Johannes Brahms: Symphony No.1


Few popular large scale works have taken longer to compose than Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony. The German composer spent just over 21  years to end with what we know as his First Symphony. Sketches for the symphony date back to 1854, with the premiere of the work taking place in Karlsruhe in the Grand Duchy of Baden in 1876. 

Work on this symphony began sometime in 1854, however it was heavily reworked, with much of the original sketches being used for Brahms’ First Piano Concerto instead. Brahms was known for being a highly self-critical composer, which led him to destroy many of his early works. Brahms also wanted to continue “Beethoven’s inheritance” by producing a work with dignity and intellectual score – characteristics that Brahms felt he could not fulfil easily. 

It wasn’t until around 1868 when Brahms began to fully realise the structure of the First Symphony. Yet the work would still remain unperformed until 1876. Fritz Simrock, Brahms’ publisher, did not receive the score for the symphony until the work had been performed in three different cities. Even at this point, Brahms still wanted to have it performed more before getting it published. 

Brahms’ efforts were certainly reciprocated by the positive reviews of his First Symphony. Some began to even call it “Beethoven’s Tenth”, as there was a resemblance to one of the main themes in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Brahms also uses the ‘fate motif’ from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In today’s world this symphony is hardly ever referred to as anything to do with Beethoven. Orchestras and audiences love it as it is one of Brahms’ most dramatic and enigmatic orchestral works. 


The Music

Set into four movements, the First Symphony is scored for a large orchestra. A typical performance of the symphony can take between 45 minutes-1 hour.


Movement I – Un poco sostenuto – Allegro

Unique among Brahms symphonies, the First Symphony opens with a formal introduction. The processional and highly dramatic opening is accentuated by a pulsating timpani underneath. The slow chromatic movement heard in the syncopated winds and strings gives us a taste of what’s to come in the rest of the symphony. 

The exposition begins out of nowhere, and sees the orchestra plunge into a scherzo-like section. The intensity is still high, and can be heard through Brahms’ intricate orchestrations. Many say that the opening movement is strongly related to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Perhaps this is due to Brahms’ utilisation of a fate motif that reappears throughout the movement. 

The repeating dotted rhythm lies at the heart of this movement, with the sequence surfacing through each sub-section of the movement. Most of the time this theme also unites the orchestra together, after they have played interlocking melodies. Throughout this long opening movement Brahms moves through various keys for dramatic effect. His harmonic language is complex and intense, and is at its most surprising when the movement finishes off peacefully in C major. 


Movement II – Andante sostenuto

The second movement is set in E major. Brahms’ lyrical writing for strings is at the forefront of this movement, with deep textures running through the veins of the music. This movement features significant solo work from the solo oboe, clarinet and principal violin. 

Brahms keeps the intensity running through this movement with long melody lines accompanied by deeply-rooted harmonies underneath. The music is intelligently interlocked, creating a wall of sound in the climaxes, as well as more delicate sections that showcase countermelodies and variations. This movement ends with a sense of fragility, with the solo violin leading the final chords.


Movement III – Un poco allegretto e grazioso

Now in the humble key of Ab major, the third movement is opened by a calm clarinet melody. The dotted rhythm that was spread across the first movement surfaces again in this movement, this time it is inverted. 

Swirling wind motifs tumble through the orchestra as pizzicato strings create a symmetrical response. This movement is perhaps one of the most technical for the orchestra, as Brahms has struck a fine balance between all the interlocking melodies. The clarinet motif returns to transition the orchestra into the trio section. 

As well as offering a change of key, the trio movement also changes time signature. Now in a dancelike 6/8, the music flourishes in the new key of B major. The use of a downward arpeggio is at the heart of the trio, which is only fleeting. 

The Allegretto section returns and shows the new variations of the themes. This leads into the coda section which ends the movement with the gentle throbbing of triplets that were heard in the trio section. Marked tranquil, the closing few bars end abruptly, finishing on the downbeat of a new bar. 


Movement IV – Più andante – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio – Più allegro

Similar to the opening movement, the start of the finale is set back into the home key of C minor. The finale is noted for its successful resolutions of the tensions built chiefly in the opening movement. 

Opening once more with an ominous and muddy opening, the sequence is followed by the famous ‘Alphorn theme’ – which was inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. An ominous pizzicato section is heard before the music returns for a short reprise before the fate motif returns. 

The grand melodies of the exposition section highlight Brahms’ incredible melodic writing. Grand and powerful, the melody is led by the strings before it is passed to the winds for the development section. A second theme is introduced, which is based on content from the opening movement. Here, the theme is played in its full entirety for the very last time in the symphony. From the glorious horns to the luscious strings, this is one of the highlights of the whole symphony. 

A lengthy coda section takes the music to its triumphant end, with Brahms modulating to C major. The chorale motif from the opening movement is played through again before the symphony ends with a bold pair of plagal cadences. The dramatic ending is made all the more intense by Brahms’ bold brass and timpani writing.


Final Thoughts

Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony is full of exciting twists and turns brought to fruition by Brahms’ effective harmonic language, rich orchestrations and memorable melodic writing. Each movement plays an important part in the overarching messages within the symphony. No doubt Brahms was not the happiest he could have been with this symphony, but it has stood the test of time, much like his other symphonies, and is still regularly programmed and performed today.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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