Symphony No. 1 (Brahms)
The Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, is a symphony written by Johannes Brahms. Brahms spent at least fourteen years completing this work, whose sketches date from 1854. Brahms himself declared that the symphony, from sketches to finishing touches, took 21 years, from 1855 to 1876. The premiere of this symphony, conducted by the composer's friend Felix Otto Dessoff, occurred on November 4, 1876, in Karlsruhe, then in the Grand Duchy of Baden. A typical performance lasts between 45 and 50 minutes.
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The symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, violin solo, first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses.
The symphony is in four movements, marked as follows:
- Un poco sostenuto – Allegro – Meno allegro (C minor, ending in C major)
- Andante sostenuto (E major)
- Un poco allegretto e grazioso (A-flat major)
- Adagio – Più andante – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio – Più allegro (C minor - C major)
The first movement is in sonata form with an extended introduction.
Unique among Brahms' symphonies, the First Symphony is ushered in via a formal introduction. After a processional opening section featuring chaotic syncopated rhythms underpinned by pulsating timpani, the woodwinds and pizzicato strings play with thematic phrases to be fully explored in the following exposition. A short and stormy return to the original development, this time in the dominant of G and supported by rolling timpani, is finally followed by further melodic introductions sung by oboe, flute and violas before resolving in a drawn out transitional passage ending with a plucked G note in the cellos.
The exposition begins abruptly, echoing the Introductions plucked final note with an orchestral exclamation, followed by a short motto which leads to the main theme, which is initially sung, stridently, by the violins. The overall mood is 'savagely energetic'  and 'scherzo-like' in 6/8 time. As the responsibility for the main theme shifts from the violins to the woodwinds, the strings and timpani begin to sound out a da-da-da-DUM rhythm which is strongly reminiscent of the 'fate' rhythm of Beethoven's Symphony number 5.
An extended transition leads to the arrival of the key of E-flat major which in turn introduces the flowing and heart-easing second theme. This theme, which is related to the 'motto' used to open the movement, is carried out in the winds, led by oboe and clarinet with support from the bassoon and eventually the French horns. Strong intervention from the violas ends this peaceful passage with a descending minor key sequence which opens to a new 'closing' theme leading up to a final bombastic passage wrapping up the exposition. The score then calls for a full repeat, which requires an abrupt return to C-minor.
The action in the development section begins with a full step descent into B-major, and instability ensues as interplay between the 'fate' motif and phrases from the original theme are played off each other. A series of modulations, each seeming to lead further away from the tonic, eventually leads the path back to the recapitulation. Starting with a murky rumble in the basses, the music gathers strength with a thrilling set of arpeggios in the violins with support from the brass, which repeat the 'fate' motif with great alacrity. Finally, a 'shocking digression'  in the bass line leads to a modulation to F-sharp, setting the stage for the recapitulation.
Recapitulation and Coda
A somewhat nebulous start to the recapitulation is followed by a foreshortened restatement of the first theme, allowing the music to proceed in the tonic, rather than taking up the tonal progressions originally followed in the exposition. The coda begins with pizzicato strings which quickly decrescendo, leading to a set of modulations played out in the strings with their bows leading to the closing cadence. The movement ends peacefully in C-major.
The third movement is in a traditional ternary form (ABA). It is composed of the Allegretto and contrasting “trio” section, followed by a reprise of the Allegretto material and coda. A notable aspect of this movement is Brahms’s careful attention to symmetry.
The form could be described as: A B A’ B’ C D C’ D’ A’’—Trio—A’’’ B ’’ A’’’’ Coda
The Allegretto is in the key of A-flat major and begins with a calm, stepwise melody in the clarinet. The four bar figure is extended to an irregular five bars through a small bridge between the phrases by the strings. The clarinet rounds off the “A” theme in the Allegretto with an inversion of the first five bars heard.
The B theme enters in m. 11 and features a descending dotted-eighth pattern in the flute, clarinet, and bassoon with the strings echoing the rhythm in rising and falling figures. After eight measures, A’ appears with the violins iterating the first theme and a longer, chromatic bridge section that extends the phrase structure to seven bars. B’ is presented with an extension into C.
The C and D themes differ from the first two in that they are shorter and more angular rhythmically. The A and B themes feature an almost constant eighth note pizzicato in the strings, whereas C and D are more complex with an interlocking sixteenth note pattern accompanying the winds. Movement from the major mode to F minor also marks these sections as apart from preceding material. This obvious contrast in character and mood can lend one to think of the C and D sections as a sort of “trio” within the first Allegretto section in the larger ternary form displayed by the movement as a whole. The symmetry within one section reflects the symmetry of the whole.
A’’ closes off the first major section with the clarinet stating the first theme, much as it did in the beginning, finishing with a transition to the trio.
The Trio offers a change of key, as well as a change of time. The key moves to B major, an enharmonic minor third away from A-flat. This key movement balances with the C and D sections in F minor, also a minor third away from the home key but in the opposite direction. The time signature changes from a stately 2/4 to a more pastoral and dance-like 6/8. The flute, oboe, and bassoon introduce a joyful melody in stepwise motion as in the A theme. The strings add a downward three-note arpeggio. These two motives make up the bulk of the trio material. Restatement and development of those themes ensue until the brass and winds join together for a final repeat of the melody. The second ending brings the orchestra back into 2/4 time and to A’’’.
Return of the Allegretto
A major difference between A’’’ and the earlier iterations of A is the lingering effect of the trio upon the movement. The monotone call from the opening of the trio melody appears over the clarinet melody in the flute, oboe, and bassoon. The rhythmic effect of triplets also invades the pure eighth note world of the A theme, producing polyrhythms. Instead of the inversion of the theme we expect in the second phrase of A, the strings take over and offer an entirely different melody, but with essentially the same contour as the inversion. B’’ occupies a significantly larger space of the reprise than it does in the previous Allegretto. It leads through an extended transition to the last, quiet statement of A in unison by the strings. Strings of dotted eighth notes end the movement proper with ideas from the B theme.
