Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Born May 7, 1833 in Hamburg Germany.

Died April 3, 1897 in Vienna Austria.

Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68.

Composed ~1855 – September, 1876.

First Performance: November 4, 1876 at Karlsruhe with Otto Dessoff conducting.

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

Duration: ~47 min.

When Beethoven was 43 years old he had already written 8 of his 9 symphonies. Mozart at the same age had written all 41 of his since he was already dead for 8 years. Many composers wrote their first symphony at an early age; Mozart was 10, Mendelssohn was 15, Schubert was 16 and Shostakovich was 19. Why did Brahms wait until he was 43 to write his first?

Besides being a gifted composer, Robert Schumann used his literary talent as a music critic. In 1833 he founded the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal of Music) where his writings were published for a decade. Ten years later he wrote an article entitled Neue Bahnen (New Paths) in the October 28,1853 issue praising Brahms as the successor to Beethoven. Of course this set the bar very high for the 20 year old Brahms. Here Schumann writes:

“As I followed the career of young talents with great interest, I thought that… there must and would suddenly appear one whose destiny should be to express the spirit of our age in the highest and most ideal fashion, one who should not reveal his mastery by a gradual development, but, spring, like Minerva, fully armed from the head of Jove. And now he has come, a young creature over whose cradle the Graces and heroes have kept watch. His name is Johannes Brahms…”

Beethoven did indeed cast a long shadow over nineteenth century composers. In 1839 Schumann recognized this when he wrote “When the German speaks of symphonies, he means Beethoven. The two names are for him one and indivisible – his joy, his pride.” To Brahms his presence was palpable. He once wrote to a conductor friend that “I shall never compose a Symphony! You have no conception of how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us.” Leonard Bernstein lamented the “genius complex” where the expectation was that Bernstein-the-Genius had to produce a Masterpiece every time. Such expectations do indeed freeze the creative impulse.

In his time critics were quick to point to his humble beginnings as a pianist on the Hamburg waterfront. Later composers were not above making catty remarks such as Hugo Wolf’s declaration that Brahms was the undisputed master of composing without ideas. The usually even-tempered Benjamin Britten said that it wasn’t bad Brahms he minded, but good Brahms that he couldn’t stand.

Brahms was always questioning his own work. There is evidence that he discarded much of his music and sketches. Many times he started writing one thing which ended up as something else. In 1856 he sketched a Symphony in D minor – the same key as Beethoven’s Ninth. He abandoned this project and much of this music found its way into his Piano Concerto No. 1 (1861) as well as the German Requiem (1857 – 1868).

Although his friends were frequently inquiring about a symphony, he appeared to be delaying but was gaining valuable experience with orchestral writing. In the late 1850s Brahms wrote two quite wonderful Serenades. In an 1859 letter to Joseph Joachim, Brahms mentioned that he wished to expand the first Serenade into a symphony. He did expand the Serenade No. 1 from octet to nonet then finally to six movements for full orchestra. In 1860 it was premiered as a “Sinfonie-Serenade.” He had second thoughts about this designation so upon publication he renamed it to Serenade No. 1 in D major, Op. 11. These “preparations” culminated in 1873 with the resounding success of the Variations on a theme of Haydn op 56a.

In reality he had been working on a symphony for years. On July 1 1862, Clara Schumann wrote to Joachim:

“Johannes sent me… the first movement of a symphony with this bold opening: [she cites what are now measures 38-42 ] … That is rather strong, but I have become used to it … the motives are treated with a mastery that is becoming more and more characteristic of him.” This letter has led musicologists to believe that the current introduction to the first movement was completed at a later time. But the symphony was far from complete. Six year later Brahms sent her a musical birthday card from Switzerland on September 12, 1868, with the comment “This is what the Alp horn plays today.” This was one theme from the finale but no more. She had to wait another eight years before he played the entire symphony for her on the piano.

Brahms’ first biographer Max Kalbeck believed that work on the first movement started in 1855 – the year after Schumann’s suicide attempt and Brahms’ first hearing of a live performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He further suggested that the impetus for the work was his love for Clara Schumann and his listening to Robert Schumann’s music to Byron’s Manfred – whose main character is driven to despair over a forbidden love.

