By the time Brahms finally completed his first symphony, in 1976, he was 43 years old. The long gestation of this symphony is related to two factors – Brahms’ own self-criticism of his work and the public’s expectation that Brahms would continue “Beethoven’s inheritance” and produce a symphony of depth and scope equal or superior to Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony.
This would be a daunting task for any composer. For Brahms, it was almost paralyzing. After 15 years of struggle and rewriting, his Symphony No. 1 in c minor was finally completed.
The symphony opens with a turbulently powerful melody underscored by the relentless pounding of the timpani and basses. The movement is dark and brooding, angry and restless.
The second movement is also introverted and reflective in nature, although it warms at the end with a sense of hope with the beautiful violin solo, echoed by the French horn.
The third movement, different from a frantic Beethoven Scherzo, reminds us more of Schumann’s Landler movements, placing us in a calm wandering state.
The immense finale is Brahms’ clearest homage to Beethoven in this symphony. Even the key of c minor, with its twist to C major at the end, can be considered parallel to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in d minor. As with Beethoven’s masterpiece, Brahms’ finale begins with a dramatic introduction and choral theme. Then what follows is one of the most famous and moving melodies in all of Brahms’ writing; a melody with a clear resemblance to the famous “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. When one thinks of the First Symphony, it is this beautiful melody that often comes to mind.
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
By Johannes Brahms
Composed in 1876