The entry to the coda is marked “poco a poco più tranquillo” and the movement ends with the gentle throbbing of triplets quoted from the trio section. The final few bars end somewhat abruptly with the downward arpeggio of the strings in the trio finishing on the downbeat of a new bar.
Brahms began composing a D minor symphony in 1854, but this work underwent radical change before much of it was finally recast as his first Piano Concerto, also in D minor. The demise of the D minor Symphony and long gestation of the C minor Symphony which would eventually be his first may be attributed to two factors. First, Brahms' self-critical fastidiousness led him to destroy many of his early works. Second, there was an expectation from Brahms' friends and the public that he would continue "Beethoven's inheritance" and produce a symphony of commensurate dignity and intellectual scope—an expectation that Brahms felt he could not fulfill easily in view of the monumental reputation of Beethoven.
It was probably 1868 when Brahms finally realized what would become the final structure of his first Symphony. In September of that year, he sent a card to his lifelong friend Clara Schumann sketching the Alphorn tune which would emerge in the symphony's Finale, along with the famous message "Thus blew the shepherd's horn today!" Despite the evidence of the work's development, the work would not premiere for 8 more years, in 1876.
The value and importance of Brahms' achievements were recognized by Vienna's most powerful critic, the staunchly conservative Eduard Hanslick. The conductor Hans von Bülow was moved in 1877 to call the symphony "Beethoven's Tenth", due to perceived similarities between the work and various compositions of Beethoven. It is often remarked that there is a strong resemblance between the main theme of the finale of Brahms' First Symphony and the main theme of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Also, Brahms uses the rhythm of the "fate" motto from the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. This rather annoyed Brahms; he felt that this amounted to accusations of plagiarism, whereas he saw his use of Beethoven's idiom in this symphony as an act of conscious homage. Brahms himself said, when comment was made on the similarity with Beethoven, "any ass can see that." Nevertheless, this work is still sometimes (though rarely) referred to as "Beethoven's Tenth". However, Brahms' horn theme, with the "fate" rhythm, was noted in a letter to Clara Schumann (dated 1868), overheard in an alphorn's playing.
Fritz Simrock, Brahms' friend and publisher, did not receive the score until after the work had been performed in three cities – and Brahms still wished trial performances in at least three more.
The manuscript to the first movement apparently does not survive, yet the remainder has been reproduced in miniature facsimile by Dover Publications. The autograph manuscript of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th movements is held by the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.
The symphony begins with a broad introduction wherein three key elements are heard simultaneously: the low drumming, the rising figure in the strings, and the falling figure in the winds. This introduction was constructed after the remainder of the piece had been scored. The Allegro section of the movement is a large orchestral sonata, wherein musical ideas are stated, developed, and restated with altered relationships among them.
The second and third movements are lighter in tone and tension than the first and last movements. The slow movement, Andante sostenuto, exhibits gentle lyricism through three sections, the third of which is a new treatment of the themes from the first. The long violin solo is reminiscent of some of Beethoven's later works: the late quartets and Missa Solemnis. The third, scherzo-like movement, has an easy spirit yet is full of complex rhythms and interwoven textures.
The fourth movement begins with a slow introduction, where a new melody competes with "gloomy dramatic rhetoric." In the Piu andante section, the horns and timpani introduce a tune that Brahms heard from an Alpine shepherd with the words, "High on the hill, deep in the dale, I send you a thousand greetings!" This movement contains melodies reminiscent of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The last section—Allegro non troppo, ma con brio—contains a grand melody in a major key, as the novel, Beethoven-like main subject of the grand finale.
- MacDonald, Malcolm (1990). Brahms (First American ed.). Schirmer Books. p. 247. ISBN 0-02-871393-1.
- Hansen, Kelly Dean. "SYMPHONY NO. 1 in C MINOR, OP. 68". Listening Guides to the Works of Johannes Brahms. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- Frisch, Walter (2003) , Brahms: The Four Symphonies, Yale Music Masterworks, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, p. 56, ISBN 0-300-09965-7, OCLC 2003104448
- Leonard Burkat; liner notes for the 1998 recording (William Steinberg, conductor; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; MCA Classics)
- MacDonald, Malcolm (1990). Brahms (First ed.). Schirmer Books, A Division of Macmillan, Inc. p. 246. ISBN 0-02-871393-1.
- Schonberg, Harold C. (1981). The Lives of the Great Composers (Revised ed.). W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London. p. 298. ISBN 0-393-01302-2.
- Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. The Kennedy Center, 2006
- Back cover blurb for David Lee Brodbeck, Brahms: Symphony No. 1 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1997). "Brahms’ First Symphony has been hailed as Beethoven’s Tenth."
- Brahms, Johannes. With an introduction by Margit L. McCorkle. Symphony no. 1 in C minor, op. 68 : the autograph score. New York : Pierpont Morgan Library in association with Dover Publications, c1986. ISBN 0-486-24976-X.
- Frisch, Walter. Brahms: The Four Symphonies New Haven: Yale University Press (2003): 45–66
- MacDonald, Malcolm. Brahms New York: Schirmer Books (1990): 245-250
- Notes to a concert at the Kennedy Center, with information about the first performance of the work
- Simrock, Brahms and Brahms' working habits
- Manuscript images from The Morgan Library & Museum's Music Manuscripts Online
- Symphony No. 1: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Free recording by the Columbia University Orchestra.
- Free score/The Columbia University
- Performance of first movement on Video – David Bernard conducting the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony
- Detailed listening guide using a recording by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein