely new. The widely spaced string writing, the richly chromatic use of winds, the heroic brass, all bear the unmistakable signature of the composer. There are moments of relaxation during the course of the movement’s progress, but they seem always to lead us back to ever more intense activity. Finally, however, the coda brings serene, almost seraphic resolution.
Just as with Beethoven’s C-minor Symphony, the culmination is saved for the finale of the Brahms First. Between the stormy opening and the turbulent conclusion, Brahms places a pair of interludes. The Andante is dreamy and withdrawn, almost religious in its contemplative mood. Once more, the scoring is distinctive, this time emphasizing the exquisite delicacy of a composer whose greatest “hit” for many years was that notorious Lullaby. The composer’s chamber music experience serves him well in the closing pages of the movement, with a solo violin floating sweetly above the orchestra.
Although Brahms did compose a few real scherzos, the only one of his symphonies to get one, even though not so named, is the Fourth. The third movement of the First Symphony is an easy-going Allegretto, with wonderfully bucolic writing for the clarinets. This might be part of a “Pastoral” Symphony, had Brahms written one.
The finale is the longest part of the Symphony. Once again, a slow introduction sets the stage for the movement to follow. Urgent music for pizzicato strings leads us through mysterious, disturbing pages to one of the most truly pictorial moments in all of Brahms. The mists clear away as we hear the horn call from that birthday card to Clara Schumann, continuing in a noble flute solo; as the echoes subside, a chorale from the trombones introduces a repeat of the horn call, which gives way to what Michael Steinberg described simply as “the tune.” Having set himself the daunting task of following Beethoven’s nine symphonies, Brahms was obliged to create a melody to rival the “Ode to Joy” theme from the last of those masterpieces. The rapid juxtaposition of this exalted music (not derivative, but reverently referential) with new and agitated shorter themes that overlap extensions of their constituent motifs reminds us that Schoenberg called this “developing variation.” Again we hear his full mastery of the orchestra as Brahms approaches the conclusion of his musical drama. Instead of repeating “the tune” at the climax, he turns to the horn call for the final grand chorale that precedes the vigorous and triumphant coda.
Dennis Bade is Associate Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.