Symphony Study No. 49 | Brahms: No. 1

by Glenn on June 26, 2016

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68
First performance: 4 November 1877

Un poco sostenuto—Allegro—Meno allegro
Andante sostenuto
Un poco allegretto e grazioso
Adagio—Più andante—Allegro non troppo ma con brio— Più allegro

Before I listened to Brahms’ First Symphony, I took in a podcast by the San Francisco Symphony by Rick Malone. He said,

“A symphony is a work of fiction in music. Themes and musical gestures are a symphony’s characters. The plot consists of the changes these themes and gestures go through during the course of the piece and the chapters are the individual movements. Johannes Brahms’ symphonies are dramas that tell stories of love, loss, redemption, and reconciliation. Big themes. The things that great art deals with.”

I like the analogy but I’m not sure about it and will sit with it a while. I guess at this point, though, I prefer rhetorical comparisons rather than literary. That is, it’s easier to think of a symphony as a kind of speech rather than a story.

What is a little confusing is trying to square the analogy with one of the debates going on at the time Brahms wrote his music. On one side of the debate were people like Liszt, Wagner, and Strauss who wrote programmatic music, which attempted to put into musical expression some kind of external story.

Brahms was writing music of the “absolute” variety, which I’ve always understood as music without external, textual connections. In other words the music is a self-contained universe. “It is what it is.” Don’t read too much into it.

And I am wondering how you write about absolute music without creating your own program. For example, as I listened to Brahms’ First Symphony, I imagined a theme of from darkness to light. Malone, in his discussion of this symphony described the great horn theme near the beginning of the fourth movement this way: “Suddenly the clouds part and a horn calls from the top of the mountain …” So, at what point are we actually turning absolute music into programmatic music when we tell these kinds of stories?

Of course, the drama in this symphony is about the composing process and not the actual composition. Brahms waited until he was 43 to write his first symphony. The ghost of Beethoven is often pointed to as hovering over Brahms, who had said, “I shall never write a symphony! You can’t have any idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching behind you!” Michael Steinberg offers that “some composers face life with more nerve than others. Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schubert were not boys given to fretting, but Bruckner, Brahms, and Elgar were worriers in excelsis.”

(Love that last expression—emphasis added.)

David Osmond-Smith in liner notes for a recording of Brahms’ First tells the story of how it took Brahms some time to develop his orchestral style. He writes,

“In finding his own orchestral voice, Brahms had to learn to swim against the tide. Berlioz and Wagner had set the agenda for many decades to come in their exploration of colour and testure, yet Brahms required from his orchestra a lucidity of line and a sober concentration of timbre that would keep the ear focused upon the detail of his musical argument.”

So one of the things that is happening to me in this little study of the symphony genre is learning to understand better why I like the music I do and to better appreciate music that I’ve avoided for one reason or another. Brahms falls into this latter camp for me. Brahms isn’t as colorful as Mahler, for example, but what I get from Osmond-Smith is the different priority of Brahms as a composer. Brahms is not my new favorite or anything, but it’s helpful to listen to him on his own terms.

Brahms didn’t mess with the genre. He confined himself to four fairly traditional movements and avoided excess in length. In the podcast, Malone observed,

“Structural demands can lead to expressive discoveries, and in the same way that the restrictions of the sonnet forced Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats deeper into the wells of their imaginations, Brahms found a way to concentrate deep, Romantic sincerity into classical structure.”

For scholars, Brahms is a problem because he didn’t leave any sketches of his music. You get the finished works and what he wrote about them in his correspondence.

I really enjoyed listening to a couple of different performances both by the Berlin Philharmonic.

First was a recording from January 1987, with Herbert von Karajan.

The second was from a performance in from September 2014 in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall.Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 6.20.41 PM

The playing on both of these recordings is glorious, but I think I liked what I heard as greater transparency from Sir Simon Rattle.

There is a great moment in the fourth movement of his performance where the horn makes that glorious statement referenced earlier. It’s wonderful to watch the partnership between Stefan Dohr, the principal horn, and Fergus McWilliam, who was playing second. It’s a big sound that Dohr is making and McWilliam helps him with breathing. A moment later it happens with the flute. Emmanuel Pahud has the solo and Jelka Weber covers for Pahud’s breathing so that the flute line can continue without a break. It’s done so seamlessly that if you weren’t watching it happen, I’m not sure you would know it was happening.

As far as the music, it all feels so dire at the outset. We’re plunged immediately into the storm. (Hard not to make these sorts of associations.) There’s relief for a moment, then we’re back into the storm. Relief, again, now leads into a theme made up of intervalic drops. This is dark music.

Brahms once said,

“Since Haydn, a symphony is no longer a simple affair, but a matter of life and death.”

The interior movements lighten somewhat and the final movement is entirely triumphant. Steinberg writes;

“For his successors, Beethoven was a presence both scary and inspiring. Schubert responded with self-confidence. Brahms was neurotic, but when at last he brought himself to move, he moved surely. [Joseph] Joachim, writing to him in March 1877 from Cambridge, England, where he had just introduced the First Symphony, refers to it as a piece that ‘really gets to people.’ That has not changed.”

The final movement early on has a beautiful tune that is incredibly stirring—hymn-like and serene—and is one of the reasons this symphony has sometimes been called “Beethoven’s 10th.” The odd thing is that you hear the tune, hear it again, and then it’s broken into pieces and you never hear it again in its entirety. If Brahms’ First was Mahler’s First, then we would have heard the tune, then it would have collapsed. We would have revisited some earlier thematic elements from the symphony, introduced a quiet interlude, and then brought back the theme for a triumphant conclusion.

Brahms had a different design in mind, although he still manged to finish quite triumphantly.


Some computer work afforded me the opportunity to listen to another version, this time by Carlo Maria Giulini and the Vienna Philharmonic, recorded in April, 1991.

It wasn’t a careful listening, but a few things leaped out—the way Giulini handled some of the 6/8 rhythms, for example, as well as a more legato style. What really grabbed my ear, though, was the way the grand theme of the fourth movement was handled—much slower than either of the Berlin Philharmonic recordings I listened to. It was played almost reverently and I can’t help remembering the opportunity I had some years ago to talk to one of the trumpet players of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He had played for Maestro Giulini. I asked him how he thought chief conductors influenced the sound of the LA Phil. He mentioned Giulini who, he said, “Wanted every concert to be a religious experience.” I wasn’t sure he thought that was a good thing, at least for the players, but I think you can hear that quality in this performance.

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by The Symphony Project « on 15 January 2017 at 9:55 pm. #