Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 21, 1921, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Because of his relentlessly self-questioning nature, Brahms waited longer than most composers to write his first symphony. When, at the age of 20, he met Robert Schumann, the older composer heard in the piano sonatas Brahms played for him “veiled symphonies.” Although Brahms tended to destroy the evidence of his unfinished works, he sometimes recast scores in new ways; thus, we can hear in the stormy opening movement of his First Piano Concerto music that had been intended as a symphony (as early as 1854).
By 1862, Brahms had presumably composed at least the first movement of his First Symphony; he sent the music to Clara Schumann. In 1868, he sent her a birthday postcard from Switzerland, quoting a tune the composer claimed to have heard played on an Alpine horn by a shepherd. This music would reappear to introduce the famous striding theme of the Symphony’s finale. Despite these indications of his occasional attention to the Symphony, it would have to wait until 1876 for completion, and even then the composer would make significant revisions to the second movement before publishing the work in 1877.
Brahms opens his Symphony No. 1 with music of extraordinary intensity. Throbbing basses and relentless timpani strokes create an immediate atmosphere of darkness and conflict. The struggle proceeds in two directions at once, rising from below and falling from above, but overlapping musical phrases are also dueling with one another. After the tension subsides, a sudden single drum stroke announces the beginning of the Allegro section. There is hardly what could be identified as a theme, since Brahms continues his motivic expansion, sculpting the air before our very ears with bold sweeping gestures. There are moments of relaxation during the course of the movement’s progress, but they seem always to lead us back to ever more intense activity. Finally, however, the coda brings serene, almost seraphic resolution.
Between his stormy opening and turbulent conclusion, Brahms places a pair of interludes. The Andante is dreamy and withdrawn, almost religious in its contemplative mood. Once more, the scoring is distinctive, this time emphasizing the exquisite delicacy of a composer whose greatest “hit” for many years was that notorious Lullaby. The composer’s chamber-music experience serves him well in the closing pages of the movement, with a solo violin floating sweetly above the orchestra. The third movement is an easy-going Allegretto, with wonderfully bucolic writing for the clarinets. This might be part of a “Pastoral” Symphony, had Brahms written one.
Once again, a slow introduction sets the stage for the movement to follow. Urgent music for pizzicato strings leads us through mysterious, disturbing pages to one of the most truly pictorial moments in all of Brahms. The mists clear away as we hear the horn call from that birthday card to Clara Schumann, continuing in a noble flute solo; as the echoes subside, a chorale from the trombones introduces a repeat of the horn call, which gives way to what Michael Steinberg describes simply as “the tune.” Again, we hear the full mastery of the orchestra as Brahms approaches the culmination of his musical drama. Instead of repeating “the tune” at the climax, he turns to the horn call for the final grand chorale that precedes a vigorous and triumphant coda.
— Dennis Bade