Brahms – Symphony No. 1 in C-minor, Op. 68

by Max Derrickson

Johannes Brahms   (Born in Hamburg, 1833; died in Vienna, 1897)

Symphony No. 1 in C-minor, Op. 68
I. Un poco sostenuto – Allegro – Meno allegro
II. Andante sostenuto
III.Un poco allegretto e grazioso
IV. Adagio – Più andante – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio – Più allegro

 

The completion of his Symphony No. 1 took Brahms roughly 22 years, from 1854 to 1876, and it was probably the most highly anticipated work of the 19th century.  Why so long? Two life changing meetings in 1853 with important musicians, early in Brahms’ life, begin the tale.

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Just how much hat tipping Brahms does is often debated, but notice, after the introduction has moved on, that the motivic rhythm of the main Allegro is much like the famous 4 notes beginning Beethoven’s 5th.  Yet even with some nearly direct quotations appearing later in the movement, this is much more than a cheap copy.  Brahms is making the biggest statement of his career with this piece, and the main theme of this movement, and of the Symphony as a whole, resides in those gigantic opening chords of the introduction – the references to Beethoven arise surprisingly and organically out of Brahms’ own compositional mastery.  His statement had to be bold, and it had to show that he was not afraid to step into, and out of, Beethoven’s shoes.   His statement was this:  That the best of music could not only be riveting, expressive and beautiful (and with the sweep of an epic novel), but internally precise and stunning as well, like a perfect mathematical equation.

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The fourth movement, however, revisits the ghosts of the first, but with absolute anguish.  Soon, however, a new and one of Brahms’ most memorable themes emerges out of all those ashes, and it is imbued with the kind of hope that Beethoven used in the closing of his 9th.  That this theme resembled Beethoven’s elicited Brahms’ condescension –“Any ass can see that!” – but it is no less original or glorious in its warmth.  This is the beginning of the end-light in Brahms’ symphonic journey; light and exultation soon win the day.  Lastly, the Finale, recalling a chorale that briefly appeared in the first movement, bursts forth with turmoil and almost painful triumph – the cry of the bloodied, exhausted warrior after a 22 year battle.

 

Given the political climate in which Brahms’ first symphony appeared, its reception was fairly mixed, although Wagner remained relatively silent.  One critic threatened to post signs near concert hall doors saying “Exit in case of Brahms.”  But for others, Brahms’ artistic craft, rich themes and emotional power of his Symphony elicited the moniker of “Beethoven’s Tenth.”  Today we know it as one of Brahms’ greatest achievements.