There are four movements:

1. Poco sostenuto – Allegro
2. Andante sostenuto
3. Un poco allegretto e grazioso
4. Adagio – Più andante. Allegro non troppo, ma con brio – Piu allegro

1st Movement Un Poco Sostenuto – Allegro
C minor. 6/8

The symphony begins with a brooding sustained introduction in C minor. Brahms immediately presents the main ideas of the movement with three fragmentary motifs. The first is a rising chromatic sequence that ends with a sixteenth note flourish. The second fragment are a sequence of falling sixths played against the first fragment. Here we see that Brahms characteristically begins developing an idea without much hesitation. The final fragment resembles a horn call that repeatedly jumps an octave with an intervening sixth (G-Eb-G). This adumbrates the main theme of the Allegro which begins with the first fragment. The form of the movement is a sonata allegro but Brahms blurs the distinction between exposition and development with a technique that Schoenberg called “developing variation.” The exposition is hardly off the ground before Brahms begins developing his materials.

Max Kalbeck pointed out the resemblance between the leaping main theme and the leaping theme from the first movement of Schumann’s First Symphony which represented Schumann himself. This is followed by a short motif that turns around that represented Clara. This has its analog in the flourish that ends Brahms first fragment. Kalbeck referred to Brahms’ chromatic fragment rather fancifully as the Schicksalmotiv (the fate motif).

One of the highlights of the movement is the transition from the development to the recapitulation (the retransition) where the resolution is continually delayed. Even when we can see the goal we are taken on a detour to a remote key.
In the previously cited Clara Schumann letter she writes that “He has succeeded in making another splendid transition from the second part back to the first.”

The coda returns to the mood of the opening where we hear the chromatic sequence in the winds. We hear the famous rhythm from Beethoven’s Fifth (also in C minor) in the drums and basses. The movement ends quietly with the third fragment resembling a sigh.

2nd Movement Andante Sostenuto
E major. 3/4

The second movement is in the distant key of E major just like the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. It stands in immediate contrast with the first movement with its quietly flowing character. We hear the main theme first in the strings and bassoon. Although the focus is primarily on the strings we are treated to lovely oboe solos and well as a violin solo. Brahms revised this second movement after a series of English performances before publication. In a February 12, 1877 letter Clara Schumann wrote that “Without knowing it you have done what I wished, by altering the Adagio. Between the first and last movement the ear needs a rest, the repose of melody.”

3rd Movement Poco Allegretto E Grazioso
A flat major. 2/4.

Instead of a scherzo Brahms gives us this brief but compact intermezzo like movement. It begins without any introduction with a folk like theme played as a clarinet solo. While the craftsmanship of this theme is not immediately apparent, closer inspection reveals that this five measure (!) first theme is succeeded by its exact inversion. The second theme with a dotted rhythm follows immediately in the winds. There is a reprise of the clarinet solo at the end of the first section.

The middle section is a 6/8 Trio in B major in two parts with the usual repeats. Listen for the crescendo at the end where the trumpets play the trio theme. After the trio we return to A flat major in 2/4 but things are a little different. The return to the first theme is not an exact repeat – It is no longer followed by its inversion but instead the theme itself is extended. The second theme reappears this time in the home key leading to a coda.

4th Movement Allegro non troppo ma con brio
C minor – C major. 4/4.

It appears that the finale presented special problems to Brahms. There were several years between the composition of the first three movements and the finale.

Brahms rarely wrote introductions, instead he preferred to jump right into main idea. But here we are treated to another introduction – two in the same symphony! As in the introduction to the first movement Brahms presents three fragmentary ideas which then become the main materials of the movement including the famous Alp horn theme played – not surprisingly – by the horns.

After the introduction we hear the theme that will be stuck in your ears on the way out the door. Based on the introduction’s second fragment it recalls a theme from another famous finale. Perhaps a C minor symphony that triumphantly ends in C major is inviting comparison to Beethoven. A weary Brahms responded to the zillionth person who compared the theme with the Ode to Joy that “Das bemerkt ja schon jeder Esel.” (“Every jackass notices that!”). But there is also a resemblance to that other B or the BBB triumvirate – Bach. Musicologist David Brodbeck among others have pointed out the derivation of the first part of the theme from the funeral cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit BWV 106. The initial part of the theme is a rhetorical mourning motif (saltus duriusculus). The Beethoven reference really doesn’t come into focus until the third measure and then only briefly before trading places with Bach. These motifs are no mere quotations but instead they are woven into the entire fabric of the movement. For example, the Alp horn theme actually is a transformation of this Bach motif.

The first performance in 1876 was not in a high profile location such as Vienna but in the manner of an off-off Broadway play it took place in the provincial town of Karlsruhe as if he were testing the waters. The critical reception ran the gamut from the predictable sneering by the Wagner/Liszt camp to Hans von Bülow’s proclamation that this was “Beethoven’s Tenth.”


Public domain scan of the first edition score.