Brahms’s First Symphony
Brahms’s publisher was anxiously awaiting a large-scale orchestral work. It was an era when the symphony was considered the ultimate touchstone for measuring a composer’s worth.
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Johannes Brahms worked on his First Symphony off and on for over twenty years. Most of the sketches, some as good as finished, ended up in the fire. Brahms did ‘repurpose’ a number of melodies and one or two fragments in a quintet here or a piano concerto there. By and large, though, he preferred burning material to reusing it elsewhere. Suffice to say, the First Symphony was Brahms’s via dolorosa.
Brahms’s publisher was anxiously awaiting a large-scale orchestral work. It was an era when the symphony was considered the ultimate touchstone for measuring a composer’s worth. At the age of forty-two, Brahms finally completed his First Symphony. Beethoven, who had served Brahms as such an important model, had composed eight by that age. Perhaps that’s how intimidating such a great model can be.
‘You have no idea how it feels … constantly to hear such a giant marching behind me.’
- Brahms on Beethoven
Despite Brahms’s insecurities about the work’s reception, his First Symphony is unmistakably an original masterpiece from the very first bar, featuring all the typically Brahmsian hallmarks – the orchestration is often dark, with a preference for the instruments’ lower registers, in addition to a generous use of syncopation, triplets and hemiola, which lend a skipping quality to the rhythms.
Brahms’s struggle with, and ultimate victory over, the music of his role model certainly left their mark on the First Symphony. The music burns with energy and assertiveness – most notably in the fast movements. Even at Brahms’s most serious, the music never wallows in self-pity. Instead, he holds his head high.