Brahms Symphony No. 1 Program Notes
The genius of Johannes Brahms was kept quiet for years because Brahms felt he could never live up to Beethoven’s high stature. He offered the excuse, “You can't have any idea what it's like always to hear such a giant marching behind you,” but in 1854, Brahms set pen to paper and began writing his First Symphony. Years passed, but his symphony remained in progress. In 1870, after sixteen years of writing, he said he would never complete the piece. However, on November 4, 1876, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 finally shed light upon Germany. That light has yet to burn out.
The first movement is the Allegro. In 1862, Brahms sent his completed first movement to Clara Schumann and received feedback from her that the beginning seemed bold and “rather harsh, but I have become used to it.” Brahms himself, however, did not grow used to it. As the best judge of his own work, he amended the introduction. He wrote a powerful measured drum beat and chromatic unfolding that leads straight into the Allegro and it became what we know as the first movement.
The two middle movements, Andante sostenuto and Un poco allegretto e grazioso took many by surprise. The grandeur of Brahms’ first movement might lead one to expect something equally imposing to follow. Instead, Brahms's slow movement, in the surprising key of E major, is intimate and modest, with lovely woodwind solos and a magnificent solo for violin at the end. The long violin solo is reminiscent of some of Beethoven’s later works: the late quartets and Missa Solemnis.
The third movement is no scherzo, but an intermezzo, as warm and ingratiating as Brahms's piano pieces. Its easy spirit is full of complex rhythms and interwoven textures.
The fourth and final movement begins with a slow opening that introduces a new melody, one which is often compared to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” When the likeness was pointed out, Brahms simply said, “Any ass can see that.” Donald Tovey noted that Brahms's theme is regularly compared with Beethoven's “only because it is the solitary one among hundreds of the same type that is great enough to suggest the resemblance.” Other echoes of Beethoven sing out throughout much of the movement. Despite the similarities, at the end of the movement it is clear the piece is the masterwork of Brahms and Brahms alone.