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Brahms' Symphony No.1 in C Minor

Updated on June 14, 2009

Johannes Brahms

Brahms approached the composition of his First Symphony in a mood of high seriousness. He felt the weight of Beethoven's mantle upon his shoulders and was determined to be worthy of that august inheritance. So it was not until 1876, when he was in his forty-fourth year, that the long-pondered composition was at last completed. The first sketches for the opening movement where made in 1856, the year of Schmann's death, whom, in addition to Beethoven, Brahms greatly admired. Here we are on the plan of high tragedy and it is no coincidence that the key of the First Symphony is C minor, the key of Beethoven's Fifth.

The tragic mood is established in a lengthy introduction (Un poco sostenuto) whose somber harmonies lurk like a dark cloud over the whole work until they are dispelled by the radiant optimism of the horn theme in the finale. Besides establishing the mood and key of the symphony, the Introduction foreshadows much of the material that is to spring to life in the Allegro.

The whole movement has an air of rugged and rough hewn urgency which is only rarely relieved, and then but briefly. The wealth of themes and their passionate vigor alternating with moments of profound tenderness and pity make this exposition exceptionally complicated. The development is comparatively brief and is mainly concerned with first-subject themes, the "motto" being well to the fore. At the end, after one of Brahm's most beautiful dialogues for horn and woodwind, the pace slackens. The mood of the introduction returns, and the movement comes quietly to rest under its somber cloud.

Vienna in the 19th Century
Vienna in the 19th Century

2. Andante sostenuto (highlight)

The second movement is in E major and is the nearest approach to a tragic Adagio to be found in Brahms' symphonies, for his slow movements are generally gracious and charming rather than grand. Even here the passionate mood is relieved by the airy dialogues for the wind and by the sheer lyricism of the ending, where solo violin, oboe and horn sing the second part of the beautiful melody in octaves. This movement is something of an extended song, full of warmth and peace. The chromatic "motto" is present, though inconspicuous, in the opening theme.

Un poco allegretto e grazioso (highlight)

In the third movement, the lyrical mood persists. It begins gracefully with a flowing melody for the clarinet. Though the movement is on a small scale with no loud climaxes, there is an ominous feeling of tragedy that is barely suppressed.

Tragedy returns in the dramatic introduction of the finale. As in the opening of the first movement, this section foreshadows the themes of the coming Allegro. After a climax of darkness made terrible, the tempo changes to Piu andante and they key changes to C major. The sky suddenly clears and above an accompaniment of muted strings and rich chords from three trombones (held in reserve until this point) toll out a bell-like theme with answers from the flute. After this solemn dismissal of the tragic mood, the Allegro begins with its great and noble tune that is superficially like Beethoven's choral melody in the Ninth Symphony. At the end the tempo quickens to Presto for the coda which concludes the journey from darkness to light in a jubilant mood.


The Essential Canon of Classical Music
The Essential Canon of Classical Music

This book focuses on the key composers of each age. Dubal spends a lot of time on the artistic development of each composer. He does a good job describing the emotional impact of each of their major works and often provides a quotation from another composer who was impacted by that work. Finally, he provides a list of recommended CDs to get a beginner started in building a collection. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Johannes Brahms Complete Symphonies in Full Score (Vienna Gesellschaft Der Musikfreunde Edition)
Johannes Brahms Complete Symphonies in Full Score (Vienna Gesellschaft Der Musikfreunde Edition)

Brahms was a master of musical structure, especially in his four symphonies, included together in this one-volume edition: No. 1 in C Minor, No. 2 in D Major, No. 3 in F Major, and No. 4 in E Minor.

The Cambridge Companion to Brahms (Cambridge Companions to Music)
The Cambridge Companion to Brahms (Cambridge Companions to Music)

A wonderful series of essays which for most readers will offer new perspectives on Brahms, especially with regard to his contributions to vocal and choral music. Highly recommended.

Brahms: The Symphonies, Orchestral Works, Violin Concerto, Double Concerto
Brahms: The Symphonies, Orchestral Works, Violin Concerto, Double Concerto

Leonard Bernstein has been praised and condemned by musical critics who have examined his unique, distinctive style of conducting. Along with Herbert von Karajan, Bernstein was probably among the two finest music directors of his generation; critics have thoroughly compared and contrasted Bernstein's emotional approach with Karajan's stern, almost business-like approach to conducting. Regardless of whether or not you may love Bernstein's style of conducting, he is still revered and loved by his harshest critics, the musicians who enjoyed playing for him as members of some of the world's greatest symphony orchestras. For example, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the Vienna Philharmonic's concertmasters last March here in New York City, hearing his lavish praise of Bernstein as both a musician and person. He still regarded Bernstein as one of his favorite conductors, viewing their concerts as among the highlights in his own noteworthy career as solo violinist and concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

The enthusiasm and admiration which the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra had for its favorite American conductor is present in this splendid Deutsche Grammophon collection which has been compiled recently from the original digital recordings made during live concerts held in the early 1980s. Among these are one of my favorite recordings of the Brahms 2nd Symphony, which is a lush, lovely reading of Brahms' most pastoral symphony, and a valid interpretation inspite of Bernstein's tendency for slower tempi. Similarly, the other three symphony recordings are splendid in their own right, with the brooding 1st Symphony a mesmerizing, exciting performance. I strongly recomend this CD collection as a fine example of Bernstein still conducting at the height of his artistic powers, demonstrating the excellent collaboration between the conductor and his favorite European orchestra. Without question, this remains one of the best Brahms symphony cycles available to discerning collectors and novices of classical music alike.



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    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Great hub - Brahms is one of my all time favorite composers....

    • The Old Firm profile image

      The Old Firm 8 years ago from Waikato/Bay Of Plenty, New Zealand

      Good Munchkin Nick,

      I am as always getting great pleasure from your hubs, although I must admit that I find your written expansion somehow reminiscent. I expect it is that your English usage is a little more Victorian than I assumed from NY, NY.

      A remarkably constructed hub, I'm listening as I write and aspire to your technical skill.