Concert Notes

Brahms’ Symphony No. 1

Notes by TŌN flutist Olivia Chaikin

Johannes Brahms was born in 1833, six years after the death of Ludwig Van Beethoven. Beethoven’s influence on the world of music was strong and grew over time. Most, if not all, composers struggled with how to follow such a legendary figure. Brahms told conductor Hermann Levi in 1872, “I shall never write a symphony! You can’t have any idea what it’s like to hear such a giant marching behind you.” Brahms was often regarded as Beethoven’s successor. The pressure was on for Brahms to compose his first symphony, but mental roadblocks persisted. Brahms began writing his First Symphony in 1855, but much of the earliest material ended up in other works. Brahms, upon the advice of Robert Schumann, decided to write, not in fear of Beethoven’s shadow, but in celebration of it. When Brahms’ First Symphony was finally premiered in 1877, it was deemed by conductor Hans von Bülow as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. 

Unlike any other symphonies by Brahms, the First begins with a slow, intense, and emotional introduction, evoking Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. After the plucked G in the cellos, the orchestra immediately enters the energetic allegro exposition. Listen closely when the woodwinds take over the melody to hear the strings and timpani play a rhythm resembling the iconic opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, one of many homages to his symphonies. You might also catch the brass playing the Eroica motif in the movement’s development! 

The Andante sostenuto begins with a beautiful, flowing melody in the strings and bassoon. The theme is echoed and developed with woodwind solos, but the highlight of the movement is the violin solo, reminiscent of Beethoven’s works, particularly Missa Solemnis and his later string quartets. The third movement is a delightful, lilting Allegretto which contrasts a Beethoven scherzo. 

The Finale is where Brahms proves himself to be a master of the symphony equal to Beethoven. Brahms introduces a horn call, the “Alphorn” theme, which will repeat multiple times throughout the movement by various instruments. After the slow introduction, Brahms reveals his new theme in C major, an homage to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. The melody reappears many times to comfort the listener, but it also transforms and reconfigures until the final triumphant ending.