Program Notes: Symphony No. 1 by Brahms

Many contemporaries of Brahms considered him to be the true successor to Beethoven. Because of this lineage, Brahms faced extremely high, if not unrealistic, expectations for his First Symphony. It would be on the basis of this symphony that many judged whether or not Brahms was the true successor of Beethoven. Who could manage to follow the Ninth Symphony’s grand musical gestures, its infinite horizon of musical depth, and its epic hope for joy and unity among the brotherhood of Mankind? With this expectation placed on him, it is not surprising that Brahms worked on the symphony for nearly fourteen years. Rarely has a work of art had such a lengthy creative process. Perhaps in an homage to Beethoven, Brahms composed his first symphony in C minor. (Beethoven’s first symphony is in C major.) After its premiere, it was repeated countless times that the finale’s melody was a derivative of Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s Ninth. Apparently, Brahms admitted its influence by saying “anyone can hear that.”

However, as much as this symphony is associated with Beethoven (since its premiere, it has been dubbed Beethoven’s 10th), you will hear that it stands on its own. The symphony begins with mysterious intonations of a single pitch, C. Everything about the work except the rhythm is unclear. At this point, you may be asking: Where’s the melody? What’s the harmony? What am I listening to?

As the symphony progresses, Brahms reveals and clarifies certain aspects of the composition such as its harmony while re-obscuring others, such as its rhythmic structure. It is this constant fluctuation between the clarity and blurriness of harmonic and rhythmic structures—the ebb and flow from mystification to enlightenment—that Brahms uses to achieve the musical narrative of the First Symphony. By the end of the symphony—after the heart-breaking 2nd movement and the nostalgic, child-like 3rd movement—Brahms triumphs over not only the pathos of C minor, but he also triumphs over Beethoven’s legacy and shadow.

September 18, 2017