We are continuing our series on the symphonic works of Johannes Brahms this week with his first symphony.
Brahms was a perfectionist. He would regularly destroy his compositions and left hundreds of them unpublished because he was not satisfied with them. The first symphony is no exception – it appears that he drafted it no less than ten different times over the course of eight years. Since it was his first symphony, Brahms felt an incredible amount of pressure to live up to the legacies of Haydn and Beethoven, the two composers to which he was most often compared.
It would be difficult to find a more dramatic and emotional theme then the opening of the first movement of the symphony. It is perpetually building, a gradual but never-ending ascent. The timpani and brass provide a sense of overwhelming power unmatched in any of his other symphonies. Listen for the way that Brahms contrasts this awe-inspiring explosion with the delicacy of the woodwinds when they show us the initial melody for the first time at around 2:05. You may also notice the significant tonal change to B major around the 9:57 mark. This is Brahms’ way of throwing the listener a curveball, but he mercifully incorporates elements of the main theme into the transition so that we don’t get too confused 🙂